The exposition of the Sacred Tooth Relic in March couldn’t come at a better time for University of Ceylon history lecturer Dr. Dharmaratna Herath. He is the author and publisher of the book titled Tooth Relic of the Buddha, which is a detailed and well researched publication on the eponymous Buddhist artefact.

Millions queue up to worship this sacred relic, which has left an indelible mark on the history of the island. Years of research have produced a book with historical evidence about the influence of the Sacred Tooth Relic on events in the courts of kings and even British imperial administrators who co-opted the Buddhist ecclesiastic order to fit into its gubernatorial apparatus.

Modern politicians such as former presidents J. R. Jayewardene and Ranasinghe Premadasa went further; they began making their inaugural policy statements as heads of state from the premises of the Sri Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic).

The author commenced his research on this book as a young academic and has been working on it for over half a century. His approach is both historical and anthropological.

Former Vice Chancellor of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura Prof. S. B. Hettiarachchi calls the Sacred Tooth Relic ‘the palladium of Sri Lankan royalty.’ He says that since sovereignty was considered imperfect and challengeable without its possession, several internal conflicts – which may be called ‘tooth relic wars’ – took place in the 12th century.

This was followed by Indian and Chinese rulers attempting to secure the relic through both peaceful and aggressive means.

Hettiarachchi adds that nothing produced earlier on the theme matches this book, either in terms of quantity or quality. He adds the “work constitutes itself to be a unique contribution to our knowledge of the various attributes of the tooth relic and its culture.”

In 1874, Mutu C. Swamy translated The Dathavansa. After reviewing it, T. W. Rhys Davids denied the alleged destruction of the tooth relic by the Portuguese, claiming the item preserved at the Sri Dalada Maligawa in Kandy was none other than the original brought to Sri Lanka in the 4th century.

There is some debate as to how various authors of ancient chronicles recorded details about the presence of the Sacred Tooth Relic; and differences in the attitudes of the authors of the Mahāvaṃsa and Cūḷavaṃsa is a case in point.

The arrival of the Sacred Tooth Relic is given scant attention in the Cūḷavaṃsa, in contrast to its description in the Mahāvaṃsa. “This seems to have been due to sectarian considerations on the part of the chroniclers,” Herath writes.

A partiality of the chronicler to the Mahāvihāra and rivalry between those in the Abhayagiri Vihāra are described in the Cūḷavaṃsa while the Meghagiri Vihāra, which was the original location of the Sacred Tooth Relic, is ignored in contrast to the details provided in other chronicles.

Herath refers to various miracles attributed to the relic but doesn’t say what they are.

While the praising of some kings such as Parakramabahu indicates that the accounts were written during the reign of these rulers, this tradition seems to be evident even in recent historical accounts; but its veracity will be in doubt.

Taxes are very much in the news these days; and it is interesting to note that according to the Dalada Pujavaliya, a duty of a quarter percent was imposed twice a year by King Parakramabahu IV and given to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.

A popular belief concerns
an invasion by the Cholas and recovery of the Sacred Tooth Relic by King Gajabahu II; but there are no reliable details in sources scoured by the author. The number of instances where contradictions in history books are cited shows the lengths to which Herath has gone to research available information.

There is evidence that not all Buddhist clergy were happy about the attention given to the Sacred Tooth Relic due to rivalries among followers of Buddhism. And there’s little mention of the relic in the reign of Anuradhapura’s kings.

While the plunder of the nation’s treasures by the island’s recent rulers is known, it appears that similar thieving has taken place over the centuries.

King Manabharana’s deathbed words of repentance are worth repeating: “Rich treasures that were sacrificed to the venerable tooth relic and sacred alms bowl by believing sons of good families – and besides these, diverse villages belonging to the bhikkhu order – have I seized and destroyed by the lust of kingly power.”

All in all, the book is essential reading for those who want to know about the Sacred Tooth Relic.