The Buddha died in the town of Kushinara, now called Kasia on the river Chotta Gandak in Uttar Pradesh. He had not given any instructions on what was to be done with his mortal remains. The Mallas of Kusinara had gathered to pay respects to Buddha and they took over the responsibility of the funeral. After paying respects for six days, they decided to cremate the body. After the funeral there was a fight among the Mallas and certain chieftains for sharing the relics. Finally, Dona, a brahmin intervened and the chieftains decided to divide the relics into eight portions. Each of them built a monument over the relic.
Out of these relics, Buddha’s tooth reached Sri Lanka.
When Buddha’s remains were cremated in north India around 486BC, eight corporeal relics survived. They were sealed in stupas (shrines) built across the Buddhist heartland. Custody of the tooth seems to have been disputed at various times but by 310AD the situation was serious enough for an Indian king to accede to a Sinhalese request that it be transported to Sri Lanka for safekeeping. From Tamlik in west Bengal it crossed the Bay of Bengal to land on the island’s eastern shore before heading inland to Anuradhapura, the vast Sinhala capital that endured for nearly a millennium.
Its guardians took it to the Isurumuniya Monastery that still stands today. It is a small complex of buildings and shrines built around and hollowed out of a hillock of dark boulders. There is a charming sunken pool and an impressively large reclining Buddha statue of yellow complexion and scarlet robes.
[Nothing but the tooth]
It seems the tooth survived various Chola invasions as it was hidden by various priests. The first time it was hidden in 1017 and it resurfaced in 1056 at Polonnaruwa, the new Sinhala capital. The tooth survived another Chola invasion after that.
Invading Tamils kept the tooth guardians on theirtoes and it was spiritedfrom Kurunegala to Gampola to Kotte, all short-lived capitals with scant remains today. Arriving in the early 1500s, the distasteful Portuguese once claimed to have taken the tooth to Goa and burnt it, and so forced desperate Buddhists to substitute a buffalo’s.
Sri Lankans prefer the folkish story of its time hidden beneath a grinding stone, from where it eventually headed for Kandy in 1593 and a more-or-less permanent home.
The tooth endured the Dutch and the British rule. It had many more brushes with danger and destruction, most recently with a 1998 Tamil Tiger bomb attack that, among other things, exposed 18th-century frescoes hidden by plaster.[Nothing but the tooth]
The tooth’s story could be made into an epic movie probably starring Brad Pitt as the tooth.