The Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic is considered one of the most sacred places in Sri Lanka as the sacred tooth relic is regarded as a symbolic representation of the Buddha by Sri Lankan Buddhists, and thus many offerings, rituals and practices revolve around the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.
Pilgrims, travelers and tourists travel from near and far to visit, pay respects, make offerings and/or to witness the annual Esala Perahera held around August. Personally, I enjoy visiting this place because it has a very lovely energetic vibration and a definite flow of goodness beneath all the pomp and ceremony of the pujas and oftentimes heaving crowds.
This blog post is mainly for foreign tourists or expats who are curious about why the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic is so significant to many locals and Buddhist pilgrims and who want to know how to make the most out of a visit.
- Why do people offer flowers?
- Why are they wearing white?
- What are they chanting?
- Where is the Buddha's Sacred Tooth Relic kept?
- Why are all those people lining up?
- How come some people are allowed entry into the inner chamber?
- Why are they lighting oil lamps and burning incense?
In order to answer these questions, it's helpful to give a little information on the teachings of the Buddha and what people practice as a result of those teachings.
Paying Respects, Chanting and Making Offerings
As I mentioned briefly, the Sacred Tooth Relic is regarded as representing the Buddha as if he were present today to receive salutations and offerings.
Therefore, pilgrims, devotees and monastics visit the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic to pay their respects and make offerings in order to make merit.
The Law of Kamma is on the fundamental teachings of the Buddha and acts of merit are one of the pillars within the mundane right view of the Noble Eightfold Path. There are three kinds of meritorious action - generosity, living in spiritual calm and cultivating loving kindness. The benefits of such meritorious action accrue in this life and future lives and are said to include long life, health, beauty and noble birth in a good destination.
So people make offerings at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic such as flowers, milk rice, money, and other requisites such as robes, alms-bowl and medicines out of generosity, which is said to generate merit (puñña-kamma). Some offerings have symbolic as well as deeper meanings within the Buddhist faith. For example, offering flowers at the altars is a reminder of the Buddha's teaching on anicca or things having an unlasting nature, just as fresh, fragrant and beautiful flowers soon become withered, scentless and discolored.
People will also chant the teachings of the Buddha in devotion, which is also an act of merit. And when you see people quietly sitting, standing or walking around the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic they may be cultivating meditation, which is also considered meritorious.
I may have mentioned in earlier blog posts that I have been slowly learning Buddhist meditation. Whenever I am residing in Kandy, I usually take the opportunity to practice some meditation at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. There are plenty of places where you can sit quietly, and even with the din of the crowds there is so much goodness and generosity flowing, it is actually very conducive for concentrating the mind.
So what does any of this mean to a foreign tourist or expat?
It doesn't matter what religion you practice or if you're an atheist, it's beneficial to perform some meritorious actions while visiting the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in order to increase your overall happiness and wellbeing.
Some people believe the energy of the sacred tooth relic has a healing power. When it is brought out for the Esala Perahera and transported around the center of Kandy it has been said that there's a reduction in the number of illnesses and patient beds at the Kandy Hospital.
So, if you've had challenges in your life, been stressed at work, overcoming an illness, depression or other, what's the harm in offering some flowers, incense or oil lamps, or taking some time to sit quietly near the Main Upper Shrine which is close to where the sacred tooth relic is housed.
If you can, it's also good to have an intention in your mind to share the merits of your actions with everyone. A bit like wishing peace to the entire world.
Puja Times, Lines and Glimpsing the Sacred Tooth Relic
Pujas are held thrice daily at 6.30am, 9.30am and 6.30pm. They last for about an hour and a half and during these times there is a formal ceremony and offerings are made directly to the sacred tooth relic (and to the Sangha who are the caretakers of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic).
The first puja is the breakfast offering, the second is the main meal or lunch offering, and the final puja is the medicinal offering. There is an opportunity at these puja times for people to make their offerings directly to the sacred tooth relic via a small window opening to the inner chamber behind the Main Upper Shrine, and one of the monks will receive the offerings through that window. This is where you will see people lined up around the wall to the left-hand side of the Shrine as you ascend to the upper level of the Temple Complex.
I would definitely encourage a visit during one of these pujas to see and listen to drums, horns and to watch the offerings. if you are fortunate enough to tap into the generosity and joy of all the people making offerings, you will be blessed with gladness in your own mind. When I visit and sit back and watch the faces of the people with their offerings in hand, I wonder at how far they've come to make these offerings and also see the immense amount of faith and devotion. I usually come away feeling surprisingly uplifted at witnessing their efforts to come from near and far to practice generosity and pay respects to the sacred tooth relic. Given the formalities, it can be a challenge to wait in line and then push or be pushed all the way to the window opening to make an offering.
Note - All around the Temple of the Sacred Tooth you are allowed to take photos and videos. The only exception is near the window to the inner chamber housing the sacred tooth relic - NO photos or videos are allowed around there and inside the inner chamber. Also remember NOT to take a picture with your back to the Buddha statute as it is considered taboo in Sri Lanka
Although the attendants try to rush everyone as quickly as possible through the line to make their offerings, do take a moment to clear your mind and make an intention for wellbeing (or any other wholesome intention you might have) as you get closer to the winder and when you make your offering.
Remember to look directly at the brilliant golden stupa to the back of the inner chamber as you do so. Many people get flustered or distracted as they pass through, and naturally so with all the activity, but the extra effort to be mindful will be beneficial.
Wearing white clothing
If you want you visit to go smoothly or even to show some respect to the place, my suggestion would be for both males and females to dress appropriately by ensuring to wear clothing that covers shoulders (i.e. no singlets) and legs (i.e. something covering below the calf level). The dress code is similar to that of the Vatican in Rome. You will be asked to cover the offending part with a cloth, or be denied entry. It's a funny sight to see all the tourists having to wear colorful makeshift sarongs to cover their legs in order to enter the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.
Save yourself the trouble or the embarrassment and wear something more appropriate. If you can wear something white that's even better.
Special admittance to the Inner Chamber housing the Sacred Tooth Relic
Special admittance to the inner chamber generally occurs during the puja times and is considered quite an honor. If you're a monastic you can gain admittance by making a request. If you are a local and have requested to offer dana and your request has been granted, then you have an opportunity to make one of the offerings (i.e. breakfast, lunch or medicine) during the daily pujas. This also means you (and your allotted guests) are allowed entry to the inner chamber to make those offerings directly to the sacred tooth relic. It is considered one of the highest honors and a rare opportunity to make merit.
Alternatively, if you are Buddhist and considered this as something spiritually significant, you can make a request at the Office of the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic. Please note, there are no guarantees that your request will be granted. It is very much up to the powers that be to grant this special and rare opportunity.
I have been fortunate to have friends who have shared their good fortune with me. And so I have been part of offering breakfast, lunch and medicines at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth on a number of occasions over the years and have experienced many blessings as a result.
Lighting oil lamps and burning incense sticks
Pilgims and devotees offer incense as it represents the fragrance of sīla or upright moral conduct. Just as the fragrance of incense spreads it reminds to purify one's conduct or behavior at the level of body, speech and mind. A further deeper meaning is that the burning of incense is like the burning of defilements which are major obstacles to spiritual progress and ultimate freedom. When the incense stick is burnt to the end it leaves no further traces.
The other offering is the light offerings of coconut oil lamps or pahan-puja around the Bodhi tree and dagoba. Light represents paññā or wisdom, which will dispel any ignorance. When people go through major difficulties with their health, spiritual development or life in general they are often recommended to do a pahan-puja to overcome these difficulties. A friend of mine recently advised that he was going through some serious health challenges and that he had lit up 1500 oil lamps as an offering. His intention was to share the merit with all devas and beings that help others.
You will need to purchase these items before entering the Temple Complex. There are small shops close to or within the Temple Complex including flower sellers that will be able to sell you incense and matchsticks for lighting them. And for lighting oil lamps, you will need coconut oil and thread. It is unlikely you will need to buy the pahanas as there will be many to re-use at the pahan-puja area. The trick to lighting the oil lamps is to pour the coconut oil into an empty pahana, then soak the thread in the oil and then light it up. I usually use an already lit oil lamp to light up my lamps. Don't forget to share the merit!
Drinking Water and Special Toilet Facilities for Foreigners
If you get a bit thirsty there are two filtered drinking water stands. One is near the fountain where people wash their feet, and the other is between the Pavilion and the International Buddhist Museum.
The Temple has also kindly made available special toilets for foreigners. They are located up and around the corner to the left of the International Buddhist Museum. There is signage to indicate these facilities. There is usually an attendant who looks after both the male and female toilets and ensures the floors are mopped and toilet rolls are available.
Other places around the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic Complex
There is much to also see and do around the overall Temple Complex. Within the Main Temple Complex, there are a number of shrine areas where you can make offerings. The New Shrine Room has many Buddha rupas and paintings, and can be a little cooler than the Upper Shrine area.
You can also pay to go up to the cloister about the New Shrine Room, as well as to the International Buddhist Museum to the rear of the Temple Complex. In the courtyard area you will find the ancient Pavilion, as well as the places for offering incense and oil lamps.
Nearby you will see a place where pilgrims and devotees can wash their feet before entering.
Just outside the Main Temple Complex is another Courtyard Complex that houses shrines or temples for other deities, as well as the large Bodhi Tree. Many people circumambulate and make water offerings to the tree. The Bodhi tree represents the Buddha, as well as the place under which he attained nibbāna or enlightenment.
One the way to the Bodhi tree, you will also pass a sacred Stupa which is said to enshrine the Buddha's alms bowl relic. People also offer flowers here.
There are three main shrines or temples - Natha Devalaya (this is the shrine for Natha Deva, who is believed to be the Boddhisattva who will be the next Buddha - Metteyya Buddha), Pattini Devalaya (this is the shrine for Pattini Devi, who is a guardian deity for fertility and health) and Vishnu Devalaya (this is the shrine for Vishnu, who is one of the most significant deities and also believed to be next in line as Buddha after Natha Deva); as well as smaller shrines or temples - Suniyam Devalaya (this is the shrine for Suniyam Deviyo, who is a powerful deity believed to protect virtuous people, while severely punishing the wicked) and Dedimunda Devalaya (this is the shrine for Dedimunda Deviyo, who protects against evil possessions, diseases, epidemics, conflicts and so forth).
Devotees make offerings of flowers, fuit puja, money to these deities for blessings and to request assistance for worldly worries or challenges they they may be facing. They would make the request via one of the attendants or priests looking after the shrine and then the chanting would take place. A blessing is usually given at this time. Around these shrines you will find more areas for lighting oil lamps or burning incense.
I usually drop a few rupees into the donation boxes if I walk past any of these shrines or temples and have a good wish for these deities that help others. On a few occasions I've offered fruit pujas with some friends and received blessings. It's a little unusual, but over time I can feel the good energy and kind wishes from these places. Recently, I offered some white clothing (i.e. sarongs and white shirts) to some of these places for their attendants as a meritorious activity.
So, if you haven't done so already, pay a visit to the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy (or make another visit) and increase your happiness balance and general wellbeing. Try something different. And if you run into difficulty in your attempts to make merit or find something, ask a local who will be able to guide you or at least point you in the right direction.