From its name alone, the Sacred Temple of the Tooth doesn’t sound very sacred at all until you find out whose tooth it is that’s preserved in the temple. It is no less than the tooth of the Buddha himself. Also called Sri Dalada Maligawa, the Sacred Temple of the Tooth or Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic is a Buddhist temple in Kandy, the spiritual center of Sri Lanka. In ancient times, the tooth played an important role both in religion and politics, because people believed that whoever held the relic had the power to rule the country. The tooth relic has been housed in the city of Kandy through the centuries. Kandy was the last Sinhalese capital and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, partly due to the tooth temple.
Tourists visit to see the elaborate ceremonies within the temple. Buddhist monks from the Malwatte and Asgiriya chapters conduct worship rituals within the temple’s inner chamber every day. This is done three times a day, once at dawn, noontime and in the evening. Every Wednesday, the sacred tooth is ceremoniously bathed with holy water called Nanumura Mangallaya, an herbal preparation of scented water and fragrant flowers. After the washing, the holy water is distributed to worshippers because it is believed to have healing powers.
The sacred tooth is kept inside a two-storey inner shrine with two large elephant tusks in front. It is encased in jeweled caskets sitting on a throne. Inside, the relic rests on a lotus flower that is made from solid gold. The temple interior is ornately carved and decorated with inlaid woods, ivory, and lacquer. Around the complex is a low stone wall that is carved with openings wherein candles are lit during special celebrations. Within the temple compound is the king’s palace and the Pattiripuwa Tower that used to be a prison when first constructed in 1803. Today, the tower houses a collection of important manuscripts written in palm leaves.
Buddha’s tooth leaves its shrine and the temple only once a year for the 10-day Esala Perahera Festival, a well known festival all over Asia and probably the largest Buddhist parade in the world. Dancers, drummers, dignitaries, devotees and ornately decorated elephants march the streets with torch lights. Since 1990, however, the actual relic has not been taken out of its shrine for security purposes. For now, the ornate casket is honored as its representative. The casket (or in earlier times, the sacred relic) is placed on a royal male elephant that is leading the procession and flanked by two smaller elephants that are perfectly matched. About 100 elephants are ornately dressed and made to march in the streets as fire dancers move around to fend off evil spirits. They are followed by dancers, musicians, jugglers, more torch bearers, acrobats, members of the noble family and throngs of pilgrims, the faithful and onlookers. Foreign tourists and the media are also regulars in the crowd. It is believed that a million people participate annually. The procession ends on the tenth night as it moves from the city to the temple. It is led by the town elders who are dressed as the ancient kings of Kandy and carrying candles that light the night.