Buddhist relics, called Sariras or Ringsel, presented at the Heard Shrine Relic Tour at Jamyang Buddhist centre in London

The Buddha is said to have died between 486-483 B.C., according to traditional accounts, at the age of eighty in Kushinagara, after ingesting a tainted piece of either mushroom or pork. When he died, his body was cremated, as was customary in India. The cremated relics of the Buddha were divided into several portions were distributed among groups of his followers and placed in relic caskets that were interred within large hemispherical mounds known as stupas.

The earliest Buddhist traditions placed special emphasis on the remains of the Buddha. These were divided into three categories: 1) physical relics, such as bones and teeth; 2) objects used by the Buddha, such as his robe and relic bowl; and 3) representations or images of the Buddha. Tradition has it that Ashoka divided the physical relics into 84,000 portions and distributed them throughout India. This is clearly an exaggeration, since the number of bodily relics enshrined in stupas throughout the Buddhist world far exceeds the limits of a single physical body. [Source: Jacob Kinnard, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2018,]

A number of stupas with relics inside them have became important pilgrimage sites. Such stupas constitute the central monument of Buddhist monastic complexes. They attract pilgrims from far and wide who come to experience the unseen presence of the Buddha. Stupas are enclosed by a railing that provides a path for ritual circumambulation. The sacred area is entered through gateways at the four cardinal points. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive ; Introduction to Buddhism ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA ; View on Buddhism ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism

History of The Buddha's Remains

Originally The Buddha’s ashes were to go only to the Shakya clan, to which Buddha belonged; however, six clans and a king, demanded the body relics. To avoid fighting, a Brahmin Drona divided the relics into ten portions, eight from the body relics, one from the ashes of Buddha's cremation pyre and one from the pot used to divide the relics, which he kept for himself. After The Buddha's Parinibbana ( nirvana-after-death,), his relics were enshrined and worshipped in stupas by the royals of eight countries: 1) to Ajatasattu, king of Magadha; 2) to the Licchavis of Vaishali; 3) to the Sakyas of Kapilavastu; 4) to the Bulis of Allakappa; 5) to the Koliyas of Ramagrama; 6) to the brahmin of Vethadipa; 7) to the Mallas of Pava; and 8) to the Mallas of Kushinagar [Source: Wikipedia +]

The relics were later dug up by Ashoka — the Maurya Dynasty emperor, who ruled almost all of the Indian subcontinent from c. 268 to 232 B.C. He distributed the relics and had stupas built over them throughout the region he ruled. Many of the remains ended up in places that are other countries today. According to The Ashokavadana, Ashoka had Buddha's relics placed in 84,000 stupas built by Yakshas (usually benevolent nature-spirits). +

In the A.D. 5th and 7th centuries, the Chinese pilgrims Faxian and Xuanzang visited India and reported most of ancient sites were in ruins. The Lokapannatti (11th/12th century) tells the story of King Ajatashatru of Magadha who gathered the Buddha's relics and hid them in an underground stupa. According to the story Buddha's relics were protected by spirit-powered mechanical robots (bhuta vahana yanta). The Mahaparinirvana sutra says that of the Buddha's four eye teeth (canines), one was worshipped in Indra's Heaven, the second in the city of Ghandara, the third in Kalinga, and the fourth in Ramagrama by the king of the Nagas. +

Annually in Sri Lanka and China, tooth relics would be paraded through the streets. In the past relics have had the legal right to own property; and the destruction of stupas containing relics was a capital crime viewed as murder of a living person. A southeast Asian tradition says that after his parinirvana the gods distributed the Buddha's 800,000 body and 900,000 head hairs throughout the universe. In Theravada according to the 5th century Buddhaghosa possessing relics was one of the criteria in Theravada for what constituted a proper monastery. The adventures of many relics are said to have been foretold by Buddha, as they spread the dharma and gave legitimacy to rulers. +

One of the world’s most important discoveries of relics of The Buddha occurred at Piprahwa in 1898. William Claxton Peppé, a British landowner, excavated an ancient Buddhist stupa on the Birdpur estate near the border of India and Nepal. After digging through twenty feet of brickwork, he unearthed a large stone coffer containing gold, jewels, fragments of bone and five reliquary urns. An inscription on one of the urns identified the pieces of bone as the relics of the Lord Buddha which had been given to his own Sakya clan. [Source:]

Tibetan Buddhist View on Relics

Kangling: a Tibetan shinbone flute

On relics, the Karmapa Lama wrote: “WHITE BONE RELICS: This is a concise history of the various relics of different sizes, shapes and colors, which were found at Tsurphu during the reconstruction of the monastery. Many small, white, round bones were found buried in the earth. Relics such as these often come from past Buddhas or Bodhisattvas of the tenth level. If one has strong faith and devotion, thousands of relics often manifest from just one. It is essential to keep it in a very pure and clean place, cared for very well. Prayers and offerings should be done; otherwise it may not multiply. [Source: Karmapa Lama: His Holiness the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa, Urgyen Trinley Dorje by Ken Holmes, 1995; Ken Holmes' 1995 book, Karmapa =]

“These relic bones are often round, in other dimensions could be considered being a precipitation of bliss arising from the central nervous system of highly realized masters and the activity of the Bodhisattvas. These precious "rinsels" (as they are known in Tibetan) exude a powerful blessing, as they are from the very body of the Buddha and the Karmapa (who is prophesied to be the Sixth Buddha of this aeon). They are often used for the consecration of stupas, temples and shrines. Always treated with the utmost respect, they are kept in special, (preferably high) places and can also be worn for protection and blessings. =

“Usually they are not taken internally. However, they may be taken internally when one is very sick and close to death. When they are used like that, it is said that the essence of the "rinsel" [also ringsel] rests at the crown of one's head. For those with meditative concentration, the "rinsel" will quicken the opening of the crown chakra at the top of the central channel, helping to prevent the possibility of falling into the lower realms upon leaving the body in the moment of death. According to Drupon Dechen Rinpoche of Tsurphu, one who swallows the sacred relic will never go to hell! As previously mentioned, the 20 meter high statue at Tsurphu, the Tsurphu Lhachen, was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. It contained over two pounds (900 grams) of Buddha Katsyapa's (Buddha Osung - the Third Buddha), sacred bone relics possibly dating back 4,000 years ago! All these precious white bone relics fell to the ground, unnoticed for many years. =

“Another source for these white relics dates back to the late 12th century. Towards the end of the life of the First Karmapa these sacred relics came from this Karmapa's body. A statue of Dusum Khyenpa called "Nga-dra-ma" in Tibetan (literally a statue which "Looks like me" (Karmapa) was built, and these relics - white and generally round as well - were put inside this smaller statue. After the destruction of Tsurphu Monastery remains were found underneath the temple ruins with many white relics around it. S. B. wrote: "I have some of the white bone relics [mentioned above] and it's said that they come from the first Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa. They look indeed like (very little) white pearls. As often as I read this text about the relics I cannot help but feel deep sadness about the fact that such unbelievable precious religious items like the big statue of Lord Buddha and so much more have been destroyed. " =

“BLACK BONE RELICS: There were also found smaller black relic bones, mostly quite round in shape, which came from the many masters and Mahasiddhas, who were once residing at Tsurphu Monastery. Some were from the incarnations of the Gyalwa Karmapas and some from the Shamar, Gyaltsab and Pawo Rinpoche Lineages and their spiritually advanced disciples. There were fourteen sacred "Kudungs" (corpses of great Lamas) at Tsurphu when it was destroyed. Most of these black bone relics came from these "Kudungs". =

“BLACK STONE RELICS: There is yet another type of relic: The small sacred black stone relics from the shores of Lake Namtso- - a lake extremely sacred to the Karmapas. It is the largest salt water lake in Tibet, about a day and a half drive by jeep from Tsurphu. According to history, the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, visited Lake Namtso. The historical legend tells that he flew there by using his miraculous powers. As he stood near the lake, he threw a handful of black pills into the lake and requested the protectors of the Lake, Dorje Gurdak (a wrathful emanation of Guru Rinpoche) and other various Naga gods and demi-gods, to ever increase these black pills in number as a source of faith and for the benefit of beings in the future. =

“About four centuries later, the Fourteenth Karmapa, Thekchok Dorje, came to the lake and requested Dorje Gurdak and another protector, Nyen Chenpo Thang-La, to be guardians of these sacred stone relics after throwing a handful of black pills into the lake. Still to this day they continue to appear around the shores of this lake and they are regarded as very auspicious relics, especially for filling statues.” =

Relics in India

cremation stupa in Kushinagar

Buddha belonged to one of these eight families the Sakyas; who had one eighth of his relics stored at Kapilavastu. According to the PBS series Secrets of the Dead, an urn containing such relics was discovered in a stupa at Piprahwa near Birdpur (Birdpore), a Buddhist sacred structure in the Basti district of Uttar Pradesh in India by amateur archaeologist William Claxton Peppe in 1898. In 1971 K.M. Srivastava continued excavating the site and discovered 22 bones in two soapstone urns, dating them to the 5th century B.C.. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Mortal remains said to be of The Buddha belonging to third or fourth century were found during an excavation in 1962-1963 at Devni Mori which is a Buddhist archaeological site near Shamalaji in Gujarat. Ashes of Buddha were found in a gold bottle wrapped in silk cloth within a copper bowl that was kept in a casket. The 1,700-year-old casket’s inscription in Brahmi script mentions ‘Dashabala Sharira Nilaya’ — which stands for 'abode of the bodily relics of Lord Buddha'. The remains are preserved in the Museum of Department of Archaeology and Ancient History of the Faculty of Arts, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda - Vadodara.

The Global Vipassana Pagoda, constructed in October 2006 in Mumbai, enshrines the bone relics of The Buddha in the central locking stone of the dome, making it the world's largest structure containing relics of the Buddha. The relics were originally found in the stupa at Bhattiprolu, Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh, South India.

According to Xuanzang hundreds of thousands of people came every day to venerate a tooth relic in Kanyakubja. The Pali Dathavamsa (tooth chronicle) describes a disciple of Buddha named Khema, who took a tooth from Buddha's funeral pyre and gave it to Brahmadatta king of Kalinga (India). In Dantapura the tooth was taken by niganthas to king Gushava, then the Hindu emperor Pandu who tried many methods to destroy it but was unable to ultimately converted to Buddhism.

The Culvmsa tells the story of Silakala and King Moggallana who went to India in exile. Silakala and became a novice at Bodhgaya where he was given a hair relic; Moggallana took this relic back to Sri Lanka and placed it in a crystal casket; and instigated a regular festival in honor to the hair. In Rajagrha, Buddha went to have his hair shaved, but none of the monks were willing to cut Buddha's hair; so they found a young boy named Upali of the barber cast. In the attempt to cut the hair better he controlled his body posture and breathing going into the fourth level of trance, dhyana. The Buddha's disciple seeing this Ananda took the razor from him; then wondered what to do with the hair; thinking it was an impure thing. Buddha reprimanded him and had Ananda deliver the hair in a pot to the general Gopali who took it into battle, becoming victorious. According to another story, Bimbisaras, a king who laid the foundations for the later expansion of the Maurya Empire, let the women in his harem visit The Buddha in his monastery in the evenings. The women wanted a hair and nail from The Buddha, which they could use to venerate the Buddha any time. The Bimbisara spoke with The Buddha who complied with their request.

Faxian on Buddha’s Alms Bowl, Skull Bone and Relics

Buddha relic distribution site in Kushinagar, the place Buddha died

Faxian (A.D. 337– 422 ), a Chinese Buddhist monk who traveled on foot to India, wrote in “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms":“Buddha's alms-bowl is in this country. Formerly, a king of Yeh-she raised a large force and invaded this country, wishing to carry the bowl away. Having subdued the kingdom, as he and his captains were sincere believers in the Law of Buddha, and wished to carry off the bowl, they proceeded to present their offerings on a great scale. When they had done so to the Three Precious Ones, he made a large elephant e grandly caparisoned, and placed the bowl upon it. But the elephant knelt down on the ground, and was unable to go forward. Again he caused a four-wheeled wagon to be prepared in which the bowl was put to be conveyed away. Eight elephants were then yoked to it, and dragged it with their united strength; but neither were they able to go forward. The king knew that the time for an association between himself and the bowl had not yet arrived, and was sad and deeply ashamed of himself. Forthwith he built a tope at the place and a monastery, and left a guard to watch (the bowl), making all sorts of contributions. There may be there more than seven hundred monks. When it is near midday, they bring out the bowl, and, along with the common people make their various offerings to it, after which they take their midday meal. In the the evening, they bring the bowl out again. It may contain rather more than two pecks, and is of various colours, black predominating, with the seams that show its fourfold composition distinctly marked. Its thickness is about the fifth of an inch, and it has a bright and glossy lustre. When poor people throw into it a few flowers, it becomes immediately full, while some very rich people, wishing to make offering of many flowers, might not stop till they had thrown in hundreds, thousands, and myriads of bushels, and yet would not be able to fill it. [Source: “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms” by Fa-Hsien (Faxian) of his Travels in India and Ceylon (A.D. 399-414), Translated James Legge, 1886, /]

“Going west for sixteen yojanas, Faxian came to the city He-lo in the borders of the country of Nagara, where there is the flat-bone of Buddha's skull, deposited in a vihara adorned all over with gold-leaf and the seven sacred substances. The king of the country, revering and honouring the bone, and anxious lest it should be stolen away, has selected eight individuals, representing the great families in the kingdom, and committed to each a seal, with which he should seal (its shrine) and guard (the relic). At early dawn these eight men come, and after each has inspected his seal, they open the door. This done, they wash their hands with scented water and bring out the bone, which they place outside the vihara, on a loft platform, where it is supported on a round pedestal of the seven precious substances, and covered with a bell of lapis lazuli, both adorned with rows of pearls. Its colour is of a yellowish white, and it forms an imperfect circle twelve inches round, curving upwards to the centre. Every day, after it has been brought forth, the keepers of the vihara ascend a high gallery, where they beat great drums, blow conchs, and clash their copper cymbals. When the king hears them, he goes to the vihara, and makes his offerings of flowers and incense. When he has done this, he (and his attendants) in order, one after another, (raise the bone), place it (for a moment) on the top of their heads, and then depart, going out by the door on the west as they had entered by that on the east. The king every morning makes his offerings and performs his business of his government. The chiefs of the Vaisyas also make their offerings before they attend to their family affairs. Every day it is so, and there is no remissness in the observance of the custom. When all the offerings are over, they replace the bone in the vihara, where there is a vimoksha tope, of the seven precious substances, and rather more than five cubits high, sometimes open, sometimes shut, to contain it. In front of the door of the vihara, there are parties who every morning sell fiowers and incense, and those who wish to make offerings buy some of all kinds. The kings of various countries are also constantly sending messengers with offerings. The vihara stands in a square of thirty paces, and though heaven should shake and earth be rent, this place would not move.

Nagara. Festival of Buddha's Skull-bone

relic of Buddha from Rajkir, Nalanda, Bihar, India

Faxian wrote: “Going west for sixteen yojanas, he came to the city He-lo in the borders of the country of Nagara (Shimoga district, Karnataka, India., where there is the flat-bone of Buddha's skull, deposited in a vihara adorned all over with gold-leaf and the seven sacred substances. The king of the country, revering and honouring the bone, and anxious lest it should be stolen away, has selected eight individuals, representing the great families in the kingdom, and committing to each a seal, with which he should seal (its shrine) and guard (the relic). At early dawn these eight men come, and after each has inspected his seal, they open the door. This done, they wash their hands with scented water and bring out the bone, which they place outside the vihara, on a lofty platform, where it is supported on a round pedestal of the seven precious substances, and covered with a bell of lapis lazuli, both adorned with rows of pearls. Its colour is of a yellowish white, and it forms an imperfect circle twelve inches round, curving upwards to the centre. Every day, after it has been brought forth, the keepers of the vihara ascend a high gallery, where they beat great drums, blow conchs, and clash their copper cymbals. When the king hears them, he goes to the vihara, and makes his offerings of flowers and incense. When he has done this, he (and his attendants) in order, one after another, (raise the bone), place it (for a moment) on the top of their heads, and then depart, going out by the door on the west as they entered by that on the east. The king every morning makes his offerings and performs his worship, and afterwards gives audience on the business of his government. The chiefs of the Vaisyas also make their offerings before they attend to their family affairs. [Source: “A Record of Buddhistic Kingdoms” by Fa-Hsien (Faxian) of his Travels in India and Ceylon (A.D. 399-414), Translated James Legge, 1886, /]

Every day it is so, and there is no remissness in the observance of the custom. When all the offerings are over, they replace the bone in the vihara, where there is a vimoksha stupa, of the seven precious substances, and rather more than five cubits high, sometimes open, sometimes shut, to contain it. In front of the door of the vihara, there are parties who every morning sell flowers and incense, and those who wish to make offerings buy some of all kinds. The kings of various countries are also constantly sending messengers with offerings. The vihara stands in a square of thirty paces, and though heaven should shake and earth be rent, this place would not move. /

“Going on, north from this, for a yojana, (Fa-Hsien) arrived at the capital of Nagara, the place where the Bodhisattva once purchased with money five stalks of flowers, as an offering to the Dipankara Buddha. In the midst of the city there is also the stupa of Buddha's tooth, where offerings are made in the same way as to the flat-bone of his skull. /

“A yojana to the north-east of the city brought him to the mouth of a valley, where there is Buddha's pewter staff; and a vihara also has been built at which offerings are made. The staff is made of Gosirsha Chandana, and is quite sixteen or seventeen cubits long. It is contained in a wooden tube, and though a hundred or a thousand men ere to (try to) lift it, they could not move it. /

“Entering the mouth of the valley, and going west, he found Buddha's Sanghali, where also there is reared a vihara, and offerings are made. It is a custom of the country when there is a great drought, for the people to collect in crowds, bring out the robe, pay worship to it, and make offerings, on which there is immediately a great rain from the sky. /

“South of the city, half a yojana, there is a rock-cavern, in a great hill fronting the south-west; and here it was that Buddha left his shadow. Looking at it from a distance of more than ten paces, you seem to see Buddha's real form, with his complexion of gold, and his characteristic marks in their nicety clearly and brightly displayed. The nearer you approach, however, the fainter it becomes, as if it were only in your fancy. When the kings from the regions all around have sent skilful artists to take a copy, none of them have been able to do so. Among the people of the country there is a saying current that "the thousand Buddhas must all leave their shadows here." /

“Rather more than four hundred paces west from the shadow, when Buddha was at the spot, he shaved his hair and clipt his nails, and proceeded, along with his disciples, to build a stupa seventy or eighty cubits high, to be a model for all future stupas; and it is still existing. By the side of it there is a monastery, with more than seven hundred monks in it. At this place there are as many as a thousand stupas of Arhans and Pratyeka Buddhas.” /

Relics in Nepal, Afghanistan and Pakistan

According to UNESCO, Ramagrama stupa in Nepal is the only undisturbed original stupa containing relics of Lord Buddha. Built in 6th century B.C. and later enlarged by being enveloped with bricks, it is adjacent to monasteries of Tilaurakot, which Nepal believes to be Kapilavastu, the ancient city where The Buddha lived when he was a prince. An excavation at Tilaurakot in 1962 revealed ancient brick structures but no relics. In the 1970s, it was said thousands of Buddha relics were growing out of the east side of the stupa of Swayambhunath in Kathmandu. According to Xuanzang, relics of Koagamana Buddha were held in a stupa in Nigalisagar, visited by Ashoka, in what is now southern Nepal. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Bimaran Casket, a small gold reliquary for Buddhist relics found inside the stupa no.2 at Bimaran, near Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan

Sometime in the middle of the A.D. fifth century the Chinese pilgrim Daorong traveled to Afghanistan visiting pilgrimage sites. The ancient site of Nagaharahara, where The Buddha is said to have washed his robe, contained a 10-centimeter-long bone from the top of Buddha's skull, enshrined staff, and a jeweled reliquary housing some of The Buddha’s teeth and hair. A shadow projected onto a rock wall and some footprints are said to have been left by The Buddha during his visit. A temple sinking into the ground there and some writing on a wall are said to have been made by The Buddha. A tooth of the Buddha was kept in Baktra. In Bamyan a tooth of Buddha was stored along with the tooth of a cakravartin king. An early masterpiece of the Greco Buddhist art of Ghandara, and one of the earliest representations of the Buddha, the Bimaran casket was discovered in a stupa near Jalabad in eastern Afghanistan. Although the casket bears an inscription saying it contained some of the relics of the Buddha; no relics were discovered when the box was opened. +

The Kanishka stupa in Peshawar, Pakistan has been described as one of the tallest in the world and has been visited by early Chinese Buddhist pilgrims such as Faxian, Sung Yun and Xuanxang. The stupa was excavated in 1908–1909 by a British archaeological mission; where the Kanishka casket was discovered with three small fragments of bone. In Peshawar Faxian reported in the fourth century that the Buddha's begging bowl held 4 liters and was made of stone. Four bowls were bestowed upon him by the four guardian gods of the four quarters of mount Vinataka surrounding mount Sumeru. Another legend is of a Yuezhi king who wanted to take away the bowl but could not with the strength of eight elephants, so he constructed a stupa over it. Buddha's first two lay disciples Trapusa and Bahalika received eight strands of hair from him which they brought to their home town of Balkh and enshrined in a golden stupa by the gate. I don’t think anyone knows where the remains this stupa are located. +

One hundred years prior to the visit of Xuanzang the White Huns (Hephthalites) destroyed a number of relics in Gandhara and Kashmir. To escape one of the purges, a monk fled to India and did a pilgrimage to many sacred sites. One day he encountered a herd of wild elephants. He attempted to hide in a tree but was captured by the elephants and taken a young elephant that had an extremely painful bamboo splinter in his foot. The monk tended to the elephant’s wound and was rewarded for the deed with a golden casket containing a tooth of Buddha. On the way back home he attempted to cross a river on a ferry, which started to sink mid-way through the journey. Passengers on the ferry were convinced the ferry’s problems were caused by Naga's wanting the Buddhist relic and forced the monk to throw the tooth in the river. The monk then spent the next three years learning the proper methods to overpower Naga. He then conquered their king and reclaiming the tooth.

Relics in China

According to legend, the first Buddha relic in China appeared in a vase in A.D. 248 so that Kang Senghui would have something to show a local ruler. The king of Wu Sun Quan would unsuccessfully attempt to destroy the tooth, by subjecting it to various tests. In legends Daoxuan is attributed with the transmission of the Buddha relic Daoxuans tooth, one of the four tooth relics enshrined in the capital of Chang'an during the Tang dynasty. He is said to have received the relic during a night visit from a divinity associated with Indra. The emperor Taizong tried to burn a tooth relic but was unable to do so. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Buddha sacred tooth relic in China given temporarily to Myanmar to display

In A.D. 645, Xuanzang returned home to China after his 17-year-long pilgrimage to India with, "over six hundred Mahayana and Hinayana texts, seven statues of the Buddha and more than a hundred sarira relics." Emperor Wen and Empress Wu of the Sui both venerated Buddha relics. Daoxuan’s Ji gujin fodao lunheng (Collection of [the Documents Related to] the Buddho-Daoist Controversies in the Past and the Present; completed 661) recounts that shortly after being born Yang Jian; was given to Buddhist "divine nun" until the age of 13. Yang Jian, after becoming the Emperor Sui Wendi; lead three Buddha relic redistribution campaigns in 601 602 and 604. The relics were enshrined across 107 pagodas; along with pictures of the divine nun. +

In 2010 remains of Gautama Buddha's skull were enshrined at Qixia Temple in Nanjing. The partial bone had been held in the Pagoda of King Ashoka, constructed in 1011 under the former Changgan Temple of Nanjing. In 1987 a chamber was unearthed below Famen temple and a finger bone said to belong to Gautama Buddha was discovered. In 2003 the finger bone was one of 64 culturally significant artifacts officially prohibited from leaving China for exhibitions. In 2009, the relic was enshrined in the world's tallest stupa recently built within the domains of Famen Temple. +

Two bone fragments believed to belong to Gautama Buddha are enshrined at Yunju temple. According to Tang Dynasty records, China had 19 pagodas of King Ashoka holding Sakyamuni's relics. Seven of these pagodas are believed to have been found. Currently the tooth relic is kept in Beijing while the knuckle of the middle finger is in Xi'an. +

In 1072 the Japanese pilgrim Jojin visited Kaifeng and saw Buddha's tooth in the hall of seven treasures in an imperial building. The tooth said to belong to The Buddha was discovered in 1900 in the ruins of Zhaoxian pagoda outside of Beijing. The monks of the nearby Lingguang monastery found a box in the rubble with the inscription "The Holy Tooth Relics of Sakyamuni Buddha", written by Shan-hui in A.D. 963. They kept the molar inside their monastery until 1955 when they gave it to the Buddhist Association of China. It is now believed to be housed in a golden jeweled casket inside the Beijing tooth temple was reconstructed in 1966.

An exhibit donated by the Dalai Lama contains relics from Gautama Buddha as well as 40 other Buddhist masters from India, Tibet and China. The Dalai Lama took the relics with him when he escaped in 1959 invasion.

Relics in Japan and Korea

Mo Gok Saya Daw Gyi bone and blood relics

According to legend, in Japan in A.D. 552, there was an attempt to destroy a tooth relic of The Buddha, one of the first of its kind in Japan. It was slammed by a hammer into an anvil; the hammer and anvil shattered but but the tooth survived intact. In 593, Soga no Umako had relics of Buddha placed inside the foundation stone under the pillar of a pagoda at Asuka-dera. According to Japanese legends the tooth of Indras was stolen in heaven from Drona's turban by a the fleet-footed demon Sokushikki, who was caught by an even faster divinity, and the tooth was given to Indra. Although no mention is made of Xuanzang specifically having such a tooth, a Japanese tradition claims one was eventually taken by the monk Gishin and kept in Tendai and Fujiwara. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Tongdosa temple, (one of the three Three Jewel Temples of Korea) houses a robe, begging bowl and a piece of skull said to belong to Buddha. It was founded by Jajang-yulsa after he returned from a pilgrimage to China in A.D. 646. Other temples built by Jajang also house relics. Bongjeongam hermitage is said to possess sarira from Gautama, while Sangwonsa houses bone setting relics. On top of this, Jeongamsa Temple, and Beopheungsa Temple are said to contain relics. Beneath a three-story stone pagoda at Bulguksa Temple are said to 46 sarira that have been kept for over 1200 years, with more having appeared relatively recently. Sarira comes from the Sanskrit word for “body” and can be used for relics like teeth or parts of Buddha's skull. It typically refers to the crystalline traces that remain after a respected Buddhist's corpse is burn It is said that Korean emperor Huizong tried to sink a tooth relic at sea but was unable to do so.

Relics in Southeast Asia

Pha That Luang Luang in Vientiane is the most interesting structure and the most important national monument in Laos. A spiked, golden-spired stupa that is surrounded by 30 smaller golden spires, it reportedly contains a piece Buddha’s breastbone and one of his hairs, which are said to have been placed there in the 3rd century B.C. by missionaries of the Indian king Asoka. The missionaries included Bury Chan or Praya Chanthabury Pasithisak and five Arahata monks The temple’s full name means “World-Precious Sacred Stupa.” Archeologists estimate the original structure was built between the 11th and 13th centuries. The original version of the present structures were built in the mid 16th century. Only two of the original wats built around the chedi remain: Wat That Luang Neua and Wat That Luang Tai.

relics of Buddha from the Patriarch of Thailand

The Piprahwa relics (important relics found in a stupa at the Birdpur estate near the border of India and Nepal) were given to Rama V (the King of Siam) a couple of years after their discovery in 1898. They where placed — and still still reside — in Rama V had Phu Khao Thong, a man-made mountain constructed at Wat Saket. Phra Borommathat Chedi is the oldest stupa containing Buddha relics in Thailand. Wat Phra That Doi Suthep was founded after a monk followed clues given to him in a dream and found a shoulder bone that glowed and replicated itself, leading him to believe it was a Buddha relic. Wat Com Ping in northern Thailand claims to enshrine over 50,000 Buddha relics. Relics said to be of the head of The Buddha were found in Teankam temple, Lampang province in 2007. The temple was built by King Indraditya in the 12th century. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Xa Loi Pagoda served as the headquarters for Buddhism in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War era. It was built in 1956 to house remains of The Buddha. Giác Lâm Pagoda housed Buddha relics brought to the temple from Sri Lanka by Narada in 1953. Tanh Xá Trung Tâm founded in 1965 also houses relics.

Relics in Myanmar

The Chakesadhatuvamsa, or chronicle of the six hair relics of the Buddha, was written in Myanmar. The text says that Buddha gave six hairs to disciples at Venuvana in Rajagrha. These were given to six bordering countries who had never seen the Buddha. The stories say that when the Buddha came to Mon State to give sermons, he gave six of his hairs to hermits from Kyaiktiyo, Zinkyaik (to Tissa), Mount Zwegabin (to Thiha), Kaylartha, Kuthaerayone and Melan. A pair of belu brothers from Kyaikhtisaung also received a hair. All the hermits and belus enshrined the hair in great stones or stupas. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The Kanishka casket is said to have contained three bone fragments of the Buddha, which were forwarded to Myanmar by the British following the excavation,where they still remain. The Uppatasanti Pagoda holds a tooth relic from China. The Hledauk Pagoda collapsed during an earth quake in 1912, revealing two relic chambers. Inside was a vessel containing relics from the Buddha and small figures of bronze representing stages of his lives. +

It said that The Buddha — while flying through the air with 499 disciples on his way to Sunaparanta — stopped at Saccabandha where he convinced a heretic teacher by the same name to become an arhat. On his way home from Sunapranta, Buddha stopped by the banks of the Nammada river where he was welcomed by a devoted Buddhist naga king who asked for a memento. The Buddha obliged and left an impression of his footprint in the river bank. The Buddhist and his disciples visited Saccabandha again. Someone there asked for something to remember him by. The Buddha honored the request and made a footprint again, this time in solid stone. +

Shwedagon Pagoda and Other Relic Sites in Yangon

Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon

The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar houses eight of Buddha's hair taken by his first two disciples Tapussa and Bhallika to the site where three relics of Buddha's previous incarnations had been enshrined. Shwedagon was created with the help of the King of Okkalapa and the Sule nats (spirits). Burmese and Sri Lankan tradition says that Trapusa and Bhallika — Trapusa — lost some of the hair relics to the Naga king Jayesana; who took them to worship in his undersea palace. [Source: Wikipedia]

The pointy, bell-shaped stupa at the center of the Shwedagon Pagoda temple complex rises 99 meters (326 feet) into the air (higher than St. Paul's in London). The hill it stands on is 51 meters (168 feet) high. Over $100 million worth of gold plates and gold sheathing (much of it laid on in paper thin pieces) covers the stupa, and 5,452 diamonds (including a 76.8 carat one at the peak), 2,000 rubies, sapphires, and a couple thousand other precious stones crown the top. There are a total of 8688 solid gold plates, each one square foot in size.

Shwedagon is not just something to look at, it is a functioning religious center. Monks in maroon and saffron robes and nun with orange towels on their head pray, mediate, and recite mantras to the sound of tinkling bells and the scent of incense. Lay people wash statues with ladles of water "to cleanse the spirit" and leave offerings of fruit, rice, orchids, burning joss sticks and flowers before the images of Buddha in the numerous small shrines that are all over the place. There are also construction workers and craftsmen smoking cheroots while they do work carving, painting and repairing roofs. Fortuneteller gathers outside and inside the pagoda. Some light a cigarette and hold it to a statue’s lips and recite prayers to bring good luck to those who pay about 60 cents.

Everyday thousands of Buddhist pilgrims from all Asia climb the steps of the pagoda. Sometimes they place pieces of gold leaf on the main stupa or on the hundreds of gilded Buddha statues scattered around the pagoda. Packets of the golden sheathing, which contain 24 sheets of 24-carat gold foil, can be purchased outside the pagoda so a surprisingly cheap price. People who are worshiping at a shrine are usually there for a specific reason: to worship at the day their birthday falls on that year, to pray at the astrological sign of a sick child, or to make an offering to auspicious number or planet. Praying and making offerings at the shrine and post corresponding with one's birthday is supposed to bring good fortune.

relics of Buddha from the The Supreme Partriarch of Myanmar

Sule Pagoda is also said to contain one of the Buddha's hairs. Its name in the Mon language (Kyaik Athok ) means "the pagoda where a sacred hair relic is enshrined." Kyaik Kauk Pagoda (in Thanlyin on a hill on an island) has an imposing golden stupa similar to the Shwedagon Pagoda. According to legend the pagoda dates back to the time of Emperor Asoka, the great king of India who helped spead Buddhism 230 years after The Buddha’s death. One of Asoka’s missions was sent to Suvannabhumi [Thaton] in present-day Myanmar. It was headed by Maha Theras Sona and Uttara. One of their assistants, Ashin Somaga, was sent on a mission to Pauk-khara-wady or Dagon (Yangon). He resided in Thanlyin and visited Let-kha-ya and Siha islands and propagated the Buddha’s teachings there. A hermit named Khaw Laka lived on Utaringa Kon. After hearing the Dhamma he became a monk. Later Ashin Somaga and Bhikkhu Kaw Laka went to Pataliputra in India and requested Emperor Asoka to give them some sacred relics of the Buddha for worship. They received 24 strands of the Buddha’s hair. They returned to Siha Island and when they reached the Pada jetty they left two sacred hairs to be enshrined in a pagoda built there. Later these hairs were re-enshrined in a pagoda now know as Kyaik DeiYa. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information =]

The remaing hair relies were enshrined each in one pagoda at each of 16 Villages: 1) Ta Hmaw Village; 2) Ka Lun Pun Village; 3) Ka Hnein Village; 4) Ka Hnaw Village; 5) Mon Naw Village; 6) Tha Laing Village; 7) Hmaw Wun Village; 8) Kan Ti Village; 9) Kha Pi Village; 10) Tha Naw Kaik Village; 11) Ah Lwei Eake Village; 12) Pa Wun Gai Village; 13) Pa Yin Village; 14) Wi Thone Village; 15) Pa Ro Village; 16) Than Hlyin Village [Saga Village]. The the remaing six hairs were enshrined in a pagoda built on Utaringa Kon [now called Hlaing Pok Kon]. =

Relics in Sri Lanka

In the Mahavamsa (an ancient Pali text about the kings of Sri Lanka), Ashoka chooses not to retrieve Buddha relics in the possession of Nagas at Ramagrama in present-day Nepal. The text says that on his deathbed Buddha told a prophecy that of one of the eight body relics divided by the Brahmin Drona would initially be venerated by the Koliyas of Ramagrama, then the relics would belong to the Nagas until being taken to Sri Lanka and enshrined there. King Ashoka was told a prophecy by who said these relics would be enshrined by King Dutthagamani. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The relics enshrined in Ramagama were, in accordance with The Buddha's prophecy, enshrined in the Great Stupa Ruvanveli in Sri Lanka. During the full-moon day of the month of Asaëha (June–July), under the constellation of Uttarasaëha, King Dutugemunu oversaw the ceremony in which the relics were enshrined. The day before the ceremony the relics were still in Nepal. A Sangha (Order of monks) ordered a novice monk Arahant Soõuttara, who possessed six superhuman power, flew to Nepal and brought the relics back. When the enshrining of the relics in the Great Stupa was completed, two novices, Uttara and Sumana, used their powers to close the relic-chamber with enormous stone-blocks.

Tradition says that Trapusa and Bahalika — the the first two lay disciples of the Buddha — visited Sri Lanka and brought a hair relic with them in a golden reliquary to Girihandu. Trapusa and Bhallika were initially disgusted by the hair and fingernail relics. Only after The Buddha told them the jataka tale of Sumedha laying his hair at the feet of Dipamkara did they realize their meritoriousness.

King Devanampiyatissa built Thuparamaya in which it is said the collarbone of the Buddha is enshrined. It is considered to be the first pagoba built in Sri Lanka. The Buddha is said to have given hair relics to Maha Sumana the god of Adams peak, which were enshrined at Mahiyangana. He also left a footprint at Sumanakuta.

Temple of the Tooth

reliquary for Buddha's tooth at the Temple of the Tooth in Sri Lanka

Temple of the Tooth is a sacred temple in Kandy, Sri Lanka that houses Buddha's tooth, which is said to be an upper left incisor snatched from Buddha's funeral pyre in 543 B.C. The tooth was reportedly brought to Sri Lanka from India in the 4th century A.D. hidden in the hair of an Indian princess and given to the the Sri Lankan king, Kithsiri Megawanna, who in turn placed it in an edifice built by King Devanampriyatissa.

The temple is known locally as Dalada Maligawa. The Sinhalese kings considered themselves the guardian of the sacred tooth, which was considered the source of their power and venerated to invoke the blessings of the king and his people. The sacred tooth was kept in Anuradhapura for a while and moved around Sri Lanka as the Sinhalese kings changed the location of the Sri Lankan capital until it finally came to rest in the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy during the Kandyan period.

Placed on a site, where an auspicious white tortoise was found, the temple is a white crenelated structure with towers that look like swirls of soft ice cream. The closet that visitors get to the tooth is a view of the golden reliquary that holds the tooth through a glass portal. A two-story shrine was built next to a lake to house the relic by Sinhalese king, Wimala Dharma Suriya I in 1590, when the relic was taken to Kandy. The current two-story pink structure was built under King Narenda Sinhala in 1687 to 1707 and expanded from 1747 to 1782. The tooth is kept in an inner chamber. The temple is surrounded by a moat. The octagonal tower in the moat was built to house palm-leaf manuscripts.

The entrance to the temple features moonstone steps, two stone elephants and five intertwined damsels. Pilgrims from all over Sri Lanka converge on the temple during the lunar month of Esala (July or August) for the massive Perahara festival that honors the tooth. At 6:00am and 4:00pm daily the tooth is venerated with a special ceremony that involves drumming and sacred chanting.

History of the Temple of the Tooth

When the Danta and Hemamala family arrived in Sri Lanka in A.D. 362-409, they delivered one of the four eye teeth relics of The Buddha to King Sirimeghavanna, who placed it with a bowl relic in Anuradhapura, where they remained together for 600 years until being moved to the new capital of Polonnaruva, where they became the most venerated relics in Sri Lanka. Devanampiya Tissa is said to have received Buddha's right collarbone and his revered alms bowl from the Ashoka, the great 3rd century B.C. Indian king, and to had the Thuparama stupa built to house them. According to a 14th century legend, the bowl produced rainfall under King Upatissa that ended a drought. The bowl, following a cart with a golden statue of Buddha, was miraculously used to sprinkle water over a vast area. It is said the Buddha's disciple Ananda did the same when Vaisali suffered a famine and drought. In the 12th century at Parakkamabahu's festival for the tooth relic a rain cloud filled the ponds but did not rain on the celebration. [Source: Wikipedia, other sources +]

Later, King Dutugemunu received the relics from the Sangha. He had them placed upon his head in a casket in golden pavilion amidst of numerous offerings and honors made by gods and Brahmas. The king circumambulated the relic-chamber three times, entered it from the east, and then laid the relic-casket on a couch that was placed in the north side. A reclining Buddha sculpture was created and all the relics were enshrined within it. +

Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy, Sri Lanka

Numerous types of beings attended the enshrinement of the relics into the Mahathupa in the Thupavamsa. Among them was the Naga king Mahakala who until recently guarded them. The relics were to be placed atop a golden throne crafted by Visvakarman the divine artificer. The throne was brought by Indra. Brahma offered his invisible umbrella of sovereignty. The arhat Indagutta created a metal canopy over the universe, so that Mara will not interfere, as monks chanted the sutra pitaka. Dutthagamani ceremoniously enters with the urn atop his head. Just as he was about to place the urn on the golden throne, the relics rose into the air and formed The Buddha, with each of the 32 major signs and eight lesser signs of a great man. In this form The Buddha performed the twin miracle of fire and water, fulfilling the fifth of his death bed resolutions, and 120 million gods and humans gain arhatship, Afterwards, the relics return to the urn and they were placed in a chamber sealed with forty meter stone slabs. +

After the death of Bhuvanekabahu VII in 1551, his successor, King Dharmapala depended on the Portuguese to prop up his government. The sacred tooth relic was smuggled and taken to the rival kingdom Sitavaka and was seized and probably destroyed by the Portuguese. According to one account, in 1561 in Portuguese Goa in India, the tooth was crushed, burned in a brazier and then tossed into the river in front of a crowd by archbishop Don Gaspar. That didn’t stop Don Juan Dharmapala, the Christian king of Kotte, from claiming he had the Kandy tooth. According to the Culavamsa, Konnappu Bandara, who had betrayed the Portuguese, also claimed to possess the tooth. Many believe this was a fake, meaning the tooth in the temple today is probably also a fake. He used his possession of the tooth along with his marriage to a Kandyan princess to seize the Sri Lankan throne. The celebrated procession of the tooth in Kandy coincides with an earlier celebration dedicated to Vishnu. +

The Temple of the Tooth was badly damaged by a bomb attack in January, 1998 that killed 16 people and was believed to have been staged by the Tamil Tigers. The relic was not damaged but the octagonal tower was. The building was not badly damaged because the walls are made of wattle and daub and shock waves from the explosion passed right through them. The damage was fixed in time for the next festival. The tiles roof was repaired, painting and teak carvings were retouched. The blast was a sort blessing from on an archeological and art stand point in that paintings covered by plaster over the years were revealed.

Relics in Heaven and the Gathering of Relics to Form the Buddha

It is said the placenta of Buddha ratnavyuha was taken by Brahma to be enshrined in a stupa. When Buddha left the palace to seek enlightenment he severed his hair with a sword. According to Theravada sources, he threw his top knot into the air and said if he is to be The Buddha in the future the hair remain in the sky. It stayed at a height of one league (5.5 kilometers) until it is taken by Indra to Trayastrimsa heaven. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Mogok Saya Daw Gyi relic

Previous incarnations of the Buddha also left relics; in the Buddhavamsa it mentions that the Sobhita, Paduma, Sumedha, Atthadassi, Phussa, Vessabhu, and Konagamana buddhas have had their relics dispersed. The bowl in which Buddha received milk rice after his long fast is said to have floated down the Nairanjana River before sinking down to the Naga king Kala, who placed it with the bowls of the three previous Buddhas. The relics of Buddha's disciples like Sariputta and Maugglayana, were also preserved enshrined in stupas (as in Sanchi).

Mulasarvastivada Vinaya recounts how a friend of Kasyapa Buddha (a Buddha before The Siddhartha Guatama) named Ghatikara gave him a monastric robe, bowl, razor, girdle, needle and water strainer. In another version of this story, the bodhisattva encounters this divinity disguised as a hunter and trades him his Benares silk robes, which were enshrined in a stupa. Another version of the robe story says the new robes came to Buddha from ten brothers from Kapulavastu who received hemp robes from their mother. As they were about to parinirvanize (attain nirvana after death), they told her to give the robes to The Buddha, foreseeing his birth. As the mother neared death she gave the robes to her daughter, who gave them to a tree spirit to give to the son of Suddhodana. Indra disguised as a hunter, took the robes from the tree and gave them to Buddha in exchange for the silk robes, which he enshrined in heaven and dedicated a festival to the robes.

It is said all the Buddha's relics will one day gather at the Bodhi tree where he attained enlightenment and will then form his body sitting cross legged and performing the twin miracle. It is said the disappearance of the relics at this point will signal the coming of Maitreya Buddha. In the Nandimitravadana translated by Xuanzang it is said that the Buddha's relics will be brought to parinirvana (nirvana-after-death) by sixteen great arhats and enshrined in a great stupa. That stupa will then be worshipped until it sinks into the earth down to the golden wheel underlying the universe. The relics are not destroyed by fire in this version but placed in a final reliquary deep within the earth, perhaps to appear again. +

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except Chinese tooth relic, Chinese Embassy

Text Sources: East Asia History Sourcebook , “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University, Asia for Educators, Columbia University; Asia Society Museum “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg, Virtual Library Sri Lanka; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 5 East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1993); BBC, Wikipedia, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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