Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, never visited Cambodia during his lifetime. But recently, the theft of his remains created a political firestorm in this Buddhist kingdom.
The relics – which according to various accounts consisted of the Buddha’s hair, teeth, pieces of bone and ashes – suddenly went missing in the early morning of December 10, 2013. According to the spokesman of Cambodia’s national police Kirth Chantharith, a night guard noticed the theft at around 2 am. Alarmed by a barking dog, the guard, upon further investigation, discovered that the lock on the door of the stupa, where the golden urn with the relics of the religion’s founder rested, was broken. Police were informed, and a few days later all guards who were on duty that night were arrested. According to Chantharith, they may have orchestrated the unusual crime themselves. There was a suspicious photo of the urn on one of the guard’s cell phones. The photo was taken just weeks before the incident.
The relics have since been ‘found’ — a 24-year-old farmer was caught with them in his kitchen — but questions persist about who took them and why. And many in the country have doubts that the objects the police recovered are the authentic missing relics.
In any case, the act is “unthinkable”, according to Oum Darawuth, the spokesman for Cambodia’s Queen Mother. “It’s like stealing the statue of Jesus Christ in Rome. It concerns the entire Cambodian nation.”
The relics of the Buddha were brought to Cambodia from Sri Lanka by the late King Norodom Sihanouk in 1957 to mark the Buddha’s 2,500th birthday. They were the official gift of the government of Sri Lanka to a friendly Buddhist nation.
Initially, the golden urn stood in front of Phnom Penh’s railroad station. That was back when Cambodia’s capital was very different from the way it is today, Darawuth says – calm, quiet, and clean, with at most one or two motorbikes traversing the street at once. About half a century later, the railroad had closed, motorbike accidents became a regular occurrence, and people urinated around the old station that now stood empty. It wasn’t an appropriate place for something holy anymore, Darawuth explains. So in 2002, the King decided to move the golden urn with the relics to a location about an hour outside of the city, to the top of a hill in the village of Udong, Cambodia’s former capital. He had them housed in a multimillion dollar stupa with marble steps, elephant head sculptures and solar panels.
Udong was the capital of Cambodia from the 17th to the 19th centuries, but now it is no more than a dusty village that attracts small groups of visitors on weekends. A few market stalls sell fried chicken; a monkey is trained to hold its paws in a prayer position to help its owner beg for dollar bills (see image below); and multilingual children act as tour guides. Still, the hill of Udong is breathtakingly beautiful, seen from miles away towering above brilliant green rice fields. Next to the recently built stupa stand the ancient monuments that hold the ashes of several generations of Cambodian kings.
Before the relics went missing, Cambodian monks would make regular pilgrimages here from all over the country to pray for good fortune. According to the Venerable But Buntenh, the founder of Cambodia’s Independent Monk Network For Social Justice, who used to visit several times a year, the Buddha’s remains had incredible powers.
“We could feel vibrations in our bodies (when we prayed in front of the relics.) We felt very comfortable. We felt that we had the Buddha in front of us,” he said. Another Cambodian monk said having the Buddha’s remains in Cambodia allowed devotees to fully worship without having to travel to India.
In the weeks after the theft, Cambodia’s monks participated in large antigovernment protests, blaming Prime Minister Hun Sen for failing to protect the country’s holiest treasure. Some even felt that the relics may have been removed as part of some sort of political plot. “The leaders of the government could not protect the Buddha relics, how could they protect the country? Stupid leaders, please resign,” posted someone on Facebook, voicing the unspoken thoughts of many.
But this was not the first time that the relics of the Buddha were stolen.
The history of theft
According to Paul Harrison, a religious studies professor at Stanford University, the snatching of the Buddha’s remains actually began very soon after his cremation. The priest, who was in charge of dividing his ashes into seven parts, allegedly stole some for himself, Harrison said.
The tradition of stealing the Buddha’s remains continued as Indian kings snatched the relics from each other – possession of the relics symbolized power. In 1561, the Portuguese appropriated and then smashed one of the Buddha’s teeth into powder as an attack on Buddhism – and later on, the British carried some relics off to England. A gold amulet containing the Buddha’s remains is still on display at the British Museum in London.
Finally, during World War II, some of the Buddha’s ashes were taken from Thailand to Japan, according to Boston University professor Ricardo Elia, who uncovered the incident in the U.S. National Archives. Japan claimed the relics were a gift from one Buddhist nation to another. But the Thai government alleged that the relics were removed under duress and successfully petitioned for their return after the war.
What makes the recent Cambodian case unusual, however, is that in the past the stealing of the relics was the work of kings and rulers, not robbers.
“I can’t think of any cases where they’ve been stolen for monetary gain,” Harrison said.
Are the Buddha’s relics authentic?
Almost all Buddhist countries (Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, Myanmar and China, to name a few) claim to have Buddha’s relics – and there is no way to prove which of them, if any – are authentic, scholars say. Part of the problem is that the Buddha lived before writing existed – so all inscribed caskets that claim to hold his ashes are later reburials, says archaeology professor Robin Coningham at Durham University in the UK.
According to Buddhist tradition, about two centuries after the Buddha’s death, the Indian Emperor Ashoka opened up the original stupas and separated the Buddha’s remains into 84,000 parts in order to spread the teachings of Buddhism throughout his empire. Could the remains of one individual really be separated between 84,000 new stupas? It is unlikely – Harrison says – but the only way to find out would be to do a DNA analysis of the relics. At best, this could show that the remains belonged to a single individual. But Buddhist devotees are not interested in submitting their sacred relics to any such study, he said.
Over the centuries, the relics have taken on a spiritual power of their own among Buddhist believers– the power to cure diseases, and bring good luck and success. In one Buddhist myth, according to Professor Coningham, a woman asked a monk to give her a piece of the Buddha’s bone. The monk had no such item and gave the woman the bone of a dog instead. But through the woman’s sincere and heartfelt prayer, the bone did eventually become a real Buddha relic, the story goes.
In another words, a piece of bone that was not the Buddha’s could acquire magical powers and become a relic.
So the question remains: Are any of these relics ‘authentic’? As one can imagine, it is a very complicated issue: “Authentic to or for whom? In the minds of believers? In the minds of historians? And authentic in which way? Scientifically? Religiously?” writes John Strong, who authored a book entitled Relics of the Buddha. “For scientists, no, these are not authentic. But for many Buddhists, their authenticity may depend not so much on their historicity as on their perceived pedigree, and on the degree to which they extend the Buddha’s presence and life story after his death.”
The Buddha’s relics on eBay
In any case, some of the relics out there are definitely not 2,500 years old.
Searching eBay for the phrase “Buddha relic,” for example, yields a surprising number of results: items that look like moss balls are described as Buddha’s sweat that can “make you succeed in anything you do”; pieces of bone are sold as talismans that “can heal the owner from any black magic”; and beads of different colors are said to have magically arisen from the Buddha’s blood. For a Thailand-based eBay seller known as “Templeboy”, red relics are believed to have come from the Buddha’s blood; white ones from his bones, golden from his flesh and pink from his head. “Many devotees believe that these relics have miraculously multiplied into sacred substances,” he explains. “The fact that the material is believed to miraculously multiply is testimony that it is a sacred substance meant to be shared among the faithful.”
The issue turns political
Cambodian monks don’t seem to have doubts about the authenticity of the stolen relics, which, they point out, were not purchased on the internet but exchanged as gifts between heads of states. They are, however, skeptical that the relics that police found tow months after the incident are original.
“I strongly do not trust the government officials and think that what they found is not real,” monk Buntenh said. “The box to enshrine the Buddha relics is newly made. The style of the box is totally different, and also the size is slightly smaller. It’s not comparable to the old one.”
In the weeks since the theft took place, hundreds of Cambodian monks participated in a special protest to ask for the resignation of the ministers of culture and religion who were supposed to safeguard the relics – and demand that the government do more to recover the stolen artifacts. The monks have also joined up with the thousands of other anti-government protestors on the streets of Cambodia’s capital: the garment workers asking for a higher wage and the supporters of the opposition CNRP party who say that last summer’s national election was rigged.
“Cambodian people believe the monks, so when the monks lead a protest about the relics, the Cambodian people will follow,” said 22-year-old monk Um Somaun, who joined one of the anti-government demonstrations in December, 2013, with three other monk colleagues.
The monks’ antigovernment marches have even prompted the municipal governor of Phnom Penh to say that monks will lose their right to vote in the next election if they don’t stop getting involved in politics.
Initially, it was assumed by many that whoever was involved in the recent stealing was mostly after the golden urn, which could be resold. The local papers pointed out that while the government spent millions to build the stupa to house the relics, the night guards had a monthly salary of less than $50. (The stupa night guards and the farmer are currently in prison and haven’t been tried yet, according to local papers.)
Tess Davis, a researcher who specializes in the looting of Cambodian antiquities, wasn’t surprised by the theft. Now that the ancient temples of Angkor are better guarded – looters are turning to less famous sites, such as urban pagodas, she said.
“Udong is sadly just the most recent victim,” she wrote in an email. “Most such thefts go unreported to the press and even the authorities.”
But Buntenh isn’t convinced.
He says that even thieves wouldn’t touch Cambodia’s most holy site. Buntenh believes that the relics were deliberately targeted to divert the public’s attention from last summer’s election, which many here believe was rigged. “So that people would think about something else and stop thinking about the political deadlock,” he said.
Or perhaps the opposition party stole the relics to incite more people, including monks, to join the anti-government protests.
Whatever the case, the relics of the Buddha have at times been targeted because of their national importance, says Professor Coningham. For instance, several years ago the Tamil Tigers rebel group exploded a bomb near the Temple of the Buddha’s tooth in Sri Lanka.
“Often when you have relics of such high meaning nationally, if they’re damaged or stolen, it is seen in a way as a failing of the state,” he said.
But then again, the relics could have also been taken by the superstitious believers themselves – because of their mystical powers. “There is also the very real possibility that they were stolen to order on account of the ‘power’ or ‘good fortune’ associated with such relics,” Coningham said. “Across a number of Asian communities, there’s a belief that there are powers in these relics.”