Concerns Raised Over Public Display of Sacred Buddhist Relic

By Moe Myint 12 April 2018

YANGON – An unprecedented public display and procession of a sacred relic of the Buddha by the Yangon Regional Government has prompted fears that the more-than-2,500-year-old strand of hair could be damaged.

Previously enshrined in the relic chamber of Yangon’s Botahtaung Pagoda, the casket was taken out from the chamber on April 1 under the supervision of Yangon Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein, some senior Buddhist monks and pagoda trustees.

U Sein Maw, the director of Yangon Region’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, told The Irrawaddy last week that the relic was temporarily taken out to allow repairs to be done in the chamber.

“The interior of the chamber needs renovation. Water leaks from its ceiling,” he said.

According to the history of the pagoda, the religious structure was originally built by ethnic Mon some 2,500 years ago. Legend has it that two trader brothers, Tapussa and Bhalika, encountered the recently enlightened Guattama Buddha and made offerings.

The sacred hair relic of the Buddha enshrined at Botahtaung Pagoda is now open to the public to observe at a prayer hall in the pagoda compound. (Photo: Aung Kyaw Htet / The Irrawaddy)

In return, the Buddha gave the brothers eight strands of his hair, which they presented to the then King of Yangon (Okkalapa). The king ordered the pagoda be built to enshrine some of the hairs while other strands were enshrined at the Shwedagon Pagoda. Due to the relics, both pagodas have become centers for pilgrimages by Buddhist devotees.

The sacred hair relic is now on open view to the public at a nearby prayer hall. At the time of The Irrawaddy’s visit to the pagoda trustee board’s office last week, some women were donating their jewelry and gold bracelets to the trustees.

While the display is a rare chance for Buddhists to see the sacred relic, conservationists are concerned that something bad might happen to this piece of “national heritage” during the display and procession. The relic is scheduled to be brought to another prayer hall at the Shwedagon Pagoda on Apr. 19, and will be kept there for public display until Apr. 24.

“Should a piece of national heritage like the sacred hair relic be out for a long time due to its fragility? What if it is accidentally damaged during the display and procession?” asked Daw Moe Moe Lwin, the director of the Yangon Heritage Trust.

The ceremony to take out the relic casket from the chamber on Apr 1. (Photo: Zaykabar Company / Facebook)

“I wonder if precautions have been taken,” she said.

She made a comparison with Sri Lanka’s Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy where that country’s most important Buddhist relic— a tooth of the Buddha—is enshrined in a heavily guarded room and only open to devotees and tourists during periods of offering or prayer.

“Even when you are in the room, you don’t actually see the tooth. It’s kept in a gold casket which contains a series of six caskets of diminishing size,” she explained.

To address the concerns, U Sein Maw said they had a well thought-out plan to protect the relic.

“We have been discussing the best way to carefully put the relic casket in the car and transport it from Botahtaung to Shwedagon Pagoda,” said the religious official.

He added that the renovation of the relic chamber was part of a thorough restoration plan for the pagoda that includes recasting all the gold on the pagoda structure and replacing it on the pagoda’s old umbrella, vane and diamond bud.

U Sein Maw revealed that they have estimated between 50 to 60 kilograms of gold would be needed to coat the umbrella crown, diamond bud and vane.

On April 1, the chief minister and his wife, Yangon Mayor U Maung Maung Soe, some senior monks, some businessmen from the Zaykabar conglomerate and the Shwe Than Lwin group joined a ceremony to remove the relic and circulate the pagoda three times while holding it.

During World War II, the pagoda was completely destroyed by the British Royal Air Force when they bombed jetties along the Hlaing River.  The relic casket was found among the rubble as workers cleared the remains of the structure. The pagoda was reconstructed in the early independence era of Myanmar.