Submitted by Dr. Nilza Wangmo
In Mahavamsa, it is mentioned that “When the relics are seen, the Buddha is seen.” While in Śālistamba Sūtra (Rice Seedling Sūtra) we find the Buddha Shakyamuni say, “One who sees the Dharma sees the Buddha” stressing the importance of the body relics and Dharma relics.
In the Buddhist tradition, there are various classifications of Buddha: 1. Body relics 2. Contact relics (pāribhogika), i.e., objects that the Buddha owned or used or with which he closely associated, such as bowls, robes, bodhi trees 3. Dharma relics which are meant as either whole Sutras, or a Dharma verse (such as the “ye dharmā hetuprabhavā hetuṃ teṣāṃ tathāgato hyavadat, teṣāṃ ca yo nirodha evaṃvādī mahāśramaṇaḥ”meaning ‘All phenomena arises from causes, The causes are taught by the Tathagata, the cessation of the causes as well is taught by The Great Seer’, or a dhāraṇī, or any record of the Buddha’s teaching.
In the case of body relics, it should be pointed out that distinctions came to be made between relics that were actual physical remains of the body, such as bones, teeth, etc. and transmogrified somatic substances that could be as small as mustard seeds and appear as jewel-like beads. These very hard glittering particles exist in a variety of colours and sizes, and are usually found in the ashes of cremation fires. The colours are said to reflect the part of the body or organ with which these particles were associated: white if they originated in bone, black if from the hair, red if from the flesh, etc. One Tibetan tradition even gives these relics different names and associates them with different families of Buddha: sharira are white, the size of a pea, and come from the head; barira are blue, the size of a small pea and come from the space between the ribs; churira are yellow, the size of a mustard seed, and come from the top of the liver; serira are red, also the size of a mustard seed and come from the kidneys; finally nyarira are green, also the size of a mustard seed, and come from the lungs, as mentioned in the book Relics of the Buddha by J. S. Strong.
In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, after the Buddha Shakyamuni’s passing away, his remains were divided and distributed among the princes of eight of the sixteen mahājanapadās. A stupa enshrining the portion of the ashes was constructed by each prince near his capital. They are said to be located at 1. Allakappa (The precise location of this place is not currently known) 2. Kapilavastu 3. Kusinārā, capital city of the Malla kingdom 4. Pāvā, a major city of the Malla kingdom (located about 15 km east of Kushinagar in Uttar Pradesh, India) 5. Rājagaha (Rajgir) a major city of the Magadha kingdom 6. Rāmagrāma, a major city of the Koliya kingdom (According to legend, the serpent king was guarding the Ramagrama stupa, and prevented Ashoka from unearthing the relic) 7. Vesāli, capital city of the Vajji kingdom 8. Veṭhadīpa, a settlement of Veṭhadīpaka Brahmins. Some 300 years later, Emperor Ashoka opened seven of these stupas and removed the Buddha relics. His goal was to redistribute the relics throughout the Maurya Empire into 84,000 stupas which he planned to construct. According to legend, the serpent king prevented Ashoka from unearthing the relic of the Ramagrama stupa.
There are a many places in India where the Buddha’s relics are currently kept. The Piprawa Relics 1898, 1970 is now at the Delhi National Museum. In 1971, K. M. Srivastava discovered 22 bones in soapstone urns dating to 5th century BCE. The K. M. Srivastava Report on Kapilavastu and Holy Buddha Relics was filed to ASI in 1991. According to the book ‘The Return of the Buddha’ by Prof. Himanshu Prabha Ray, a Historian, Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, the Taxila Relics, Mirpurkhas excavated in 1931 and the Nagarjunakonda Relics, 1932 are said to be enshrined at the Mulagandhakuti Temple in Sarnath near Varanasi, UP under the Mahabodhi Society of India. In 1963, the Devni Mori Relics is said to have been found near Shamalaji, Gujarat in a gold bottle wrapped in silk cloth within a copper bowl kept in a casket (1700 yr. old) with Brahmi inscription that reads ‘Abode of bodily relics of Lord Buddha’. It is now at the Baroda Museum in Gujarat.