Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second-biggest city, is home to the revered and much-visited Temple of the Tooth – a part of the city’s historic palace complex housing the holy relic of Buddha’s left canine, found among the ashes of his funeral pyre in 543 BC. No doubt because of the religious significance of the temple, Kandy’s World Buddhist Museum is located just behind it. You aren’t allowed to use a camera inside the museum, which is why the only photo for this post is a representative but predictable one of a statue of Buddha outside its entrance, shown above.
I like how the museum does what it says on the tin. It really explores the world of Buddhism and its exhibits, pictures, models and information-panels are organised geographically, that is, according to the fifteen or so countries that the museum regards as the core Buddhist ones. This helps show the difference between the two main strands of the religion: the Theravada Buddhism mostly practised in southeast Asia (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand) and the bottommost tip of south Asia (Sri Lanka); and the Mahayana Buddhism practised mostly in central and east Asia (Bhutan, China, Japan, Korea and Nepal) and a sliver of southeast Asia (Vietnam). Each country’s government donated items to the museum and had a say in how its Buddhist culture is represented there. This might explain why I didn’t see as much as I expected about Tibetan Buddhism, Tibet being classified as part of the People’s Republic of China and the Chinese government probably not wanting to promote the region’s uniqueness.
Some of the other countries featured aren’t ones you’d immediately associate with Buddhism. These include India – although to be fair, that paltry-sounding 0.8 % of the Indian population who are Buddhists amounts to 7.95 million people. And of course, Buddhism did originate there, inspiring the museum to make the claim that “Buddhism is the greatest gift of India to the outside world.” One striking exhibit in the Indian section is an effigy of Buddha in ‘the hard penance’, fasting to the point where he’s practically skeletal. His face is wizened, his rib-cage is shockingly prominent and his midriff seems to disappear up inside his ribs. Additional fasting Buddhas are displayed in a section about another country not normally linked with Buddhism, Pakistan.
There’s also a small part of the museum devoted to Afghanistan. It mentions the ill-fated Buddhas of Bamiyan in the country’s north-central area: “giant Buddha figures carved at either end of the mile-long sandstone cliff” that “stood at the heights of 120 feet and 175 feet.” The giant statues were notoriously blown up in March 2001 by the Taliban, who were still Afghanistan’s official government at the time. The museum makes no bones about how it regards the Taliban and their treatment of the statues: “these were destroyed fairly recently due to terrorist activities.”
There’s obviously much to see regarding the countries that are known as Buddhist ones. The Vietnamese section, for instance, contains a startling image of an Avalokiteshvara Buddha bearing a thousand arms and a thousand eyes. The artefacts from Bhutan include a huge, wonderfully ornate and coloured cabinet with five doors and many internal compartments stocked with Buddhist paraphernalia. Myanmar has provided some big temple gongs and bells hanging within frames that are decorated, down the sides, with impressively-scaly dragons.
One country not represented there is Russia, which is a pity. I’d have liked some information about the Russian republic of Kalmykia, by the Caspian Sea, which has the distinction of being the only region in Europe where Buddhism is the most practised religion.
Unsurprisingly, there’s plenty in the museum about Sri Lanka. Its section includes an interesting display about the creation of the International Buddhist Flag, which you see flying and emblazoned all over the island. The flag’s vertical stripes of blue, yellow, red, white and orange symbolise world peace, while its horizontal stripes of similar colours symbolise ethnic harmony. In 1889 the newly-devised flag was unveiled to the Japanese Emperor, although it wasn’t until 1952 that it was approved by the World Buddhist Congress. It’d been designed in 1883 by “a committee of erudite Buddhists,” including “Colonel Henry Steel Olcott of American descent and a rank officer of the American Army and a founder of the famous Theosophical Society”. Dubbed ‘the White Buddhist of Ceylon’, Olcott played an important role in reviving Buddhism in Sri Lanka and he’s still remembered and admired there today – indeed, the road that goes past the Fort Railway Station in Colombo is called Olcott Mawatha and there’s a commanding statue of the bushy-bearded American colonel standing outside the station building.