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The Buddha’s Tooth

Western Tales of a Sri Lankan Relic

John S. Strong unravels the storm of influences shaping the received narratives of two iconic sacred objects.

Bodily relics such as hairs, teeth, fingernails, pieces of bone—supposedly from the Buddha himself—have long served as objects of veneration for many Buddhists. Unsurprisingly, when Western colonial powers subjugated populations in South Asia, they used, manipulated, redefined, and even destroyed these objects to exert control.

In The Buddha’s Tooth, John S. Strong examines Western stories, from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, surrounding two significant Sri Lankan sacred objects to illuminate and concretize colonial attitudes toward Asian religions. First, he analyzes a tale about the Portuguese capture and public destruction, in the mid-sixteenth century, of a tooth later identified as a relic of the Buddha. Second, he switches gears to look at the nineteenth-century saga of British dealings with another tooth relic of the Buddha—the famous Daḷadā enshrined in a temple in Kandy—from 1815, when it was taken over by English forces, to 1954, when it was visited by Queen Elizabeth II. As Strong reveals, the stories of both the Portuguese tooth and the Kandyan tooth reflect nascent and developing Western understandings of Buddhism, realizations of the cosmopolitan nature of the tooth, and tensions between secular and religious interests.

352 pages | 9 halftones, 2 tables | 6 x 9

Buddhism and Modernity

Religion: Religion and Society, South and East Asian Religions


"Strong marshals a wide range of sources and tells the story of the tooth relic in a compelling way . . . This is not just the story of a relic, but of western colonization and its appropriation or destruction of the traditions of the colonized."

Times Literary Supplement

"Likely to give mythological thrillers a run for their money . . . The Buddha’s Tooth is an insightful book for those interested in world history, mediaeval times, Buddhist Studies, and for those interested in how stories spread and make histories."

Asian Review of Books

"Strong [reveals] what the stories surrounding these two objects—their “storical evolution,” as it were—tell us about the West’s evolving concept of Buddhism after its initial colonial encounter and the way objects are infused with meaning, potency, and cultural import through centuries of narrative layering."


"A fascinating and eminently readable account of Western encounters with the Buddha's tooth . . . The Buddha's Tooth offers a richly detailed study incorporating extensive primary source research, including information drawn from published historical accounts, travel diaries, administrative records, and personal correspondence."

Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art and Belief

"[An] outstanding piece of scholarship, exhaustively researched and beautifully written. . . . It is the rare book that can be read with benefit and interest by anyone working in any area of Buddhist Studies as well as by scholars of colonial-period South Asia.”

The Numata Center for Buddhist Studies

“Insightful, provocative, and meticulously researched, The Buddha’s Tooth is a fascinating analysis of how European colonials comprehended and attempted to mitigate the ascribed powers of the most revered relic in Buddhist Sri Lanka. Strong’s intricate study leads its reader from an episodic rendering into a wide-ranging apprehension of how European conceptions of Buddhism were fashioned and further forged over four hundred years of encounter.”

John Holt, Bowdoin College

“The product of extensive research, this authoritative book recounts how this sacred tooth has served as an object of religious and political significance to both the colonized and colonizers, adroitly illustrating many of the dominant Western approaches and attitudes toward Buddhism over the last several centuries.”

Stephen C. Berkwitz, Missouri State University

“Strong offers a stimulating and perceptive study of how European and British persons engaged with Buddha relics materially and ideationally. This is a valuable contribution to intellectual and diplomatic history, as well as to our understanding of how European ideas about Buddhas and Buddhism altered over time.”

Anne M. Blackburn, Cornell University

"John S. Strongʼs The Buddhaʼs Tooth: Western Tales of a Sri Lankan Relic expands the study of Buddhist relics in new directions. . . Employing a historiography focused on details, he avoids leveling out the history of these relics into a single uniform line of events. . . By reflecting the complexity of historical reality, the work is made richer, and more informative."

Reading Religion

Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments
Note on Usage
Part I : The Portuguese and the Tooth Relic
One / The Tale of the Portuguese Tooth and Its Sources
Two / Where the Tooth Was Found: Traditions about the Location of the Relic in Sri Lanka
Three / Whose Tooth Was It? Traditions about the Identity of the Relic
Four / The Trial of the Tooth
Five / The Destruction of the Tooth
Conspectus of Part One / The Storical Evolution of the Tales of the Portuguese Tooth
Part II : The British and the Tooth Relic
Six / The Cosmopolitan Tooth: The Relic in Kandy before the British Became Aware of It
Seven / The British Takeover of 1815 and the Kandyan Convention
Eight / The Relic Returns: The Tooth and Its Properties Restored to the Temple
Nine / The Relic Lost and Recaptured: The Tooth and the Rebellion of 1817–1818
Ten / The Relic Disestablished: Missionary Oppositions to the Tooth
Eleven / Showings of the Tooth: The Story of the King of Siam’s Visit (1897)
Twelve / Showings of the Tooth: The Story of Queen Elizabeth’s Shoes (1954)
Summary and Conclusion


Center for Buddhist Studies at the University of California, Berkeley: Toshihide Numata Book Award

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