Throughout Sri Lanka, reliquaries ranging from architectural monuments to small portable repositories have long been used to hold physical remains—bones, teeth, hair and nails—of the historical Buddha and prominent Buddhist monks and teachers. Relics of the Buddha commemorate his earthly existence and serve as sacred reminders of his wisdom. Spectacular reliquary structures, stupa, dot the island's landscape, while miniature containers are often made from precious gold, silver, bronze or crystal.
The Gallery’s exquisite nineteenth-century reliquary, dagoba in Sinhalese, is made from silver. The largely unadorned dome is complemented by areas of intricate floral and foliate patterning, while charming images of cows and elephants decorate the vessel’s rim. Bodhi leaf motifs appear in the square section of the sculpture and in the silver pendants suspended from the stupa’s lotus bud finial, alluding to the tree under which the Buddha gained enlightenment.
The full beauty and purpose of this superb object is best appreciated when the structure is opened to reveal the delicate silver lotus floating within. Symbolising spiritual purity, the intricate flower has multiple rows of petals, stamens and a central pod that also opens, exposing a small chamber that once held a sacred relic.
Bell-shaped with a circular tiered base, square upper chamber and spire, the reliquary echoes the form of the first stupa constructed in Sri Lanka—Thuparama Dagoba in Anuradhapura. The monument houses the Buddha’s collarbone and is one of Sri Lanka’s most venerated sites.
The famous golden dagoba that holds a tooth recovered from the Buddha’s ashes is also the same distinctive shape. It is kept in the Temple of the Sacred Tooth in Kandy and is paraded atop an elephant during a magnificent annual procession.
Encapsulating ancient and enduring Buddhist imagery and ideas, this stupa-shaped reliquary is the Gallery’s first major acquisition of art from Sri Lanka.
Lucie Folan, curator, Asian Art
in artonview, issue 65, autumn 2011
in artonview, issue 65, autumn 2010