Thursday, July 27, 2006

Bayinnaung's enshrinement of relics at Pegu (1570s)

Towards the end of his life, in the 1570s, king Bayinnaung (r. 1551-1581, Pegu) began making religious offerings. In the year 1576-77 [938 BE] he built a stupa at the place where his elephant Uposatha's tooth broke during the battle to retake Pegu in 1552. Particular attention was given to the construction of the floor: "The ground was first leveled and this surface covered with a layer of sand to act as a bed for the bricks and laterite blocks and for the stone slabs of the relic chamber." The piece of elephant tusk was then transferred from the great hall of Kambojasati palace where it had been stored and placed in a pavilion especially constructed for it.

In 1577-78 [939 BE] a tooth relic from the Buddha carried in a golden casket from Sri Lanka arrived in Pegu after a delay of three years. The relic was received in a great ceremony at the gates of Pegu by all the inhabitants of the city including Shans, Mons, and Burmans who all paid their respects to it. The tooth relic was removed from the golden casket and placed high up on the roof of the palace for all to view for a whole week and at the end of each day a festival was held. King Bayinnaung built special structures to house the tooth relic:
"When all had had an opportunity to see it, the King had a pavilion of silver constructed in front of the palace hall, the Vedayanta pavilion, and within it a smaller pavilion of gold like the moon-chariot, for the reception of the relic; inside this the golden relic-casket seemed like an attendant comet. Around the casket were laid gems of great price, the adornments of ancient kings; fascinating pearls and emeralds; rubies like torches in daylight; diamonds, the tribute of the Yawyins from the Shan country; Samphrani emeralds from the king of Pruttikat. A image fashioned from Uposatha's broken tusk [Bayinnaung's elephant] was set beside the relic. The whole beggared description. When the silver pavilion was finished, the gold shrine was installed inside it, and the casket in which the relic reposed deposited inside that. Whenever the king entered or left the palace, he paid homage to the relic" (Shorto, n.d., Nidana Ramadhipati Katha, p. 158).
One thing that is certainly noteworthy in these details is that there are two kinds of relics being enshrined: 1. the Buddha’s tooth, and 2. the tusk of Bayinnaung's war elephant. This mixture of the sacred and what is usually considered profane, warfare, might be of interest to scholars of comparative religion and warfare.

There is another noteworthy instance of this mixture of warfare and the Buddhist religion during the Rajadhirat era around 1356 when his father Binnya U of Martaban repulses a Chiangmai invasion. For the details of this invasion and the role played by a white elephant see Fernquest(2006, p. 4). Guillon notes:
"Binnya U repulsed the invasion in 1356. At any rate it was in that year that he sent a mission from Martaban to Kandy in Sri Lanka, which according to the chronicles was to request some relics that he could enshrine in a stupa erected over the spot of his victory (certainly an odd conception of Buddhism!)" (Guillon, The Mons, 1999, p. 161; my italics).