Buddha’s bits nicked: monks are furious
A HANK of hair and a piece of bone? Well, actually no-one really knows what was in a golden urn – said to contain “holy” relics of Buddha – but Cambodian monks are pretty damn furious that someone nicked the urn from a multimillion-dollar monument last month, and they want swift government action to get the thing back.
According to this report, what these relics actually are no one could say. Some accounts described them as the Buddha’s ashes; others said they were teeth, hair or pieces of bone.
The relics, which were given to late the King Father Norodom Sihanouk in 1957 by the government of Sri Lanka, were stored in a golden urn, and were lifted from the Oudong Mountain monument in early in December.
Shrouded in mystery and “believed to transmit spiritual power”, the relics have long played a role in political power struggles. Their theft has added to the running conflict over the legitimacy of Cambodia’s government. Hundreds of monks marched through the streets of Cambodia’s capital after the relics disappeared, demanding that the government do something to find them.
Said the Venerable But Buntenh, the founder of Cambodia’s Independent Monk Network for Social Justice:
The Buddha is our life, it’s our refuge. We want only the Buddha’s relics back, we do not want anything extra.
But he also said that the ministers of culture and religion should resign:
Because if they cannot protect the Buddha’s relics, they should not be a minister.
Cambodia’s leaders are well aware of the sensitivity of the theft. Said Oum Darawuth, the spokesman for Cambodia’s Queen Mother, Norodom Monineath Sihanouk:
It’s like stealing the statue of Jesus Christ in Rome. It’s unthinkable.
He promised that Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen would do everything in his power to get the relics back “because he is very religious”.
Things have not been going well for Cambodia lately. The theft has set off a political firestorm in this Buddhist kingdom – with protests that escalated into violence leaving several people dead and more injured.
Cambodians were already angry with their government over last summer’s election, which many here believe was rigged, and now they also blamed their leaders for failing to protect the country’s holiest treasure.
But who took the relics and why?
One theory is that the motive of the thief, or thieves, was to cash in on the multimillion-dollar urn. According to Tess Davis, a researcher at the University of Glasgow who specialises in the illicit trade of Cambodian antiquities, looters recently started turning to less famous sites, such as urban pagodas, now that the ancient temples of Angkor are better protected.
Most such thefts go unreported to the press and even the authorities.
However, But Buntenh doesn’t buy this theory. He is convinced the relics were stolen to divert the public’s attention from the political situation in the country.
So that people would think about something else and stop thinking about the political deadlock.
The circumstances surrounding the disappearance of the relics remain unclear. The guard, who was sleeping on the job, said he was awakened by a barking dog. That noise prompted him to look around. He discovered that the lock on the door of the stupa, where the relics were kept, was broken.
Police didn’t believe the guard’s story and arrested him and the others on duty that night.
Scholars say the theft has historical precedents.
Devotees began stealing right from the moment of the Buddha’s death. According to Buddhist mythology, the Buddha’s ashes were divided into eight parts after his cremation, but the priest who is said to have supervised the division stole some of the ashes for himself, said Paul Harrison, a religious studies professor at Stanford University.
Scholars question the authenticity of the Buddha’s relics, which more than a dozen countries – including India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Nepal, China and Myanmar – claim to have. Part of the problem is that the Buddha lived before writing existed, so all inscribed urns that claim to hold his ashes are reburials from later centuries.
In Cambodia, monks do not doubt that the relics were real. They were given as an official gift by the government of Sri Lanka in 1957 to mark the Buddha’s 2,500th birthday.
The missing relics have provided fuel for more monks to join the general anti-government protests that have been gripping Cambodia since last summer’s disputed election. They have fed into a general distrust of the government, and the protesting monks have gone so far as to accuse the government of a deliberate attack on religion.
Said 22-year-old monk Um Somaun:
Cambodian monks tried very hard – some of them lost their lives during the Khmer Rouge time to keep Buddhism alive. The fact that the government [failed to protect the relics] means that they want to eliminate the religion.