Sri Lanka: A precious molar preserved in Kandy

For 1,500 years, a relic of Buddha has survived power struggles and even bombs. Julia Stuart joins the queue at the Temple of the Tooth Relic

Security at the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy was tight. Visitors heading for the vast white building topped by a golden dome, which loomed up from the wet streets like a colossal wedding cake, first had to weave through foot-long metal spikes which stuck up from the puddled road. Then white-gloved officials at the checkpoints carried out bag and body-searches.

Security at the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Kandy was tight. Visitors heading for the vast white building topped by a golden dome, which loomed up from the wet streets like a colossal wedding cake, first had to weave through foot-long metal spikes which stuck up from the puddled road. Then white-gloved officials at the checkpoints carried out bag and body-searches.

It seemed a lot of rigmarole to go through on an evening when the mosquitoes were biting particularly hard. But this was no ordinary tooth that the faithful and curious were queuing to see. For it once belonged to Buddha, and was plucked from his pyre by an opportunist monk in 543BC.

The relic's perceived powers are enormous. Not only is it said to protect the land and encourage rain, but it is also believed to act as guardian of the people.

Buddha's tooth is central to the annual Esala Perahera, Sri Lanka's most spectacular festival – and one of most famous in Asia – which take place over 10 days in late July or August, depending on the full moon. The tooth (some say a replica is used) is paraded around Kandy in a casket among a procession of up to 100 elephants.

Not surprisingly, its temple, a world heritage site which dates from the 16th century, is considered by some to be the most sacred Buddhist shrine in the world, attracting millions of visitors a year. There was good reason for the strict security that night. In January 1998, Tamil Tigers drove up to it in a bomb-laden lorry. The resulting explosion killed 12 people and heavily damaged the temple, which required extensive restoration. The tooth was unscathed.

The bomb attack was the latest of a series of assaults on the relic, which has been the focus of a power struggle even since it arrived in Ceylon from India in the fourth century, hidden in the hair of a princess, after an Indian king had tried to seize it. It was squirreled away in the royal palace at Anuradhapura, the island's first capital, moved each time a new capital was declared, and eventually ended up in Kandy.

The tooth became the country's most sacred possession; whoever had custody of it was considered the ruler. In the 13th century it was seized and taken back to India for a period. In the 16th century the Portuguese claimed they had burnt it. The Sinhalese, however, insisted that the Europeans had made off with a replica.

After passing through security, I left my shoes in a hut near the entrance, paid the 100 rupees (£1.50) entrance fee, and paddled through the warm drizzle in bare feet to the entrance. Stepping through the heavily ornate stone doorway, I was met by the sound of pulsating drumming. I passed through a tunnel newly decorated with a frieze of elephants in glorious reds and ochres. At the end were two men dressed in white saris hitched up to their naked chests, a slash of red cloth bound tightly around their waists. They banged hypnotically, marking the third and final time of the day when offerings are presented to the relic (rice and vegetables by day, medicinal drinks in the evenings).

Cold, dusty stone steps led to the first floor, and there on the landing was a crowd of worshippers staring intently at an open door. In front of them, penned off by black and yellow balustrades, sat a group of VIP pilgrims crossed-legged on the floor. Bald heads and long, black plaits shone in the artificial lights as their owners waited to be taken through the door and into the chamber which housed the relic.

For B-list visitors like myself, however, there was no hope of accompanying them, so I joined the queue of ordinary folk allowed to walk past the door and glance inside. I shuffled along in line watching those in front quickly turn their heads to the left as they got to the door. Soon I was standing next to the police officers and seconds away from seeing the tooth.

I approached the ornate doorway, which was flanked by red and orange murals of handmaidens bearing gifts, and shot my eyes to the left. I glimpsed two monks in saffron saris, two enormous curled elephant tusks, a mass of purple and gilt, and way, way in the distance a gold casket, around which was hung numerous jewelled necklaces. But there was not the slightest hint of a tooth.

Perplexed, I scooted round to the back of the queue, and went through the whole procedure again. Surely this time I would be able to spot the incisor? But despite a second attempt there was nothing remotely dental that I could make out. My guide wasn't in the least surprised. No one gets to actually see the tooth, he said, amused, adding that it was tucked safely away inside the casket at the back of the chamber.

But strangely, I didn't feel cheated. The beauty of the place with its ceilings carved with lotus flowers, the sumptuous friezes, the ornate decoration at every turn, and the sense of occasion instilled by the worshippers, more than made up for the lack of visible tooth.

And the fact that you don't actually get to see a bit of the Buddah was, for me at least, part of the charm.

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