The Lesser Known Journey of Buddhist Relics - from India to UK and Back

Archaeological exploits of the colonial government took Buddhist relics from the Sanchi and Satdhara stupas to museums in UK. These sacred remains of important Buddhist saints were returned after a prolonged battle.

The very mention of Sanchi, located about 50 kilometres from Bhopal, brings to mind a place where one can see the beginnings, efflorescence and decay of Buddhist art and architecture – from the 3rd century BCE to 12th century CE.

What is less known about Sanchi is the fact that it was also a site for an interesting and prolonged ‘battle of relics’ fought across continents. A number of relics and artefacts excavated by British archaeologists in India and elsewhere in the late 19th or early 20th century, eventually found their way to museums or personal collections in Britain. While some campaigns to get back Indian artefacts, such as the Amravati and Elgin Marbles, have received a great deal of publicity, other successful efforts, like the one to retrieve the Buddhist relics, stayed below the public radar.

The manner in which the relics and reliquaries of Buddhist saints Sariputta (Sariputra) and Moggallana (Maudagalayana) were discovered at the sites of Sanchi and Satdhara (about 10 km west of Sanchi) and eventually sold to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V & A Museum) in England the protracted agitation by the Maha Bodhi Society in England, Ceylon and India which succeeded in getting them back from England; and the way in which the relics were taken on a tour of Asia before getting re-enshrined at Sanchi in 1952, makes for a fascinating story. More so because it highlights the interplay of several significant trajectories – colonial archaeology’s project of creating and museumising a ‘historical’ Buddha by excavating sites connected to the life of Buddha, the rise of subcontinental Buddhist nationalism, and the nation-building project.

The place of relics in Buddhism

Here it is necessary to delve into some significant questions – how are relics venerated in Buddhism? Why are relics of these two saints considered important? How did their relics find their way to Sanchi and Satdhara and then later to the United Kingdom?

Art historian Vidya Dehejia is of the view that in contrast to Christianity, the Buddha’s relics are not intended for public viewing. They are interned in a stupa and devotees visit the stupas to “experience proximity to the Buddha”. The relics are believed to contain Buddha’s living essence. They “are thought to retain and be infused with the quality that animated and defined the living Buddha.”

Sariputta and Moggallana were Brahmanas and were regarded as Buddha’s most favourite disciples after Ananda. Both had died near Rajagriha (present-day Rajgir in Bihar) and their remains had been interned in stupas built in the region. Historian Torkel Brekke says that the return of their relics was treated as an occasion as important as the homecoming of the remains of the Buddha himself.

Unravelling the journey

Alexander Cunningham, the first Director General of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), mentions that the two celebrated Chinese pilgrims, Fa-Hien (399-411 CE) and Hieun-Tsang (also Xuan zang or Hsuan Tsang, 629-41 CE), who had come to India to visit the sacred sites related to the Buddha had reported that the relics of these two saints were also enshrined in a stupa in Mathura. Cunningham believed that these relics were as widely scattered as those of the Buddha himself and were distributed and enshrined in other stupas as well.

Two things become clear here – by the time Stupa 3 at Sanchi was constructed (around 2nd century BCE), relic worship had become very prevalent in Buddhism and relics other than those of the Buddha were also being worshipped. What is not clear is how the relics in question reached Sanchi. Basing himself on the Buddhist source Asokavadana, Cunningham argued that the Mauryan emperor Ashoka had opened up the original eight stupas constructed immediately after the death of the Buddha and redistributed the relics between the several thousand stupas he built across the subcontinent. In the process, some may have reached Sanchi.

How the relics reached England

In 1849, Captain Fred C Maisey and Alexander Cunningham were employed by the Government of India to prepare illustrated reports on the stupas of Sanchi. In 1851, they excavated Stupas 2 and 3 and found relic caskets of Sariputta and Moggallana in Stupa 3. The caskets, made of steatite, were placed in two stone boxes, each containing a small bone fragment, a garnet bead, lapis lazuli, crystal bead, and pearls. In addition, Sariputta’s casket contained two pieces of sandalwood, presumably from his funeral pyre. A similar set of relics of the two saints was  found enshrined in  Stupa 2 at Satdhara as well.

Chetiyagiri Vihara, Sanchi, where the relics of the two Budhhist saints, Sariputta and Moggallana, were finally re-enshrined. The vihara is managed by the Maha Bodhi Society of Sri Lanka. Credit: Shashank Sinha

Chetiyagiri Vihara, Sanchi, where the relics of the two Budhhist saints, Sariputta and Moggallana, were finally re-enshrined. The vihara is managed by the Maha Bodhi Society of Sri Lanka. Credit: Shashank Sinha

According to historian and Indologist Michael Willis, Cunningham and Maisey divided up the finds according to their tastes— while the former preferred the relics with inscriptions that were of archaeological interest, the latter took the pieces which were of greater artistic value. Cunningham transported his reliquaries to England on two ships, one of which reportedly sank near Jaffna. Maisey made separate arrangements for the reliquaries in his possession to be shipped to England.

There is a debate among  scholars on whether the reliquaries of the two Buddhist saints which were returned to Maha Bodhi Society and re-enshrined at Sanchi had been discovered there or at Satdhara. Some scholars believe that the reliquaries taken from Sanchi had gone to Cunningham, which means they sank along with the ship that was carrying them. Art historian Gary Tartakov and Willis have argued that the relics that were eventually returned to India by the V & A Museum were those taken from Stupa 2 at Satdhara.

However, based on records related to filing and documentation of the concerned relics at the museum and Cunningham’s correspondence with the Sinhalese monk Subhuti (1835-1917), Brekke argues that the relics brought back to Sanchi had neither formed a part of Cunningham’s collection nor were found at Satdhara. According to him they were part of Maisey’s collection from Sanchi which were initially lent to the South Kensington Museum in 1866 (it became the V & A Museum in 1899), with his son’s niece, Dorothy Saward, selling the reliquaries to the V & A Museum for 250 pounds in 1921.

The battle for the relics

On April 17, 1932, on behalf of the Buddhist Mission (the British Maha Bodhi Society) one G.A. Dempster wrote to the director of the Indian Museum (the Indian section of South Kensington Museum which officially opened in 1880 and was popularly referred to as Indian Museum till 1945). He requested the museum to hand the ashes of Buddha’s most famous disciples to the custody of the Mulagandha Kuti Vihara established in Sarnath, near Banaras. Brekke says he was evidently inspired by the recent news of the return of the Buddha’s relics to India which had been re-enshrined in a purpose-built edifice in Sarnath.

Dempster was informed that the Board of Education was unable to authorise the V & A Museum to comply with the request. On October 18,1932, E.W. Adikaram, honorary secretary of the Buddhist Mission, approached the V & A Museum to allow the Buddhists to worship the relics on the 2476th death anniversary of Sariputta, falling on  November 13, 1932. He requested that the relics be sent to the Buddhist Mission headquarters for a few hours on the designated day. The museum authorities acceded to the request on the condition that the relics be venerated at the Indian Museum itself.

After a seven year-gap, in 1938, the V & A Museum received a request from a British Buddhist named Frank R Mellor, requesting the museum to set up a seat in front of the relics for the Buddhists to worship. When his request was denied, Mellor, who became a “headache” for the museum authorities, followed up with a flurry of letters demanding that the relics be handed over the to the Buddhists. Archaeologist and historian Himanshu Prabha Ray points out that in March 1939, the trustees of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Burma also lodged a strong protest with the British government for allowing the relics to be exhibited  in a museum rather than enshrining them in a pagoda. There were similar representations from other British Buddhists. Soon the issue started attracting  media attention.

In 1939, the museum received a letter from the India Office which, in turn, had received a letter from the Government of India, inquiring about the possession of such relics and the possibility of their return to the Maha Bodhi Society. The letter enclosed a resolution unanimously passed by the Buddha Society of Bombay, appealing for the return of the relics to the Maha Bodhi Society of Calcutta (now Kolkata). With this letter, Brekke argues, the case assumed a new level of significance  as the Government of India spoke on behalf  of the Indian Buddhists; the English Buddhists got sidelined.

The issue regained momentum after the Second World War. On February 20, 1947, the relics were handed over to the Maha Bodhi Society representative, Daya Hewavitarne, by the Secretary of State for India. They were carried to Ceylon where they received a regal reception and were put on public display for two years. Soon it came to light that the relics that had been handed over were actually plaster casts of the original caskets. In June 1948, India’s high commissioner to Britain wrote to the under-secretary of state of the Commonwealth Relations Office, asking for the return of the original caskets containing the sacred relics of the two saints. On October 8, 1948, Sir D N Mitra, the high commissioner’s legal advisor, received the original caskets on behalf of the Government of India. The relics were sent to Ceylon and from there to India to be presented to the Maha Bodhi Society.

The act of wresting the relics from Britain, Brekke argues, represented “a mix of religious piety and a strong desire for international recognition for the case of Buddhist revival in Asia” from the end of 19th century. It also generated a struggle for power and authority in the interface between British archaeology and Buddhist religious revival—a struggle between British administrators, collectors and museum authorities, and Buddhist leaders.

Journey of the relics in the subcontinent

The Prime Minister of Ceylon handed over the relics to India’s high commissioner in Colombo on January 6, 1949. Within a week’s time they were received on the naval vessel HMIS Tir by the Governor of Bengal, K N Katju. The occasion was marked by the paraphernalia of a state ceremony including a procession, guard of honour, cultural performances and a 19-gun salute. The relics were installed on a temporary altar at the Government House in Calcutta and the prime minister of newly-independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, unveiled them before a gathering of diplomats, monks and senior politicians.

The following day, a grand reception ceremony was held at the Calcutta Maidan during which Nehru handed over the sacred relics to Shyama Prasad Mookherjee, president of the Maha Bodhi Society. In an evocative speech, Nehru highlighted the message of peace and goodwill and ahimsa preached by the Buddha and Gandhi. Brekke argues that the relics of the two saints “were used by the governments in both Ceylon and India to legitimate [legitimise] state power”. Further, “Nehru used the Buddhist relics in his programme of secular, multi-religious nation-building from Independence in 1947.”

On the other hand, scholars like Philip C Almond and Ray point out that Brekke misses the core issue of the involvement of the colonial state and the ASI in its project of creating a ‘historical’ Buddha. This project was further legitimised through the archaeological excavations relating to the time of Mauryan ruler Ashoka who played an important part in the spread of Buddhism and is credited with the distribution of Buddha’s relics among 84000 stupas. Ray argues that in the search for relics and statuary, Cunningham and the ASI “filled museums with collections of sculptures and coins, but left the stupas as heaps of rubble”.

After being displayed in Calcutta, the relics were taken on a tour of South and Southeast Asia– Ladakh, Orissa, Bihar, Assam, Sikkim, Tibet, Nepal, Burma and Cambodia. They were brought back to Calcutta on March 22, 1951 from where the relics were taken by a special train for a tour of several parts of the country. In November 1952, the relics were finally re-enshrined at a special vihara built for the purpose.Every year in November, a special fair is held at the spot where the relics are displayed. And, as the journey of the relics of Sariputta and Moggallana is relived, it offers yet another opportunity to understand the making of such stories against the backdrop of constantly evolving junctures.

Shashank Sinha taught history in undergraduate colleges at the University of Delhi. He does independent research on tribes, gender violence, culture and heritage.