Tuesday, June 25, 2013
A Tooth for a Truth
Clichéd writing is no doubt sometimes born of the writer’s want of imagination, but it is probably as often the imagination’s necessary surrender to the irresistible power of actual and overwhelming personal experience. We have now spent more than a full week visiting a number of the more prominent tourist sites of central and southern Sri Lanka. My “initial experience of Asia,” as formed by our tour, is almost inevitably an anthology of clichés already exhausted before Kipling. But it would be foolish not to recognize the wonder of the daffodil just because Wordsworth recognized it far better long ago.
What I have experienced first is a sense of bewildering copiousness. There is simply a muchness of practically everything, and often enough a too-muchness. The sense of super-abundance begins with the human population, though it does not end there. “You should see India,” they tell me. Or “It’s nothing compared with China.” Perhaps so, but if your terms of comparison are the Baxter County Fair, or even Times Square, you will feel overwhelmed. The little towns—usually nothing more than long strips of ramshackle commercial fronts laid out on either side of a seriously overused road—are small rivers of human flesh and automotive metal. Even deep in the country you see people everywhere along the roads, many of them carrying by hand, back, shoulder or head top an extraordinary range of burdens: baskets, branches of bananas, long bamboo poles, firewood, auto parts, unidentifiable parcels of mysterious shape.
The vegetable world competes in copiousness. The foliage is startlingly lush, the flowers astonishingly abundant. Everywhere along the roads are fruit and vegetable stalls laden with large piles of (to me) exotic, bright colored, oddly shaped produce. Someone must buy some of this, though the only actual purchase I have seen was our own, of two succulent pineapples at risible cost. No place seems odor-neutral, but the spectrum of actual aromas is very wide.
Our hosts and guides (my son Luke and daughter-in-law Melanie) are professional scholars whose special expertise has given a unique richness to our encounters. Luke is a linguistic anthropologist, ever alert in this multilingual land to subtleties of which I am totally unaware. Melanie’s doctoral work was in the field of South Asian comparative religions. She is a fluent Tamil speaker—and a little edgy, perhaps, in a country that so recently crushed a Tamil-based insurgency. It is her research project on iconographic aspects of religious syncretism among Sri Lankan Buddhists and Hindus that has brought them here, and that determined a travel itinerary that included numerous important religious shrines.
Four great world religions meet in Sri Lanka. Buddhism enjoys something analogous to the role and privileges of a state church in old Europe. There are large numbers of Muslims and of Hindus, who in various parts of the country constitute local majority communities. Christianity likewise has an important minority presence which, despite the misinformation of our western travel guide, is by no means limited to “colonial types”—of whom we have encountered few. On Sunday we were at a Eucharist in a large and largely full Anglican church. Among the congregants there were three visibly identifiable “Europeans”, of whom we were two. That was an English language service. I doubt that the character of the Tamil and Sinhalese services scheduled for later in the morning was likely to be less“indigenous”.
a monk exposes the tooth casket to a moving stream of pilgrims
American Buddhists of my acquaintance have insisted that they follow a “philosophy” rather than a “religion”. I try to avoid controversy whenever possible, but coming fresh as I do from a lengthy morning’s ritual of the exhibition of the relic of the Buddha’s tooth in Kandy, I would be at least inclined to try to re-open the conversation. If what I saw wasn’t religion, what was it? Part of Edward Said’s argument in his famous book Orientalism is that western scholars have misrepresented the eastern cultures of their study in order to justify a supposed European “civilizing mission” of colonial exploitation. To do this required presenting orientals as barbaric, exotic, mysterious, and/or inscrutable—in short very different from ”us,” very other. I want to avoid that sort of thing, and so will refrain from describing the Epiphany of the Tooth as a scene from a Pink Panther film.
For a medievalist this is easily done, for what I see is not alterity but striking similarity. King Louis IX (Saint Louis) erected one of the finest Gothic buildings in Europe, the Sainte Chapelle of Paris, as a reliquary to house Christ’s Crown of Thorns. The Temple of the Tooth at Kandy is obviously a massive architectural reliquary built for a similar self-perpetuating purpose. The manner in which the sacred relic is exhibited to faithful believers—or rather the manner in which a dazzling golden casket is displayed with son et lumière—is practically identical with the way in which the monks of Canterbury displayed the relics of Thomas à Becket in the fourteenth century. But perhaps there is a danger in not allowing things to be sufficiently "other"?