Thursday, August 7, 2014

Buddhism in 17 Countries under One Roof at International Buddhist Museum, Kandy

Kandy is a city of several hundred thousand people, nestled between the mountains in the hill country. This was the last bastion of the Kings of Lanka, which was for centuries, protected by the local people who defeated several European invasions. Kandy also became the last guardian of Lord Buddha’s Tooth Relic, today kept in the majestic Dalada Maligawa, the Temple of the Tooth, in Kandy. Protected from one side by the Kiri Muhuda, or the Kandy Lake and on the other side by the Udawatta Kele Sanctuary, a forest covered hillside, the Dalada Maligawa is an awe inspiring place to be.

Adjoining Dalada Maligawa is a new museum, housed in the old courts building of Kandy. This is the International Buddhist Museum. According to the web site of Sri Dalada Maligawa, this museum has been established to showcase the expansion of Buddhism in rest of Asia. Sadly, today it reminds of something else; the decline of the influence of Buddhism in the continent over the centuries after the initial flowering and expansion.

It is said that this museum is the only one of its kind anywhere in the world. It houses relics and replicas of relics, monuments and other memorabilia from 17 different countries. It covers a vast range of traditions from Theravada, across Mahayana to Tibetan Buddhism. The 17 countries cover southern, south eastern and eastern Asia.
A graceful entrance to the world of Buddhism

Upon entering the museum grounds, the visitor is met by a large replica of Saranath Buddha Statue from India, one of the most elegant images of the Buddha anywhere in the world. Then the visitor has to purchase a ticket and enter the museum building.

The exhibits of the museum are arranged in a way that it covers country after country, starting from Sri Lanka. The Sri Lanka exhibits are nothing special for the local travelers like me. But for a foreign visitor it is a very informative experience.

As one goes through chamber after chamber, passing exhibits from country after country, one sees a wide facet of Buddhist traditions in places around Asia. The exhibits are arranged in such a way that one can start from the beginning and walk on passing all the countries along the way. It is like receiving a visa to all 17 countries to see their Buddhist monuments.
These are the 17 countries that you will see inside the building.

If there was a single exhibit that amazed me, it was the replica of Borobudur in the Indonesia Section. Located in Central Java, Borobudur is the largest Buddhist temple in the world and harks back to the glorious past of the Buddhist kingdoms of Indonesia. However, the replica shows the sheer size, workmanship and structural symmetry of this Mahayana Temple. One can just imagine walking up the steps to the top platforms of the gigantic monument, from the turbulence of Sansara to the zenith of Nirvana.

The International Buddhist Museum is a lesson to different traditions of Buddhism in one place. Although we in Sri Lanka conveniently state that there are two teachings of Buddhism, Theravada and Mahayana, the number of obvious and subtle differences from country to country and tradition to tradition is quite amazing. The complete picture of the different traditions can be perceived only at a place like this where a comparative study could be done easily.

I missed two countries that could perhaps been covered in the museum, apart from the 17 that were already there, namely Mongolia and Russia. A majority of Mongolians who are not atheists believe in some form of Buddhism, mainly Lamaism and the Gelug-pa Teaching (Yellow Hat Sect). Meanwhile Tibetan Buddhism is widely practiced in parts of Russia including Buryatia and Tuva in Asian side and Kalmykia in the European side. In Buryatia and Tuva, Shamanism is also a widely believed religion in Buryatia and Tuva, which has also had its share of influence with the Buddhists in the area.

Nevertheless, exploring Buddhism in 17 countries is an unprecedented learning experience to be gained at the International Buddhist Museum in Kandy. For those who are interested in history and Buddhism, it is simply a treat.

Pics by the author.
Note: Photography is not allowed within the museum premises.

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