During the 3rd century BCE, Buddhism spread southward from India to the island of Sri Lanka. From here, news of the Buddha’s life and teachings was carried along the trade routes across the Indian Ocean. It then reached Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. Fine temples were built in cities such as Pagan, in Burma, and Angkor, in Cambodia, as the Buddha’s teachings were spread all over the region. Theravada Buddhism is popular in these countries to this day. For example, more than 90 percent of the population of Thailand follows this branch of Buddhism.
In Thailand, the Buddha is often shown making the Earth-witnessing gesture. The tightly curled hair style, pointed headdress, and fine features are also typical of statues of the Buddha from this part of the world.
Processions are a notable part of Buddhism in Burma. The tradition began when local rulers became Buddhists as a result of strong links with India and Sri Lanka. They built large temples and took part in lavish ceremonies. Burma is now ruled by the military, but most of the people are still Buddhists.
BUILDING FOR MERIT
Theravada Buddhism has spread widely. There are now many Burmese-style buildings in the Western world. Burmese temples often have golden roofs, and Shwedagon pagoda in Burma is the world’s largest gold-covered building. Buddhists build these monuments in the hope of gaining merit.
TEMPLE OF THE TOOTH
Sri Lanka’s most precious relic is the tooth of the Buddha, kept at the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy. The Portuguese invaded Sri Lanka in the early 1500s and claimed to have destroyed the tooth. But locals claimed it was miraculously saved and built the temple to house it.
This elephant and boy are taking part in Esala Perahera. This is a festival held every year in Kandy, Sri Lanka, in honor of the tooth of the Buddha. The festivities last for several nights. The highlight is a procession in which dancers, musicians, and elephants dressed in beautiful, embroidered clothes parade through the streets. One of the elephants carries a case containing the sacred tooth.
This ornate alms bowl has a pointed lid that resembles the roof of a Burmese temple. It is typical of the lavish gifts given to Buddhist monks by Buddhist members of the public. Monks live simple lives, but people hope that these rich gifts will earn them merit.
“These jars now hold the relics great in virtue, as mountains hold their jeweled ore.”