The writer flew from London Heathrow to Singapore to visit family who had been living an ex-pat life there for two years.
One of the many memorable outings during my recent three-week stay in Singapore was a day spent in Chinatown, which included a visit to the splendid Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. I was truly amazed by the staggering opulence and the lavish quantities of gold that had been incorporated into the building and the artefacts.
Entering via the South Bridge Road, known also as the Mountain Gate, we passed through one of the red, lacquered doors which are in the style of the Tang Dynasty of China (618–907). No first-time visitor will fail to be overwhelmed by the impact on the senses of the rich colours, the gold, and the scent of burning incense candles.
Hundred Dragons Hall and the Universal Wisdom Hall
The Hundred Dragons Hall and the Universal Wisdom Hall occupy the first storey of the temple. The walls of the Universal Wisdom Hall are lined with one hundred Buddha statues, each given a unique name and specific hand signals, called mudras. In the Hundred Dragons Hall a ceiling-mounted keman is framed by the dragons which give the hall its name.
The Sacred Light Hall Houses the Tooth Relic
The most holy place in the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple is on the fourth floor. It is housed within a stupa made from 402 kg of gold, much of which was melted down from items donated by devotees. Only monks are allowed into the relic chamber, where they conduct daily services.
Visitors can view the chamber twice a day from the public viewing area but photography is strictly forbidden. During my visit, devotees were meditating on the raised plush platforms on the edges of the hall, and we, of course, respected their concentration by remaining silent.
The Rooftop Garden in Singapore's Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
Climb one of the four corner staircases from the fourth floor into a rooftop garden that is an abundance of trees, shrubs and orchids, including Dendrobium Buddha Tooth orchid. The sense of peace in this delightful space is enhanced by the gentle tinkle of the temple winds chimes.
Four small pavilions house the Buddhas of the Cardinal points, but the central feature is the Vairocana Buddha Prayer Wheel, the largest prayer wheel in the world.
How the Buddha Tooth Relic Came to Be in Singapore
- The tooth was discovered in Mrauk U in Myanmar in 1980.
- The Venerable Cakkapala, the abbot of the Bandula Monastery, is said to have found it.
- The claim is that it was found within a stupa of solid gold on Bagan Hill during the course of restoration works.
- The relic was enshrined, without publicity, in Bandula Monastery.
- January 2001 the Bandula Monastery, hoping to raise funds, contacted the Venerable Shi Fazhao from the Golden Pagoda Temple in Singapore for assistance.
- August 2002, two Buddha tooth relics, including the Bandula relic, were shown as part of a three-day S$1-million exhibition to mark the Golden Pagoda Temple's 10th anniversary.
- The exhibition drew over 300,000 visitors.
- Following the exhibition, the Venerable Cakkapala formally gave the Buddha tooth relic to the Venerable Shi, founder of the Metta Welfare Association, on the basis that a monastery would be built to house the relic and receive Buddhist pilgrims.
- The handover led to plans for a project to build, with the support of the Singapore Tourist Board, which felt that the project would benefit tourism, the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple.
- May 2004, another exhibition, which drew 600,000 visitors was held. Details were released to the media of the planned temple, its costs, proposed structure and exhibits.
- January 2005, a thirty-year lease for the 2,700 sq.m. site on South Bridge Road was granted by the Singapore Tourism Board.
- A fund-raising campaign was launched and in less than three months about 83kg of gold and 10 million Singapore dollars had been donated.
- May 2007, the management committee for the construction of the Temple revealed to the media that 43 million Singapore dollars had been raised from more than 60,000 donors.
- Loans were taken out to meet the final cost of S$75 million.
- By 17 May 2008, the temple was complete and a consecration ceremony was held.
Building a stupa of gold is a demonstration of devotion, and devotees believe that by doing such a deed, they will receive the appropriate karmic returns
— Venerable Shi Fazhao
The Purpose of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
The declared purpose of the Temple is the veneration of the relic, the promotion of Buddhist culture, education, and the provision of welfare services to the public.
Controversy Surrounding the Buddha Tooth Relic in Singapore
The authenticity of the relic has been called into question. Dental experts have said that the tooth is too long to be human and is likely to have been that of an animal
To me, it has always been real and I have never questioned its authenticity. They can say all they want. I don't care what they say. If you believe it's real, then it's real
— Venerable Shi
There is no doubt that practising Buddhists believe in the authenticity of the Buddha tooth relic. The authenticity or otherwise may be irrelevant to non-Buddhist visitors to the temple. The attraction is the architecture, the images, artefacts and the insight into a culture different from their own. The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple remains one of the many unmissable tourist attractions in Singapore.
Each of us has different views on what is 'real', as it depends on each individual's understanding of Buddhism. While we fully respect the opinions of others, we should stand firm on our own faith towards the sacred relics
— Venerable Shi
What Not to Wear in the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and What Not to Bring
The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple is above things a religious place of worship, deeply important to those following the path of Buddhism and a place of pilgrimage for believers. When visiting, tourists should be respectful of the values and customs associated with the Temple. Shorts, skirts and sleeveless/backless tops are not allowed in the building. A shawl will be offered in the entrance hall to anyone who is unsuitably dressed.
Pets and non-vegetarian food are not allowed anywhere on the premises.
Allow at least two hours to explore the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. A visit can easily be combined with a stroll around the streets of Chinatown, lunch in the area, and perhaps a visit to the Chinatown Heritage Museum.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2018 Glen Rix