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The Politics of Buddhist Relic Diplomacy Between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 25, 2018

The Politics of Buddhist Relic Diplomacy Between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka

D. Mitra Barua
Cornell University

Buddhists in Chittagong, Bangladesh claim to preserve a lock of hair believed to be of Sakyamuni Buddha himself. This hair relic has become a magnet for domestic and transnational politics; as such, it made journeys to Colombo in 1960, 2007, and 2011. The states of independent Ceylon/Sri Lanka and East Pakistan/Bangladesh facilitated all three international journeys of the relic. Diplomats from both countries were involved in extending state invitations, public exchanges of the relic and a state-funded, grand scale display of the relic.

This article explores the politics of such high profile diplomatic arrangements. For the Bangladeshi Buddhist minority, these international relic exchanges help them temporarily overcome their marginalized position in a predominantly Muslim society and generate religious sympathy among the Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka. Such Buddhist fellowship and sympathy results in sponsorship for Bangladeshi Buddhist novices to attend monastic trainings in Sri Lanka and the donation of Buddhist ritual artifacts like Buddha statues, monastic robes, begging bowls, and so forth, for Buddhist institutions in Bangladesh.

But how do the relic exchanges benefit the Islamic state of Bangladesh and the Sri Lankan government? That question leads to an analysis of the relic exchanges in relation to global and trans-national politics. I argue that the repeated exchanges of the relic are part and parcel of creating “good” governance images for both Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi governments for both a domestic and transnational audience respectively.
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