A shabby way to urn a living

December 16, 2013

Cambodia is an astonishingly Buddhist country, with over 96 percent of the population identifying themselves as being Buddhist. Of course, there are other religions here; a few Catholic churches, quite a number of Sunni Muslims and innumerable Mormon missionaries pedalling cluelessly around Phnom Penh looking for souls to save. But on the whole, this is a Buddhist country: monks are genuinely venerated, whole lives are dedicated to the local temples, and the people ardently believe.

Which is why it is hard to imagine the shock when people here woke a day or two ago to the news that an urn, supposedly containing some of the ashes of the Buddha, had been stolen from a temple complex outside the capital. Its rather as if someone had broken in to the Vatican and stolen a piece of the True Cross.

The relics were donated by Sri Lanka in 1957 ahead of the 2,500th anniversary of the birth of Buddhism.

In 2002, the urn was transported from Phnom Penh to the Sakyamuni stupa at Oudong, a former capital of Cambodia, watched by tens of thousands of people. Only members of the royal family were allowed into the stupa to see the urn.

Experts in Buddhist archaeology said that the relics were likely destined for sale to private collectors in Thailand or elsewhere in Asia. “Sadly, the urn … will probably end up locked away in someone’s private collection,” professor Robin Coningham of Britain’s Durham University told a local paper.

Dougald O’Reilly, director of Heritage Watch International, said that the items could potentially fetch a high price. “I’m not sure who would want [the relics], but it may be that [they have] considerable value, especially in Thailand, where Buddhist amulets imbued with ‘special powers’ are widely exchanged,” he told the paper.

Reports say that the police knew some of the men guarding the Royal Treasury on Oudong Mountain had stolen from the site in the past, an official said, as four security guards and a villager were charged and referred to an investigative judge. The families of the four guards said the men had only received a total of 10 months’ salary over the past two years.

The Ministry of Culture and the Royal Palace are supposed to pay a combined monthly salary of $42.50 to each of the guards.

Meanwhile, in a rare piece of good news for Cambodia’s beleaguered cultural heritage, Sotheby’s has finally agreed to return a 10th-century sandstone statue that has been at the centre of a legal battle for the past two years.

The warrior figure was stolen from Cambodia’s Koh Ker temple complex in the midst of the Khmer Rouge reign in the 1970s, and resurfaced in a New York auction catalogue in 2011, being consigned by an obscure Belgian princess.

6-The-10th-century-sculptureUNESCO identified the 500-pound artifact, known as the Duryodhana, 36 hours before it was due to be sold, and convinced Cambodian authorities to ask for it back. In last week’s settlement, the auction house, the princess and federal officials finally agreed that the antiquity will be shipped to Cambodia within 90 days.

“It’s wonderful news that after more than four decades away from Cambodia, the statue will be returning home,” Ek Tha, a Cambodian government spokesman, said.

 

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