Archeologists on Saturday removed an about 1,000-year-old miniature pagoda, believed to hold the top part of Buddha's skull, from an iron case found at a former temple site in Nanjing in July.
The site in the capital of Jiangsu province is home to a number of temples, including the Changgan Temple of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) and the Dabaoen, or Grand Temple of Payment for Kindness of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
The archeologists excavated the case on August 6 after discovering that it contained the pagoda. The four-layer, 1.1-m-high and 0.5-m-wide pagoda is the largest of its kind to be unearthed in China.
It is believed to be one of the 84,000 "pagodas of King Asoka (273 BC - 236 BC) that contain Sakyamuni's sarira, or his remains found in the cremation ash. Sarira are highly sacred for Buddhists.
Asoka was an Indian emperor who converted to Buddhism after a bloody war with a king in the eastern part of the country. According to Buddhist records, Asoka collected all the parts of Buddha's sarira, divided them into 84,000 parts, and stored each one of them in a pagoda-shaped shrine. Then he sent the sacred relics to different parts of the world. China is considered to have 19 of them.
The pagoda unearthed in Nanjing is made of wood, covered with gilded silver and inlaid with "seven treasures," such as gold, silver, colored glaze, agate and amber. It conforms to historical records of the "Seven-Treasure Pagoda of King Asoka" buried under the Changgan Temple, the second temple housing Sakyamuni's sarira in China.
Archeologists had earlier unearthed a stele with inscription that tells what the pagoda contains: a gold mini-coffin in a silver coffin cover, or the "Seven-Treasure Pagoda of King Asoka". The gold mini-coffin holds Sakyamuni's sarira.
Preliminary scans have confirmed the existence of two metal cases in the pagoda, said Qi Haining, an expert with Nanjing Museum and head of the archaeological team.
"If the two metal cases turn out to be gold and silver coffins, as written on the stele, they might as well contain Sakyamuni's sarira," Qi said. "If that is the case, then this pagoda would be unique, making it the only known one to hold a part of Sakyamuni's skull."
But it will take time to confirm the content because extracting the gold and silver coffins from the pagoda is a very difficult task, Qi said. And even if the coffins are extracted, it is highly possible that they could be welded, making the verification task even more difficult.
Archeologists opened the iron case to reveal the pagoda in August. But it took them about 100 more days to remove it from the case because it was fixed tightly in the case and its base had been sticking to the bottom of the case for about 1,000 years.
The pagoda was removed only with technical help from a local company that was part of the design team for Shenzhou spacecraft.
It has been kept in a glass case to maintain a simulated environment similar to the one it had been lying in underground.
The pagoda will be preserved as a relic out of "respect to Buddhists' sentiments," even if it is not confirmed that the coffin contains Sakyamuni's sarira.
The authorities encountered a similar situation in 2001 after the discovery on the ruins of Leifeng Tower in Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang province. Archaeologists decided not to try to open the welded coffin, believed to contain Buddha'a hair, out of religious consideration.