Sariputra and Mahamoggallana were the two chief disciples of Gautama Buddha, and died within two weeks of one another, after which they were cremated and their relics kept. After a period, the relics were lost to civilisation.
In 1851, the British archaeologist Sir Alexander Cunningham was excavating at the Asokan Buddhist complex in Sanchi, near Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh in India, which dated to the 3rd century BCE. In the famous Third Stupa, he uncovered the bodily relics of Sariputra and Mahammoggallana. At approximately the same time, more relics of the two arahants were found in a stupa at Satadhara, about ten kilometres from Sanchi.
After sinking a shaft in the centre of the stupa on Sanchi Hill, Cunningham unearthed a large stone slab, more than five feet in length, lying in a north-south axis. Beneath the slab were two boxes of gray sandstone, each with a brief inscription in Brāhmī characters on the lid. The box at the southern end was inscribed "Sariputtasa" meaning "(Relics) of Sariputra," while that to the north bore the inscription "Maha-Mogalanasa." "(Relics) of Maha Moggallana."
Sariputra's box contained a large flat casket of white steatite, more than six inches wide and three inches in height. The surface was polished and hard, and the box, which is believed to have been turned on a lathe, was an elaborate piece of workmanship. Surrounding the casket were some fragments of sandalwood believed to have been from the funeral pyre, while inside it, in addition to the relics, were various precious stones. The casket also contained a single bone relic of Sariputra, shorter than one inch in length.
Mahamoggallana's stone box enclosed another steatite casket, similar to that of Sariputra but slightly smaller and with a softer surface. Inside it were two bone relics of Mahamoggallana, smaller than those of Sariputra, the larger of them being less than half an inch long.
Each of the caskets had a single ink letter inscribed on the inner surface of the lid: "Sa" for Sariputra on the southern and "Ma" for Mahamoggallana on that to the north. Cunningham analysed the situation thus: "Sariputra and Mahamoggallana were the principal followers of the Buddha, and were usually styled his right and left hand disciples. Their ashes thus preserved after death the same positions to the right and left of Buddha which they had themselves occupied in life." This is explained by the fact that Gautama Buddha customarily sat facing east, and thus Sariputta and Mahamoggallana were aligned south and north respectively.
In the Satadhara stupa, one of a group which Cunningham noted was locally referred to as "Buddha Bhita" or "Buddha Monuments," he discovered two caskets of pale mottled steatite. These were inscribed, like those at Sanchi, "Sariputtasa" and "Maha Mogallanasa". This stupa showed signs of tampering by burglars, but the bone relics appeared to have been undisturbed. Cunningham, left a detailed account of everything his excavations brought to light in these and other stupas, and the authenticity of the relics was established among scholarly ranks.
The relics from both locations were taken to England and placed in the Victoria and Albert Museum, but some discrepancies between Cunningham's description of the caskets and the actual boxes in which the relics were deposited led to speculation that someone transferred the relics from Sanchi to the caskets discovered at Satadhara, and thus what became of the Sanchi steatite caskets is not concretely known.
The Sacred Relics were preserved there until 1939, when the Maha Bodhi Society approached the British government to request their return to India. The request was granted, but the implementation was delayed due to the Second World War. As a result, the actual transfer did not occur until 24 February 1947, to ensure safe passage.
Before returning to India, the relics were taken to Sri Lanka, where they were received with fanfare. For two and a half months in 1947, they were displayed for public viewing at the Colombo Museum, where it was estimated that more than two million people of all faiths paid homage to them. The relics were then taken to Calcutta, where they were displayed for public viewing at the Dharmarajika Vihara, headquarters of the Maha Bodhi Society of India. Long queues existed for the two weeks of display, and although most of the pilgrims were Hindus, but there was also a large number of Muslims among them.
This was followed by a tour of Burma. In order that a wide cross section of Burmese society had an opportunity to view the relics, a marine tour along the Irrawaddy from Mandalay to Rangoon was commissioned, drawing vast crowds of people from the adjacent villages to hear sermons and the recitation of sutras which accompanied the tour. This was followed be tours of Nepal and Ladakh.
After the end of the international tour, the relics were returned to India. However the Burmese government requested a portion of the relics should be given to Burma. The Maha Bodhi Society of India agreed to this, and the then Prime Minister of Burma went in person to Calcutta to receive them. The Burmese portion was ceremonially transferred to him in October 1950, and was later enshrined in the Kaba Aye Zedi (World Peace Pagoda), built on the site of the Sixth Buddhist Council, close to Rangoon. Extensive ceremonies connected with the crowning of the pagoda and the installation of the relics lasted from the 5th to 11 March 1952.
Another portion was given to Sri Lanka to be enshrined in a new stupa built by the Maha Bodhi Society of Sri Lanka to receive them. They are currently housed in the temple of the Maha Bodhi Society, Colombo, awaiting the completion of the building.
On 30 November 1952, the remaining relics were enshrined at Sanchi on completion of the new Chetiyagiri Vihara built to store them.Daulton, Jack. (1999). "Sariputta and Moggallana in the Golden Land: The Relics of the Buddha's Chief Disciples at the Kaba Aye Pagoda," Journal of Burma Studies 4 (1999), 101-128.