CHARMOUTH resident Nick Gilbey recently visited Sri Lanka, after clearing out his great aunt’s attic led to an impressive discovery about his family’s connections with the east.
Mr Gilbey was clearing out the attic when he came across a newspaper clipping from The Times, describing how his grandmother Ethel Leslie-Smith, and great aunt Winifred Burrows, had gifted to Ceylon – the former ‘crown jewel’ of the British Empire, now Sri Lanka – the sacred bone relics thought to be the remains of the Buddha.
The bones were found in a beautiful casket in Sanchi, India, in 1851 by Nick’s great-great-grandfather, General Frederick Charles Maisey.
The clipping from The Times was accompanied by a letter, dated around the same time, from the Governor of Ceylon, Sir Andrew Caldecott, thanking the two sisters and saying their gift was valued so highly that “all the big temples in the island have clamoured for it”.
Frederick Maisey was the son of renowned artist Thomas Maisey. He went to India in 1842 to become an ensign in the Bengal Native Infantry and was an ardent antiquarian, passionate about the vestiges of ancient India that Englishmen were discovering at the time.
Maisey was best known for his archaeological work with Sir Alexander Cunningham in Sanchi, the most ancient of Buddhist sites in India. It was in Bhojpur, a site near the famous Sanchi stupa, that Maisey discovered the sacred bone relics.
Described as “the most curious and costly of all the discoveries” made there, the casket contained three small pieces of bone, each about 10mm long, and “seven precious things”, as described in The Times. These were “thin round pieces of gold, a bead of garnet, a crystal bead, two beads of pale greenish crystal and some minute fragments of pearl”.
Maisey had to hand the crystal rock casket over to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1856, but he managed to keep the objects enshrined within it.
He was adamant that the bone relics were of the Buddha. Not only were they discovered inside the most perfectly-shaped stupa in the area, but the casket was the most exquisite and ornate to be discovered. But his main argument was that the casket had no inscription, and only the name of the Buddha was then considered too sacred to be written.
The General died in 1892 and his lifelong labour of love, ‘Sanchi and its Remains’, was published posthumously the year after. The relics were handed down to his son, Colonel Maisey, and later to the two sisters, Mrs Leslie- Smith and Mrs Burrows.
The newspaper cutting discovered by Nick reported that his grandmother had been in Ceylon in the 1930s, and a postcard to her sister, also discovered in the attic, revealed she had then travelled to Australia by ship.
During the voyage, Mrs Leslie-Smith called in at Colombo, Ceylon, where she met a Buddhist monk who, learning about the great treasure in the care of the two sisters, had told her how highly such objects would be venerated on the island.
The meeting inspired the two women to gift the relics to the island in 1940. The donation was welcomed with grand processions and was taken to the Vidyalankara Pirivena temple in Peliyagoda, chosen as home for the relics by Sir Baron Jayatilaka, leader of Ceylon Buddhists.
Next piece of the puzzle
Having pieced this puzzle together from his home, Nick was inspired to travel to the island now known as Sri Lanka to see if he could find any memories of his relations or what the sacred gifts they had donated.
He visited in April and found his family not only remembered, but also thanked each evening in the chants recited in the special shrine in the temple. The monks had incorporated the name of Winifred Burrows into the evening worship, and have sung her praises for the past 80 years.
Unfortunately, Nick was unable to view the relics as these are now only displayed during a ceremony in December, when devotees queue up to worship, but he said the warm welcome he received more than made up for this.
While he was happy to learn that the relics are still safely enshrined, another object value for its academic lustre – the diary of his great-great grandfather General Frederick Maisey – is lost. The diary accompanied the relics when they were gifted to Ceylon, but from here it disappears from record.
All the late antiquarian’s diaries are held at the British Library in London, except this particular volume, written at the time of the discoveries at Sanchi.
The British Museum, as well as the Victoria & Albert Museum, would have welcomed photographs of this record, but Nick was sadly unable to provide them after his trip to Sri Lanka – perhaps another quest awaits him to complete the story?