Human beings as a whole are obsessed with leaving behind a legacy. And our religious practices around death certainly reflect that desire.
European saints are always leaving behind finger bones, vials of blood, breast milk,bloody faces on towels. As recently as 1983, even Jesus’ holy foreskin was paraded through the Italian village of Calcata on the feast day of the Circumcision (January 1, in case you were wondering, although the foreskin has since gone missing).
So what are pious Asian holy figures leaving behind?
On a trip to Hong Kong, I first encountered sarira in the innermost sanctum of a museum, housed within a giant bronze Buddha. Surrounded by bulletproof glass and nestled within golden vessels and velvet platforms, the shiny nubs were hard to make out. Squinting, I could see what looked like pinkish sea glass before I was yelled at for even thinking of taking out my camera and for not just scurrying past like everyone else. While sharing a vegetarian lunch at the adjacent monastery, I inquired a bit into sarira. None of my tablemates seemed to know too much, but my interest into these “human pearls” was piqued.
Although the term sarira comes from the Sanskrit word for “body” (शरीर), and can be used for relics like teeth or parts of Buddha’s skull, it typically refers to the crystalline traces that remain after a respected Buddhist’s corpse is burnt. After cremation, monks will sift for sarira through the dusty ashes of venerated saints and teachers. In Korea, unburnt bits of bone are set aside to be ground up, mixed with meal, and then left for animals. The sarira themselves stand out as little chunks of crystal or colored stone.
Interestingly, this means that sarira are foreign to the body, neither bone nor flesh. Instead, these strange beads are seen as the final distillation of a Buddhist life well-lived, a physical manifestation of piety and devotion.
Depending on which part of the body the sarira grew from, various colors and sizes are possible, each with a distinct traditional name. For example, yellowish churiraare typically the size of mustard seeds and originate from the liver, while white pea-sized sharira are associated with the head, and nyarira manifest themselves from lung tissue.
As with any relics, a host of legendary properties have been attributed to sarira. Sarira have been known to mysteriously multiply, grow, or decrease in size while inside their containers, depending on the purity of the keeper’s thoughts. When placed on the crown of the head, the sarira are said to heal and purify the body.