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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 November 2006, 11:49 GMT
New Mumbai home for Buddha relics
By Monica Chadha
BBC News, Mumbai

Prayer hall
The high dome of the meditation hall

A huge stone pagoda being built on the outskirts of India's financial capital, Mumbai (Bombay), has been opened to the public after Buddha's ashes and bones were enshrined in it.

Sponsors say it is the world's largest stone dome to hold his relics.

Being constructed at an approximate cost of 1bn rupees (a little over $22m) by the Global Vipassana Foundation, the shrine will promote meditation (or Vipassana) as taught by Buddha.

Work on the pagoda began in 1997 and it will take at least another three years to complete it.

The pagoda - whose dome is 90-feet high and 278 feet in diameter - can accommodate up to 8,000 people at a time.

The Mumbai pagoda may be one of the largest Buddhist structures, but it is dwarfed by other well-known domes such as St Paul's Cathedral in London which is almost 400-feet high and the Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Mosque in Malaysia at 350-feet high.

Sacred relics

The pagoda was inaugurated with a ceremony conducted after almost 2,000 years in India.

We are only converting people from misery to happiness. And misery is universal
Vipassana Foundation leader SN Goenka

Amidst prayers and holy chants by a large gathering, Buddha's sacred remains were enshrined in a shallow pit on top of the dome.

Thousands of people, including Buddhist monks and visitors from all over the world attended the function.

Some of them said they had been following this form of meditation for more than a decade.

This year is special for Buddha's followers as it is 2,550 years since he attained enlightenment.

After the ceremony, many went to the top of the dome to pay their respects.

The site where the relics are kept is out of bounds for women.

Ensuring longevity

The dome has been constructed entirely by interlocking stones, without any cement, concrete or metal to hold them together.

Important visitors being lifted to the top of the dome in a crane box

Also, there are no pillars in the dome to support it.

Sponsors say the original plan was to build it with steel and concrete but the material was changed to stone at the last minute to ensure maximum longevity of the structure.

Inaugurating the dome, Vipassana leader, SN Goenka, said the remains enshrined here were found by the British during an archaeological expedition in the early 1900s in the ruins of an ancient pagoda in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.

"The British handed over the relics over to a Buddhist society in 1920 and these were kept in a monastery until 1997, when they were handed over to me for enshrining them here," he said.

'No conversions'

Mr Goenka said the place was only meant to promote meditation and not any particular religion.

Thousands of monks attended the inaugural ceremony

"We are not teaching Buddhism," he said. "We are not converting anyone from one religion to another. We are only converting people from misery to happiness. And misery is universal."

After Buddha's death, his bodily remains - ashes and bones - were divided into eight parts by his disciple and distributed among eight local kings, each of whom enshrined them in domes in their capital cities.

They were later taken out by Indian emperor-turned-Buddhist follower, Asoka, and placed in many other smaller domes almost 2,000 years ago.

The relics placed in the pagoda in Mumbai were found in one such dome.

Followers of Vipassana believe the relics emit spiritual energy and vibrations that help them meditate better and attain peace.

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