ODONG MOUNTAIN, Ponhea Leu district, Kandal province – Almost three years after they were quietly stolen from a stupa here under the cover of darkness, Cambodia’s prized relics of the Buddha were returned Friday under markedly different circumstances.
A crowd of more than a thousand onlookers had already assembled by 7 a.m., waiting along the mountain’s winding road in hope of catching a glimpse of the golden urn that supposedly contains teeth, hair and bone fragments of the Buddha.
Chim Rim, 76, and her sister Klorng Sorn, 75, sat chewing betel while waiting for the relics to arrive, waving away the children selling incense and flowers.
Ms. Sorn clasped her hands above her head and flashed a red grin every time her sister mentioned the relics.
“I feel so excited and so happy,” Ms. Rim said. “I hope that when the relics come to the stupa again it will make the people happy and bring them peace.”
The ashes were brought from Sri Lanka to Cambodia in the 1950s and stayed in Phnom Penh until 2002, when they were transferred by retired King Norodom Sihanouk to a purpose-built stupa, constructed among those that housed the remains of his ancestors.
Following a bold heist by a farmer in 2013, they remained in the robber’s kitchen for about two months before being recovered and returned to the capital for safekeeping.
The farmer, Keo Reaksmey, was sentenced to seven years in prison in August alongside four stupa guards, who have said they are innocent and have filed appeals against the verdict.
As the heat intensified, the scent of lotus flowers began to mingle with the odor of sweat, and people began to show signs of feeling the heat. Mothers stripped their babies of stiff formal dress and poured cool water over them.
Just after 9 a.m., drumming signaled the arrival of the procession. Some in the crowd bowed their heads in prayer while others raised their smartphones to snap photographs as the urn passed by atop an ornate golden float.
Just a handful of government officials and senior monks led by Grand Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong and Bou Kry, the supreme patriarch of the Thammayut sect of Buddhism, were permitted to watch Minister of Cults and Religion Him Chhem carry the urn up more than 600 steps to the stupa.
Seng Somony, spokesman for the ministry, said the importance of returning the relics to their home could not be overstated.
“The Buddhist relics are an important thing,” he said. “They are representative of our nation and reflect the solidarity of Buddhist people who have peace in their hearts.”
Visak Bochea, which fell on Friday, is the holiest day in the Buddhist calendar, though crowds who celebrate on the mountain have dwindled in the years since the relics were stolen.
After the SUVs and Range Rovers of officialdom had departed by 11 a.m., the stupa was opened to members of the public, who flocked to pray in front of the door guarding the holy ashes.
Tim Ton, chief security guard of the stupa, said that multiple measures had been put in place to protect the relics.
“We installed an alarm in a second door in the stupa,” Mr. Ton said, adding that 20 guards would now be stationed there “forever.”
Seng Sok, 82, a resident of Ponhea Leu district, said he hoped it would be the final stage of the relics’ journey.
“I am worried about losing them again,” Mr. Sok said. “Once is enough.”