The country’s only relics of the Buddha have been stolen from the former royal capital at Odong in Kandal province, where the relics—said to be hair, teeth and bones of the Buddha—were enshrined in 2002, officials said Thursday.
Six guards at the site are being questioned over the theft, police said.
The relics, which were kept in a gold urn inside a purpose-built, multimillion dollar stupa atop the 42-meter high hill, were stolen on Monday night or in the early hours of Tuesday morning, said Sok Oeun, director of Kandal province’s department of culture and fine arts.
“The golden urn containing Buddha relics was lost, and our authorities are investigating this case,” Mr. Oeun said Thursday.
At about 2 a.m. on Tuesday, Mr. Oeun woke up to a phone call from one of the guards at Odong, informing him that someone had broken the lock of the stupa in which the relics were kept.
“The guard said that the door lock was opened, so someone must have broken it,” Mr. Oeun said.
“I almost had a heart attack when I heard this” news, he said, adding that he immediately informed the provincial governor, provincial police chief and other authorities.
The relics, he said, were the only known Buddha relics in Cambodia, and were of great cultural significance.
“These items are the spirit of our religion and our nation, and it represents our nation’s culture,” Mr. Oeun said.
Kandal provincial governor Phay Bunchhoeun confirmed the theft and said that six of the site’s nine guards were currently being questioned.
“Police invited six guards for questioning…. If they are not involved in the crime, they will be released,” Mr. Bunchhoeun said.
About 60 years ago, the relics were brought from Sri Lanka to Phnom Penh to mark the 2,500th anniversary of Buddha’s birth. In 1989, they were installed in a stupa in front of the railway station until late King Father Norodom Sihanouk decided to move them to the former royal capital at Odong.
The construction of the $4.5-million stupa began in 1995, and Norodom Sihanouk personally moved the relics to Odong in 2002, accompanied by Prime Minister Hun Sen. The scholar Ashley Thompson has written that the ceremony transporting the relics was arguably “the most important Buddhist event to have been held in Cambodia in the post-Khmer Rouge era.”
Numerous Buddha relics are spread across Asia, and it has not been verified whether the Odong relics are authentic.
Philippe Delanghe, head of Unesco’s culture unit, said that although he was unaware of the theft, the loss of such an artifact was highly damaging to Cambodia’s cultural heritage.
“Anything that would disappear from this site would be considered as a great infliction on Cambodian heritage, so I think it is up to the Cambodian government to take necessary action within the law and to take measures against the people who did this,” Mr. Delanghe said.
The stolen relics, he said, were most likely destined for the black market.
“There is always a black market for culture objects, so I think if anybody would steal such a thing then I would think [it is] in the direction of wanting to sell it. There are cases where they keep [artifacts] for themselves, but in most cases it’s better to look into the black market,” Mr. Delanghe said.
Odong, which was the Khmer capital from the 16th century until the 19th century and is located about 40 km from Phnom Penh, is on Unesco’s World Heritage Tentative List along with eight other historical sites in Cambodia.
Looting of sites, Mr. Delanghe said, is a setback for a possible listing as a Unesco World Heritage site.
Khim Sorn, chief of the secretariat of the Mohanikaya Buddhist order, said that the perpetrators of the theft would be punished by karma.
“If they do this, they are hurting themselves,” Khim Sorn said.
“I request the people who stole it, please bring the Buddha relics back…. It is very important for our Buddhist religion and for our nation,” he added.