King Sihanouk led the procession, and paid for part of the shrine out of his own fortune.
Million Buddhist March
OUDONG, Cambodia, Dec. 19, 2002
(CBS) Nearly 1 million people joined a procession Thursday to transfer the fabled remains of Buddha from a noisy neighborhood in Phnom Penh to a new $4.5 million shrine, the biggest religious ceremony in Cambodia in decades.
King Norodom Sihanouk was accompanied by yellow-robed monks as he escorted the golden urn containing ashes, bones and teeth to the more scenic surroundings in Oudong, 30 miles north of the capital. The town was Cambodia's capital between the 17th and 19th centuries.
The urn, locked in a glass box, was carried on a truck decorated as a legendary bird. It was placed by the king in the new dome-shaped Buddhist shrine, or stupa, built atop a hill.
Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians from different provinces camped out near the hill the night before the procession arrived Thursday, with monks chanting blessings and worshippers holding incense sticks and lotus flowers.
The resting place of the relics "should dominate surrounding towns and countryside," the king said in a speech. "It should be very visible from a distance and be located in an environment completely devoid of impurities," he said.
Police officials estimated nearly 1 million of Cambodia's 11 million people joined the procession — believed to be the biggest religious gathering in recent decades. About 95 percent of Cambodians are Buddhists.
The route to Oudong was so clogged that many people had to abandon the main road to walk across rice paddies.
"I'm getting old, but I can die with complete satisfaction from attending this ceremony," said 65-year-old Som Soma, a former school teacher.
The procession was the culmination of a seven-day prayer session at the stupa where the remains had been kept since 1957, when they arrived from Sri Lanka in a similarly sized ceremony.
Buddhist devotees from different corners of Cambodia had prayed, offered food to Buddhist monks and held candlelight vigils during the seven days.
Thursday's march began with Sihanouk leading senior government leaders, foreign diplomats and other Cambodians from the old stupa to vehicles about a mile away.
From there, the king and the dignitaries were driven to Oudong through a sea of devotees lining the roads to the foot of the hill housing the new stupa.
Sihanouk climbed the 425 steps to the top of the hill, helped by his North Korean bodyguards, and took another route going down 500 steps.
After placing the remains in their new resting place, Sihanouk said in the speech that the new site was chosen on the advice of astrologers, who have determined that it possesses "good luck character."
The new stupa cost $4.5 million, the money coming from government funds, the king's personal contribution and donations from Cambodian and foreign individuals.
The founder of Buddhism is believed to have lived from around 563 to 483 B.C. He is believed to have founded the religion in about 525. It currently has about 300 million adherents.