Buddhist places of pilgrimage – An introduction


A Pilgrimage is a journey to a location or shrine which is of moral or spiritual significance to a person’s set of beliefs or faith. Most religions attach great importance to certain places like the place of birth or death or spiritual awakening of their founders or saints or locations where a diety is housed or where spiritual powers have been witnessed or performed. These centres become powerhouses of spiritual forces as more and more pilgrims come there and pour out their love and devotion. Their prayers create a current of purity and devotion which makes a pilgrimage centre a place of peace and bliss. The person who makes the journey is referred to as a pilgrim.

Pilgrimage in Buddhism

After Buddha’s final Nirvana or Parinirvana as it is called the relics of his body were collected from the funeral pyre and divided into eight parts. These were distributed to the claimants and burial mounds or Stupas were erected on the relics. To honour the great Master and for personal spiritual growth the custom of pilgrimage has been widespread for centuries among Buddhists and is performed by monks and lay people of both the Mahayana and Theravada traditions. The Buddha himself is said to have emphasised the power of pilgrimage as a way to purify a person’s previously accumulated karmas or actions. Many great Buddhist teachers maintained the practice of pilgrimage for spiritual upliftment and paid homage at the holy sites. Nagarjuna the father of Mahayana tradition protected the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained Nirvana and restored the temple in Bodh Gaya. Another great Indian master Atisha often visited the Bodh Gaya and attained many realisations there.

Records of Sites

In Sections of the Vinaya and canons of the scriptures of the various traditions of Buddha’s teachings and also in various compendia describing his life, the actions of the Buddha in each of these places are described and recalling and meditating upon it is an important aspect during the pilgrimage. With the aid of records left by three pilgrims of the past the sites themselves have now been identified. These three pilgrims were Emperor Ashoka, Fa Hien and Hsuan Chwang. Emperor Ashoka though initially opposed to Buddhism later on became an ardent follower who later made a great pilgrimage to numerous Buddhist shrines. As well as other buildings, at each site he left inscribed pillars to indicate the significance at each place. Even to this day many remains of these ancient structures have survived. The Chinese pilgrim Fa Hien walked from China to India in the early fifth century AD in search of Buddhist books on discipline, the Vinaya. Two centuries later he was followed by Hsuan Chwang(Tsuang). Detailed accounts of the holy places visited by both have been preserved in the records of their travels in Chinese. In the last century they have been translated into English and are now available in most of the Western languages.

Steps taken for preservation

The practice of Buddhism flourished and reached its zenith in India in the seventh century AD and finally got firmly established in Tibet. It then began to decline due to the invading Muslim armies. From the middle of the last century the Archaeological Survey of India unearthed and identified many sites including the places of pilgrimage and revived them. However the remarkable fact is that inspite of the conflicts and developments of society during the thirteenth to the mid nineteenth centuries and the decline of Buddhism in India during this period, the pilgrimage places have remained undisturbed subject only to the decay of time and as there is now a renewed interest in Buddhism in India and around the world the revival and preservation of these sites have assumed great importance.

Famous Buddhist pilgrimage Centres

In India

Most Important

1. Lumbini– the birthplace of the Buddha

2. Bodhgaya– the site of Buddha’s enlightenment(Nirvana)

3. Sarnath-First turning of the wheel of dharma(First Sermon)

4. Kushinagar-where Buddha entered Mahaparinirvana(death)

5. Rajgir– Second turning of the wheel of dharma(Second Sermon)

6. Shravasthi-teachings in the Jetavana grove

7. Sankashya-where Lord Buddha descended from Tusita heaven

8. Nalanda-site of the great monastic university

Of these the first four are the most important out of which only Lumbini is in Nepal the others being in India. Besides these eight the others in India are-

Pataliputra or Patna– Seat of Mauryan Empire and a significant Buddhist centre.

Vaishali– Site of the second Buddhist Council and seat of the Licchavis who were the prominent supporters of the Buddha.

Sanchi– Site of a large stupa built by Ashoka and it also stores relics of Sariputra and Moggallana the two chief disciples of the Buddha.

Ajanta and Ellora– Site of intricate cave paintings depicting Buddhism.

Besides these there are many sites of Buddhist education in Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Mysore, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Ratnagiri and Tibetan Buddhist sites in Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh.

Outside India

Thailand: Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Doi Suthep.

Tibet: Lhasa (traditional home of the Dalai Lama), Mount Kailash, Lake Nam-tso.

Cambodia: Angkor Wat, Silver Pagoda.

Sri Lanka: Polonnaruwa, Temple of the Tooth (Kandy), Anuradhapura.

Laos: Luang Prabang.

Myanmar: Bagan, Sagaing Hill.

Nepal: Boudhanath, Swayambhunath.

Indonesia: Borobudur.

China: Yung-kang, Lung-men caves. The Four Sacred Mountains

Japan: Kansai Kannon Pilgrimage, Chūgoku 33 Kannon Pilgrimage, Shikoku Pilgrimage, Mount Kōya.


The appearance of a Buddha is very rare in the world and after his passing away three kinds of relics assumes great importance-

1. The remains of his body

2. The utensils he used such as the alms bowl etc

3. The edifices and places commemorating the events in his life.

Of the relics of Gautam Buddha or Shakyamuni, the remains of his body were widely distributed across Asia and are becoming inaccessible owing to political circumstances. As for the second type of relic many of the objects used by the Buddha as noted by Fa Hien and Hsuan Chwang have since disappeared. Thus in the light of this, the places of pilgrimage which can still be visited with moderate ease assumes great importance. In recent years new monasteries and temples have been built and the strength and purity of the order can be indicated by the renewal of these sites. Greater attempts have been made to draw attention to the religious significance rather than the mere historical interest of these places