Pilgrimage to India’s Buddhist sacred sites, also referred to as the Middle Land (Majjhima Desa) is becoming an increasingly popular activity among Buddhists around the globe. While pilgrimage is generally associated with religious practices surrounding prayer, worship, and meditation, it also possesses cultural, economic, social, political, and literary dimensions. The earliest reference to Buddhist pilgrimage is found in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta of the Pāli Canon, and the actual practice began shortly after the Buddha Siddhattha Gotama’s passing away (sometime between 543 BCE and 483 BCE). According to this Pāli text, which details the Buddha’s last three months of life, the Buddha, while on his death bed, stated that making a pilgrimage to four specific places will arouse a devotee’s confidence: Lumbinī, the birth place of the Buddha; Bodhgayā, the seat of his enlightenment; Sārnāth, where he delivered his first discourse that resulted in the listener’s awakening; and Kusinārā, where he passed away. In the twelve centuries that followed, the expansion of Buddhism in India and Asia led to a growing interest in pilgrimage to these four sites. In his attempt to promote the Buddha’s teaching, Emperor Aśoka is credited with legitimizing the practice of pilgrimage to these sacred sites of Buddhist memory. Fourth- to seventh-century Chinese pilgrims crossed hot deserts, pirate-infested waters, and snow-clad mountains to pay homage and study at these Indian sites, acquire copies of original Buddhist texts to bring home and translate into Chinese, and find teachers to clarify misinterpretations of the Dharma. Buddhist pilgrimage activity ceased to be active in the late 12th century due to Turkish invasions, significant decrease of royal patronage, and decline of Buddhist institutional activity in India. It was only in the late 19th century when South Asian Buddhists and European Orientalists set out to revive these historical sites that Buddhists began to visit them again. International interest in pilgrimage increased with the 1956 celebration of the Buddha Jayanti, the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha’s enlightenment. This event served as a historical indicator for the revival of Buddhism to the sacred geography. Today’s Majjhima Desa attracts millions of pilgrims from around the globe and is saturated with internationally flavored Buddhist temples and monasteries, hotels, restaurants, shopping plazas, and charitable institutions. These pilgrimage sites, all of which are located in rural, poverty-stricken Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (where “religious tourism” is the prime vector of its economy), are now part of a vast international network and participate in the production of a global Buddhism. Despite the rapid growth of Buddhist activity in northern India, most of the places along the pilgrimage circuit other than Bodhgayā have not been studied in a thorough manner (or in most cases, not at all). Due to this limitation, this bibliographic entry remains limited to the four primary sites (Bodhgayā, Lumbinī, Sārnāth, and Kushināgar), as well as Śravasti and Rajgir—two sites that are beginning to grab both pilgrim and scholarly attention.
A few general introductions to Buddhist pilgrimage in India have been composed over the past thirty years. Delahoutre 1987 examines the origins of the four major sites and includes a discussion on the Buddha’s relationship to the town of Rajagriha. Keyes 1987 and Trainor 1997 are more complete, though both remain brief surveys and need to be updated to reflect contemporary practices in India. Huntington 1986 offers a comprehensive historical examination of Lumbini, Kapilavastu, Bodhgaya, Sarnath, Shravasti, and Sankasya. Cook 1994 does not limit its investigation to the primary pilgrimage sites but extends the discussion to all major Buddhist centers throughout India prior to the 10th century. Asher 2009 moves beyond the typical geographical, archaeological, and historical descriptions by analyzing how the meaning of these sites evolves with time for the people visiting and inhabiting them. Allen 2004 investigates the role played by colonial officers in uncovering the Buddhist sites, and Huber 2008 analyzes the ways in which Tibetan Buddhists have used India’s Buddhist topography in reinventing their religion in exile.
Allen, Charles. Search for the Buddha: The Men Who Discovered India’s Lost Religion. London: Carroll & Graf, 2004.
A chronicle of 18th and 19th century European colonial officers who dedicated their spare time to studying India’s ancient languages, deciphering rock inscriptions, and using ancient Chinese travelogues to discover and excavate buried Buddhist sites. Allen demonstrates the role these early Orientalists held in stimulating the revival of Buddhism and Buddhist pilgrimage in India.
Asher, Frederick. “From Place to Site: Locations of the Buddha’s Life.” Artibus Asiae 69.2 (2009): 233–245.
By examining the monuments located at (and the primary and secondary texts associated with) the four primary pilgrimage sites, the author analyzes the ways in which Buddhist communities have historically changed the symbolic meaning of these sites to accommodate the needs and desires of the particular time and people.
Cook, Elizabeth. Holy Places of the Buddha. Crystal Mirror Series. Berkeley, CA: Dharma, 1994.
This nicely illustrated guidebook describes the various histories of eight north Indian Buddhist pilgrimage sites (the four standard sites along with Kapilavastu, Śravasti, Sankasya, and Vaishali). She also examines other vitally important sites that developed after the Buddha’s life such as Nāḷānda and Vikramaśila universities, Mathura, Ajaṇṭā, Amarvatī, Kalinga, Kashmir, among others. Although very well written, the boundaries between legend and history are often blurred.
Delahoutre, Michel. “Les pèlerinages bouddhiques en Inde.” In Histoire des pèlerinages non chrétiens: Entre magique et sacré: Le chemin des dieux. Edited by Jean Chélini and Henry Branthomme, 242–257. Paris: Hachette, 1987.
A brief overview of the main Buddhist pilgrimage sites in north India. The article is part of a collection of non-Christian pilgrimages. While the information presented here is questionable, it is nicely organized according to recurrent themes found throughout the volume, making it easy to compare ideas and practices from the other religious traditions.
Huber, Toni. Holy Land Reborn: Pilgrimage and the Tibetan Reinvention of Buddhist India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
An in-depth analysis of the Tibetan relationship to India, Huber asserts that Tibetan perceptions of India and pilgrimage practice to its holy sites are relatively new phenomena responsible for maintaining and evolving Tibetan religion and identity in exile. While pilgrimage activity is associated with explicit ritual practice and teaching, generation of meaning and identity at these sites for the exiled population implicitly occurs on various levels.
Huntington, John. “Sowing the Seeds of the Lotus: A Journey to the Great Pilgrimage sites of Buddhism, Part 1.” Orientations 16 (November 1986): 46–61.
Using textual, archaeological, and secondary scholarly literature, this essay examines some of the most commonly visited pilgrimage sites. The article contains interesting photographs of what these places looked like thirty years ago. The article is continued in Orientations 17 (1986): 28–43, and Orientations 18.1 (1986): 32–46.
Keyes, C. F. “Buddhist Pilgrimage in South and Southeast Asia.” In Encyclopedia of Religion. Edited by M. Eliade, 347–349. New York: Macmillan, 1987.
This concise article on Buddhist pilgrimage in south Asia and Southeast Asia looks at the emergence of pilgrimage practice to the four main locations after the Buddha’s passing. Little information is provided on contemporary pilgrimage in India.
Trainor, K. “Pilgrimage.” In Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Vol. II. Edited by R. E. Buswell Jr., 651–655. New York: Macmillan Reference, 1997.
Traces how the Buddhist tradition perceives the origins of pilgrimage and looks more precisely into the role of relics within pilgrimage practice.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
Purchase an Ebook Version of This Article
Ebooks of the Oxford Bibliographies Online subject articles are available in North America via a number of retailers including Amazon, vitalsource, and more. Simply search on their sites for Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guides and your desired subject article.
If you would like to purchase an eBook article and live outside North America please email firstname.lastname@example.org to express your interest.
- Abhijñā/Ṛddhi (Extraordinary Knowledge and Powers)
- Abortion, Buddhism and
- Ajanta Caves
- Ambedkar Buddhism
- Ancient Indian Society
- Archaeology of Early Buddhism
- Art and Architecture In China, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in India, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Japan, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Nepal, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Tibet, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture on the "Silk Road," Buddhist
- Asceticism, Buddhism and
- Awakening of Faith
- Beats, Buddhism and the
- Bhāviveka / Bhāvaviveka
- Bodh Gaya
- Body, Buddhism and the
- Buddha, Three Bodies of the (Trikāya)
- Buddhism and Ethics
- Buddhism and Law
- Buddhism and Marxism
- Buddhism and Modern Literature
- Buddhist Art and Architecture in Sri Lanka and Southeast A...
- Buddhist Hermeneutics
- Buddhist Ordination
- Buddhist Theories of Causality (karma, pratītyasamutpāda, ...
- Buddhist Thought and Western Philosophy
- Buddhist Thought, Embryology in
- Buddhist-Christian Dialogue
- Cambodian Buddhism
- Canon, History of the Buddhist
- Caste, Buddhism and
- Central Asia, Buddhism in
- China, Esoteric Buddhism in, (Zhenyan and Mijiao)
- Chinese Buddhist Publishing and Print Culture, 1900-1950
- Colonialism and Postcolonialism
- Compassion (karuṇā)
- Cosmology, Astronomy and Astrology
- Culture, Material
- Dalai Lama
- Demons and the Demonic in Buddhism
- Dignāga and Dharmakīrti, The Philosophical Works and Influ...
- Drigung Kagyu (’Bri gung bKa’ brgyud)
- Dzogchen (rDzogs chen)
- Early Buddhist Philosophy (Abhidharma/Abhidhamma)
- Early Modern European Encounters with Buddhism
- East Asian Buddhist Art, Portraiture in
- Ellora Caves
- Emptiness (Śūnyatā)
- Environment, Buddhism and the
- Ethics of Violence, Buddhist
- Family, Buddhism and the
- Feminist Approaches to the Study of Buddhism
- Four Noble Truths
- Funeral Practices
- Gandhāra, Buddhism in
- Gelugpa (dGe lugs pa)
- Gender, Buddhism and
- Hakuin Ekaku
- History of Buddhisms in China
- Image Consecrations
- India, Buddhism in
- India, Mahāmudrā in
- Internationalism, Buddhism and
- Intersections Between Buddhism and Hinduism in Thailand
- Iranian World, Buddhism in the
- Islam, Buddhism and
- Japan, Buddhism in
- Korea, Buddhism in
- Laos, Buddhism in
- Linji and the Linjilu
- Literature, Chan
- Literature, Tantric
- Local Religion, Buddhism as
- Lotus Sūtra
- Mahayana, Early
- Mahāvairocana Sūtra/Tantra
- Malaysia, Buddhism in
- Mantras and Dhāraṇīs
- Merit Transfer
- Miracles, Buddhist
- Modernism, Buddhist
- Monasticism in East Asia
- Mongolia, Buddhism in
- Mongolia, Buddhist Art and Architecture in
- Music, and Buddhism
- Myanmar, Buddhism in
- New Medias, Buddhism in
- New Religions in Japan (Shinshūkyō), Buddhism and
- Śāntideva (Bodhicaryāvatāra)
- Nuns, Lives, and Rules
- Oral and Literate Traditions
- Pagan (Bagan)
- Perfection of Wisdom
- Perfections (Six and Ten)
- Philosophy, Chinese Buddhist
- Philosophy, Classical Indian Buddhist
- Philosophy, Classical Japanese Buddhist
- Philosophy, Tibetan Buddhist
- Pilgrimage in India
- Pilgrimage in Japan
- Pilgrimage in Tibet
- Preaching/Teaching in Buddhism Studies
- Psychology and Psychotherapy, Buddhism in
- Pure Land Buddhism
- Pure Land Sūtras
- Religious Tourism, Buddhism and
- Saṃsāra and Rebirth
- Self, Non-Self, and Personal Identity
- Shinto, Buddhism and
- Soka Gakkai
- South and Southeast Asia, Devatās, Nats, And Phii In
- Southeast Asia, Buddhism in
- Sri Lanka, Monasticism in
- Sōtō Zen (Japan)
- Stūpa Pagoda Caitya
- Suffering (Dukkha)
- Sutta (Pāli/Theravada Canon)
- Texts, Dunhuang
- Thai Buddhism
- Thích Nhất Hạnh
- Three Turnings of the Wheel of Doctrine (Dharma-Cakra)
- Tibet, Buddhism in
- Tibet, Mahāmudrā in
- Tibetan Book of the Dead
- Tri Songdetsen
- Uighur Buddhism
- Verse Literature, Tibetan Buddhist
- Vidyādhara (weikza/weizzā)
- Vietnam, Buddhism in
- Vision and Visualization
- Visualization/Contemplation Sutras
- Warrior Monk Traditions
- West (North America and Europe), Buddhism in the
- Wheel of Life (Bhava-Cakra)
- Women in Buddhism
- Women in the West, Prominent Buddhist
- Zen, Premodern Japanese