In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Pilgrimage in Tibet

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works on Tibetan Religions and Culture
  • General Overviews on Sacred Geography
  • Pilgrimage
  • Pilgrimages to a holy person ()
  • Pilgrimages to India and Nepal
  • Illustrated Books
  • Tibetan Sources
  • Translation of Tibetan Sources
  • Narratives in English
  • Travelers’ Guides and Travelogues

Buddhism Pilgrimage in Tibet
Katia Buffetrille
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 March 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0122


The title “Pilgrimage in Tibet” requires first of all a territorial delineation of what the term “Tibet” refers to. The Tibet considered here is a geographical and ethnographical unity that corresponds to the Tibetan plateau and is sometimes called “Ethnographic Tibet.” It covers the three provinces of Tibet (bod chol kha gsum), namely Utsang (Dbus Gtsang), Kham (Khams), and Amdo (A mdo), an administrative division that was introduced during the 13th-century Mongol protectorate. This is to be distinguished from the much smaller region sometimes called “Political Tibet,” which covers only the Tibet Autonomous Region (founded in 1965). Although there are some early studies of Tibetan pilgrimage, the real beginning of anthropological research in this area dates to the late 1980s and the early 1990s, when Tibet first became open to foreigners. Since then, research on the subject has expanded greatly. However, it is important to appreciate the context of these modern studies: they observe Tibetan pilgrimage practices taking place after a period of twenty years in which all religious practices were banned. Pilgrimage has long been central to Tibetan life, and, since the liberalization of the 1980s, its revival has been intense. It would be difficult to find an adult Tibetan, whether he or she be a monastic, tantric specialist, or layperson, who has not undertaken at least one pilgrimage. There is no textual evidence of any ritual similar to pilgrimage before the introduction of Indian Buddhism to Tibet. For pilgrimage, Tibetans generally use the terms “nékor” (gnas skor), “going around a (gnas),” or “néjel” (gnas mjal), “meeting a (gnas),” the being a holy site or a holy person. The pilgrim is known as a nékorwa (gnas skor ba), “one who circles a sacred place/person”—thus defining him by the rite he performs at the end of his journey. Tibetan pilgrimage is much more than the mere act of traveling to a sacred place. It is associated with a great many ritual activities and religious teachings, and it has sociological, cultural, economic, and literary dimensions. Pilgrimage places in Tibet are of three kinds: natural sites (mountains, lake, and caves), man-made sites (city, monasteries, and temples), and “hidden lands,” or béyul (sbas yul). A fourth type of pilgrimage must also be mentioned: pilgrimage to pay respects to a holy person, the holy person in such instances being considered a . Tibetans also go on pilgrimage outside the Land of Snow—a common Tibetan designation for the Tibetan plateau that refers to the many snowy mountains—particularly to Nepal and India. These different kinds of sites attract both Buddhists and Bonpos (the adepts of the religion that coexists with Buddhism).

Introductory Works on Tibetan Religions and Culture

Tibetan pilgrimage cannot be studied apart from Tibetan religion, culture, and history, so this article starts with books and articles on these subjects. Buddhism arrived in Tibet beginning in the 7th century. Before that time, religious life was characterized by a belief in the sacred character of the Tibetan kings, who were considered of divine origin and as having a particular connection to mountain deities. If pilgrimages to monasteries and temples can be said to be purely Buddhist or Bonpo, then pilgrimages to sacred mountains, lakes, and caves still retain some characteristics of noninstitutionalized indigenous beliefs. For nonspecialist readers, Kapstein 2006 offers a most informative and general survey with a special emphasis on history and religion (including pilgrimages). Two classic surveys—Stein 1972 and Tucci 1980—although a little outdated in parts, provide excellent introductions to folk religion, Buddhism, and Bon. Stein 1972 gives a comprehensive view of traditional Tibet but one that requires some knowledge of Buddhism. Although it is not a general introductory text, Macdonald 1971 has had a far-reaching influence on understanding the ideas that were crucial in the early period of Tibetan history when Buddhism began to make inroads in society. Although this work was later criticized, it was a pioneering article that opened the way for new research. In spite of sometimes being somewhat obscure and highly detailed, this difficult work remains essential for all students and scholars interested in Tibetan indigenous beliefs. This masterwork was summarized in Blondeau 1999. Years later, Rolf Stein returned to the subject of the beliefs surrounding Tibetan kingship, taking Macdonald’s article as the basis for his own observations (Stein 1985). As for Bon, Karmay 2009 is a good introduction, dealing with the historical developments of Bon, Bonpo cosmogony, its pantheon, and its rituals.

  • Blondeau, Anne-Marie. “Les religions du Tibet.” In Histoire des religions. Vol. 3, Les religions constituées en Asie et leurs contre-courants. Edited by Henri-Charles Puech, 233–329. Paris: Gallimard, 1999.

    A very clear and concise summary of Macdonald’s article followed by a survey of Tibetan Buddhism and Bon dealing with the history, texts, doctrines, clergy, and cults of both religions.

  • Kapstein, Matthew T. The Tibetans. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006.

    Provides a very good introduction to Tibet.

  • Karmay, Samten G. “A General Introduction to the History and Doctrines of Bon.” In The Arrow and the Spindle: Studies in History, Myths, Rituals and Beliefs in Tibet. By Samten G. Karmay, 104–156. Kathmandu, Nepal: Mandala Book Point, 2009.

    A general discussion of Bon that gives the reader a good overview of the subject.

  • Macdonald, Ariane. “Une lecture des Pelliot tibétain 1286, 1287, 1038, 1047 et 1290: Essai sur la formation et l’emploi des mythes politiques dans la religion royale de Sroṇ-bcan sgam-po.” In Études tibétaines dédiées à la mémoire de Marcelle Lalou. Edited by Ariane Macdonald, 190–391. Paris: Librairie d’Amérique et d’Orient, 1971.

    Through the study of several Dunhuang documents (dated from the 7th to the 10th centuries), Macdonald offers a new reading of the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet, which she claims is called gtsug lag. She shows how the mountain cult played a central role in Tibetan kingship and suggests that the royal theory of the ancient kings was founded on the notion of gtsug lag.

  • Stein, Rolf A. Tibetan Civilization. Translated by J. E. Stapleton Driver. London: Faber & Faber, 1972.

    A pioneering work that offers an overview of Tibetan civilization, including society, history, religion, social customs, and literature. Originally published in French in 1962, it is now a little outdated, but it remains a monumental contribution to the scholarly literature on Tibet.

  • Stein, Rolf A. “Tibetica Antiqua III: À propos du mot gcug lag et de la religion indigene.” Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient 74 (1985): 83–133.

    DOI: 10.3406/befeo.1985.1666

    Here Stein gives a critical review of Macdonald 1971. He confirms various observations made by Macdonald and expresses his admiration for her work, but he totally disagrees with her interpretation of the term gtsug lag and her suggestion that it was a Tibetan form of Confucianism.

  • Tucci, Giuseppe. The Religions of Tibet. Translated by Geoffrey Samuel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980.

    This covers the historical developments of Buddhism in Tibet; the schools and their doctrines; the religious life; and the folk religion and Bon. Like the previous book, some parts are now a little outdated since it was written in 1970, but the content remains very valuable due to the great scholarship of the author and his own extensive personal experience of Tibet.

back to top

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.