Buddhism Pilgrimage in India
Mathieu Boisvert, Kory Goldberg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0194


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.

Introductory Works

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.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226356501.001.0001

    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.

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