Early Buddhist Pilgrimage in India

Kurt Behrendt
Temple University
Art History Dept
10301 Cecil B. Moore Ave RA 857
Philadelphia PA 19122-6091

Email kbehrend@nimbus.ocis.temple.edu
Wk phone 215-204-8083
Hm. phone 215-629-1376

Lay and Monastic Pilgrimage in early India

( ) The goal of this paper is to examine some of the broad parameters that governed early Buddhist pilgrimage. I intend to discuss two categories: local and distant pilgrimage. Long distance pilgrimages were typically undertaken by monks, to visit the sacred geography associated with Shakyamuni's life; and these are well documented in inscriptions, early religious texts and the ancient accounts of pilgrims. Parallel to this system is the larger local pilgrimage tradition of the lay population that has left only a few traces. This paper will draw on evidence from both traditions in an attempt to better understand the importance and significance of centers associated with the life of Shakyamuni such as Bodhgaya in contrast to sites that drew pilgrims because of their powerful relics like Hadda or Sanchi. Ultimately, it will also offer some insight into the monastic - lay distinction in terms of pilgrimage activity.

( ) We know that sites associated with the life of Shakyamuni, such as Bodhgaya or Sarnath were the main focus for foreign monastic pilgrims coming from places like China, Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand. Thus we can understand these sites to some extent in terms of foreign concerns and "multi-national" patronage. However, the well documented monastic long distance pilgrimage tradition also provides valuable insight into the world of local practices. Centers like Bodhgaya or Sanchi would have had their financial base in the localized lay pilgrimage traditions. Thus, it is important to consider the key sites associated with the sacred geography of the Buddha's life both as part of an international pilgrimage itinerary and as in terms of their being hubs of regional lay traditions linked to the Gangetic urban centers. For the lay population their pilgrimage itineraries would have also included centers boasting important relics and we know a little about this from the Chinese accounts. In fact, the great majority of lay pilgrims would not have traveled great distances to visit the sacred geography of Shakyamuni and evidence of local pilgrimage is known from texts and archaeology. A constellation of early "local" pilgrimage sites in Gandhara are well documented in the writings of Fa Hsien, Sun Yun and Hiuen tsiang. Central to this nexus of "local" pilgrimage were powerful relics and mythic sacred geography associated with the Jatakas and miraculous events of the Buddha. These descriptions provide us with a model of how and why certain centers became important hubs of lay devotional activity. At Sanchi one can argue on inscriptional evidence that this site would have been viewed as the center of a circa 2nd BC - 2nd AD, network of sites - the Bhilsa topes. In West India, the 5th-7th century AD practice of donating votive sculptural panels, at sites like Kanheri, Nasik, Ajanta, Aurangabad and others, records yet another instance of lay regional pilgrimage.

( ) In conclusion I hope to be able to clarify some aspects of early Buddhist pilgrimage in a way that I believe helps us to understand some aspects of the ideological significance of this practice. Finally, this conference appears to be an ideal forum for understanding how the Hindu pilgrimage tradition, with the idea of sacred geography at its core, is related to the more relic centered Buddhist tradition.

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