Lay and Monastic Pilgrimage in ancient India

By Kurt Behrendt


The goal of this paper is to examine some of the broad parameters that governed early Buddhist pilgrimage until circa the 7th century CE. I intend to discuss two main categories, local and distant pilgrimage as documented in inscription s, art and early textual sources. The Buddhist tradition originally rooted in the Ganges basin spread to outlying regions and as a result the Buddhist world can be viewed as a wheel with the homeland of #…kyamuni at its hub and mutually distinct communit ies radiating outward like spokes. This center-periphery model will be crucial for understanding the dynamics of pilgrimage, as in many cases we know more about the periphery than we do of the center. The distinction between lay and monastic devotion is also another factor to consider is as it is fundamental for determining the goals and practice of the pilgrim. For instance, while a monk may be willing to suffer great adversity to visit multiple important relics on the periphery and the sacred geograph y in the homeland of the Buddha, the lay devotee might only travel a short distance to make offerings at a regional center.

Starting with the life of #…kyamuni a geography associated with his quest for enlightenment emerges. Later artistic evidence from Bh…rhut, S…¿c†, and the regions of Gandhara and Andhra would lead us to believe that the most important life events t ook place at Bodhgay…, the place of enlightenment, and S…rn…th where he taught his first sermon. When #…kyamuni is depicted in ancient sculpture he is most often represented with reference to these locations. Both sites are adjacent to already establish ed Brahmanical sacred places – Gay… and Banaras. As Surinder Bhardwaj has pointed out, #…kyamuni's own path to enlightenment can be viewed as a pilgrimage to places already considered sacred. From a religious perspective, one could argue that the Buddha ’s access to such nexi of power led to his enlightenment or, to take the more pragmatic view, these sites were chosen to make the ideas of Buddhism available to people already engaged in a cycle of pilgrimage. Syncretism probably explains this commonalty , but whatever the motivation, the physical locations of Bodhgay… and S…rn…th worked in effect to spread this new doctrine along a web of pre-existing tirthas. Thus, from the inception of Buddhism, the geographical locations of significant actions performed by the Tathagata functioned to define the nodes of pilgrimage.

While this emphasis on sacred geography can be compared to the Hindu tirtha tradition, it is important to stress that with Buddhism the places are associated to a historic individual, who carried out certain actions, possessed tangible objec ts and ultimately died leaving his body. This last point is of great relevance to us, as the portable bodily relics of the Buddha make the power of enlightenment accessible even in the most remote places. They provide an efficacious alternative to sacr ed geography and their importance to the Buddhist community should not be underestimated. The early Brahmanical practices lack of a comparable relic tradition. Even later, when the Buddhists started to develop a notion comparable to the svayambh&trad e; or self made images, there is always the idea that they indeed reflect a true likeness of the living man #…kyamuni. In this sense certain images attain the status of being relics.

The question then arises – was there pilgrimage during or immediately after the time of the Buddha? In fact, it is not until the third century BCE with the Mauryan emperor A@ôka that we have epigraphical and sporadic archaeological evidence of Buddhist activity. Many early texts tell us that A@ôka divided the Buddha’s relics and placed them in "84,000" st™pas throughout his realm. In association with a few surviving Mauryan monuments we find inscribed pillars and edicts (fig. 1) – which may have worked to mark A@ôka’s territory and unify his subjects under a common religion. While the extant evidence is thin, it is feasible that his use of relics provided him the opportunity to establish potent religious centers thro ughout the northern half of the subcontinent. A@ôka's redistribution of relics is in some cases associated with pre-exiting sacred geography, as the edicts at S…rn…th and Girnar testify. Over time, the religious centers established by A@ôka drew Buddhist pilgrims, Lumbini or S…¿c† being good examples. However, there is no compelling evidence to suggest that Buddhist pilgrimage was occurring during the Mauryan period. In fact, so little is actually known about this time that my above observ ations should be taken simply as possibilities.

At Bh…rhut and S…¿c†, two Buddhist centers that bear no connection with the historic life of #…kyamuni, nearly one thousand donative inscriptions suggest for the first time the existence of an established pilgrimage network. These inscriptions dat ing to the beginning of the current era were incised on the crossbars and pillars of the vedikas surrounding these st™pas. Typically they give us the donor's name along with both his or her occupation and most significantly the place of residence. At Bh…rhut 129 donative inscriptions show that the site attracted lay and monastic devotees primarily from the Ganges area - notably Pataliputra and Kausambi. There are also records of donors coming from more distant areas, such as Nasik, which is menti oned once and Vidisha, which occurs four times. In the S…¿c† Bhilsa area more then 600 inscriptions indicate that the site relied on pilgrims coming from the modern region of Malwa, with the cities of Vidisha and Ujjain mentioned most frequently. Here hundreds of individual gifts of monks, nuns and lay people financed the construction of the st™pas (fig. 2). Thus the goal of these devotees was not only to be in the presence of the Buddha's relics, but also to contribute to the embellishment and glorification of these sites.

How can we interpret this evidence in light of pilgrimage? People were drawn to both sites by powerful relics that in the case of S…¿c† could have been installed by A@ôka. Both lay people and monks traveled to make donations; as pointed out by Gregory Schopen, 40% of S…¿c† st™pa I’s donors were monks and nuns and in the case of st™pa II this number rises to 60%. The same pattern of donations is repeated at Bh…rhut where instead lay followers predominate. Thus, at the beginning of the common era, it is clear that both monastic and lay pilgrimage was crucial to the support and establishment of these major Buddhist centers. Finally, while both sites attracted pilgrims from several distant Indian cities they did not receive inter national patronage. Bh…rhut and S…¿c† appear to have basically served a local population and can be classified as regional pilgrimage centers.

The sculpture on the toranas at S…¿c† and Bh…rhut also provides insight into early pilgrimage practices. At both sites we find depictions of enshrined Bodhi trees (fig. 3) and temples housing chakras surrounded by worshippers, perhaps referring to Bodhgay… and S…rn…th. While the exact reading of these reliefs has been the subject of a recent debate between Susan Huntington and Vidya Dehejia, it seems clear that the sacred geography of the Buddha was already the object of devotion. These depictio ns, whether representations of worship or narration of events from the Buddha's life, speak of making the sacred geography of the Tath…gata manifest to the regional devotee. For instance, at both Bh…rhut and S…¿c† the ladders of Sankasya are shown surrou nded by adorants (fig. 4). While the reliefs could depict either the miraculous descent of the Buddha from Tr…yastriõ@a heaven or a monument erected to commemorate it, we know from these images that Sankasya was important to the regional communiti es of S…¿c† and Bh…rhut. In fact we know that in 400 CE when Fa Xian visited India, this site was a significant center of pilgrimage.

On the basis of S…¿c† and Bh…rhut one might be inclined to conclude that all early Buddhist sites were patronized through a process of popular pilgrimage, but this is not always the case. The many early rock cut caves on the Deccan, dating to the first centuries BCE-CE, such as Junnar, Nasik, Karle or Ajaª¥… show little trace of a pilgrimage tradition. The community as a whole is not represented in the inscriptions, which record elite donations of kings, ministers, guilds, merchants and the monas tic community. Thus, unlike S…¿c† and Bh…rhut we do not find popular patronage by pilgrims at the Deccan Buddhist outposts, which appear to have catered more to the needs of itinerant traders as Himanshu Ray has pointed out.

Surprisingly, these same sites in the fifth to seventh centuries show considerable traces of regional pilgrimage. At this time inscriptions tell us that the Buddhist centers, such as Ajaª¥… or Kanheri, continued to be built with dynastic and merc antile support. However, literally thousand of votive images were haphazardly painted or sculpted into these caves by individual patrons (fig. 5). This devotional practice had a popular basis, which we know from the numerous donors shown within the reli efs as well as remembered in the attached votive inscriptions. The images were only added to finished caves under worship and typically consist of single Buddha or Bodhisattva figures or standardized depictions of the Miracle of #r…vast†. There is a cle ar pattern indicating that individual patrons tried to have their votive panel placed in visible places as near as possible to the objects of devotion, such as key image shrines or relic st™pas. All this evidence points to regional pilgrimage, repe ating in a different form the pattern of donations observed at S…¿c† and Bh…rhut.

Between the fifth and seventh centuries a variety of literary and archaeological sources begin to shed light on the practice of pilgrimage. Most useful for this endeavor, are the accounts of the Chinese pilgrims Fa Xian (399-414 CE) and Xuan Cang (ca 630 CE). The fact that they came to India as pilgrims and left us written record of their travels shows us that pilgrimage at this point of time was a popular phenomenon within the Buddhist world. These monks traveled from outlying regional centers to the Buddha's homeland and thus, by following their itineraries, insight can be gained into the active regional and long distance pilgrimage networks.

While these two pilgrims are crucially important, their accounts must be treated with caution. As T. H. Barrett has pointed out, they came to India with the main goal of bringing texts back to China and thus are not to be seen as typical pilgrims. Fa Xian and Xuan Cang traveled extremely long distances, spent considerable time and had solid financial support for these undertakings, while most common pilgrims, lay or monastic, would have visited nearby centers that would have been logistically pra ctical and inexpensive. Therefore, in using Chinese pilgrims accounts as primary sources it should be remembered that they had somewhat different interests, destinations, and goals then their Indian counterparts. Some inaccuracies in these narratives mu st also be the result of later compilation by disciples upon their return to China. Still for the study of early Buddhist pilgrimage these sources give us a broader context for understanding the complex dynamics of this practice.

Both Fa Xian and Xuan Cang crossed central Asia, traversed the Himalayas and entered the Indian sub-continent through Gandh…ra. Therefore, this region in Northwest Pakistan is the first area within the Indian subcontinent they were concerned with. In this frontier territory, numerous well-preserved st™pas, shrines and monasteries are extant and together with a large corpus of sculpture they help us to corroborate the observations of the Chinese travelers.

In Gandh…ra, the main foci of pilgrimage were either significant possessions of the Buddha, such as his alms bowl, staff and robe or important body relics. In other words, like the other above mentioned regional sites, highly portable relics char ged with the power of enlightenment served as the focus of pilgrimage.

One of Fa Xian's companions, Hui-ying, returned to China after "fulfilling his destiny" of visiting the Buddha's alms bowl, making offering at Ha… to the Skull-bone and tooth of the Buddha, and visiting the Shadow of the Tath…gata. This mention of "fulfilling his destiny" suggests that he knew prior to visiting Gandh…ra that these relics where there, and visiting them exhausted the goal or vow of his pilgrimage. The Gaosengzjuan (The lives of Eminent Monks), edited in 519 CE, records the accounts of 96 Chinese monks, half of whom traveled to Gandh…ra to worship the alms bowl. It is interesting that this relic alone was significant enough to warrant crossing central Asia and traversing the Himalayas to reach Gandh…ra from China. The alms bowl ap pears repeatedly within the corpus of Gandh…ran sculpture (fig. 7), confirming its importance as a devotional object not only for foreigners but also for the local community.

It is remarkable that only few of the Chinese pilgrims chose to push on to the Ganges basin after having completed the most difficult part of the journey. Perhaps the alms bowl and other significant relics of the Buddha available here, held more i mportance for the Chinese travelers than did the sacred geography of #…kyamuni in the Ganges basin. Maybe these foreign pilgrims were drawn by the power of relics, which can also be found in China, and they did not fully understand the South Asian tradit ion of sacred geography common to the Vedic religion, Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.

A relic that Fa Xian and Xuan Cang devote considerable attention to is the skull bone of the Buddha from the site of Ha… on the Western edge of modern Afghanistan. Xuan Cang writes:

All who wish to see the skull-bone of Tath…gata have to pay one gold piece; those who wish to take an impression pay five pieces. The other objects in their several order, have a fixed price [the robe, the walking staff, the tooth and more body relics ]; and yet, though the charges are heavy, the worshipers are numerous.

It would appear that pilgrimage allowed Ha… to garner considerable wealth from the worshippers who traveled to this center. The practice of charging admission rather then accepting donations would seem surprising, but later in reference to the North I ndian site of Siladitya, speaking of another tooth of the Buddha, Xuan Cang says:

People assemble from far and near... Every day hundreds and thousands come together... those wishing to see the tooth of Buddha must pay one great gold piece. Nevertheless, the followers who come to worship are very numerous and gladly pay the tax of a gold piece.

These passages are particularly revealing of the financial significance that a powerful relic had both on the frontier and at the center of the Buddhist world. Such a financial concern also works to legitimize the importance of the site as it forces t he devotee to monetarily acknowledge the power of the object at the nexus of the pilgrimage. The system of charging to see the relic also suggests that a local audience probably supported these sites. The long distance travelers, visiting a great number of Buddhist centers, would not have been in a position to make substantial contributions everywhere. In fact, the reverse was probably true; where in most cases the religious establishment would have provided them with shelter and food. The foreign pilg rims would have made offerings only at most significant sites like Bodhgay…, where many inscriptions testify to this practice.

The archaeological evidence from Gandh…ra also indicates that pilgrims and lay devotees might have played an important role as patrons. Today more than a dozen large first to seventh century complexes survive and despite a lack of inscriptional ev idence a consistent pattern of patronage can be deduced. Typically, a large st™pa containing relics is the focal monument surrounded by a heterogeneous assemblages of votive st™pas, relic shrines and images. These smaller structures were giv en over time by individual patrons with varying financial resources. Thus, we find a situation not so different from S…¿c† or Bh…rhut and remarkably in line with the offering of votive images found at the many West Indian cave complexes.

Fa Xian and Xuan Cang next travel to the Ganges basin to visit the many outlying pilgrimage sites and to ultimately retrace the historic actions of #…kyamuni that led to his enlightenment. Due to a scarcity of other sources, it is hard to assess how common long distance pilgrimage was among both monastic and lay followers. Nevertheless, one can not help but think of the hundred million pilgrims that are expected to visit Rome to celebrate the 2000th year since Christ's birth, again in a relic or iented tradition. A similar desire may have motivated more Buddhists than we think, even if the goals of the pilgrimage differed.

The Mah…paranirv…ªas™tra has the Buddha say:

After I have passed away, monks, those making the pilgrimage to the shrines, honoring the shrines, will come [to these places], they will speak in this way: "Here the Blessed One was born," "Here the Blessed One attained the highest most excellent awak ening," etc.

This passage, demonstrating that monastic long distance pilgrimage was an active practice, goes on to tell us that monks were also given honorific titles such as the "one who makes the pilgrimage to the Shrines." Similar appellatives appear as monasti c titles in the inscriptions of Amaravati. Also in the Mah…paranirv…ªas™tra the Tath…gata says:

After I have passed away, monks, those making the pilgrimage to the shrines ... Those who during that time die here with believing mind [in my presence], all those who have karma still to work will go to heaven.

Here the inherent danger of long distance pilgrimage is legitimized, since even if you die in the process you will be rewarded with a favorable rebirth.

Difficulties and hardships were integral to the pilgrimage process. The Chinese pilgrims make interesting references to networks of facilities established for the aid of travelers. We know from the account of Fa Xian that the Buddhists were at ti mes supported by the "ninety six heretical sects" of central India. He writes:

They build hospices by the side of solitary roads for the shelter of travelers, where they may rest, sleep, eat and drink, and are supplied with all necessaries. The followers of Buddha also, as they pass to and fro, are entertained by them, only diff erent arrangements are made for their convenience.

Monks could also seek refuge at the many Buddhist monasteries. Near R…magr…ma in North India Xuan Cang notes:

When any priests come from distant regions, they entertain them with the greatest courtesy and liberality; during three days they keep them in their society, and offer them the four necessary things [food, drink, clothing, and medicine].

However, such examples of hospitality were not always the case. Xuan Cang at Bodhgay… recounts the exploits of a pilgrim from the country of Tu-ho-lo (Tokhara in Central Asia):

Formerly there were two or three #ramañas, passionately fond of learning, who lived in the Country of Tukhara, to the north of the Snowy Mountains,...[who desired to see] The sacred relic shines with their own peculiar splendour; let us go toget her from place to place, and tell our faithful friends what sacred relics we ourselves have seen. On this the two or three associates, taking their religious staves, went forth to travel together. Arrived in India, at whatever convent gates they called, they were treated with disdain as belonging to a frontier country, and no one would take them in. They were exposed to the winds and the rains without, and within they suffered from hunger [and so on]... [the king noticed them and asked of their plight a nd the #ramañas respond] we have come to see and adore the sacred relics...[but] the #ramañas of India deign not to give us shelter, and we would return to our own land but have not yet completed the round of our pilgrimage. [the account end s with the king saying] I have built this sañgh…r…ma for the special entertainment of strangers.

It appears from this passage that the travelers had a predetermined itinerary to follow, which suggests that established pilgrimage routes existed. Clearly, these foreign #ramañas encountered less hospitality than the previous passages would in dicate. A second story is told by Xuan Cang. The protagonist is here is a monk, the brother of the king of Sri Lanka, who was traveling to Bodhgay….

At all the convents he visited, he was treated with disdain as a foreigner... [Upon his return he asks his brother the king to build monasteries throughout India and the account continues with the king saying]... I desire to build in all the Indies a c onvent for the entertainment of such strangers, who may have a place of rest between their journey there and back. Thus the two countries will be bound together and travelers be refreshed... [a monastery is built at Bodhgay… that] entertains many priests of Ceylon

Of great relevance is the fact that international patronage existed at Bodhgay… in 630 CE and a significant community of Sri Lankan monks was resident. Both accounts suggest that support of foreign pilgrims was an issue that warranted the construction of special housing. Further, sañgh…r…mas were built for outside visitors both with international and local patronage. By the time Fa Xian and Xuan Cang came to India, facilities appear to be already in place as neither of these pilgrims experien ced rejection.

In the Ganges basin there is also mention of a miraculous well to aid travelers. Both Fa Xian and Xuan Cang mention at Kapilavastu, that #…kyamuni as a boy shot an arrow which pierced the ground creating a well for the use of travelers.

This introduces us to a sacred geography marked by miracles, which characterized, in a different way, both the periphery and the hub of the Buddhist world. While relics are crucial to the Gandh…ran tradition, miraculous events also empowered cente rs of pilgrimage. For instance, at Ha…, where the skull bone was enshrined, #…kyamuni in a former birth purchased flowers to pay reverence to the past Buddha Dipañkara.

Fa Xian also maps a local pilgrimage tradition in Gandh…ra having miraculous geography rather then relic significance. Along a route that took him fourteen days to traverse, there were four sites each linked to one of the past lives of the Buddha: the first was related to the Sibi j…taka, with a st™pa marking the place where the Buddha sacrificed his flesh in substitution of a dove. Following were the places where he sacrificed his eyes, where he gave his severed head in multiple rebirths a nd finally the site where he offered his body to feed a starving tiger. Fa Xian ends his discussion writing:

The kings, ministers, and people of all the surrounding countries vie with each other in making religious offerings at these places, in scattering flowers, and burning incense of that district call these four the four great St™p as.

Here the participants in the pilgrimage are the people of the surrounding countries who are visiting geographic centers made sacred by the past actions of the Buddha. It is noteworthy, that these st™pas were not the focus of Fa Xian’s travels bu t rather those of local people, ministers and kings – thus not the goal of either monastic or foreign pilgrims. Judging from the visual evidence the miraculous geography of the Buddha appears less relevant to the Gandh…ran community than the relics. The alms bowl relic left a clear trace in the sculptural record while only the Sibi j…taka appears occasionally within the corpus of Gandh…ran narrative reliefs.

This regional itinerary is known only from Fa Xian account. Hardly two centuries later, when Xuan Cang visits Gandh…ra, he only finds ruined st™pas marking the places of the sacrifice of the eyes and the severing of the head. This is just a single example, but I think indicative of how fragile and transient many of the regional pilgrimage systems must have been.

As Xuan Cang and Fa Xian move closer to the Buddha's homeland, the pilgrimage sites are increasingly legitimized by the sacred geography associated with the miraculous power of the enlightened Buddha. For instance, both Chinese pilgrims stress the significance of Sankasya. As I briefly mentioned above, it was here that the Buddha went up to Tr…yastriõ@a heaven to preach the Law to his mother. Fa Xian records that three ladders made of precious substances could be seen to the seventh step, apparently they had largely disappeared into the earth after #…kyamuni's descent. Before him, three previous Buddhas had done the same thing leaving traces of their passage nearby. Furthermore, at Sankasya, a pillar stood with a lion capital that mirac ulously roared giving supernatural proof to some "heretics" that the place belonged to the Buddhists'. It was also here that the Buddha cut his nails and hair, leaving a few body relics. Thus, at the threshold of the territory where prince #…k yamuni moved on the path towards enlightenment, is a powerful site associated with prodigious actions of the Enlightened One and his predecessors. Here the relics, although present, are overshadowed by the miracles performed at the site. The shear numbe r of significant events speaks of the desire to give to Sankasya equal status to the centers like Bodhgay…, S…rn…th, and Ku@anagara.

At #r…vast†, again located on the edge of the Buddha's homeland, the Tath…gata performed a series of miracles. This particular miracle had great resonance in the art and became a popular theme in Gandh…ra (fig. 8), West India (fig. 9) and later Th ailand and Burma. Unlike Sankasya, the Buddha actually lived here. It was in #r…vast† that #…kyamuni spent the rainy seasons after his enlightenment at the very first monastery established in the Jêtavana garden. Upon arriving at the Jêtava na vih…ra Fa Xian and his associate Chi-un were:

much affected to think that this was the spot in which Buddha had passed twenty-five years of his life. Around them stood many strangers, all occupied in similar reflections. They had traversed a succession of strange countries. Perhaps they might b e spared to return home, perhaps they would die.

The narration continues emphasizing how "wonderful!" it was that these men of Han (China) had come from such a remote corner of the earth to search for the Law. This passage is particularly significant as it makes a very clear reference to o ther pilgrims, with special regards to the ones coming from distant places.

#r…vast† acquires enormous popularity due to the miracles and the prolonged residence of the Tath…gata. The Jetavahana vih…ra was represented in early Buddhist art, whereas, later the miracles of #r…vast† acquired greater importance. Within Maha yana and Vajray…na traditions, the representations of the miracle lost temporal and geographic specificity becoming universal and available even at the periphery of the Buddhist world.

Once we enter the region in which #…kyamuni lived prior to enlightenment, the nature of pilgrimage seems to transform. Both the relics of the periphery and the miracles at the threshold of the Buddha's area of action are no longer of importance. Now the emphasis revolves around retracing the actions of #…kyamuni that led to his enlightenment as he in turn had followed in the path of the past Buddha Dipañkara and so on. Walking in the Buddha's footsteps was a proven path to enlightenment and an obvious goal for pilgrims who were physically able to reach these places. To stand before the Bodhi tree – the cosmic axis of the world – was to be at the very nexus of enlightenment and potential enlightenment.

Relics, nevertheless, remain important in the homeland of the Buddha, but now they are associated with the life and death of the Buddha, in particular the paranirv…ªa at Ku@anagara where all the relics trace their origin.

Fa Xian and Xuan Cang begin their pilgrimage in the heartland with visiting Kapilavastu where #…kyamuni grew up. All of the events of his childhood leading up to his departure were marked by traces or by st™pas. Fa Xian tells of monuments erected at the sites where the young prince's horoscope was calculated and where the first meditation at the plowing ceremony occurred. Also towers were built where #…kyamuni saw the sick man and at the gate where the Great Departure took place. In othe r words, the geography of the Buddha prior to his enlightenment had all become sacred by 400 CE, when the earliest account was compiled. These events were also quite commonly represented in the art of S…¿c†, Amaravati and Gandh…ra.

Approaching Bodhgay…, Fa Xian and Xuan Cang describe the sites where #…kyamuni fasted for six years and, after his decision to renounce extreme asceticism, where he bathed, received milk and rice and finally were he broke his fast. Then they visit sev eral places that had been rejected by the Buddha as seats of enlightenment and yet were sanctified by some sort of manifestations of #…kyamuni's passage. Finally, the pilgrims get to the Bodhi tree. The Diamond Throne was apparently marking the spot whe re the Tath…gata sat under the Bodhi tree. Surprisingly, both Fa Xian and Xuan Cang devote little attention to the place of enlightenment and quickly proceeded to other shrines commemorating where the Buddha walked in meditation, where he received the al ms bowl, where merchants presented him wheat and honey and so forth. These key places are further augmented by miraculous images, relics and many monasteries and other more worldly institutions. In the end, the Bodhi tree appears not to be the climax of pilgrimage, but just one step in a complex itinerary that involves a myriad of sites, events and relics. Our Chinese pilgrims go on traveling around India and after this long journey they go back to their home country.

The following conclusions might be drawn from this survey of Indian Buddhist pilgrimage in ancient times. A@ôka may be the first historical figure that can be associated to pilgrimage. While his role as a pilgrim is

unclear, he probably established a series of pilgrimage centers that acquired importance through time. Beginning in the first centuries BCE-CE several self contained, interlocking circuits of pilgrimage can be defined. The first evidence available f rom the sites of Bh…rhut and S…¿c† points to the existence of popular and regional traditions centered on relics. Most pilgrims came from nearby areas with the only goal to pay homage to the specific relics and offer small donations. Thus, it appears tha t the primary patrons of these sites were in fact the pilgrims themselves, who belonged to both monastic and lay communities.

Later, in Gandh…ra and on the Deccan plateau we find a similar pattern of individual donations of shrines, images and st™pas. The proliferation of small votive structures at sites like Takht-i-b…h† in the Peshawar basin or Ajaª¥… on the Decca n is certainly an indication of involvement and patronage by local communities. The pilgrim in these peripheric centers would not be re-enacting the Buddhas quest but rather travelling to be in the presence of powerful relics like those housed in S…¿c†'s main st™pa or the skull bone at Ha…. Such a relic was a physical piece of enlightenment. The complex symbolism of the st™pa re-creates the cosmic axis. Thus, the center of the Buddhist world, Bodhgay…, was effectively available in the provi nces. In Gandh…ra, in addition to the importance of body relics, miracles play a role in legitimizing pilgrimage centers.

The consistent pattern of pilgrimage and lay donation that occurs within the independent peripheral Buddhist communities appear to confirm the applicability of the self organizational theory to pilgrimage systems. In other words while each system is distinct, the communities of Bh…rhut and S…¿c† as well as Gandh…ra and West India share a similar set of structures.

As we approach the Ganges basin, the miracles of the Buddha seem to acquire more relevance. They appear to bridge the relic focused pilgrimage network of the periphery with the sacred geography defined by the historic life of #…kyamuni at the cente r. Each system must have functioned autonomously. The regional pilgrims wanting to pay homage to the Buddha could do so within their local network be it based on relics, miracles or sacred geography.

Once we step into the land associated with the life of the Buddha leading to enlightenment, miraculous events give way to a sacred geography that the pilgrim follows in order to re-enact #…kyamuni's quest for Enlightenment. The goal here is not to visit one single powerful center, as was the case in peripheral systems, but rather to pass through an itinerary of greater and lesser sites. The sacred geography, central to the Buddhist religion, would have served not only the local community, but also a larger audience coming from the far corners of the world. At the time Fa Xian and Xuan Cang visit the subcontinent, long distance pilgrimage carried by Buddhist devotees coming from China, Central Asia and Sri Lanka existed. This extended pilgrimage ne twork functioned to link regional centers not so much with each other but with the heartland of the Buddhist world. It is significant to observe that during the fifth and sixth century CE the style of the S…rn…th Buddha image (fig. 10) spread to the peri pheral regions of the Buddhist world. Long distance pilgrimage seem to have provided the means of communication that brought this style to places like the Deccan (fig. 11), Sri Lanka (fig. 12), Nepal, Central Asia, Burma and Thailand.

The Chinese pilgrims remain, in any case, our main source for understanding early Buddhist pilgrimage practices. They passed down to us vivid pictures of what pilgrimage centers were like in the fifth to seventh century AD. I would like to end my paper with this passage describing the popular practice that occurred at the Jêtavana vih…ra in #r…vast† when the rains end and the monks broke their yearly rest:

religious persons come here from every quarter in thousands and myriads, and during seven days and nights they scatter flowers, burn incense and sound music.





  1. Inscribed base of the A@ôkan pillar from S…rn…th (photo Kurt Behrendt)
  2. S…¿c† St™pa I (after J. Marshall. vol. III, plate IIIb.)
  3. Bodhi Temple from gateway of S…¿c† St™pa I (after Marshall. vol. III, plate LI)
  4. Sankasya from gateway of S…¿c† St™pa I (after Marshall. vol. III, plate XXXIV)
  5. Façade of cave 26 Ajaª¥… (photo Kurt Behrendt and Nicholas Morrissey)
  6. St™pa shrine, Kanheri (photo Kurt Behrendt)
  7. Alms bowl of the Buddha flanked by worshippers, Gandh…ra (after Foucher, A. 1905. L'Art Greco-Bouddhique Du Gandhara. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale. fig. 211)
  8. The Mohamed Nari #r…vast† miracle, Gandh…ra (after Ingholt, H. 1957. Gandharan Art in Pakistan. New York: Pantheon Books. fig. 255)
  9. Votive #r…vast† miracle reliefs, Kanheri (photo Kurt Behrendt and Nicholas Morrissey)
  10. Buddha, S…rn…th (after H. Zimmer, 1955. The art of Indian Asia. New York: Pantheon Books. plate 102)
  11. Buddha, Ajaª¥… cave 19 (after Zimmer plate 179)
  12. Buddha, Anur…dhapura Sri Lanka (after Zimmer plate 457)





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