The Pilgrim’s Progress

Joseph Szostak reports from India on the history of Buddhist pilgrimage and the challenges and benefits of this ancient practice.

Joseph Szostak
1 June 2007
Photo by Sayan Nath on Unsplash

A few days into my first pilgrimage, I was traveling on an old Mazda bus, rolling on six bald tires along some of the worst roads in India, if not the world, in the unfortunate region of Bihar. The Indians have a saying, “The good, the bad, and the Bihar.” It is the poorest, most corrupt state in all of India. The potholes are the size of craters, and the highway is two converging lines of Tonka trucks, tourist buses, white ambassador taxis, and motorbikes, all honking their horns ferociously while spewing foul-smelling exhaust into the air. From our bus window, my fellow pilgrims and I observed scenes not much altered from the Buddha’s time: villages of clay huts with straw roofs, women in colorful saris working the earth with hoes, men in white dhotis.

We were traveling from Sarnath to Bodhgaya, along a corridor often walked by the Buddha himself. During the Buddha’s life, this region in the central part of the Ganges (Ganga) Valley was one of the great cradles of human civilization, known as the Majjhimadesa, the Middle Land. It’s the region where Siddhartha, or Shakyamuni Buddha, was born and spent his life. The Middle Land nurtured Buddhism through its first crucial centuries, and today, even though Buddhism is no longer the religion of the land, it remains its spiritual home. Buddhist pilgrims throughout the centuries have been inspired to overcome enormous obstacles and even risk their lives to visit the sacred sites here and receive their blessings.

While Hindus have always been avid pilgrims, for Buddhists it has been a different story. Today Buddhist sacred sites in India seem vibrant, filled with eager pilgrims from traditionally Buddhist countries and increasingly from Western countries. They display glorious temples and monuments and have spawned a vast market for Buddhist paraphernalia. But it hasn’t always been like this.

For many centuries, Buddhists in search of the sources of Buddhism had nowhere to go. The places of the Buddha, like Buddhism itself, had been wiped from the face of India. How the sites went from oblivion to this robust resurgence is a remarkable story, one that is still unfolding. For behind some apparent successes, many important issues remain unresolved.

The Four Great Wonders

It was the Buddha himself who enshrined pilgrimage as an important act in the life of a practitioner. Speaking shortly before his death to his chief attendant, Ananda, and referring to himself as the Tathagata, the Enlightened One, the Buddha said:

Ananda, there are four places the sight of which should arouse a sense of urgency in the faithful. Which are they? “Here the Tathagata was born” is the first. “Here the Tathagata attained supreme enlightenment” is the second. “Here the Tathagata set in motion the wheel of the dharma” is the third. “Here the Tathagata attained parinirvana without remainder” is the fourth. And, Ananda, the faithful,…while making the pilgrimage to these shrines with a devout heart, will, at the breaking up of the body after death, be reborn in a heavenly world.

Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Chapter V

The four places that are linked to key events in the Buddha’s life are Lumbini, where he was born in the fifth or sixth century BCE; Bodhgaya, where he attained enlightenment at the age of thirty-one; Sarnath, where he first turned the wheel of dharma; and Kushinagar, where at the age of eighty he passed from this world.

There are other important sites as well, such as those where the Buddha performed his great miracles and those where he and the sangha held their rain retreats. But the “Four Great Wonders,” as they are known, remain the primary places of Buddhist pilgrimage.[1]

Ancient cultures seemed to understand the importance of grounding their spiritual life in the rock and stone of a specific place; they knew that place carries not just its own physicality, but also the energy of human and spiritual unfolding. Place is a container of story and legend. This makes place an authentic book of history and pilgrimage one’s attempt to read that book. This is especially true for Buddhists, because the Buddha’s life story is the map of the Buddhist path.

The sight of the holy shrines, say the texts on pilgrimage, should not arouse craving, nor the pleasure and excitement of sightseeing, but rather the awakening of virtuous potential in our mindstream. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, commenting on Buddhist pilgrimage, or dharma yantra, says:

The dharma yantra is very important for Buddhists. When we visit these sacred sites, we are reminded of the Master, Lord Buddha. It develops in us a strong sense of compassion. Ideally, one should be a better person when one returns, otherwise it is not useful, a waste of money and time.

Herein lies an interesting proposition: the outward act of pilgrimage can, indeed should, lead to an inward change. The pilgrim sets off to a geographic location, yet the pilgrim’s real quest is not for a physical place but rather for an inner destination. The pilgrim can’t just be a tourist.

The Early Pilgrims

The early Buddhist pilgrims endured tremendous hardship, and some of them changed the course of history. The first historical record of Buddhist pilgrimage belongs to the great Indian emperor Ashoka, who embarked on his pilgrimage in the third century BCE, approximately two hundred years after the Buddha’s passing. Being emperor and possessing tremendous devotion, he did more than merely visit the sacred sites. He erected the very stupas, temples, and monuments that marked these sacred sites and gave them their grandeur.

While there is evidence of pilgrimage before Ashoka, the force of his imperial patronage clearly sanctioned the sacred geography and fostered the practice of Buddhist pilgrimage in India. This tradition was perpetuated by sages such as Faxian (Fa-hsien) in the fifth century and Xuanzang (Hsuan-tsang) in the seventh, who were instrumental in introducing Buddhism to China, and by the eleventh-century Tibetan master Marpa the Translator, who established the Kagyu lineage in Tibet (also known as the New Translation School of Buddhism). This practice of pilgrimage played an important role in the spread of Buddhism across Asia.

Xuanzang remains the most renowned pilgrim of all time and one of the most important figures in the history of Buddhism in China. Traveling on horseback, camelback, by elephant, and on foot, he crossed the tallest mountains and harshest deserts of the world. He covered an astonishing ten thousand miles on a pilgrimage that lasted sixteen years. Even today his name is a household word through much of Asia, and his pilgrimage is one of the great adventure stories of all time. The famous Chinese novel Monkey is based on his journey.

We current-day Buddhists owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to these early pilgrims. Ashoka created the stupas and monuments that helped mark the sacred Buddhist sites, and Faxian and Xuanzang left detailed records that would provide the map for rediscovering and reestablishing these sacred sites. And they would need to be rediscovered, because in the thirteenth century Buddhism disappeared from the land of its birth, and by the nineteenth century many historians doubted that the Buddha Shakyamuni was anything more than legend and myth.

The Buddhist Diaspora

How could Buddhism, conceived in the great Ganges Planes of India, supported by emperors and a prosperous laity and rooted in the very fabric of Indian life, be so vanquished in the land of its birth that virtually all traces of it would disappear?

In the early twelfth century, Buddhism was thriving in India. During the reign of the Pala kings (eighth–twelfth centuries), who were followers of Buddhism, the great Buddhist universities of Nalanda, Odantapura, and Vikramasila flourished and attracted as many as ten thousand students from every Buddhist country in the world. Learning and scholarship expanded, and tantra developed.

Then from Afghanistan came the Turaskas, fanatical Muslims who systematically destroyed every Buddhist community in their path. Buddhist monks with their shaved heads and their distinctive colored robes were easy targets and were massacred wholesale as idolaters. According to the Persian historian Minhaz, at Nalanda University alone thousands of monks were burned alive and thousands more were beheaded. Nalanda’s great library was set ablaze and burned for several months before all its books and records were devoured. Minhaz reported a similar assault on Odantapura. Chan Khoon San, author of Buddhist Pilgrimage, describes the effects of the disaster:

The extermination of Buddhist monks dealt a fatal blow to the organization of the Sangha in India. With the monks gone, no one was left to carry on their work or to lead the demoralized laity who were forcibly converted to Islam or absorbed into Hinduism and Jainism.

While India’s Hindus and Jains were also persecuted, their priests and leaders were not so easily recognized and therefore not so easily killed. Enough survived to rebuild their communities. But for Buddhism in India this was the end. The handful of Buddhist monks who survived fled with what holy treasures and scriptures they could gather. They scattered to remote monasteries or to ports from which they sailed to safety in Bangladesh or Burma. Others trekked northward across the Himalayas into Nepal and Tibet. This was the Buddhist diaspora.

With the downfall of Buddhism in India, the shrines and monuments of the Buddha lost their meaning. They were plundered and destroyed, converted into Hindu temples, or just ignored and neglected. Chan Khoon San calls this period the saddest era of Buddhism—a period, which like the holocaust of the Jews in the twentieth century, should never be forgotten.

For six centuries the sacred sites virtually vanished. Then in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, pilgrims and explorers began bringing them back. What we see today is the result of their devotion and dedication.

Rediscoving the Past

The rule of Islam in India was broken by the British, who brought with them a passion for archeology and understanding the past. This passion was exemplified by Alexander Cunningham, the man most responsible for recovering the ancient Buddhist sites in India.

Cunningham was neither a Buddhist nor a pilgrim, but rather a devout Christian. He arrived in India in 1833 as a lieutenant in the British army and proved a gifted surveyor, administrator, and engineer. As he traveled through India, he developed a remarkable knowledge of its ancient geography. Near the end of Cunningham’s military career, the British government decided to establish an archaeological survey, and he was appointed its first director general. By this time, he had developed a keen interest in and respect for Buddhism. Taking the records of Faxian and Xuanzang as his guides, he began searching for the lost Buddhist sites. He soon proved that not only had the Buddha existed but also that major events of his life took place in identifiable sites in northern India.

Cunningham identified Kushinagar, where the Buddha was born, and excavated in Sarnath, where the Buddha first taught. He also verified many other sites, but of all the sites that he found or reclaimed, none was more sacred than Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya, the most revered of all the Buddhist pilgrimage sites.


Our bus arrived at our hotel in Bodhgaya in the early evening. My fellow pilgrims and I tumbled out, exhausted and dazed, and were immediately greeted by bellhops carrying garlands of golden marigolds, which they threw over our necks, and plastic glasses of Cokes on silver trays. It was the best Coke I had ever tasted. In the morning, we walked down the road to the Mahabodhi Temple.

Seeing Mahabodhi today, it is hard to conceive that something so grand could have ever been lost. The temple marks the spot where the Buddha attained final enlightenment. One could say that while the Buddha was born in Lumbini, Buddhism was born in Bodhgaya. Today this is not just an archeological site but also an international center for Buddhist activity. There are twenty-six monasteries representing various Buddhist countries and lineages. The site attracts more visitors than all the other sites combined. Making a pilgrimage to Bodhgaya at least once has been the aspiration of millions of Buddhists throughout history. Buddhist scholar Reginald Ray explains it this way:

The place where a Buddha attains enlightenment is unique in the world: the place where he sat, the tree that sheltered him, the area around which he walked become charged with the energy of awareness, the dynamism of the awakened state, the magic and power of his realization…Visiting such a place, making such a connection, has the power to transform a life and perhaps many lives to come.

The Mahabodhi Temple is the heart of Bodhgaya, and in 2002 it was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage monument. Ashoka built the original altar, but no sign of it remains. The temple’s present form is thought to date from the sixth century. The exact spot where the Buddha attained enlightenment under the bodhi tree is revered as the vajrasana, the indestructible seat. When the great earth is shaken, it is said, this place alone remains unmoved.

The temple complex lies in a deep courtyard below the level of the surrounding terrain. Carved of Chunar sandstone, the temple glows orange with the sunrise. It seems to emerge out of the earth, ancient and monumental. Its four-cornered, pyramid-like spire soars 180 feet toward the sky and comes to nearly a point. Four similarly shaped corner turrets flank the spire. The temple’s two lower stories house shrines that through the ages have served as places of homage, ritual practice, and meditation. Its upper portion, crowned by a stupa, contains relics of the Buddha.

The temple grounds cover several acres of gardens, trees, and flowers that surround votive stone chapels, bells, and statues. To the south of the temple lies the Lotus Pond, where the Buddha bathed. To the north sits the chankrama, a raised platform marking the place where the Buddha walked back and forth while meditating on whether he should teach his message of self-abandonment to the world. Seven spots within the precincts of the temple are especially sacred because they mark the places where the Buddha spent a week each meditating after his enlightenment. Also on the north side, practitioners of many nationalities stand side by side, performing the ancient practice of prostrations.

The temple’s main shrine chamber houses an ancient gilded statue of the Buddha in the bhumisparsha mudra, one finger touching the earth, calling it to witness his awakening. But this is not the original Mahabodhi statue, which had once been the most revered object in Bodhgaya. Xuanzang described that statue as being over eleven feet high, made of gold, and carved in the exact likeness of the Buddha. It is believed to have been destroyed in the Muslim invasion.

The Struggle for Mahabodhi

The struggle to restore the Mahabodhi Temple to the Buddhist world has been nearly as monumental as the temple itself. Unlike the other sites, Mahabodhi never completely disappeared, but when Cunningham arrived in 1861, he saw a ruin. The temple flooded during each year’s monsoon and was partially buried in silt. An early drawing shows it covered in weeds, its roof fallen in and its walls badly cracked. The picture is titled East View of the Hindu Temple of Bode Gya.

Hindu squatters had taken over the temple compound. In the first half of the seventeenth century, a wandering Saivite Hindu ascetic arrived at Mahabodhi and established a hermitage. In the following centuries, his hermitage grew into a large monastery, and his successors, the mahants (abbots), became a powerful influence in Bodhgaya. Until the 1890s, the mahants showed no interest in the temple. Not only did they let it decay, but they also demolished the smaller temples and shrines surrounding the main structure to acquire bricks for construction around the mahant’s monastery. When the British first started questioning the mahant, they found he knew nothing of the connection between the temple and the Buddha.

In 1880, after a failed attempt by a Burmese delegation to restore the temple, the British government stepped in. Under Cunningham’s direction, and with the help of Xuanzang’s detailed descriptions, the Mahabodhi Temple was returned to at least some of its former glory.

While Cunningham discovered and restored the Buddhist heritage sites, another man, Anagarika Dharmapala, dedicated his life to reclaiming them for the Buddhist world. Born David Hewavitarana in Sri Lanka in 1865, he took the name Anagarika Dharmapala, which means “homeless guardian of the dhamma.” Dharmapala came to Bodhgaya in 1891 after reading an article by Sir Edwin Arnold, an English poet, journalist, and early Western Buddhist who was the first person to understand the importance of returning the Mahabodhi Temple to the Buddhist world. What Dharmapala saw at Bodhgaya caused him both great joy and great pain. The magnificent Mahabodhi Temple stood empty and desolate of all life. Outside, statues of buddhas and bodhisattvas and carved temple stones laid scattered over a wide area, left to decay or be carried away by visitors. Dharmapala wrote in his journal:

It was most painful for me to witness the vandalism that was taking place there constantly… The most beautiful statues of the teacher of Nirvana and the Law … are still uncared for and quietly allowed to perish by exposure.

While standing under the bodhi tree, Dharmapala had an epiphany.

As soon as I touched my forehead to the Vajrasana [seat of enlightenment], a sudden impulse came to my mind to stop here and take care of this sacred spot, so sacred that nothing in the world is equal to this place where Prince Sakya Sinha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree.”

Like much of Buddhism itself, Dharmapala believed, the Mahabodhi Temple had become a relic of the past rather than something vital and living. He decided he would dedicate his life to reviving them both, and he vowed that by Vaisakha, four months hence, the Mahabodhi Temple would once again be a properly functioning temple run by Buddhists.

Dharmapala sent scores of letters to Buddhist leaders asking for help, but the responses were disappointing. To accomplish his goal, he left the temple and began a period of ceaseless activity. He founded the Maha Bodhi Society to promote the cause and started a magazine to chart its progress. He visited Burma, Sri Lanka, and China to raise funds and support. Although the responses were halfhearted, he continued his efforts. In 1893 he addressed the Parliament of Religions in Chicago, where for the first time Buddhism was preached in the West. In the course of his pursuit, Dharmapala built schools, dispensaries, and vocational training institutes. He also reclaimed Sarnath as an important Buddhist center and was responsible for the first modern contact between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhists. He achieved much by the time he died in 1933, but his primary goal, the return the Mahabodhi Temple to the Buddhist world, had not been realized.

By the 1880s, the mahant had become one of the most powerful landholders in Bihar. The activities of the British and of Dharmapala had alerted him to the temple’s value. Knowing there were legal ambiguities regarding its ownership, the mahant began claiming the temple belonged to him. Conflict erupted when the mahant’s men physically prevented Dharmapala from installing a statue of the Buddha in the temple. Dharmapala, against all advice, took legal action. The trial dragged on for years, costing the Maha Bodhi Society large sums of money, and in the end did not move them closer toward their goal.

The Society continued to lobby the government, but it was not until 1948, after India achieved independence, that its efforts produced a result. Behind the scenes, pleading and arm-twisting by people like Jawaharlal Nehru, the Republic of India’s first prime minister, resulted in the Bodhgaya Temple Act, which created a management committee to administer the temple. The committee would be made up of Buddhists and Hindus and would include the mahant, who was now claiming that the Buddha was really the Hindu god Vishnu. Most galling to the Buddhists, however, was the Act’s stipulation that the Hindus would always have a majority of seats on the committee. The Maha Bodhi Society condemned the Act as “highly inadequate” and lobbied against it, until it became clear that this was as good as the Buddhists were going to get. The situation remains unchanged today.


Dharmapala’s other great accomplishment was in Sarnath, where at Deer Park the Buddha first turned the wheel of dharma. Sarnath is located four miles north of Varanasi (Banares), the holy city of the Hindus. It was my first destination in India because I had come to study with Thrangu Rinpoche at Vajra Vidya, his beautiful new monastery along the edge of Deer Park.

Until its destruction in the thirteenth century, Sarnath had been a thriving Buddhist centre with as many as thirty monasteries supporting some three thousand monks. Cunningham’s archaeological team rediscovered Sarnath in 1834, and Dharmapala, through his writings, speeches, and appeals to wealthy Indians and Westerners, raised money for its restoration and for the construction of a Buddhist temple known as the Mulagandhakuti Vihara.

Today Sarnath is perhaps the most beautiful of the pilgrimage sites. The gentle meadows of Deer Park radiate simplicity and tranquility. Within its gates, the Dharmarajika Stupa, first built by King Ashoka, is said to mark the site of the Buddha’s earliest teachings and contain his relics. Across the street, the Sarnath Museum exhibits the remarkable art and sculpture discovered at Deer Park. It was just up the street from there that I had a chance meeting that would give me greater insight into the current situation facing India’s Buddhist sacred sites.

The Road Ahead

I was getting a hot chai at an outdoor café behind the Maha Bodhi Society’s Sarnath headquarters when a thin, elegant man in his mid-fifties, dressed in white, invited me to sit at his table. Suresh Bhatia turned out to be the editor of an online journal called The Buddhist Heritage, which is dedicated to the preservation of Buddhist sacred sites in India. The café, it appeared, was his office. He turned up here every morning and stayed until the midday heat. Bhatia had previously been a fashion photographer in London, but a chance encounter with Kalu Rinpoche led him to become a Buddhist and changed the course of his life. Years later, the late Jamgon Kongtrul encouraged him to pursue archaeological research. Today, Bhatia holds a Ph.D. in Buddhist art, refers to himself as a “peace pilgrim,” and has dedicated his life to finding, championing, and preserving the Buddhist heritage sites of India. Over our cups of chai, we discussed the current state of affairs. The situation, he explained, is not good.

Except for Bodhgaya, the sacred sites in India are administered by the central government through the Archeological Survey of India. The Survey does not allow religious ceremonies at the sites, and almost all of the sites, including Bodhgaya, charge admission[2]. For foreigners the admission is many times higher than it is for Indians. These are all flash points for the current crusade. “Buddhists from all over the world come here as pilgrims, not as tourists,” says Bhatia. “They have the right to worship or meditate.” But the sites have become cash cows for the Indian government. “Contrary to their own constitution, the government is charging admission and preventing their use for religious purposes. And the money does not go back into the sites.”

At Deer Park, for example, no archaeological work had been undertaken since the British last excavated in the 1920s, although much archaeological work remains to be done. “The Archeological Survey does nothing,” complains Bhatia.

“Deer Park should be open so people can come to worship and hold monlams [prayer festivals] like they do in Bodhgaya. But no, you can’t do it, neither here nor in Kushinagar, where the Buddha passed into parinirvana.” Buddhist groups in India are lobbying to change this. In Kushinagar, for example, when the Survey started building a wall around the cremation stupa so they could charge admission, a group of local Buddhist monks launched a lawsuit. A stay order on the construction prevents the Survey from charging admission until the suit is settled. Meanwhile, Bhatia is gathering signatures for a petition asking the president of India to intervene and open the sites for religious use without fees.

Although Bodhgaya is administered by a special committee, serious problems abound there as well. For years there have persisted allegations of theft of funds and antiquities from the temple. And Buddhists on the management committee have long complained that their recommendations for improvements are routinely voted down by the Hindu majority. The problems facing the Mahabodhi Temple are so severe, says Bhatia, that the temple is in danger of collapsing.

“All sacred Buddhist architecture has three levels, commemorating the three jewels, the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha,” says Bhatia. But when the British restored the temple, they did not know this. They simply propped up the roof of the third storey with wooden beams and sealed it. “That was 125 years ago,” says Bhatia. “What do you imagine has happened to those wooden beams by now? Termites, rotting, many things. The management committee is simply ignoring the problem.” Buddhist Heritage and others are lobbying for the restoration of this third floor.

After our talk, I did the math. It’s been 115 years since Dharmapala was seized by the vision of fully restoring these sacred sites to the Buddhist world. That vision remains unfulfilled, and yet what has been accomplished is remarkable. Buddhists from all over the world can once again come to this land and follow in the Buddha’s footsteps; they can experience blessings sowed more than 2,500 years ago. As countless pilgrims can testify, the experience can truly be life-altering.

For myself and my fellow pilgrims, the level of hardship and effort was no doubt mild compared to the pilgrims of the past, and so the merit is perhaps more circumscribed. Yet to recite the Heart Sutra at Bodhgaya or sit shamatha in Deer Park, to see the stupas and monuments and feel their power directly, to envision the Buddha’s life through the places of its enactment, and to experience the ancient land that was his home—all of this has an undeniable effect on one’s practice and on one’s connection to the path. It is said that the power of aspiration prayers, when recited at sacred sites, is magnified a thousandfold. Did we come back better people? That may be for others to say, but certainly such was our aspiration and our prayer.

[1] Lumbini is in present-day Nepal, while Bodhgaya, Sarnath, and Kushinagar are in India. Bodhgaya and Kushinagar are in the province of Bihar; Sarnath is located in Uttar Pradesh.

[2] No admission is charged at Lumbini.

Joseph Szostak

Joseph Szostak is a longtime Buddhist practitioner and freelance writer and photographer living in Halifax, Nova Scotia.