Pilgrimage: Tibetan Pilgrimage

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Pilgrimage, in the sense of an extended journey to a sacred place, has long been central to Tibetan life. The word for pilgrim is gnas skor ba, "one who circles a sacred place." Thus the lexicon defines pilgrims by the rite they perform at the end of their journey. Although one may ride a horse to the pilgrimage site, one must as a rule walk around (or circumambulate) the sacred place on foot. In fact, in the Buddhist world it is said that the merit accrued by the pilgrim for the pious act of pilgrimage is far smaller if the circumambulation is performed on horseback.

Pilgrimage Sites

Since the conversion of Tibet to Buddhism, which began in the seventh century ce, Tibetans have venerated the holy places of Buddhist India. During the eleventh and twelfth centuries Tibetans traveled to India to receive Buddhist teachings and to visit Buddhist sacred sites. Buddhist institutions, and Buddhism in general, in India ended after the twelfth century. The Tibetan practice of pilgrimage to India was not revived until the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, following the archaeological discovery of sites associated with the life of the Buddha, such as Bodh Gayā, where he was enlightened, and Sarnath, where he preached his first sermon. Tibetans also travel to Indian sites associated with the history of Tibetan Buddhism, such as Lotus Lake (Mtsho Padma) in Himachal Pradesh. There, Padmasambhava, a key figure in the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet, is said to have appeared from a lotus in the middle of a lake.

Also outside the borders of Tibet, the stupa of Bodnath, in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal, is a primary pilgrimage destination for Tibetans in the southern Himalayan region. It has attracted pilgrims for centuries and, following the Chinese occupation of Tibet that began in the 1950s, became a place of refuge for many Tibetans. Its fame derives from the legend of its founding. The Tibetan king Khri sron ldebtsan, the Indian Buddhist abbot Śāntirakita, and the tantric master Padmasambhava (who together played important roles in establishing Buddhism in Tibet in the eighth century ce) were said in a previous life to have been brothers who built the Bodnath stupa.

In Tibet itself, two types of pilgrimage sites can be distinguished. The first are man-made. These include cities, the most famous of which is the Tibetan capital Lhasa, the "place of gods." Within the city the most famous temple is the Jo khang, or "house of the Lord," which shelters a statue of Śākyamuni Buddha said to have been brought by the Chinese princess Wengcheng in the seventh century ce. Buddhist monasteries are also important destinations for pilgrims. Some of the more famous include Bsam yas, the first Buddhist monastery built in central Tibet; Bkra sis lhun po in the city of Gzi ka rtse, the seat of the Panchen Lamas; and sKu 'bum in present-day Qinghai province, birthplace of Tsong kha pa (13571419), the "founder" of the Dge lugs school.

Pilgrimage sites may also be natural phenomena. The lake Lha mo bla mtsho (Central Tibet), for example, is traditionally visited to receive visions of the birthplace of the next Dalai Lama. The caves where the saint Mi la ras pa (1028/401111/23) practiced meditation are considered powerful pilgrimage sites. The most important of the natural pilgrimage places, however, are sacred mountains, like Mount Kailash in Western Tibet, Tsa ri in Southeast Tibet, and A myes rma chen in Qinghai province. A mountain associated with a lakewith the mountain considered the father and the lake the motheris regarded as the ideal sacred place.

Beginning long before the introduction of Buddhism, the mountains of Tibet were regarded as territorial gods (yul lha ). In Buddhist Tibet many mountains have retained this status and its cult, according to which only males were permitted to perform rituals of offering on the slope. Many of these mountains were incorporated into the Buddhist cosmography through the deeds of a Buddhist saint. This transformation typically occurred when a great religious figure "opened the pilgrimage" (gnas skor phyed ba ) by subduing the negative forces that prevented access to the site. It was then a Buddhist site, and the practice of circumambulation was performed by men and women alike to consolidate this metamorphosis. The popularity of such sacred sites has waxed and waned over time through competition between Buddhist schools to gain real and symbolic control over them.

A rarer type of pilgrimage takes the form of great millenarian migrations toward "hidden lands" (sbas yul), revealed by Padmasambhava, where Tibetans can take refuge when dangers threaten the country. The most well known of these is Gnas Padma bkod in Southeast Tibet. Finally, Tibetans have set off on pilgrimages to mythical kingdoms like Shambhala, said to be in the north, the cradle of the Kālacakra teachings.


A wide variety of Tibetan texts have been designated by Western scholars with the term pilgrimage guides. Some of these are indeed guidebooks in the ordinary sense of the term. They provide concrete information, indicate directions to follow, and sometimes even give the approximate time it takes to go from one point to another. A great number of texts, however, are not conventional guidebooks. They are dedicated to a single site and present a tantric vision of the sacred place. These works describe, in more or less detail, the subjugation of the local deities and the transformation of the place into a maala, the multistoried palace of a Buddhist deity. These texts are literary projections of an internal vision onto the physical landscape, intended to convey the pilgrim toward a higher level of spiritual insight. Pilgrims, many of whom have traditionally been illiterate, know these texts from monks, nuns, and lamas met along the pilgrimage routes. Thus these written sources, passed on orally, superimpose the sacred landscape onto the land for those who have not yet gained the insight to see its true nature for themselves.

Practices and Benefits

Through pilgrimage, Tibetans seek purification, the accumulation of merit, and blessings. Some of these are gained through the rituals they perform along the way. Yet the place itself has its own power, often derived from the past presence of a saint, and pilgrims often take water, stones, earth, and plants home with them from their pilgrimages. Drinking the water or wearing the earth or the stone inside an amulet around the neck is said to aid in finding a better rebirth in the next lifetime. But it also brings more immediate rewards, such as prosperity, long life, and protection from harm.

Despite the pervasive influence of Buddhism in Tibet, pilgrimage remains a mixture of Buddhist and non-Buddhist, Tibetan and non-Tibetan elements. Pilgrimage guides state where along the route pilgrims must circumambulate, bow down, make offerings, and recite sacred mantras, the most popular being o mai padme hū, the mantra of Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva protector of Tibet. Circumambulation derives from the Indian practice of keeping revered objects to one's right; there is evidence of this ritual act being practiced in Tibet during the final centuries of the monarchy (seventh to ninth centuries ce). Buddhists must move in a clockwise direction; adherents of the Bon religion move counterclockwise. In order to accrue special merit, pilgrims sometimes perform prostrations (lying face down, rising, taking a step, and lying face down again) along the entire route. There are also particularly auspicious times to perform pilgrimage during the twelve-year cycle of the Tibetan calendar. Upon arrival at the sacred site, pilgrims make Buddhist offerings of money, butter lamps, or ceremonial scarves. But they also perform non-Buddhist rituals, like burning juniper branches and adding stones to a cairn. Other practices mix Buddhist and non-Buddhist elements in a single act, like weighing sins by hanging from a projection of a rock or crossing the smyal lam, the "path to hell," in order to overcome the fear of facing the intermediate state (bar do ) between death and the next rebirth.

Social, Political, and Economic Implications

Pilgrimage routes link the sacred sites of Tibet and provide pathways for the expression of political and cultural identity. The long pilgrimages so typical in Tibet lead to large movements of population into new regions where all forms of social interaction occur. Pilgrims not only visit sacred sites, they also meet people (leading sometimes to marriage), they carry news, and they transmit forms of knowledge. The practice of pilgrimage in Tibet helped in breaking down cultural separatism and building political integration.

Along the pilgrimage routes all the ranks of the society are encountered, yet social distinctions and hierarchies do not fade. In some cases women are not permitted to enter monastic spaces or set foot on certain segments of the ritual route. At the same time, pilgrimage offers the opportunity to escape from a variety of political constraints and social obligations. Since the 1980s, for example, pilgrimage has sometimes provided a pretext for escaping from Chinese oppression; numerous refugees who have gone on pilgrimage to Mount Kailash in Western Tibet have then continued on to Nepal.

In the Tibetan world, pilgrimage is a collective practice. Groups of pilgrims from the same family, the same locality, or the same monastery typically gather together. Often monks or lamas will serve as guides for lay people, providing information along the way. Upon arrival at the sacred site, these groups of pilgrims do not mix with one another, and conversation is limited to requests for information from a local person or a religious figure. But pilgrimage is also a festive occasion, with groups stopping along the way for song and dance and people dressed in their most beautiful clothes and jewelry.

The economic implications of pilgrimage are also significant. It promotes trade, both large-scale and small-scale, and thus the redistribution of wealth. Pilgrims typically are asked by family members to carry gifts and make offerings on their behalf at the sacred destination in order that they might share in the merit of the pilgrimage. The monastery or temple, so often located near the pilgrimage place (if it is not the sacred site itself), provides consecrated items (ceremonial scarves, consecrated pills, and sometimes food) in return for these donations.


Since the Chinese occupation of Tibet, many changes have occurred in the Tibetan practice of pilgrimage. Numerous roads have been constructed, so it is not unusual to see pilgrims performing the circumambulation of a sacred lake in a bus. Roads have also redefined pilgrimage routes. In 2002 many Tibetans completed only half of the traditional pilgrimage around A myes rma chen Mountain, stopping at the end of the road construction.

Tourism, encouraged by the Chinese authorities, has also had an influence on some sacred sites, affecting not only the economic and political conditions but also the sense of local identity of the Tibetan residents. In general, the tremendous influx of tourists, most of them Han Chinese seeking an idyllic place populated by "authentic Tibetans," has led to a decline of the practice of more traditional pilgrimage to the region.

See Also

Circumambulation; Mantra; Worship and Devotional Life, article on Buddhist Devotional Life in Tibet.


Buffetrille, Katia. Pèlerins, lamas, et visionnaires: Sources orales et écrites sur les pèlerinages tibétains. Vienna, 2000. A translation of several pilgrimage guides, biographies of religious figures, and prayers, with Tibetan text and French translation.

Ekvall, Robert B., and James F. Downs. Tibetan Pilgrimage. Tokyo, 1987. A survey, with numerous examples, of many aspects of Tibetan pilgrimage.

Huber, Toni. The Cult of Pure Crystal Mountain: Popular Pilgrimage and Visionary Landscape in Southeast Tibet. New York, 1999. A study of the representations, ritual practices, and participants of the pilgrimage around Tsa ri Mountain in Southeast Tibet.

Huber, Toni, ed. Sacred Places and Powerful Places in Tibetan Culture: A Collection of Essays. Dharamsala, 1999. Essays regarding sacred space in Tibet, Nepal, Sichuan, Qinghai, North India, and other Tibetan areas.

Mcdonald, Alexander W., ed. Mandala and Landscape. New Delhi, India, 1997. Essays on the relationship between the conception of the maala and physical landscapes.

McKay, Alex, ed. Pilgrimage in Tibet. Richmond, Surrey, U.K., 1998. Essays on the theory and practice of pilgrimage in Tibet and Sikkim as practiced by Indians and Tibetans.

Katia Buffetrille (2005)

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