We recently traveled to India to attend the 30th Kagyu Monlam in Bodhgaya, and along the way, we made time for some pilgrimage travel as well. We offer our photos and comments in the hopes that they might inspire others to venture forth! Happy traveling!
Karen Lucic and Amy Schwartz
Sravasti: Sravasti, the capital of the kingdom of Kosala, was one of the wealthiest cities in ancient India, and the Buddha spent more time here than anywhere else — 25 rains retreats in all, and 19 of his last 20. He gave more discourses here than anywhere else, most of them from the main shrine hall, called the Mulagandhakuti. In the Buddha’s day it was made of wood, but the subsequent monastery which grew up there was made of brick and stone, and the ruins over the exact spot of the original Mulagandhakuti are pictured here. On the day I visited, busloads of Thai and Taiwanese pilgrims had made gorgeous flower offerings. The ruins of the Jetavana monastery are spacious, easily accommodating the many pilgrim groups and their leaders. It was lovely overhearing their monks and teachers talking with them, and hearing them chant from the sutras. I believe this is a Thai monk, and the ladies in the background are leaving flower offerings.
Vikramashila: I was crying while taking this photo, so it was one of the most powerful and memorable pilgrimage places for me. Vikramashila, one of India’s greatest monastic universities, flourished from the 9th to the 12th century C.E. It was an early center of Vajrayana Buddhism; Naropa was the northern gate keeper, and Atisha, who later re-introduced Buddhism to Tibet, was the abbot. Several great pandits and scholars here wrote commentaries on the Chakrasamvara tantra. Vikramashila also educated the great Tibetan translator Rinchen Zangpo. The tears came when I contemplated the tremendous force that it must have taken to topple these heavy stone pillars in the main entryway. The university was sacked sometime around 1200 C.E. by the Muslim fighter Bakhtiyar Khilji and his forces. One can easily imagine fire licking its way rapidly along the wooden beams of the complex in the dry, dusty Indian heat, and hear the frightened calls of the fleeing monks. One can imagine soldiers hacking the beautiful statues to bits, convinced that they were doing Allah’s work and that graven images were an affront to god. It was such a beautiful, sacred, precious place, but that could not save it from the religious wars of the time.
Indasala Cave: This cave lies at the base of a cliff partway up a mountain to the northeast of Rajgir. It was extremely fun to venture out and look for it, and to climb up there. It took a half an hour’s walking and some rock climbing, and the villagers were friendly and helpful in directing my path. I was also alone here, and as solitude is difficult to find when on pilgrimage, I really treasured it. A rock cave doesn’t change much, even over 2,600 years, so I really felt I was touching our teacher, the Buddha, as I sat in the cave and watched my breath. Other inhabitants of the cave included Shariputra, a small sangha at one point, and the great Buddhasrijnana, a commentator on the Guhyasamaja Tantra. The Buddha delivered the Sakkapanha Sutra here, and also verses 206-208 of the Dhammapada.
Patna is in the impoverished state of Bihar—surely one of India’s most dysfunctional cities. It is an improbable location for extraordinary treasures. Yet it is home to the best collection of Indian Buddhist art I have ever seen, and behind a huge metal door resembling a bank vault, the Patna Museum displays a tiny soapstone vessel that holds relics of the Buddha. Indian museums do not normally feature innovative display techniques. And in fact, elsewhere in the Patna Museum we strained to view exquisite statues in dusty, poorly lit cases. But in the relic room, the designers did something really wonderful. They placed the vessel in a model of the stupa where it was found. Brilliant lighting made the tiny object (that contains a fragment of bone, some turquoise, an ancient coin, and the Buddha’s ashes) glow with supernatural radiance. We were far from Vaishali where archeologists found these relics, yet this museum display case transmitted the same joyous calm characteristic of every site we visited during our post-Monlam pilgrimage.
After Shakyamuni Buddha’s cremation, a priest divided his remains into eight parts. Vaishali, an ancient city that the Buddha loved and often visited, received a share. Centuries later, King Ashoka excavated the original eight sites of the Buddha’s relics, exhumed them, and divided them further so that he could create more sites of veneration. The remaining relics at Vaishali returned to the ground and rested there until 1958, when archeologists found the ancient stupa and the soapstone reliquary. Officials transferred these precious remnants of the Buddha’s life to the Patna Museum.
The road to Lumbini from India is long and rough; the border crossing at Nepal, chaotic and intimidating. Our schedule allowed us a mere 20 hours in the land of the Buddha’s birth. And yet I would not have missed it for the world. In the first place, visiting Lumbini completed my goal of reaching the four pilgrimage sites actually prescribed by the Buddha: his place of birth, enlightenment, first teaching, and death. And secondly, Lumbini has an extraordinary natural setting. Unique among the pilgrimage sites we visited, the site of Buddha’s incarnation is buffered by eight square kilometers of protected lands including wild woodland areas, gardens, temples, monasteries, waterways, but no commercial development. This allows the pilgrim to imagine what it might have been like for the Buddha and his followers to walk through such a landscape in ancient times. I think it was in Lumbini that I realized our post-Monlam pilgrimage was like a seal resting upon the experiences of Bodh Gaya.
We met solitary pilgrims, and also large groups from Asia on organized bus tours. My group of KTD friends took a middle course, charting our own itineraries, hiring drivers and cars, and companioning together in twos and threes. I sometimes traveled with Amy McCracken, sometimes with Susan Thompson and Charles Dawes, depending on schedules and desired destinations. We all benefitted from our pathfinder, Amy Schwartz, who went before us and guided our pilgrimage routes by her fearless example.
It was our great good fortune to have several extraordinary guides and drivers: on our journey to the sacred sites of the Buddha, we had young Bola, one of the most guileless and open-hearted individuals I’ve ever met. And in Himachal Pradesh, there was my friend Phurbu, a stalwart former Tibetan army officer, whom I’ve known since my last trip to India in 2007. Arriving desperately sick in India at the age of 4, he credits his survival to the intervention of HH 14th Dalai Lama. Now with five children of his own, Phurbu works tireless in Dharamasala (they live miles away and only see their father about four times a year) to give them the best education possible. A devout Buddhist, Phurbu starts every day and every drive with a long supplication to Guru Rinpoche (which he knows by heart) and a prayer to Tara for protection. Who better to lead us to the holy sites of Tibetan Buddhism?
Phurbu knew everything about the places we wanted to visit: the best time to go, where to get superior prayer flags, who to see to get your prayer flags blessed, how much of a donation to make . . . At Rewalsar, where we visited a mountain top sacred to Guru Rinpoche, Phurbu not only led us to the main cave where Padmasambhava instructed his consort Mandarava in the Dharma, but also to his secret meditation cave, to the rock shelters of the many nuns who live at the site, to self-arisen footprints, to the field of prayer flags, and a woman who roasts and sells tsampa! Following in Phurbu’s footsteps, I realized that pilgrimage is as much about people as it is about places.