Renewing and Transforming Tibetan Buddhist Pilgrimage Culture in India

Tibetan Buddhism is one of the most profound and fascinating forms of Buddhist philosophy and teachings that have been practised in India for centuries. The Indian subcontinent has been the birthplace of many spiritual and religious practices, including Buddhism, and it has continued to flourish and evolve over the years.

Tibetan Buddhism is unique in many ways, and one of the most remarkable aspects of this practice is the role of pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is an ancient universal human activity and one of the most common phenomena found in all major religious traditions. Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam all have developed complex pilgrimage cultures, with a range of sites and unique traditions. Despite modernity and secularization, pilgrimage has still remained extremely popular for religious practitioners, and has been transforming along with the 21st century`s social, economic and technological developments.

With the gradual opening of the Tibetan region to tourism in the 1980s, travelling to Tibet and doing fieldwork became possible for Western scholars interested in the subject matter. As a result, a new generation of researchers from various disciplines has begun to explore the Tibetan pilgrimage culture and places, producing a number of studies. Interestingly, all of these works completely neglected the Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimage places and culture of India – Tibet’s immediate neighbour and the birthplace of Buddhism – which, as Huber noted, concerning the development of Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimage culture, has been extremely important to the Tibetans themselves for a very long time (Huber 2008). He further argues that research on the Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimage culture of India should have attracted more of a scholarly interest, given the fact that for the very first time in history a permanent Tibetan society, along with its religious leaders, has been residing in India for over 50 years due to major political changes in Tibet’s other important neighbour, China.

India always has been a holy land for Tibetans. It provided not only the Buddha’s teachings but a network of sacred pilgrimage sites which some of the Tibetans visited and used for their spiritual practice. When the holy sites of India became lost or inaccessible for Tibetan pilgrims, Tibetan agents made sure that the connection was not gone to the Holy Land and they simply transferred the sites to the Tibetan plateau or reinvented them elsewhere within India.

Today, India has become more than a Holy Land, it is now home to more than a lakh of Tibetan refugees. In this familiar but still new and modern environment, the small but significant diasporic Tibetan community led by the Dalai Lama and other important lamas, such as the Karmapa Urgyen Trinley Dorje, have successfully re-created and maintained their new, reinvented and united Tibetan society. The Tibetan cause of preserving Tibetan culture has also attracted significant international attention and support.

Tibetans in India were not only able to continue their important practice of pilgrimage to the holy Buddhist sites which were either unknown or lost to them for centuries, but also they were able to utilize them to maintain and strengthen their cultural identity. They have successfully colonized the newly restored ancient sites of the Buddha, by building hundreds of permanent monasteries, guest houses, institutes and other structures. In the Tibetan place-making process one of the newest projects is the construction of the Maitreya Statue in Bodhgaya which, once completed, will not only attract pilgrims in great numbers but certainly will dominate the already Tibetanized landscape.

The new environment, modernity and the internationalization of Tibetan Buddhism have also altered the traditional Tibetan pilgrimage rituals. Tibetans recreated and reinvented large-scale gatherings like the Kalachakra Teachings or the Kagyu Monlam prayer festival. Additionally, they abandoned certain practices, such as walking to the holy places and develop new ones, such as observing a less strict hierarchical relationship between the religious elite and common Tibetans, creating a more united Tibetan society, mixing with the international Buddhist community for the first time in Tibetan history, as well as creating a more gender equal society.

Many organizations and individuals are coming together to find new ways to preserve this unique practice and make it more accessible to people. A critical aspect of the reimagined Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimage culture is the use of technology. With the advancement of technology, it has become possible to create virtual pilgrimage experiences. This means that people who are unable to travel physically can still experience the spiritual journey through virtual reality.

The use of technology has also enabled the creation of interactive pilgrimage experiences. For example, some organizations have developed apps that provide users with a guided tour of pilgrimage sites, including information on the history and significance of each location and Buddhist philosophy and teachings.

“All conditioned things are impermanent” taught the Buddha, suggesting that everything is subject to change, and nothing ever remains fixed. Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimage culture is no exception to this basic principle. In its long existence since the 7th century, it has been through huge changes, continuously inventing and reinventing itself. What can be seen with the Tibetan community in India since its exile, is the latest step in their centuries-long re-imagining of their traditional pilgrimage culture, a process that continues to date.

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