Buddhist Pilgrimage Sites: India

Mural painting of Padmapani, 6th century, Cave 1, Ajanta. © John Huntington

Mural painting of Padmapani (Bearer of the Lotus), 6th century, Cave 1, Ajanta. © John Huntington

Within a short time of the Buddha's death in around 405 BC, lay devotees and members of the ordained community were making pilgrimages to sites in India  associated with the Buddha's life. Later the stupas or burial monuments of prominent Buddhist leaders also became focuses of pilgrimage. The belief in the gathering of religious merit through pilgrimage remains strong within Buddhist communities up to the present day.

Buddhists from across the whole of Asia travelled by land or sea to the sites sanctified by association with the Buddha. Whenever possible they journeyed in groups or joined caravans for safety, travelling by foot or bullock cart.  Pilgrims returning to their homelands carried relics, books and images which played a major part in transferring Indian artistic styles to all areas of Asia. Despite the huge distances sometimes involved, considerable numbers of pilgrims visited the holy places of the Buddhist heartland. In the year 964, for example, 300 Chinese monks set out for India.


Ajanta Caves

Buddhist caves at Ajanta, 2005 Photograph: Soman/Wikipedia Commons, 2005

Buddhist caves at Ajanta, 2005 Photograph: Soman/Wikipedia Commons, 2005

Located in a horseshoe-shaped escarpment in the hills of the Deccan plateau, near the city of Aurangabad, the site of Ajanta was initially settled in the 1st century BC by Hinayana Buddhists who excavated two prayer halls (chaityas) and residential accommodation (viharas). With the emergence of Mahayana Buddhism during the 5th century, new caves were excavated.

The 30 caves on the site are especially renowned for their paintings which illustrate a wide range of Buddhist subjects. The life of the Buddha is shown many times, but it is the paintings of his previous existences (jatakas) that are most remarkable. These crowded, large scale compositions vividly depict the life of contemporary royal courts including the bejewelled figures of princes and their consorts together with servants, attendants and musicians. Sculptures also illustrate Buddhist themes, especially jataka stories and are extremely refined. The sensitive modelling and delicacy of the carving point to the influence of the Gupta tradition of northern India. Figures of bodhisattvas, nature spirits (yakshas) and guardians reflect Mahayana doctrines.

The caves include rock-cut assembly halls and temples featuring stupas or chaityas. In Cave 26, for example, a seated figure of the Buddha is set into the side of a chaitya. The ribbed roof is modelled in imitation of curving wooden timbers.

Ajanta is one of the few surviving examples of early mural painting and its decorative and iconographic prototypes provided inspiration for the Buddhist art of Tibet, Nepal, Central Asia, China, Japan and South-East Asia.

Amaravati

Reconstruction of the Great Stupa, Amaravati Based on a drawing from Douglas Reconstruction of the Great Stupa, Amaravati © Reproduced with permission of the British Museum

Reconstruction of the Great Stupa, Amaravati. Based on a drawing in Douglas Barrett's 'Sculptures from Amaravati in the British Museum' © Reproduced with permission of the British Museum

Thought to have been a great Mahayana Buddhist centre, Amaravati was an important and flourishing trade centre from the 4th-2nd century BC.

Unfortunately, the exact layout of the stupa is unknown as the site was gradually destroyed over the years. It is thought that the Great Stupa was enclosed by a single railing (vedika) with four gateways (toranas) in each of the cardinal directions. The stupa platform had four projecting votive platforms (ayaka) aligned with the gateways and each ayaka was surmounted by five pillars. The exact size of the dome is unknown, but it is suggested that it would have been approximately 43 metres in diameter.

From the many pieces of sculpture from Amaravati now kept in museums (Madras, London and Amaravati), it can be seen that the vedika was elaborately carved with lotus flowers together with stories from the Buddha's life and his previous lives (jatakas). Whole pillars were used to illustrate one story, with episodes being demarcated by lotus flowers. Narrative scenes also appeared on large drum slabs that were divided into three registers.

Drum slab, Amaravati, British Museum
Drum slab, carved limestone, Amaravati, India. Standing Buddha flanked by nagarajas, flying worshippers and ganas. © British Museum reg. no. 1800,0709.79.
Coping stone, Amaravati, British Museum
Coping stone, carved limestone, Amaravati, India. Rectangular block carved with elephants, ganas and a stupa. © British Museum reg. no. 1800,0709.108.
Buddhapada (footprints of the Buddha), Amaravati, British Museum
Buddhapada (footprints of the Buddha), carved limestone, Amaravati, India. Each footprint bears a dharmacakra (wheel of law) © British Museum reg. no. 1800,0709.57.

Bhaja & Karle

Cave entrance, Bhaja. © John Huntington

Cave entrance, Bhaja. © John Huntington

Situated near Mumbai, Bhaja and Karle are amongst the earliest examples of Buddhist architecture found in India. Although these rock cut caves, carved into the sides of a mountain plateau, were intended to provide monastic retreats, their location close to trade routes ensured that they would attract donations and patronage. In accordance with Buddhist monastic tradition, the caves were used both for communal worship (chaityas) and as monks' residences comprising individual cells arranged around an open area for group teaching and instruction (viharas).

The caves at Bhaja date from the late 2nd- early 1st century BC and feature the first example of an apsidal chaitya (a long hall with a semi-circular end). In imitation of the traditional wooden construction of early Buddhist buildings, the stone ceiling was carved to resemble wooden timbers. Similar techniques appear at Karle (dating from the 2nd 1st century BC) which has the largest Buddhist chaitya in India. It has a vaulted ceiling flanked by rows of pillars. A stupa is located at the back of the hall with enough space around it to allow ritual circumambulation (pradakshina). The façade of the chaitya is finely decorated with carved architectural features (recalling wooden prototypes) together with figures and animals.

Stupa in main prayer hall, Bhaja
Stupa in main prayer hall, Bhaja. © John Huntington
Cave entrance with relief carvings, Bhaja
Cave entrance with relief carvings, Bhaja. © John Huntington

Bharhut

The stupa at Bharhut may have been constructed by Ashoka in the 3rd century BC, but many of the decorative features (particularly the carved friezes) were added during the Sunga Dynasty in the 2nd  century BC.

The stupa, which has been dismantled and installed in the Indian Museum in Calcutta, is highly important for its series of early Indian sculptural reliefs (many in medallion form) depicting stories of the Buddha's previous lives (Jataka tales) together with images of nature spirits (yakshas) and aniconic Buddhist symbols such as the wheel, bodhi tree, footprints and empty throne. Unusually, some of the panels include text identifying the individuals represented.

Relief carved panel, Bharhut

Relief carved panel, Bharhut. © John Huntington

Yaksha reliefs, Bharhut

Yaksha reliefs, Bharhut. Archaeological Survey of India, 1875, Photograph by Alexander Cunningham

Detail, relief carved panel, Bharhut

Detail, relief carved panel, Bharhut

Yaksha from Bharhut stupa © John Huntington

Yaksha from stupa, Bharhut, Madhya Pradesh, India. © John Huntington


Ellora

Façade view, Ellora, India. Photograph © John Huntington

Façade view, Ellora, India. Photograph © John Huntington

30 km north-west of Aurangabad in Maharashtra, the rock-cut cave temples of Ellora were excavated from the vertical face of the Charanandri Hills. Situated on an ancient north-south trade route, Ellora developed as an important stopping point for pilgrims and merchants and probably developed as a result of patronage from various royal Indian dynasties.

This monastic temple complex represents the work of successive Buddhist, Hindu and Jain groups. There are 34 caves on the site, 12 of which were excavated by the followers of Buddhism. These are the earliest structures on the site, being dated between circa 450 and 700 AD.

The entrance to Cave 2 is decorated with massive sculptures of door guardians (dvarapalas). The pillared hall has side galleries containing image niches with a shrine dedicated to the Buddha at the far end, a layout which would allow pradakshina (ritual circumambulation).

Cave 5 is similar in layout although the side galleries contain small accommodation cells with two low stone benches stretching the length of the hall, suggesting that this cave would probably have been used as a place for preaching and instruction of novice monks.

Cave 10, also known as Visvakarma (the celestial architect), has a pillared hall with a huge arched ceiling carved with ribs, resembling a wooden roof. The Buddha image (approximately 3 metres high) is seated in front of a stupa and is flanked by two attendants.

Cave 12, also known as Teen Thal, is the largest cave at Ellora and has three storeys. The ground floor has a shrine in the middle with cells along the side walls. The hall on the floor above is divided into three aisles by square pillars, with rows of bodhisattvas on either side of an image of the Buddha in earth-touching pose (bhumisparsamudra). A similar shrine is on the top floor, with images of the bodhisattvas, Padmapani and Vajrapani, standing on either side of the Buddha. The walls of the cave are decorated with Buddhas, bodhisattvas and goddesses of the Mahayana pantheon.

Kapilavastu

Amaravati drum slab, Kalipavastu. With permission of The British Museum

Amaravati drum slab, Kalipavastu. With permission of The British Museum.

The village of Piprahwa has been identified as Kapilavastu, the capital of the Sakyas, where the Buddha lived for 29 years.

It was here that the Buddha renounced all of his worldly possessions and became a wandering ascetic. The Buddha's 'Great Departure' from Kapilavastu is a popular theme in early Buddhist art, for example, appearing in narrative carvings at the stupa sites of Sanchi and Amaravati.

During the 1970s excavations at the site revealed a stupa which had an inscription dated to the Kushan period, confirming that this was the site of Kapilavastu. Further excavations nearby revealed a thick walled structure which it is believed could have been the royal palace of the Buddha's family.

Excavation of relic casket, Kapilavastu. Photograph © John Huntington
Excavation of relic casket, Kapilavastu. Photograph © John Huntington
View of stupa, Kapilavastu. Photograph © John Huntington
View of stupa, Kapilavastu. Photograph © John Huntington
Western gate, Kapilavastu. Photograph by BPG, Wikipedia, 2006
Western gate, Kapilavastu. Photograph by BPG, Wikipedia, 2006
Photograph of Buddhist monuments at Sanchi by James Waterhouse, Museum no. 56:280

Udayagir

Seated Buddha, Udayagir. © John Huntington

Seated Buddha, Udayagir. © John Huntington

Five years after his enlightenment, the Buddha was invited to Vaisali by its ruler, a Licchavi (Nepalese) prince. The city was affected by drought and plague, but as soon as the Buddha arrived there was a thunderstorm with torrential rain which cleansed the city and its people. The Buddha stayed and preached for seven days, according to legend, converting 84,000 people to Buddhism.

Records indicate that the Buddha made several visits to Vaisali for the purpose of preaching to the monastic community (sangha) and setting down many instructions and rules. The Licchavi rulers constructed monastic buildings (vihara) for the Buddha's use and it was here that a monkey took the Buddha's alms bowl, filled it with honey and then offered it to the Buddha.

Detail of column, Udayagir. © John Huntington
Detail of column, Udayagir. © John Huntington
Detail of column, Udayagir. © John Huntington
Detail of column, Udayagir. © John Huntington
Seated Buddha, Udayagir. ©John Huntington
Seated Buddha, Udayagir. ©John Huntington

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