Within a short time after the Buddha's death in about 405 BC, lay devotees and members of the ordained community were making pilgrimages to the sites associated with the Buddha's life. In later years, the stupas or burial monuments of prominent Buddhist leaders also became the focuses of pilgrimage. The belief in the possibility of gathering 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. They travelled by foot or in bullock carts, travelling in groups or joining caravans for safety. Although monks could stay in monasteries along the way, laymen had to seek private accommodation. For those pilgrims who were unable to make the journey to India, pilgrimage centres in other countries developed at sites associated with Buddhism.
Monks carried a water pot and bowl over their shoulder together with either an umbrella or a staff, the latter useful for warding off dogs and wild animals. Despite the huge distances often encountered, considerable numbers of pilgrims visited the holy places of India. In the year 964, for example, 300 Chinese monks set out for India. 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.
Pilgrimage has formed an important part of Buddhist devotional practice from ancient times. The Rg Veda, a Brahmanical text composed in about 1200 BC, refers to the spiritual benefits that could be acquired by undertaking a pilgrimage to holy sites.
In the Mahaparinibbana sutta, another early text, it is stated that the Buddha encouraged all devotees to make pilgrimages to four holy sites to ensure that they would be reborn in a heavenly world. It was at these four sites that the most significant events of the Buddha's life took place (birth, enlightenment, turning the wheel of the law and death).
- Lumbini - the Buddha's birthplace
- Bodhgaya - where the Buddha sat in deep meditation beneath a pipal (bodhi) tree until he achieved enlightenment
- Sarnath - a deer park where the Buddha gave his first sermon and set the wheel of law into motion
- Kusinagara - where the Buddha passed away (parinirvana)
Four other sites associated with special events and miracles soon also became a focus for pilgrimage:
- Sravasti - the place of the 'Great Miracle'
- Sankasya - where the Buddha descended from Trayastrimsa heaven after preaching to his deceased mother
- Vaisali - where he received the gift of honey from a monkey
- Rajgir - where the wild elephant, Nalagiri, was tamed
These eight sites are collectively known as the Astamahapratiharya.