According to the Mahāparibbāṇa Sutta, an early Buddhist text which narrates the last days of the Buddha, the latter declared to Ananda that after his death, those who wish to honour him should visit the sites of his birth, his enlightenment, his first sermon, and passing away. He also predicts that those who die while making the pilgrimage to these sites with a devout heart will be reborn in one of the Buddhist heavens.

Archaeological evidence from South Asia indicates that by the 3rd-2nd century BCE, inscriptions were engraved, and large stupas were erected to commemorate these sacred places. This early four-fold pilgrimage circuit was expended to include places associated with the Buddha’s performance of miracles. Within a few centuries following his parinivāṇa, the number of sites which claimed to keep one of his corporeal remains or personal items, or to be associated with an important moment in his life largely expended. Ultimately hundreds of places were sanctified by the presence of the Buddha and textual and visual sources such as inscriptions, Buddhist narratives, travel reports, illustrated reliefs and paintings document the pilgrimage made by Buddhist devotees and their related practices.

This seminar will give attention to Buddhist pilgrimage in South Asia and will mainly, but not only, focus on sites associated to events of the Buddha’s life. It will concentrate on a selection of case-studies on the Indian sub-continent and Sri Lanka. Students will analyse and compare sources in a variety of media to trace the early developments of this religious practice from Antiquity to the early Middle Ages. Discussions will cluster around three topics: the strategies implemented to sanctify and promote these places, the diversity and complexity of rituals at the sites and the political and social dimensions of Buddhist pilgrimage. 

The seminar will include a “Lehrforschungsprojekt” component that will be supervised in cooperation with Frederik Elwert, coordinator for Digital Humanities at CERES. Students who will register for this module will work with digital tools such as Omeka and StoryMap. They will individually explore a selected case-study and create a catalogue of relevant primary sources (texts, inscriptions, images, …) Through visual storytelling, the result of their investigations will be put in dialogue with that of other students to produce an interactive map that will shed light on early Buddhist pilgrimage from a multi-medial perspective.

Semester: WiSe 2023/24