Looking to combine your next adventure with a spiritual journey? Explore these well and lesser-known Buddhist pilgrimages in the Himalayas. The Buddhist power-places of Bhutan, Tibet, Ladakh and Nepal have many possibilities.
To find out more about what a Buddhist pilgrimage actually is, read our earlier post, ‘What You Need to Know About a Buddhist Pilgrimage’.
A Buddhist kingdom in a remote corner of the Himalaya, sandwiched between Tibet to the north and India to the south, Bhutan is often overlooked in favour of the more popular pilgrimages in Tibet, India, or Nepal. But, it should be on every pilgrim’s list. Buddhism infuses every aspect of life in Bhutan, from the government’s “Gross National Happiness” index to the ancient rituals still enacted by monks in the thousands of monasteries across the country. Buddhism is in the air of Bhutan.
Pilgrimage to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, near Paro
Bhutan’s most iconic landmark, Taktshang Gompa – otherwise known as the Tiger’s Nest Monastery –clings precariously to a cliff high above the Paro Valley floor, and can be visited via a steep hiking trail. Legend has it that Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) arrived here from Tibet riding on a tiger, and in one leap landed at a cave in the cliffs. He stayed there for several years to meditate and subdue the demons of the land so that Buddhism may flourish.
These days, the Tiger’s Nest Monastery it’s the most popular pilgrimage site in Bhutan, visited by locals and foreign visitors alike.
Pilgrimage to Chimi Lhakhang, near Punakha
Bhutan’s infamous saint, the “Divine Madman”, founded Chimi Lhakhang in the 1400s, and ever since it has been held sacred by the Bhutanese people as a temple of fertility. The Divine Madman was well known for his unorthodox methods of teaching Buddhism, including outrageous behaviours such as painting phallus symbols on buildings and planting carved wooden phalli everywhere. Chimi Lhakhang is known as the Temple of Fertility in Bhutan because of the original wooden phallus that the Divine Madman used for rituals, which is housed there and used now to bless couples who wish to have a child.
Even if you are not seeking the blessing of the phallus, a pilgrimage to this bizarre and unique temple is worth it as a reminder of the diversity of practice within Buddhism, and the “crazy wisdom” of some Himalayan gurus.
This enormous high-altitude plateau is rich in Buddhist holy sites and devout believers. Every county in Tibet has its own sacred pilgrimages, from mountain trails to lakeside loops, and meditation caves to monasteries. Whichever tradition of Tibetan Buddhism you follow – Nyingma, Gelug, Kagyu, Kadampa, Sakya, or even Bonpo- you will find your spiritual home in Tibet.
Mount Kailash Kora, Western Tibet
Said to be the abode of Avalokitesvara (Chenriseg), the Buddha of Compassion, Mount Kailash is not only sacred to Buddhists but also to Hindu and Jain worshippers. By some accounts it is the holiest mountain in the world. The kora (circumambulation route) takes three days for tourists to walk, or one if you’re a spritely well-acclimatised Tibetan!
Every year thousands of pilgrims from all over Tibet, India, and the rest of the world travel to Mount Kailash to complete one or more circuits of the holy mountain, with the belief that each circuit erases the negative karma of a previous lifetime. Many pilgrims speak of miracles that happen along the way, and use it as a test of how balanced their black and white karma is.
Pilgrimage to the Drak Yerpa Cave Complex, near Lhasa
Just outside of Lhasa, the capital city of Tibet, the cave complex of Drak Yerpa clings to the cliffs at the head of a steep valley. It’s no wonder that Guru Rinpoche chose this location for his meditation cave for many long years. Guru Rinpoche was not the only powerful resident to have stayed here though: his consort Yeshe Tsogyel lived with him to practice Tantric yoga together, and the great Tibetan King Songstam Gampo also stayed there to practice meditation.
Inside and around the caves are several “self-arisen” images – carvings of deities or words that arose naturally from the rock, that are worshipped by the local Tibetan pilgrims.
High up above the rest of India, blocked off from the rest of the world by mountainous passes, Ladakh retains its Tibetan Buddhist history. Ladakh was on the ancient Silk Road between Tibet and Persia, and saw scores of important historical and religious figures pass through or stay in its dry valleys. These men and women built monasteries, stupas, cave retreats, and fortresses, many of which still stand today. Once part of the ancient Tibetan empire, Ladakh is now a favourite of Tibetan refugees and exiles, including the Dalai Lama himself, who visits to teach in Leh every summer.
Pilgrimage to Hemis Monastery, east of Leh
The richest monastery in Ladakh, Hemis is a key place of pilgrimage for many visitors to the region. Founded by Naropa, Hemis is the main seat of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, and still holds strong to many traditions such as the annual festival in honour of Guru Rinpoche. This festival, held in the summer, attracts thousands of Ladakhi, Tibetan, and foreign visitors to watch mystic masked dances and Tantric performances. It is believed that these performances benefit not only the monks performing them, but also the crowds who watch them, and can be considered a religious teaching on multiple deep levels. The monastery is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Pilgrimage to Alchi Monastery, west of Leh
A small cluster of non-descript monastic buildings from the outside, the magic of Alchi Monastery lays in its murals inside. Built by the “Great Translator” Rinchen Zangpo, Alchi is regarded by many as the pinnacle of Buddhist Silk Road artistry. Mixing Persian, Tibetan and Indian influences, in Alchi Monastery pilgrims can see the melting pot of Buddhist cultures, how it was represented, revered, and carried across borders.
Alchi Monastery was never strongly tied to a particular school of Tibetan Buddhism, although at times it was claimed as Kadampa and Gelugpa, meaning that the murals show a full range of deities and Buddhas, not only the primary ones of a particular school. It’s worth spending several hours getting lost in the paintings of Alchi Monastery, stepping in the footsteps of thousands of pilgrims who have come before you.
You’ll have no doubts that the “Buddha was born in Nepal” once you arrive there and see the phrase emblazoned across so many cars, buses, and trucks! Despite being a primarily Hindu country, Nepal is proud of its Buddhist history, and in some parts of the country people even practice a mix of the two religions.
Pilgrimage to Lumbini, south Nepal
Lumbini is one of the four key places of pilgrimage for all Buddhists, along with Bodhgaya, Sarnath and Kushinagar. Lumbini is the birthplace of Prince Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, and has been turned into an international centre for peace and meditation, with dozens of monasteries, monuments, yoga and meditation schools around it. Join pilgrims from all over the world among ancient ruins, or under the Bodhi tree itself, as they all search for their own enlightenment.
Pilgrimage to Namobuddha, near Kathmandu
Although not so well known in the west, in Himalayan regions the Jataka Tales are popular stories for children and adults that teach about the Buddha’s previous lives. Before he was born as Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha experienced many lives, in which he learned and was able to develop the many practices that helped him eventually reach enlightenment. In one such story, he was a young man in a village near Kathmandu. One day, while out in the jungle near his home, he came across a tigress and her young cubs, who were all dying of starvation. The tigress was too weak to even stand up or attack the young man, and he could see that if she did not eat, they would all die very soon. The young man felt overwhelming compassion for the animals, and decided to offer his own flesh to them so that they could live. He gave his life selflessly for their benefit, and through this act perfected the practice of compassion. Namobuddha is the site where this happened, marked by a modern monastery and powerful places of pilgrimage.