The Holy Land Reborn: Pilgrimage and the Tibetan Reinvention of Buddhist India

By Toni Huber | Go to book overview

Chapter One
The Shifting Terrain of the Buddha

Men in their fear fly for refuge in mountains or forests, groves, sacred
trees or shrines. But those are not a safe refuge, they are not the refuge
that frees a man from sorrow …

Dhammapada, 188–89


Dislocating the Buddha

For much of the nineteenth century, leading European orientalists were convinced that Kuśinagar, a place famous in the history of Buddhism as the site of the Buddha's death, was located in Assam near the banks of the Brahmaputra River in the far northeastern corner of the Indian subcontinent. In the absence of alternative evidence, scholars of Buddhism accepted this identification of Kuśinagar in Assam on the basis of ethnographic reports by colonial observers. At the time, and for some centuries previously, this Assamese site was visited by large numbers of Tibetan pilgrims who went there to worship at the place where they believed the Buddha had attained the ultimate salvational goal of their religion, that is, his final nirvana (parinirvāṇa), or passing completely beyond suffering.

By the end of the nineteenth century, however, orientalist study of travel narratives by early Chinese pilgrims in India, and the archaeological excavations they subsequently inspired, indicated that ancient Kuśinagar was located in the Middle Ganges region, more than five hundred kilometres distant from the popular Tibetan site in Assam. With this new identification, now based upon textual and archaeological authorities rather than ethnographic ones, Western scholars of Buddhism were quick to scathingly dismiss the living Tibetan tradition about Kuśinagar. It was branded a “very erroneous identification” based upon a “very scanty knowledge of Indian

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