Michelle C. Wang
The oasis city of Dunhuang lies at the eastern end of the southern Silk Routes, in Gansu Province in northwestern China. In the 2nd century BCE, Dunhuang was established by the Chinese Han dynasty as a center for military operations and trade. Over time, Dunhuang became an important hub for multicultural trade as well as for the transmission of commodities, ideas, and religions. The status of Dunhuang as an important regional center for Buddhism is demonstrated by a wealth of paintings and manuscripts that provide crucial insights into the unfolding of religious praxis and developments in visual culture over many centuries.
A few centuries after the establishment of Dunhuang as a military garrison, the construction of cave shrines in the area began. Four major groups of cave shrines were constructed in the Dunhuang region: the Mogao, Yulin, and Western Thousand Buddhas caves, and the Five Temples site. The most well-studied of these are the Mogao 莫高, or “peerless,” cave shrines, which are located 25 kilometers southeast of Dunhuang at the eastern edge of Mount Mingsha 鳴沙山 (Mountain of the Singing Sands). From the 4th to the 14th centuries, 492 man-made caves were carved from the sandstone cliffs, stretching 1,680 meters from south to north. They were painted with over 45,000 square meters of mural paintings and installed with more than 2,000 painted clay sculptures. To the north, 248 additional caves were carved. Mostly unadorned, the northern caves served as habitation chambers for monks.
In addition to the mural paintings and inscriptions in the Mogao caves, more than 50,000 manuscripts and portable paintings were discovered in 1900 by the caretaker and Daoist priest Wang Yuanlu 王圓籙 from one cave, numbered Mogao cave 17, popularly though perhaps problematically known as the “library cave.” These objects were dispersed in the early 20th century to library and museum collections, the most prominent of which are the Stein collection in the British Museum, British Library, the National Museum of India, and the Pelliot collection in the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet and Bibliothèque Nationale de France. For this reason, the study of Dunhuang art and material culture encompasses both objects held in museum and library collections worldwide as well as mural paintings and sculptures located in situ in the cave shrines. Bringing these two bodies of material into conversation with one another enables a nuanced understanding of Dunhuang as a religious and artistic center, focusing in particular on the Mogao caves.
Paul B. Donnelly
The English word “pilgrimage” has been used to translate the Tibetan nekor or nejel, which means to circumambulate or to meet a sacred place, respectively. “Tibet” here refers not only to the modern Tibetan Autonomous Region but also to what has been called “Ethnographic Tibet.” This area includes the three provinces of Utsang, Kham, and Amdo, but also regions outside the modern political borders of China, such as Ladakh, Zangskar, Bhutan, Dolpo, and Mustang. The people across these regions share a common written language, largely similar social institutions and values, and a shared sense of historical connection. Though lesser known in the West than the doctrinal and meditative traditions of Tibet, pilgrimage has always been central to the religious lives of the people of the Tibetan cultural regions. In fact, while doctrine and meditation have been the purview of the elite monastic scholarly minority, pilgrimage has been far more pervasive and practiced by laypeople as well as the monastics for purposes both worldly and soteriological. Though religious elites or even ordinary Tibetans may describe pilgrimages in sophisticated Buddhist doctrinal terms, what they actually do is often as rooted in indigenous Tibetan conceptions of place and sacred power as it is in Buddhism.
The concept of sacred place preceded the introduction of Buddhism into Tibet, and sacred places have remained important to both adherents of the Bön religion and of Buddhism. Pilgrimage to holy mountains, lakes, caves, and “hidden lands” was, and remains, central to Bön practice. This fact is consistent with the Bönpos’ self-identification as the preservers of the indigenous religion of Tibet. Buddhists in Tibet visited and venerated these powerful places, either overwriting their pre-Buddhist understandings with Buddhist ones or allowing the autochthonous powers respect alongside Buddhist practice. One well-known myth describes the Buddhist taming of Tibet in terms of Buddhist masters subduing and pinning down a demoness identified with the land of Tibet itself. Once tamed, mountains, lakes, caves, and hidden lands became understood in terms of tantric Buddhist doctrine and practice. After the conquest of Tibet by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1950, pilgrimage became difficult for many Tibetans. This remained the case until the liberalizations of the PRC in Tibet in the mid-1980s. This shift allowed Tibetans to resume the practice of pilgrimage and opened Tibet to Western scholars interested in the practice. Since the mid-1990s, scholarship on Tibetan pilgrimage has flourished, and some scholars have turned their attention to pilgrimage in the ethnographically Tibetan regions in Northern India.
James Duncan Gentry
As Tibetans began to import Buddhist scriptures and translate them into the Tibetan language in the 8th and 9th centuries, they also imported items like relics, reliquaries, statues, paintings, amulets, and other material objects believed to embody and transmit power through their physical connections with buddhas, bodhisattvas, and saints of the past. Guided by scriptural pronouncements, as these resonated with indigenous sensibilities Tibetans came to hold that sensory interactions with Buddhist power objects would enable unmediated access to the powerful sources of the Buddhist tradition for a range of pragmatic and transcendent goals. Such encounters were held to be so efficacious that they were sometimes promoted as viable complements or substitutes for the study and cultivation of Buddhist doctrine.
As Tibetans integrated Buddhism into Tibetan culture they began crafting their own Buddhist power objects. These became so ubiquitous and diverse in Tibetan Buddhist societies that there is no single Tibetan term that directly corresponds with the category of “power objects” to encapsulate their full range. Patterned after Indian prototypes, Tibetans developed their own terms and rubrics for these kinds of objects. They also adapted them to include a wider spectrum of items and advanced theories of their power and efficacy that extend beyond their Indian Buddhist counterparts. On this account, controversies sometimes erupted among Tibetan ecclesiastical scholars over the purported nature and potency of such things. The prominent role given to Buddhist power objects in Tibet entailed they would serve as touchstones for the formation of Tibetan Buddhist communities, institutions, and states. Yet, sustained discussion of these kinds of objects has only been sporadic among traditional Tibetan exegetes and modern academic scholars of Tibetan Buddhism.
Jeremy R. Ricketts
At its founding, the United States did not have a long history nor an official state religion to draw from to construct a national identity, so Americans turned to the creation of sacred geographies built around nature and, as time passed, the founding myths of the republic. These natural and human-built sacred places now span the United States and correspond to a civil religion that appeals to tourists. The United States even has sacred documents like the Declaration of Independence that tourists view with reverence. Sacred tourist destinations are often overtly constructed and they imbue a nation with identity, elicit something akin to religious awe, and create a place wherein public rituals and modern pilgrimages are enacted. They also underscore the diverse nature of sacred tourism in America.
Religion and tourism both exist in space and use space to construct meaning. The motivations of those religious adherents who travel to sacred places are buttressed by an undercurrent of belief. Tourists, on the other hand, are not always believers, and they have diverse rationales for traveling to sacred places: some are on a quest for genuine spiritual engagement, others are seeking authenticity to offset the manufactured nature of modernity, and still others simply have an attraction to the cultural lore connected to a place. Tourists to religious sites thus arrive at a place that has been specifically designated sacred and therefore set apart, but while the place may be fixed geographically, its meanings commonly are not. Classifying a space brings it into existence as place, and this classification is regularly driven by the forces of commodification linked to tourism; it is also often contested between religious adherents and less spiritually inclined tourists and at times even within different tourist constituencies. Since human intervention is a precondition in any construction of place, sacred tourist destinations are based on mutually reinforcing relationships, and the tourists and pilgrims that seek sacred sites each play significant roles in creating, maintaining, or contesting a place’s identity.
“Religious-based tourism,” “tourism to sacred places,” and “religious or spiritual tourism” each carry different connotations. While religious and spiritual tourism indicate tours undertaken solely or mainly for faith-based reasons, “religious-based tourism” acknowledges that tourists are not homogenous; those tourists whose main aim is recreational can still be religious adherents, nonreligious tourists are still usually visiting a sacred place because of its purported numinous qualities, and those whose primary goal is religious can still evince behavior typically associated with tourism. “Tourism to sacred places” or “sacred tourism” allows the flexibility to include hallowed places that are either formally religious or not. Indeed, sites of secular pilgrimage continue to proliferate wherein “pilgrim” is used indistinguishably from “tourist” because of the mixture of secular and sacred at the site itself as well as the diverse motivations of the people who journey there. A spatial examination of tourism to sacred sites must thus consider the spatial dynamics of the motivations and actions of people within a commodified and contested place that draws tourists, pilgrims, and the many who are both.