After the Buddha himself, the most revered and popular figure in Buddhism is Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Since his appearance in about the 1 th century BCE, this beloved bodhisattva has been worshipped with almost unparalleled fervor by the followers of all schools of Buddhism.
Though accessible through prayer and supplication to anyone anywhere, Avalokiteśvara was believed to abide on a mountain in a remote part of India where, from its lofty and cloud-decked heights, he could, as his name suggests, ‘look out upon’ the world with compassion. This mountain was called Potala or sometimes Potalaka.
Pilgrimage to Potala began in about the 1 th century CE although records are very scant. Both of the great Tamil Buddhist epics, the Maṇimegala and the Cilappatikāram mention pilgrims going to Mount Potala.
The Mahāyānist poet and philosopher Candragomin went there by ship and is said to have spent his last years on the mountain. He wrote his most famous work, the Śiṣyalekha,while there and gave it to some merchants to pass to his disciples in northern India.
When the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen Tsiang was in Nāḷandā in the 7th century he met a brahmin who had made a vow to worship a statue of Avalokite śvara which was on the top of Potala, a vow he had been able to fulfil.
This statue was believed to be the bodhisattva’s exact likeness. Later, Hiuen Tsiang travelled through south India and although he was unable to visit Potala himself he left this description of it based on what others had told him.
‘To the east of the Malaya Mountains is Mount Potala. The passes on the mountain are very dangerous, its sides are precipitous and its valleys rugged. On the top of the mountain is a lake, its waters as clear as a mirror.
From a grotto preceeds a great river which encircles the mountain twenty times as it flows down to the southern sea. By the side of the lake is a rock palace of the gods. Here Avalokiteśvara in coming and going takes his abode.
Those who strongly desire to see him disregarding their lives and fording the streams, climb the mountain forgetful of its difficulties and dangers. Of those who make the attempt there are very few who reach the summit.
But even if those who dwell below the mountain earnestly pray to behold the bodhisattva, he appears to them sometimes as Iśvara, sometimes in the form of a yogi, and addresses them with benevolent words and then they obtain their wishes according to their desires.’
This description is clearly a blend of fact and fiction, something about Potala that increased as time went by. Gradually the sacred mountain came to be seen as a kind of magical fairy land, a paradise where rare medicinal herbs and exquisite flowers grew, where mythological animals frolicked and where those blessed enough to be reborn in Avalokiteśvara’s presence abided in bliss.
For example, the lay man Santivarman, whose dates are difficult to determine, made three trips to Potala and although the account of his journeys is filled with miracles, it seems to be based on fact.
Another visit was made at the request of the monks at Vārāṇasī who wanted him to ask Avalokiteśvara about difficulties in a particular text. On another occasion he was sent by King Subhasāra to beseech the bodhisattva to free his realm from a plague.
Pilgrimage to Potala, probably never very extensive, petered out long before Buddhism’s disappearance in India. Avalokiteśvara’s ability to appear anywhere meant that undertaking the long dangerous journey to Potala was simply unnecessary.
In ancient times potiyil was the common Tamil word for a Buddhist temple or shrine. Although Potala’s whereabouts is almost completely unknown to contemporary Buddhists, the mountain has never actually been ‘lost.’
Rather, it seems that for at least the last thousand years Buddhists have not bothered about its location.