WildChina > Destinations > Tibet > What is a Kora?

If you’re traveling through the remote Tibetan tracts of Yunnan and Sichuan, Lhasa, or across the ‘Roof of the World,’ you’ll likely be visiting several sacred sites, including monasteries and stupas, that are religious and meditative sites for Tibetans. You’ll chance upon the sacred practice of devotion, called the ‘kora.’

The word kora is a transliteration from the Tibetan word kor, meaning ‘circle.’ The added ‘a’ refers to the Latin ambulare (meaning ‘to walk’), giving an overall meaning of walking around something in a circle, or circumambulation. While the name may have a very practical meaning, its significance is closely linked to Buddhism and is sacred to Tibetan life.

To better understand the kora, we explore its Buddhist origins, as well as the best places to witness and experience this important tradition.

Back in the 6th century, it was very common for the Buddha to spend his time under a tree and, in time, this was where his disciples would come to revere to him. However, it was his disciple Ananda who brought up the question of where devotees would be able to pay their respects in the Buddha’s absence. The Buddha pointed to his usual tree and indicated that walking around it, mindful of the tree’s significance, would be the natural way to pay one’s respects.

Kora is both a type of pilgrimage and a type of meditative practice in the Tibetan Buddhist
Tibetan lady holding a Prayer wheel while paying respect to the Buddha

As time went by, monuments such as the dome-shaped stupas were erected containing relics from the Buddha himself. Much like trees, these stupas were solid structures, meaning worshippers could not enter inside, and the faithful took to walking around the stupas as if they were the Buddha’s favorite tree. So, the practice of circumambulation became a widespread Buddhist custom.

While paying homage to the founder of Buddhism, the act of circling sacred sites is also said to earn religious merit and ensure a brighter future and closer relationship to the spiritual path.

Row of Tibetan stupas, at the Feilai temple at Deqing, Yunnan, China (Photo courtesy of Andres Vargas)

So, what does the actual practice of a kora involve, and where can it take place?

The kora, which is sometimes referred to as a pilgrimage, involves circling any form of sacred site. It can be manmade, such are stupas, temples, and monasteries, or mighty natural sites like lakes and mountains – the infamous Mount Kailash is considered to be the most sacred of all.

During the kora, worshippers will be seen circling clockwise a predefined number of times (each site has a specific number of laps associated). In practice, Buddhists will recite prayers while counting mantras on their rosaries. The idea behind this is that it focuses the physical, verbal, and mental all at once, allowing time for spiritual reflection.

Although most Tibetan Buddhists will be seen performing the kora by walking around the sacred site, the most devout will make their way around by fully prostrating, standing up, and repeating the actions from where their extended hands previously reached. An even more extreme version of this form of meditation is the horizontal prostration, where the practiser will make the slow progression in steps no larger than the width of their person.

Tibetan pilgrim circles the Potala palace in Lhasa, Tibet. Devotees walk 108 times around the Potala for good luck.

According to the Buddhist belief, kora is always performed in a clockwise direction, and is often performed 108 times, it must be performed while spinning prayer wheels, chanting mantras, counting praying beads, or repeatedly prostrating oneself. In this way kora functions as a mind-calming meditative exercise.

Experience the Kora yourself!

Join our upcoming journey to the Tibet. We will take a more profound look at spiritual life in Tibet. You’ll travel through its heart, touring in a loop from Lhasa, along the shores of Yamdrok Tso Lake, through rolling foothills, to Gyantse, Shigatse, and back. At each stop, an adventure, a new facet of Tibetan life to explore.

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