"Original Buddhism" if there is such a thing, did not emphasise pilgrimages or even statues. It was about one's personal practice and not the worship of the Buddha, the individual.
The practice itself was the worship of the Buddha (awakening) within.
I can't recall the text (I'd be grateful if someone can help me locate it) but there's a verse where the Buddha praises a single moment of true mindfulness in action as greater veneration of the ideal than chanting several times 'namo tasso bhagavato arahato samma sambuddasa' without feeling mindful.
The suttas talk of Arhats in the Buddha's time who had never met the Buddha though they had heard the teachings by word of mouth and become enlightened. In a sense they had met the Buddha within already through the practice. This did not stop them however from feeling joyful upon actually meeting the tatagatha in person; if they ever did, which is quite natural.
Similarly pilgrimages are joyful things but when they are mandatory or made the central component of practice, they distance the practitioner from the practice.
For a long time the bodhi tree, the dharma wheel or the foot print of the Buddha were the only sanctioned symbols of Buddhism. The grander elements of tradition came later as a sense of history and distance from the actual events developed. The signs and reminders needed to get super-sized it seems, as the physical, calendar and mental distance made the heart fonder. The Buddha statues even seem to grow in size and stature in direct correlation to the distance from India.
Some historians and theologians I've read on Christianity say the idea of Jesus, son of God, developed in later times as a pleasant intermediary, a personal deity, a friend almost to intervene between the devotee and the rather harsh and imposing Abrahamic God of smiting fire of the Old testament. It was a much needed correction since God had gotten too distant.
Some people worship personal bodhisattvas similarly, because the Buddha ideal is too vast. Their personal Bodhisattva is their friend who they can reveal their failings to, since the Buddha is too awesome (in the original sense of the term). Even in the Buddha's later years junior disciples sought out senior disciples like Ven. Ananda or Ven. Sariputta to intervene on their behalf with the Buddha since they didn't feel worthy of walking up to him directly.
Though Buddhist practice began as a very personal route to access the Buddha within, for some people this was too much. They couldn't imagine they were worthy of inhabiting such godlike perfection. They couldn't help but think their Buddha nature was somehow inferior, so they found peace in worshipping the Buddha outside. Nothing wrong in this, different strokes for different folks.
For a religion that started out with no statues, it is interesting to see that many of the tallest statues in the world today are Buddhist.
However, like early Christianity of a distant God, the enlightenment ideal did become far removed from daily life, with many insisting even stream entry is impossible in this day and age.
The devout often use statues and pilgrimages quite like soldiers on the battle front walking around with pictures of hearth and home; to remind them of a better place. It allows us to think nirvana is found outside of samsara. A safe place from the harsh winter of reality, when the winter is too real and imposing.
Many of these same soldiers have trouble adjusting to the real people back home after the war, because the photograph that brought them comfort during the war was perfect, it accepted all mental projections: not so with reality.
Similarly, by projecting a perfect Buddha ideal, or enlightenment ideal outside of human fragility and venerating it through pilgrimages and such, we can rejoice in surrendering to the absolute but we also run the risk of never making it personal.
Samsara will always appear dull to us, yet we will never be good enough to escape it. As the Zen teaching goes, after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. Enlightenment does not allow us to get on a celestial vehicle and zoom off from samsara into the heavens.
Samsara is the mud in which the lotus of enlightenment grows. If we think the mud isn't good enough for the lotus, and always paint the lotus as growing on pristine marble, we will only have a beautiful painting but we will never be able to grow the lotus on marble.
I'm not saying pilgrimages aren't a good thing to do, but let's not mistake it for the practice.
Lest this sounds far-fetched, I'm not saying anything new.
Many Zen monks have made the point I am making by burning sutras, and by reciting koans like - "if you meet the Buddha on the journey to enlightenment, kill him".
Wisdom and love are two facets of enlightenment when viewed dualistically. Wisdom is to see the Buddha within, and love is to see the Buddha without, they are like the in breath and the out breath. One is not better than the other. Seen deeply, one can see love in wisdom, and wisdom in love.
When the Zen ancestor burned all the commentaries on texts, the texts were soon replaced by koan sayings of new Zen masters, recreating the hole he had filled. It wasn't a failing of the Zen ancestor to fail to anticipate this, it was his wisdom to see that the rise and fall of the tide is the nature of the ocean.
To be trapped by neither extreme is sublime freedom.