Focus on Amarbayasgalant Monastery Mongolia

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Amarbayasgalant Monastery - Selenge Province, Mongolia

Focus on Amarbayasgalant Monastery Mongolia

The Religious Landscape in Mongolia

According to Mongolia’s recent 2020 Population and Housing Census, 59.4% of Mongolia’s population aged 15 and over are religious. Among them, 87.1% are Buddhists, predominantly practicing Tibetan Buddhism in its unique Mongolian form. Tibetan Buddhism was introduced to Mongolia in the late 16th century, evolving distinctly within the local cultural setting. One prominent example of this heritage is the Amarbayasgalant Monastery, one of Mongolia’s Buddhist monasteries.

 

Amarbayasgalant Monastery Mongolia in winter

In his will, Kangxi (a Chinese Emperor) had bequeathed 3,860 kilograms of silver with instructions to his successor that it be used to construct a monastery to house Zanabazar’s remains. According to legend, he sent a team of researchers to Mongolia to seek out an appropriate location. In the valley of the Iver River, they found a little boy and girl playing together. When asked their names the boy said Amar (happiness, peacefulness) and the girl Bayasgalant (joy, pleasure, happiness). These meaningful names in this remote location made them decide to build the new monastery on this site and call it Amarbayasgalant. According to the legend, when Amar and Bayasgalant died they were buried in the front courtyard of the monastery.

Historical Perspective

For centuries, monasteries were Mongolia’s only major permanent settlements, serving as centres of worship, pilgrimage, and local estates of livestock and people. By the 19th century, Mongolia boasted up to 600 monasteries and temples, with about a third of the male population living monastic lives.

Amarbayasgalant Monastery - Selenge Province, Mongolia

However, in 1924, Mongolia became the first satellite state of Soviet Russia. Stalin’s rise to power in the late 1920s led to a series of religious and political purges between 1937-38, targeting monasteries and religious practices. Monks were killed, imprisoned, or secularised, and many religious buildings, Buddhist literature, and sacred objects were destroyed.

Amaarbayasgalant Monastery Today

In 1990, Mongolia transitioned from a communist state to a democracy, granting religious freedom in the 1992 constitution. This revival saw Tibetan lamas and higher-ranking lamas such as Rinpoches return to Mongolia to assist in the revival of Buddhism. Monks trained in Tibetan and Indian monastic colleges began educating a new younger generation of lamas. This education continues at Amarbayasgalant, which, due to its remote location, serves as a training center for young monks, with education aligned with the national curriculum for those aged 11-16.

Young resident monks taking a break from studies at Amarbayasgalant Monastery in Selenge Province, Mongolia

The Monastery

Amarbayasgalant Monastery is situated in Selenge Aimag in the cul-de-sac of a long, deep valley backed by Mount Buren-Khaan against which the monastery is built. The valley is well-watered by the Iver River and has long provided an essential water source for herders and their livestock.

 

Amarbayasgalant was built to honour the memory of Zanabazar – the first spiritual and political leader in Mongolia and considered one of the greatest Renaissance artists in Asia (he was revered as a sculptor, artist, politician and religious teacher).  After he died his remains where brought to be buried in this monastery.

During the 17th century, China came under the rule of the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty (1644-1911). The construction of Amarbayasgalant Khiid began between 1726 and 1736, during a period when Mongolia was heavily influenced by the Manchu. This influence is still evident in the monastery’s architecture and design today.

By 1736 most of the temples at Amarbayasgalant had been constructed. By the early 1890s Amarbayasgalant was one of the greatest pilgrimage destinations in Mongolia. In addition to the main monastery within its walled compound, there were numerous temples outside of the walls which were built by donations from Mongols themselves. 

Of the more than 40 temples that originally made up the monastic complex, only 28 remain, which underwent UNESCO-funded restoration from 1988. Prior to the political purges of the 1930’s, the temple grounds were extensive, with living quarters, halls, shrines and debating courtyards.

The Architecture Of Amarbayasgalant Monastery

The site is set on a north-south axis with a screen wall at the entrance, possibly stemming from the belief that evil spirits travel in straight lines. The base structure serves to raise the building off the ground, probably to convey a sense of monumentality or importance and also to allow the circulation of ‘chi’ energy. The temple courtyards face south to allow the maximum exposure to the sun while keeping the cold northern winds out. There are also curved roofs typical of Manchurian design as well as Manchurian inscriptions and imperial colours that are more common in China, not a remote valley in Mongolia.

A doorway of Amarbayasgalant Monastery, Selenge Province, Mongolia

The monastery is characterised by its complex construction out of wood and the use of colourful ornaments and an intimate connection with nature (for example, look at the beautiful motifs of clouds and water).


Travelling To Amarbayasgalant Monastery

Trans Mongolian Train Extensions - Local Trans Siberian train

Our preferred way of getting to Amarbayasgalant Monastery is to transfer to the train station in Ulaanbaatar for a train ride to Darkhan in the north. Traveling in second class, with compartments of four beds that you can use for sitting or relaxing, the journey takes around 5-6 hours. This scenic trip offers a delightful escape from the city as you pass through some of Mongolia’s most important agricultural land. Upon reaching Darkhan, you’ll be met by your EL driver and switch to an EL tour vehicle for a roughly two and a half hour drive. On arrival at Amarbayasgalant, you’ll be warmly welcomed by your host Darsuren, a grandmother with whom we have a long-term local community partnership. (link)


Festivals At Amarbayasgalant Monastery

Although now gently run-down, the monastery remains an active community where ceremonies are announced by the sounding of the conch shell trumpet (dung dkar) by the young monks. It continues to be a major pilgrimage center for Mongolians. One significant event to look out for is the ‘Gongoriin Bombani Hural,’ a revival of an older festival featuring a Buddhist Tsam dance (a dance of the Buddha). Taking place in mid-August, the ceremony is named after the ‘Gongor’ deity, one of the ten protector deities and defenders of Buddhism (Dharmapala). Expect a carnival atmosphere with local family vendors selling everything from Coca-Cola and khuushuur to sunglasses and umbrellas, depending on the weather.

If you’re interested in experiencing the remote beauty of Amarbayasgalant, why not explore the range of experiences we can offer.

Jess @ Eternal Landscapes

Jessica Brooks
Jessica Brooks
I'm Jess Brooks, the founder of Eternal Landscapes Mongolia and the voice behind EL's blog posts. For more than a decade, since 2006, I've been based in Mongolia, working closely with my beloved Mongolian team to advocate for a tourism approach that brings about positive change.. What sets our blog apart is our deep understanding of Mongolia—our home. Unlike content from influencers or creators, our posts prioritise authenticity and firsthand knowledge as guiding principles.
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