According to Mongolia’s recent 2020 Population and Housing Census, 59.4 percent of Mongolia’s population aged 15 years and over are religious. 87.1 percent of those who are religious are Buddhists. Buddhism in the Mongolian context means Tibetan Buddhism in its Mongolian form. Tibetan Buddhism found a foothold in Mongolia from the late 16th century onwards – undergoing distinctive changes and adaptations in the Mongolian cultural setting. Amarbayasgalant Monastery is one of Mongolia’s Buddhist monasteries.
For centuries in Mongolia, the only major permanent settlements were the monasteries. As well as being a place of worship and pilgrimage they were also at the centre of an estate of livestock, pasture, and people. There were up to six hundred monasteries and temples spread over the country, with up to one-third of the male population leading a monastic life.
And then in 1924, the Mongolian People’s Republic became the first of Soviet Russia’s satellite states. To begin with, Mongolia remained largely independent of the Kremlin, until Stalin gained power in the late 1920s. Stalin was keen to absorb Mongolia into the Soviet Union, but Stalin considered the religion and power of the monasteries the chief obstacle in completing Mongolia’s communist doctrine and so a series of religious and political purges took place countrywide between 1937-38. Mongolia’s purges were directed from outside the country – the Buddhist Church, Mongolia’s Party and society at large were decimated by methods parallel to those being employed in Russia. The Buddhist Church was destroyed for ideological and practical reasons. Monks were either killed, imprisoned (sometimes sent to work camps) or secularised. The purges resulted in many religious buildings being destroyed – as well as Buddhist literature and sacred objects.
Amaarbayasgalant Monastery Today
In 1990, Mongolia changed from a communist country highly dependent, both economically and ideologically, on the Soviet Union, into a democracy. Freedom of religion was granted in the constitution in 1992. Once religious freedom was reinstated, Tibetan lamas came to Mongolia to assist in the revival of Buddhism.
Further support comes from Tibetan teachers and higher lamas such as Rinpoches, being invited to Mongolia’s larger monasteries to give teachings. Also, Mongolian lamas who have returned from studying aspects of Buddhism to a high level in Tibetan and Indian monastic colleges are using their knowledge to train a younger generation of lamas.
Due to the remoteness of Amarbayasgalant, it is often used to teach and train young monks with modern education being taught in line with the national curriculum for the younger lamas aged 11-16.
Amarbayasgalant – 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 Chinese Qing (Manchu) Dynasty (1644-1911) and the complex of Amarbayasgalant Khiid was constructed between 1726 – 1736, when Mongolia was under heavy Manchu influence and this influence can be seen 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 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.
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