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Gandan Monastery Ulaanbaatar

Gandan Monastery

Gandan Monastery, located in Ulaanbaatar—the capital city of Mongolia—is the country’s principal monastery. Officially known as Gandantegchinlen, which roughly translates to “Place of Complete Joy,” this monastery is recognized as the centre of Buddhism in Mongolia. Notably, it has embraced modernity by maintaining its own Facebook page, connecting with a global audience.

 

In the vicinity of the eastern gate of Gandan Monastery, visitors can encounter fortune-tellers who employ various methods of divination, including the traditional use of sheep-ankle bones. Meanwhile, just outside the south gate, art enthusiasts will find galleries housed in both gers (traditional Mongolian felt tents) and buildings, where a variety of Buddhist artworks are available for purchase.

 

The construction of Gandan Monastery began in 1838, initiated by the Fourth Bogd Khan, known as the Living Buddha. In 1903, during the British invasion of Tibet, the 13th Dalai Lama sought refuge here. Originally, Gandan was significantly larger than it is today and included extensive fields of teaching in Buddhist philosophy, linguistics, medicine, astrology, and tantric practice. However, it suffered partial destruction during the political purges of the 1930s.

Following the establishment of democracy in Mongolia in the early 1990s, which coincided with the reinstatement of freedom of religion, Tibetan lamas traveled to Mongolia to aid in the resurgence of Buddhism. Today, Gandan houses several educational institutions, including the Zanabazar Buddhist University, which offers courses in traditional medicine, astrology, and tantric rituals and practices.

Monk Gandan Monastery

Buddhism is the predominant faith in Mongolia, where it predominantly manifests as Tibetan Buddhism adapted to Mongolian culture. This form of Buddhism established a strong presence in Mongolia starting from the late 16th century, undergoing unique changes and adaptations to fit the local cultural context.

In Mongolia today, Buddhist beliefs and customs are deeply embedded in society and continue to play a significant role, although some younger Mongolians may view Buddhism more as a cultural tradition than a religion. Additionally, Mongolian Buddhism has incorporated elements of local shamanistic traditions, further enriching its practice and relevance within the unique cultural landscape of Mongolia.

 

The primary temple within Gandan Monastery is the Migjid Janraisig Sum, which houses a striking 26-meter gold-gilded statue of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, known as Janraisig in Mongolian. Originally erected in 1911 to commemorate Mongolian independence, this statue was transported to Russia during World War II, where it was melted down for metal to manufacture explosive shells. It was subsequently rebuilt in 1996, restoring its majestic presence.

The morning prayer ceremonies at Gandan Monastery are primarily held at the Ochidara Temple, also known as Gandan Sum Temple. This temple is situated in a courtyard to the southeast of Migjid Janraisig Sum, where devotees gather to participate in the daily rituals.

Bodhisattva of Compassion Gandan Monastery

Bodhisattva of Compassion Gandan Monastery. Image: EL guest Paul Allerton

Each monastery in Mongolia, including Gandan Monastery, adheres to a defined set of religious texts that are used for special ceremonies, as well as for daily readings and chants which can be requested by individuals. There is typically a list of preferred readings, including specific sutras that are believed to alleviate misfortune, illness, or to foster success. Protective prayers for long life and prosperity are also common.

The ceremonial cycle at these monasteries is aligned with the lunar calendar, ensuring that the rituals resonate with lunar phases. Daily services are a staple, but there is also a structured schedule of ceremonies that recur throughout the year. These include weekly, monthly (on specific days of the lunar month), and seasonal ceremonies. Additionally, each monastery observes principal religious feasts and major annual ceremonies that are significant within the Buddhist liturgical year. This structured approach helps maintain the spiritual rhythm of the monastery and supports the community’s religious needs.

Prayer wheels Gandan Monastery

Image: EL guest Paul Allerton

When visiting Gandan Monastery, it’s important to allot sufficient time to fully appreciate not only its historical significance and architectural beauty but also its role as an active place of worship and community hub. As you spend time there, you’ll find yourself among diverse groups such as wedding parties, graduating students, and families seeking blessings.

Please ensure to pay the entrance fee, as it directly contributes to the maintenance and restoration of the monastery. Additionally, if there is a fee for photography, make sure to pay this as well. When taking photos, exercise care and sensitivity, particularly when capturing images of monks and visiting families. Remember, even if you believe you are being discreet, it is always more respectful to ask for permission first.

 

Local Mongolian's Gandan Monastery

Image: EL guest Paul Allerton

When visiting Gandan Monastery, consider also making a trip to Tasgany Ovoo, a shamanistic stone shrine associated with the monastery. This site offers a peaceful retreat from the bustling city life and provides a unique vantage point. From Tasgany Ovoo, you can look northward toward the ger districts, some of which have been established since as far back as 1838. This combination of visits not only enriches your understanding of Mongolia’s religious and cultural landscape but also offers a moment of reflection and perspective amid the urban hustle.

An ovoo - a sacred stone shrine in Ulaanbaatar

Gandan Monastery is a featured highlight on our free, informal, and relaxed city tour of Ulaanbaatar, exclusively offered to all our guests at EL. If you haven’t booked with us but are interested in experiencing Gandan Monastery, please feel free to get in touch! We’d love to accommodate your interest. Additionally, we can incorporate a visit to Gandan Monastery into any of our one-day experiences.

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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