Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar – Mongolia’s capital city – is Mongolia’s principal monastery. Short for Gandantegchinlen which translates approximately into ‘Place of Complete Joy,’ it is considered the centre for Buddhism in Mongolia.
Construction was started in 1838 by the Fourth Bogd Khan (Living Buddha) and the 13th Dalai Lama even fled here when Tibet was invaded by the British in 1903. Before its partial destruction in the political purges of the 1930s, it was much larger than its present size and had fields of teaching in Buddhist philosophy, linguistics, medicine, astrology, and tantric practice. However, since Mongolia became a democracy in the early 1990s when freedom of religion was reinstated, Tibetan lamas came to Mongolia to assist in the revival of Buddhism and Gandan now has colleges of Buddhist philosophy (including the Zanabazar Buddhist University – a college of traditional medicine and astrology and tantric ritual and practice).
The main monastery temple is the Migjid Janraisig Sum and it is home to a 26 metre gold-gilded statue of the Bodhisattva of Compassion (Janraisig in Mongolian). Rebuilt in 1996, the statue was originally erected in 1911 to commemorate Mongolian independence and was transported to Russia for use as metal in the manufacturing of explosive shells during WW2. The morning prayer ceremony is held (mainly) at the Ochidara Temple/Gandan Sum Temple, a courtyard to the southeast of Migjid Janraisig Sum.
Each monastery in Mongolia – including Gandan Monastery – has a defined set of religious texts for special ceremonies as well as ones that can be read or chanted every day at the request of an individual. (There is typically a list of the most preferred readings. These can include specific sutras read for misfortune, illness or success. There are also ‘protective prayers’ for long life and prosperity.) The ceremonial cycle follows the lunar calendar. As well as the daily service there is typically a prescribed set of ceremonies repeated throughout the year – once a week, once a month, on the same day of the lunar month and once in a season. Also, there are the principal religious feasts or the main annual ceremonies.
If you’re visiting Gandan, give it the time it deserves not just for the sense of history and the architecture but for the place of worship that it is. It is also a community space and spending time here you’ll mix with wedding parties, graduating students, and families looking to receive a blessing.
Please pay the entrance fee as it goes towards maintenance and restoration. Also, pay any required photography fee and employ a degree of care and sensitivity when taking photographs – especially of monks and visiting families. Even if you think you are discreet, ask first, it’s respectful. ”
You can combine a visit to Gandan with a visit Tasgany Ovoo, a shamanistic stone shrine connected to Gandan Monastery. If you’re caught down in amongst the traffic and scrum you can easily pop up here and get a little perspective. You can look north into the ger districts, some which have been here since 1838.
We include Gandan Monastery on the free (informal and relaxed) city walking tour of Ulaanbaatar we provide for all EL guests. However, if you haven’t booked with us but would like to experience Gandan then consider our UB Urban Explorer or just get in touch!
Jess @ Eternal Landscapes