Our ‘A Snapshot’ series of posts are quick informal posts highlighting daily life in Mongolia as well as aspects of Mongolian culture. This week … it’s a brief overview of some of Mongolia’s monasteries.
Amarbayasgalant Monastery – Selenge Aimag
The complex of Amarbayasgalant Khiid 18th Century is located in Selenge Province in a haven of rugged beauty 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 nomadic herders and their livestock. The monastery was constructed between 1726 – 1736, when Mongolia was under heavy Manchu influence. 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. For those that are interested in visiting, why not travel from Ulaanbaatar on a local train following the route of the Trans-Mongolian? As this would be a domestic train, it would make stops at various rural outposts en route as you travel north through Mongolia’s agricultural heartland.
Chuluun Sum (Rock Temple) – Baga Gazriin Chuluu, Dundgobi Aimag
Monastery and temple buildings in Mongolia were frequently set up on sites within the presence of water with buildings often founded in the foreground of hills or mountains (if the landscape features made it possible), which protected them from the strong predominant wind coming from the north. Often the surrounding hills and mountains were honoured and on their peaks ovoos (sacred stone shrines) were frequently erected for the worship of local spirits. In addition, holy springs were worshipped such as the underground spring here at Rock Temple at Baga Gazriin Chuluu which feeds and nurtures these beautiful trees.
Gandan Monastery – Ulaanbaatar
The construction of Gandan was started in 1838 by the Fourth Bogd Khan (Living Buddha). Its full name Gandantegchinlen translates roughly as ‘the place of complete joy’ and it is considered the centre for Buddhism in Mongolia. The main monastery temple (seen here – the building that looks a little similar to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet) is the Migjid Janraisig Sum. This is home to a 26-meter gold-gilded statue of the Bodhisattva of Compassion (Janraisig in Mongolian) – bodhisattvas are able to escape the cycle of death and rebirth but choose to remain in this world to assist others in reaching nirvana.
Erdene Zuu Monastery – Kharkhorin, Ovorkhangai Aimag
Erdene Zuu translates into ‘100 jewels’ and is Mongolia’s oldest monastery – founded by Abtai Khan in 1586. Monasteries are built not just as centres of worship but as centres of learning – their elements are designed to teach and inspire. The architecture of a monastery will be practical and at the same time deeply symbolic.
Ongiin Monastery – Dundgobi Aimag
The destruction of the monasteries during the political and religious purges of 1937-38 was so great that huge monastic complexes with hundreds of buildings (such as Ongiin Khiid seen here) were decimated including buildings with half-meter thick stone walls – what was not destroyed then, was finished in different ways in the almost 70 years of communism that followed. Today, in a majority of the sites, there are visible signs of the original foundations of the old buildings marked by elevations or stones/bricks – however small the monastery and its buildings were. In some regions, part destroyed buildings have been revived and are currently used as a temple. Or, stupas have been put in place as a way of honouring the sacred location.
Baldan Bereeven Khiid Monastery – Khentii Aimag
Baldan Bereeven Khiid was one of Mongolia’s most influential monasteries until destroyed in the Stalinist political purges of the 1930s. This would have been the centre of local life for a population whose faith and devotion more than made up for the simplicity and the challenging remote life-style. Before the arrival of communism, the only major permanent settlements in Mongolia were the monasteries – often sited at the junction of trade, migration routes or summer pastures. 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.
Khamariin Khiid – Dorngobi Aimag
Khamariin Khiid is an important spiritual centre and place of pilgrimage for Mongolians and followers of Buddhism. The monastery was established by Danzan Ravjaa (1803-1856), the Fifth Noyon Incarnate Lama, in the 1830s. It is considered an energy centre known as Shambala created around the cult of Danzan Ravjaa. It also gives spectacular viewpoints out over the Gobi. The significant difference between the working monasteries in Mongolia is the specific ceremonies and rituals they hold, with the number depending on the size of the monastery. It also depends on other factors such as the number of monks in the community, the primary divinities worshipped there and the particular role or function of the monastery. Each 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. 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 including ‘sariin düitsen ödör ‘ – the great days of the lunar month.
At EL, we operate all aspects of the business ourselves. We research, design and operate all the itineraries without the use of outside agencies or suppliers. Working in this way, allows us to stay in touch with the ‘real’ Mongolia. It also means that we get out there and do the research. We drive the distances. We speak to the people. We build the contacts. This means we have plenty of ideas. Why not see our Inspirations webpage for more ideas?