Our ‘A Snapshot’ series of posts are posts highlighting daily life in Mongolia as well as aspects of Mongolian culture. This week … it’s a summary of some of Mongolia’s monasteries. Traditionally in Mongolia journeys went in a clockwise direction and so we follow suit starting with Gandan – Mongolia’s principal monastery – in Ulaanbaatar.
Image: EL guest Kairi Aun
Historically, the Mongols practised ancestral shamanism. They worshipped the Eternal Blue Sky and the spiritual forces of nature and Chinggis Khan believed that he conquered with the rule of Tenger – the supreme god of the Eternal Blue Sky.
Mongolia is known as the ‘Land of the Eternal Blue Sky,’ and elements of shamanism remain a comfortable and unselfconscious part of Mongolian life. However, Buddhism is the predominant religion and 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. Within Mongolia, Buddhist beliefs and customs are still upheld and remain an inherent part of Mongolian society although Buddhism is a tradition rather than a religion for some of the younger generation. Buddhism in Mongolia has also absorbed some of shamanist traditions.
Gandan Monastery – Ulaanbaatar
- Its full name Gandantegchinlen translates roughly as ‘the place of complete joy’ and it is considered the centre for Buddhism in Mongolia. 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.
- The construction of Gandan was started in 1838 by the Fourth Bogd Khan (Living Buddha) and 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.).
Image: EL guest Paul Allerton
Choijin Lama Temple Museum – Ulaanbaatar
- A short walk from Ulaanbaatar’s central Sukhbaatar Square, this is truly a haven of peace. It was constructed in the first decade of the 20th Century for the younger brother (and State Oracle) of the last religious leader of Mongolia. It is well known for its display of incredible Buddhist Tsam masks and its religious architecture.
Aryabal Temple – Gorkhi Terelj National Park
- If you’re heading to Tsonjin Boldog to see the Chinggis Khan Equestrian Statue, then continue to Gorkhi Terelj National Park to find the Aryabal Temple, an active Buddhist sanctuary for meditation and religious studies. Built by the Mongolian Believers Association, the construction of the temple began in 1998 and finished in 2004. The position of the temple is said to be that of a place of powerful energy, auspiciously located close to steep, sharp mountain peaks that host fierce protector deities.
- Climb the hill towards the temple for some of the best views of Gorkhi Terelj.
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.
Baldan Bereeven Khiid Monastery – Khentii Aimag
- Remote Baldan Bereeven Khiid – deep in Mongolia’s Khentii Province – was one of Mongolia’s most influential monasteries until destroyed in the Stalinist political purges of the 1930s.
- The monastery 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 lifestyle.
- 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.
Chuluun Sum (Rock Temple) – Baga Gazriin Chuluu, Dundgobi Aimag
- The granite rock formations of Baga Gazriin Chuluu form part of Mongolia’s Middle Gobi. But as well as the stunning landscapes, Baga Gazriin Chuluu is home to a small temple known locally as Chuluun Sum (Rock Temple), believed to be part of the larger Tsorjiin Khuree Monastery. Both were destroyed in the political purges of the 1930s with a Soviet brigade being set up during the Communist era at the site of Tsorjiin Khuree. Both are quiet and peaceful places to visit.
- 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 such as is the case at Baga Gazriin Chuluu. In addition, holy springs were worshipped such as the underground spring here at Rock Temple at Baga Gazriin Chuluu which feeds and nurtures the beautiful trees which grow within the ruins.
Khamariin Khiid – Dorngobi Aimag
Image: EL guest Marian Herz
- 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.
Ongiin Monastery – Dundgobi Aimag
- The ruins of Ongiin Khiid are located in a small mountainous area set within the Ongiin River Valley in Dundgobi Aimag (Middle Gobi).
- Here there was once an impressive monastery constructed in 1760 to commemorate the first-ever visit of the Dalai Lama to Mongolia although the monastery was destroyed during the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. The ruined monastery originally consisted of two temple complexes on the North and South of the Ongi River and its remains – as well as some of the temples that have been reconstructed- stretch across this river valley and are a poignant reminder of Mongolia’s political past.
The destruction of Mongolia’s monasteries during the political and religious purges of 1937-38 was so great that huge monastic complexes with hundreds of buildings 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, partly 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.
Erdene Zuu Monastery – Kharkhorin, Ovorkhangai Aimag
- Erdene Zuu translates into ‘100 jewels’ and is Mongolia’s oldest monastery – founded by Abtai Khan in 1586. Combine a visit to Erdene Zuu with a visit to Kharkhorin Museum and Said to have been built using remains from when Kharkhorin was the capital of the Mongol Empire, the
- Built using the ruins of Kharkhorin, the buildings on these grounds are filled with more than just good energy – you can feel the history in the complex’s veins.
- 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.
Tovkhon Khiid – Arkhangai Aimag
- The mountain hermitage of Tövkhön Khiid (also spelt Tovkhon and Tuvkhun) is on the border of Övörkhangai and Arkhangai provinces in Mongolia’s Central Heartland. It is one of a number of monasteries – all established in the 17th Century – within the area (such as Erdene Zuu in Kharkhorin) connected with the life and times of the religious leader Zanabazar (the first Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism for Mongolia).
- Go outside of peak season and you will find enough space for the quiet reflection that the panoramic views deserve.
Amarbayasgalant Monastery – Selenge Aimag
- The complex of 18th Century Amarbayasgalant Khiid 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 (mountain) 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 were 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.
Aglag Buteel Khiid – Tov Aimag
- Aglag Buteel Khiid is a meditation retreat established by Mongolia’s renowned Buddhist lama and artist Purevbat located within a stunning mountain forest steppe landscape.
- There is a ‘kora’, a meditation route with incredible stone statues which is designed to harmonise with the natural environment and the interior of the temple has exquisite thangka paintings.
At EL, we research, design and operate all experiences 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?