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Mongolia’s Magical Monasteries

Mongolia’s Buddhist monasteries form a key part of the country’s national identity. For Mongolians they hold great religious and cultural significance and for outsiders they offer a spiritual experience combining the smell of incense, the sounds of monks chanting and scenic mountaintop settings. Here are our picks of the most enigmatic monasteries in Mongolia you can visit with Goyo Travel.

1. Erdene Zuu Monastery

The Erdene Zuu Monastery is the most ancient surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. It was built in 1585 by Abtai Sain Khan, at the introduction of Tibetan Buddhism into the country. Stones from the ruins of Karakorum were used in the construction. The name translated means “100 Treasures,” a nod to the number of original temples and the chain of stupas that form the exterior walls of the sacred site. Tangled in its legacy, there are the scars of centuries of fighting across those sacred walls.

2. Gandan Monastery

Gandan Monastery is a Tibetan-style monastery situated on the edge of the Ulaanbaatar’s ger district. It was constructed by the order of Emperor Yongzheng in 1727. It was one of the few monasteries to escape the soviet purges of the 1930’s, being spared as an example of Mongolia’s feudal past. Since the fall of communism in 1990 it has been renovated and restored into a working monastery and currently has over 150 monks in residence.

3. Uvgun Monastery

The Uvgun Monastery lies in the hills of the Khogno Khaan Natural Reserve and was built in 17th century by Zanabazar. In 1688, during the fighting between Western and Eastern Mongolians (Dzungaria and Khalkh Mongolia) after the collapse of the Mongol Empire, Dzungarian chieftain Galdan Bolshigt destroyed the temples at both the lower and upper sites. The lower site was rebuilt but destroyed again in the 1930’s. After democratic revolution in 1990 the monastery was re-opened and some temples restored, and are looked after by the granddaughter of the monks who originally lived at the monastery during the time of the persecution.

4. Ongi Monastery

Ongiin Khiid is a ruined and partially rebuilt monastery founded in 1760 to commemorate the first ever visit of Dalai Lama to Mongolia. It originally consisted of two temple complexes on the North and South of the Ongi River and was one of the largest monasteries in Mongolia. It was completely destroyed in 1939 under Khorloogiin Choibalsan, the then president and leader of the Communist Party of Mongolia. Over 200 monks were killed, and many surviving monks were imprisoned or forced to join the army. Re-construction work started a few years ago, and first temple was inaugurated in 2004. One of the stupas has also been reconstructed as well. There is also a small museum and around 15 monks who are guardians of the site.

5. Tovkhon Monastery

The hilltop monastery of Tovkhon Khiid is situated on Shireet Ulaan uul – a flat area of rocky mountain top surrounded by thick forest. This beautiful spot was chosen carefully by the 14yr old first Bogd Zanabazar, a prominent representative of red sect Buddhism. The first temple dedicated to meditation was established in 1651. In this monastery Zanabazar devised the Soyombo script in 1686 and created his most famous works. The monastery had 14 temples, of which 4 survive today.