The History of Mongolian Buddhism
In a bygone time when khagans and lords ruled over the rolling steppe, Buddhism had a significant role in people’s lives and in the culture of Mongolia. Originally introduced all the way back in the Xiongnu era from the modern day Nepal, Mongolian Buddhism developed to its current stage with a strong influence from Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhist monks were regarded as intellectuals and Chinggis Khan allowed the religion to flourish side by side with Christianity, Islam and Daoism during his rule. The fact that the name Dalai Lama was given to Sonam Gyatso (the first person to be named Dalai Lama) by Altan Khan is one piece of evidence that Buddhism has deep roots in the history of Mongolia. Sonam Gyatso would posthumously give the name to his two predecessors, making him the 3rd Dalai Lama.
Although it occupied large portion of Mongolian culture, Buddhism sizzled off with the fall of the Mongol Empire and the rise of shamanism (Tengrism in another term). It was later reintroduced in the region by the aforementioned Altan Khan and would steamroll its way back into the politics and daily lives of the people with added influence from shamanism, namely the reverence of ovoo (cairns), the Tsagaan Uvgun (White Old Man) and the exception to eat meat unlike their Tibetan counterparts. Thus the unique characteristics of Mongolian Buddhism was born.
In the early 1900’s Buddhist lamas made up 35% of the male population of Mongolia. Many of these lamas were residing in Ikh Khuree, modern day Ulaanbaatar city, and traces of their lifestyle found their way into the nobility all the way up to the lord Bogd Khan, the de facto leader of Mongolia at the time and Bogd Khaganate. Born in Tibet, he was the 8th Jebtsundamba Khutughtu and the 3rd most important person in Tibetan Buddhism, after the Panchen Lama and Dalai Lama.
Although Buddhism was a dominant weight in the Mongolian political spectrum at the time it saw many persecutions. First during the Manchu rule when the lords used the religion as a tool to control the population, then by the Socialist Party when it was almost wiped off.
Today Bogd Khan’s Palace still stands in the southern side of Ulaanbaatar a few kilometres south-east of Gandantegchilen Monastery, which features the 26.5m tall statue of Janraisig. The tallest indoor statue in the world, and one of the few artefacts that survived the Stalinist prosecution and destruction of Mongolian religious sect. No matter if it’s the Lunar New Year or any given day you will see hundreds, if not thousands, of people at the Gandan Monastery to pray and make offerings. In the afternoon you might also be able to catch the traditional Buddhist dance called Tsam, performed by the wonderful Tumen Ekh Chuulga, right after visiting the uniquely located Choijin Lama Museum.
If you walk a few minutes north of the Turtle rock while exploring the Terelj National park east of Ulaanbaatar you will come across a small monastery tucked among the forested hills called Aryapala Meditation Temple. It is shaped like an elephants head and considered as one of the most beautiful among hundreds of monasteries that currently still exist in Mongolia.
Situated on the banks of the Orkhon river, adjacent to the ancient city ruins of Karakorum stand the walls and few remaining temples of Erdene Zuu monastery, one of the oldest in the country which was built under the orders of Altan Khan. Just 47 kilometres southwest of Erdene Zuu tucked well among the hills of Ulaan Shireet Mountain is the Tovkhon Monastery. Established in 1648 by then 14 year old Zanabazar, the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism for Outer and Inner Mongolia. During his time at the monastery he was the head monk, scholar, painter, sculptor, song writer and if you can believe it, fashion designer. He is sometimes regarded as the Michelangelo of Asia as his artistic works are used to define the Mongolian Renaissance. He sure kept himself busy!
There are other important monasteries around Mongolia, like the Amarbaysgalant Khiid near Erdenet southeast of Khovsgol Lake, and Ongiin Khiid ruins that used to house over 1000 monks during the height of its time. Ongiin Khiid is our go-to stop over location that connects the Gobi desert and central Mongolia. Another beautiful monastery is the Manzushir Monastery, situated among the hills of Bogd Khan mountain that overlooks Ulaanbaatar city. It was once a complex of more than 20 temples with over 300 resident monks. During the purges of the 1920s and 30s, the monastery was almost completely destroyed and all the monks either killed or exiled. One of the temples was restored and is now a museum. All of these are visited our favourite and most extensive tour; The Grand Tour, and many can be seen on most of our other private tours and cultural group trips.
For trips that head to south-east Mongolia, near to the town of Sainshand is the popular Khamaryn Khiid Monastery. This Monastery is a spiritual centre for Mongolians and followers of Buddhism, and is also known as the Energy Centre, as Mongolian Buddhists believe that this is where all of the world’s energy converges. The complex consists of temples, a bell tower, many stupas and nearby you will find caves where monks would go to practise high levels of meditation for 108 days.
Buddhism is still the predominant religion in Mongolia, its roots planted deep in history of Mongolia and its influence touching every aspect of the culture. Check out some photos of Mongolian monks, temples and monasteries on our Pinterest.
Quick Facts on Mongolian Buddhism & Monasteries:
– In the early 20th Century, there were over 700 monasteries in Outer Mongolia alone, and their 115,000 monks made up a huge 21% of the entire population.
– As of data from 2010, over 55% of Mongolians identify as Buddhists. Tibetan Buddhism rose to become the most widely practised religion in Mongolia after the fall of communism in 1991.
– Gandantegchinlen Khiid is 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. It features a 26.5m-high copper statue of Migjid Janraisig studded with 2,286 precious stones and gilded with gold leaf.
– The Choijin Lama Temple Museum is a hidden gem of architecture and history amongst the growing high-rise skyline of central Ulaanbaatar. It was the home of Luvsan Khaidav Choijin Lama, the state oracle and brother of the Bogd Khan. There are 5 temples, each filled with many Buddhist artefacts including tsam masks, thangkas, sculptures and instruments.
– Erdene Zuu monastery, founded in 1586 by Altai Khaan, Erdene Zuu (Hundred Treasures) was the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. It is enclosed by an imposing wall with 108 stupas. Although many of the temples were destroyed during the purges of the 1930s, and artefacts stolen, enough remains to make this monastery the most important in Mongolia.
– Baldan Bereveen Monastery was founded towards the end of the 18th Century by a lama named Tsevendorj. Just behind the current site of the monastery, lived an old man named Baldan and his wife Tsevelma with their seven goats. When Tsevendorj arrived, Tsevelma was making some bereeven (rice boiled in milk). Tsevendorj decided to stay here a few days and then decided to build a monastery here, naming it Baldan Bereeven, in honour of the herdsman Baldan and his wife’s rice dish. It eventually became one of the three or four biggest and most important monasteries in Mongolia with at one time up to 6000 monks in residence.