Two Swiss in Mongolia – wondering why there are 700 monasteries in this country of warriors and conquerors

Our collective memory: Peoples from the steppes are conquerors
From history we remember that peoples came from the east (Asia) to conquer the world. And they were often cruel with those that opposed to them. We remember the Huns and Turkish tribes. We remember the huge wall that the Chinese built, because they were afraid of the Mongolians… We remember the golden circle of fortified monasteries that the Russians built around Moscow as a protection against the golden hordes. Yes, the peoples from the steppes came to conquer the world. And Chinggis Khan is present in Mongolia’s memory today, as here in front of the Parliament House in Ulan Baator.


But there are more secrets hidden in the steppes…

Buddhism came to Mongolia in the 16th century
In 1578 Buddhism came to Mongolia, influenced by the Tibetan monk Sonam Gyatso. It was the Tibetan Mahayana tradition, the so-called Yellow Hats. Two Mongolian leaders took the initiative, Altan Khan and Abtai Sain Khan. The tradition of Lamas started with Sonam Gyatso.

Zanabazar, the first theocratic leader and also the Leonardo da Vinci of Mongolia gave Buddhism the twist in Mongolia – it became the most religious country in the world
Yes, the conquerors became the most religious people in the world: Eventually 50% of the male population in Mongolia were monks living in about 700 monasteries. This is thought to be largely the impact of Zanabazar (1635-1723, see also my blog about Zanabazar). He became the first religious and political leader of Mongolia, called Bogd Ghan (or Gepan).  He was not only a leader, but also an admired artist and a scientist – some call him the Leonardo da Vinci of the steppes. This is his self portrait exhibited in the Zanabazar museum.


Zanabazar had serious political challenges: The Oirats (his enemies in Western Mongolia) conquered Eastern Mongolia and the Khalk tribes. Zanabazar fled to China and then defeated (and extinguished) the Oriats with the support of China. Under Chinese rule Mongolia lived a period of relative peace. It was then that the Mongolians became religious with 700 monasteries. In the 1930-ies, this was a no-go for Stalin… and he destroyed most of the monasteries and murdered many, many monks, with the support of Choibalsan, the Mongolian leader that was loyal to him.

Now the ruins tell us about Mongolia’s religious past, and after 1990 many of them are reviving. We visited eight Mongolian monasteries or khiids

Erdene Zuu
Erdene Zuu was the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Eastern Mongolia (see wikipedia). It was built in 1586, reusing the remains of the destroyed old Mongolian capital Kharkhorin. Up to 1000 monks lived here. After the 1930 purges, the wall with 108 stupas has been protecting a largely empty area. Three temples remain within an enclosure. One temple is for the young, one for the adult and one for the old Buddha. The wheel with the gazelles remind us of the grove, where Buddha revealed his cognition to his disciples and the animals. There is also a white stupa inside the stupa wall.  Today Erdene Zuu is reviving: Monks are again singing their morning prayers in a newer temple.  We met some monks in the area – also a young monk on his bicycle.







Gandan Khiid in Ulan Baator
The Gandan monastery on a hill west of the Ulan Baator city center was built in the first half of the 19th century. It was a learning center for Buddha’s teaching and has mostly escaped the purges under Stalin, because it is said to have proved the diversity of the Soviet Union (see wikipedia). There is a large temple with a huge Janraisig statue (26m, rebuilt in 1996) and there is an inner circle wall with smaller temples, where the monks are singing their morning prayers, directed by the vashra (thunder bolt) and the bell in the hands of one monk, and from time to time accompanied by the gong. We attended the solemnel prayers for some time. And then joined the pilgrims rotating the prayer wheels.




The Choijin Lama Temple in Ulan Baator
The Choijin Lama Temple was built in 1904. It had been saved from the Stalin purges, as already then it was a museum (see wikipedia). It is a peaceful oasis surrounded by sky scrapers. Five temples show statues of the historical Buddha (Sakyamuni) and of religious leaders (also a self portrait by Zanabazar) as well as thangkas (religious paintings on cloth; here is Shakyamuni from the Zanabazar museum) and tsam masks (used for dancing during religious ceremonies). My head turns, as the charming museum leader explains all the symbolism that supports the Buddhists to reach the state of enlightment. I now understand that the nasty looking guards are in charge of protecting the holy temple and keep all bad demons outside of it. Sadly, inside the temples we are not allowed to take fotos.





Mandshir/Manzushiryn Khiid (Khiid=Monastery)
In the mountains about 30km south of Ulan Baator, on 1645m, the Mandshir/Manzushiryn Monastery – built in 1733 – once hosted 300 monks (see wikipedia). The site is gorgeous – pine forest and pastures that remind us of our Pre-Alps in Switzerland.

The main temple has been restored as a museum – again we find the thangkas (silk cloth) and the tsam masks. In detail we study Shri Devi, the guard who became female to marry the demon she wanted to fight. She sits on a mule, the skin of her husband-enemy is her saddle and she is killing her baby. This is a very gloomy story.
Behind the museum are buddhist rock paintings. In front of the old man representing the mountain north of Ulan Baator, we Westerns want to eat our picknick, but Aika pulls us away – this is a holy site and not a picknick place…
Shamanism meets Buddhism… With Aika we climb the rock above the monastery, say hello to the Ovoo on top of the rock and enjoy the view. Aika sings a song – it is the first time that she climbed this rock.








Two monasteries known under the name of Övgön Khiid in the Khögnö Khpaan mountains
On our way to Kharkhorin, we take a break to walk in the Khögnö Khpaan Mountains.


There are two monasteries here, known under the name of Övgön (see Trescher Verlag and Lonely Planet). The first and older monastery is nicely hidden away in the mountains. Only ruins are left. It has been destroyed in the 17th century during the turbulences between the Oirats and the Khalk Mongolians. It is controversial, when this first monastery has been built. Some sources say – in the 14th century by the red hats, others say – in the 17th century (then already by yellow hats).



The second Övgön monastery is at the foot of the Khögnö Khpaan Mountain range. It has been destroyed during the Stalin purges, and now it is reviving with female monks.




Two monasteries called Ongiin Khiid on the Ongi Gol (Ongi River)

Ongi Gol allows for a ribbon of fertility in the desert of Gobi. We visit two monasteries here. They have been destroyed in the 1930-ies. The southern monastery has now partially been rebuilt and is reviving (see wikipedia about this khiid and the nearby ovoo). There is a museum hosted in a ger that shows religios artifacts and tools supporting the life of the nomads. The site provides holy water – Matthias pulls up some of it from the underground well for us. Refreshed we start a long walk through the hills from here.





Oh yes, we discovered hidden treasures in the Mongolian steppes and desert. There is more to Mongolia beyond warriors.

Sources: Internet, Marion Wisotzki et alii, “Mongolei”, Trescher Verlag 2010; Michael Kohn et alii, “Mongolia”, Lonely Planet; information given by Matthias, the Wikinger guide; various Internet sources.

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