Saturday, January 31, 2004

Finally tracked down my friend Rahila, who I met several years ago while traveling in Xinjiang. She is now a secretary at an embassy of a South American country in Beijing . . .


Rahila



Rahila

Friday, January 30, 2004

Back in Bejing. During my last trip here I mentioned Shun-shih, the Qing emperor who invited the Fifth Dalai Lama to Beijing in 1651. To commemorate this event he had built the so-called White Pagoda, located in what is now Beihai Park. This is still one of the landmarks of the Beijing sky line.


The 121-foot high White Pagoda in Beihai Park



Closer View of the White Pagoda

Thursday, January 29, 2004


Bodyo, Khatun Monkhtuya, and Urna


The other day I dropped in to see the good folks at Genghis Expeditions in their strategically located office just across the street from the main post office on the corner of Sukhebaatar Square. I first met Monkhtuya and Urna, two mainstays of this tour agency and outfitter six or seven years ago when they were working for another outfit. I met Bodyo later and did a trip to Kherman Tsav in the Gobi Desert with him. They have since gone out on their own and started Genghis Expeditions. I have hired a jeep and driver from them on numerous occasions. They charge the going rate for jeeps in Mongolia – 300 togrogs, or a little least than thirty cents, a kilometer, and they have of the added advantage of screening their drivers carefully and guaranteeing that their jeeps are in good shape. In addition, they provide good backup. Although I have never been in one of their jeeps when it suffered a serious breakdown I know of one case last summer when one did in Övörkhangai aimag. The driver phoned Ulaan Baatar and they immediately dispatched another jeep to Övörkhangai and the tourists were able to continue on their way with a minimum loss of time. If you hire a jeep and driver you just happen to met lurking about Sukhebaatar Square, on the other hand, you never know if he is a reliable person who knows his way around the countryside or if his vehicle is in good shape. I am constantly hearing stories about people who had to bail out of a jeep trip in some remote aimag because the driver got drunk, was plain incompetent, or his vehicle broke down and couldn’t be fixed. This won’t happen when you deal with an outfit like Genghis. They also have various package tours around Mongolia and maintain a ger camp near the town of Bayan Gov in Bayankhongor Aimag, where Bodyo was born. What Genghis really excels in however is arranging custom trips suited to individual interests and itineraries. They have contacts all over Mongolia and can arrange just about anything. Again, they offer the advantage of thoroughly screening guides, horse men, (or camel men) and translators, so you have little chance of ending up with people who are imcompetence or rip you off. Another partner in the company, Terbish, is a professor of biology at Mongolian State University and is one of the contributors to the Mongolian Red Book, a compendium of endangered species in Mongolia. As such he has a lot of contacts in the Mongolian scientific community who can provide information and assistance if you have scientific interests. Over his years of field work he has also built up an extensive network of acquaintances all over Mongolia who are very knowledgeable about local conditions.
Now Genghis is launching a program to aid herders who have been devastated by the disastrous zuds, or winter storms, which have killed millions of head of livestock in Mongolia over the last couple of years. Bayankhongor Aimag, where Bodyo is from, was especially bad hit. I myself was there last fall and talked to herdsmen who had lost more than half of their goats and sheep. Some families were reportedly wiped out completely, losing all of their livestock. Genghis Expeditions wants to do something to help these people. The plan is to buy goats from aimags to the north and give them herders to reseed their herds. Then the herders will give back part of the cashmere that the goats produce in the following years as payment. The cashmere will be sold and the proceeds used to buy additional goats for more families. Thus a self perpetrating fund will be set up to aid herders in distress. Of course, Genghis Expeditions would appreciate donations to help the seed money for this project. If you are interested or would like more information contact them from their Website.

Monday, January 26, 2004

Zanabazar came by his interest in Tara honestly. His previous incarnation, the Tibetan lama Taranatha, was deeply involved in the Cult of Tara, as it is sometimes called. Taranatha was born in 1575 in Drong, Tibet, on the same birth-day as Padmasambhava, the founder of Buddhism in Tibet. Like Zanabazar, he was a childhood prodigy whose astounded everyone with his precociousness. “By the time he was only a year old,” one biographical account claims, “Taranatha could read and write, walk, and practice meditation without any imperfection. He also could name all the deities in any thangka, even those so worn and dirty that no one else alive could tell which deity was painted. He already could heal people from disease.”

Later Taranatha studied under numerous Tibetan gurus, including Jampa Lhundrup, Kunga Tashi, Je Draktopa, and Yeshe Wangpo. He also became a disciple of Buddhagupta, one of the very last prominent Buddhist monks in India, where Buddhism by that time had been largely supplanted by Islamic incursions and resurgent Hinduism. This peripatetic wanderer-monk had sojourned in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Ladakh, Sri Lanka, Java, East Africa, Bodhgaya in India (where Buddha had achieved Enlightenment), Assam, Burma, and northern Thailand and would have been able to inculcate in Taranatha a thorough knowledge of Buddhism as practiced outside of Tibet., Taranatha probably learned much about the history of cult of Tara, which originated in India, from Buddhagupta


Taranatha became a staggeringly prolific writer whose collected works amounted to sixteen hefty volumes. Perhaps his most famous work was the History of Buddhism in India, completed in 1608. An “amazing intellectual performance” according to its editor, Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya, the History is still in print in English translation today. He also wrote a volume of commentary on the Kalachakra Tantra, which according to tradition had been taught by Buddha to Suchandra, the first king of the legendary realm Shambhala. He also translated from Sanskrit a guidebook to the kingdom of Shambhala entitled Kalapar Jugpa (“The Entrance to Kalapa”, Kalapa being the capital of Shambhala) This translation was later used as the basis of the most famous guidebook to Shambhala, Description of the Way to Shambhala, written by the Third Panchen Lama Palden Yeshe in 1775. Also, in his Autobiography, the first volume of his collected works, he relates that while in a dream state a small white boy led him to Shambhala. Alone among the many sojourners who claim to have visited this storied kingdom, either in their physical bodies, in dreams, or in meditative states, Taranatha found Shambhala inhabited almost entirely by women.

Taranatha was also a chief spokesman for the so-called Jonang School, a small but vigorous sect which held doctrinal tenets in some cases decidedly different from some other schools of thought in Tibet. The basic teachings of the school had appeared early as the eleventh century, but it is Dolpopa Sherab Gyelten (1292-1361) who is credited with fully developing the Jonang belief-system. The sect is best known for its philosophical doctrine of ultimate truth called shen-tong, or “other emptiness.” This is different from the rang-tang doctrine of “self-emptiness” expounded by Nagarjuna, Chandrakirti, and other Indian teachers. Shen-tong asserts that “emptiness, in dispelling the illusive relative truths of the world, reveals an ineffable transcendental reality with positive attributes.” The rang-tang view “claimed that emptiness is merely the elimination of falsely imagined projections upon the relative truths of the world and does not imply anything else.” As Tibetologist Stephen Batchelor points out, “While such distinctions may strike us today as theological hairsplitting, in Tibet they became (and still are) crucial articles of faith.”

In addition to the shen-teng teachings, the Jonangpa had an special interest in the Kalachakra, the doctrine which supposedly first flourished in Shambhala. Numerous Jonang monks besides Taranatha wrote on the Kalachakra, and a unique line of Kalachakra teachings has been passed down to this day by the Karma Kargyu school.

In the thirteen century Kunpang Tukje Tsötru (1243-1313) founded the original Jonang Monastery, which became the seat of the Jonang Sect, about three miles up a small side valley of the Tsangpo River. Reportedly this monastery was modeled on the traditional layout of the kingdom of Shambhala as shown on Shambhala thangkas. In 1327 Dolpopa Sherab Gyelten built nearby an enormous seven-story stupa, the Jonang Kumbum, similar in appearance but older than the much more famous kumbum in the city of Gyantse.

In 1614 Taranatha established the Puntsokling Monastery three miles down the side valley from the Jonang Monastery, near the south bank of the Tsangpo. The main buildings of the monastery were built on a high knob overlooking the river and offering spectacular views up and down the valley. The Puntsokling Monastery eventually became famous for its printing workshop which among many other items published the sixteen-volume collected works of Taranatha himself. According to some accounts Taranatha went to Mongolia not long after founding Puntsokling and established several monasteries there. Almost nothing is known about his years in Mongolia and it is unclear what monasteries he may have founded in those pre-Zanabazar days. In any case, he died in Mongolia in 1634 and his body was returned to Tibet.

According to venerated Italian Tibetologist Giuseppe Tucci, Taranatha was buried at Dzingi, five miles northeast of Oka: “A large silver chorten is said to hold the mortal remains of Taranatha, a well-known Tibetan polymath . . . As tradition has it, Taranatha’s relics were thrown into the river and carried by the stream to Katrag, midway between Zangrikangmar and Oka, where they were collected and transported into the Dzingi temple.”


The Puntsokling Monastery and Jonang sect in general fell on hard times in the early 1640s. One of the most prominent opponents of the shen-teng view espoused by the Jonangpa was Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelug sect, and the Gelug continued in later years to take exception to the Jonang teachings. But while it is easy to imagine Jonang and Gelug monks engaging in fierce courtyard debates over these teachings it is difficult to believe that philosophical differences alone were behind the forceful takeover of the Puntsokling Monastery in 1642 by the Dalai Lama-led Gelug sect and the subsequent suppression of the Jonan school. It would appear instead that the Jonang, along with the Karma Kargyu sect, had made the political miscalculation of siding with the King of Tsang against the Fifth Dalai Lama in the civil war which broke out in Tibet in the early 1640s

According to the monks there today, the monastery was heavily damaged in 1642 by forces loyal to the Dalai Lama. Many of the printing blocks at the printing establishment were destroyed, including those of Taranatha’s own books. The monastery thereafter became a Gelug establishment with the new name of Ganden Puntsokling, and presumably the monks were converted to the Gelug sect. While the Jonang sect itself was suppressed, it should be pointed out that many of Taranatha’s writing later became fully incorporated into the teaching of the Gelug sect.


Zanabazar made the first of his two trips to Tibet in 1649, when he was fourteen years old. In 1650, after meetings with the Panchen and Dalai lamas, he set out to visit places in Tibet connected with the lives of his previous incarnations. The monastery of Ganden Puntsokling was one of the stops on this pilgrimage. By then it was a Gelug establishment, and no doubt the damage from the turmoils of 1642 had been repaired. While at Ganden Puntsokling Zanabazar was given a very valuable book, identified in Mongolian sources as the Jad-damba, which was printed in gold on leaves of sandalwood. This book he took back with him to Mongolia. He probably saw the enormous (forty feet in circumference) three-dimensional Kalachakra mandala fashioned from gold and copper which was one of the main attractions at Ganden Puntsokling. According to one source it remained here until 1680, when it was finally taken to the Potala, the Dalai Lama’s palace in Lhasa, where it remains to this day as the stunning centerpiece of the Kalachakra Temple. No doubt he walked up the side valley the original Jonang Monastery and visited all seven stories and dozens of temple niches within the Jonang Kumbum. And maybe he climbed the hillside east of the Kumbum and sat in the cave which Taranatha himself had used as a meditation retreat. At Ganden Puntsokling and other monasteries on his itinerary he also collected statues of Tara, Chenresig (the Tibetan name for Avalokiteshvara), and Maitreya. These statues were taken back to Mongolia and may have served as models for his own works.


Ganden Puntsokling is off the heavily-beaten tourist path in Tibet, but monks in residence say that a fair amount of foreign tourists and pilgrims find their way there in the summertime. There were no other visitors in the wintertime when I was there. There are no tourist facilities anywhere in the area, but the monks were kind enough to let us use a guestroom and give us tea and dinner.


The ruins of Taranatha's monastery


Most of the monastery was heavily damaged during the Cultural Revolution. The castle-like building on the high knob overlooking the valley is still in ruins, but two of the temples at the base of the knob have been restored. In one of them, the Shambhala Temple, is a wooden replica, just recently constructed, of the huge three-dimensional Kalachakra mandala which had been removed from here at some point and placed in the Potala in 1680. An hour’s walk up the side-valley leads to the Lingshar Nunnery where about a dozen nuns now live. They are in the charge of huge Jonang Kumbum and act as guides for visitors. The Kumbum was also heavily damaged by the Red Guards but the exterior of the structure and some of the temple niches on its seven floors have now been restored. The fourth-floor is dedicated to one of Taranatha’s preoccupations, the Kalachakra, and the temples on this floor contain statues of some of the twenty-five Kalkin Kings of Shambhala, although most are now unrecognizable. From the top of the Kumbum is a good view of the environs of the old Jonang Monastery, supposedly modeled on Shambhala, but the buildings themselves are now almost totally in ruins. On the hillside can still be seen the cave the nuns say Taranatha used as a meditation retreat. Unfortunately they have never heard of Zanabazar, and thus are unable to say for sure if he himself ever visited here.

See More photos of Jonang

The Golden Rosary Illuminating the Origins of the Tantra of Tara, Volume 12 of Taranatha’s Collected Works, is one of the famous works about the Tara mythologem. According to Taranatha’s account, Tara was first a sentient being named Jnanachandra, the Moon of Wisdom, who lived an unfathomable number of eons before our present day, perhaps in a universe that existed before the Big Bang that produced current universe in which we now live. For countless eons Jnanachandra made offerings to a Buddha named Tathagata Dundhbhishvara and prayed for enlightenment. At long last she was able to achieve what Taranatha calls the “Thought of Enlightenment,” or bodhicitta, the desire to attain Buddhahood for the sake of all other living beings. “At that time some monks said to her, ‘It is as a result of these, your roots of virtuous actions, that you have come into being in this female form. If you pray that your deeds accord with the Teaching, then surely you will change your form to that of a man, as is befitting.’”

Jnanachandra replied,

Here there is no man, there is no woman,
No self, no person, and no consciousness.
Labeling ‘male’ or ‘female’ has no essence
But deceives the evil-minded world . . .

She continued: “There are many who desire Enlightenment in a man‘s body, but none who work for the benefits of sentient beings in the body of a woman. Therefore, until samsara is empty, I shall work for the benefit of sentient beings in a woman’s body.”

For countless eons Jnanachandra practiced her devotions. “Behaving skillfully towards objects of the five sense,” Taranatha tells us, “she practiced concentration, and thereby attained the acceptance that all dharmas are unproduced . . . and realized the samadhi called ‘Saving all Sentient Beings.’ By the power of realization, every day in the morning she then freed a million million sentient beings from worldly thoughts, and would not eat until they were established in that acceptance. Every evening also she so established a similar number. The Tathagata Dundhbhishvara, observing her devotion and compassion toward all sentient being, declared, ‘As long as you manifest the unsurpassed Enlightenment, you will be known only be the name Goddess Tara.’” Ever since Moon of Wisdom-knowledge has been known as Tara.

Then for eon after eon Tara perfected her practices while continuing to aid countless sentient beings. In the eon of Vibudda she received the names Loving Mother, Swift One, and Heroine; in another she learned to protect sentient being from the Eight Fears, and finally in the of eon of Asanka she achieved the title, “Mother of all Buddhas.”


According to Taranatha, Tara made her appearance in our world, known in Buddhist texts as Jambudvipa, a few centuries after the birth of Buddha Sakyamuni. She was thought to be an emanation of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Out of pity for human mired in samsara Avalokitesvara shed a tear which fell to earth and became a crystalline lake. According to legend, Tara was born out of a lotus flower that appeared on the surface of the lake. The Dalai Lamas of course are considered to be male emanations of Avalokitesvara.

In India a cult soon grew up around the idea of Tara the Protectress. Because of her compassion for sentient beings built up through countless eons she was thought to be ever ready to come to the aid of people in distress. She perhaps became most famous for protecting people from the Eight Fears, a talent she had learned, as noted earlier, in a far-distant eon before she appeared in our age. These eight objects of fear were: lions, elephants, fire, snakes, robbers, imprisonment, water, and man-eating demons. While most of these fears seem related to people of India and other southern Asian countries (fears of elephants and lions, for example), it should be pointed out that the Eight Fears also have an esoteric connotation. Each of them in order stand for pride, delusion, anger, envy, wrong views, avarice, attachment, and doubt. These are actually what Tara is supposed to protect us from.

Eventually a whole corpus of prayers, hymns, and praises evolved around Tara, Two of the most famous are called “Praise of Arya-Tara” and “The King of Praises Called the Fulfiller of All Aims, A Praise of the Arya Goddess Tara.” both attributed Matrceta, an Indian monk who allegedly lived in the second century, although considerable doubt has been raised about exactly when he lived and his authorship of the text. The first is nine verses long; a sample verse reads, the fourth, reads:

Your body, unmoved by defilements, is firm like a mountain.
Well-grown, since nourished by Your perfect virtues,
Full-breasted, since loving kindness moves your heart,
Venerable Tara—homage to You!

The second is forty-five verses long. Two verses read:

You have a body that’s green, for all activities.
On Your crown You’re adorned with Amitabha,
With the look of a universal ruler,
Tara, captain of beings, such is your body . . .

Your lovely locks are beautified with a crown,
Diadem, ribbons, crescent and double vajra.
Earrings, adornments of neck and shoulders, bracelets,
Girdle, anklets and lower-leg wrappings adorn you.

Zanabazar’s Green Tara is a perfect objectification of the Tara described in these three verses.

In India by the sixth century images of Tara—statues, reliefs and perhaps paintings—began to appear, first shown together with Avalokitesvara and finally by herself, and eventually she was depicted in famous Buddhist cave-temples of Ellora. Thus began the long tradition of Tara portrayed in art works which lead to Zanabazar’s Taras.

In the seventh century the King of Tibet, Songtsen Gampo, acquired wives from the neighboring countries of Nepal and China. Both of were Buddhas and both became instrumental in the spread of the Dharma in Tibet. The Chinese wife was thought to be an incarnation of White Tara, the Tara of the Seven Eyes, while the Nepali wife was considered to be an incarnation of Green Tara. Both brought numerous Buddhist statues with them when they came to Tibet and it is possible that images of Tara were introduced into Tibet at this time. The Jowo Buddha statute brought by the Chinese wife, by the way, can still be seen in the Jokhang Temple in the old section of Lhasa, although the crush of people who rush the shrine when it is opened to the public can be daunting to those not accustomed to Tibetan crowd scenes.

See Photo of Jokhang

Buddhism suffered a hiatus in Tibet after the persecutions of the apostate king Langdarma (838-42), a supporter of the Bön religion who destroyed many Buddhist temples and persecuted monks and lay believers. Within the space of the few years the Dharma all but disappeared. Not until the eleventh century, with the appearance of Atisha and other Indian masters did it finally recover.

Atisha (982–1054) had been born Prince Candragarbha, the second son of King Kalyanasri, ruler of a small Indian kingdom in what is now Bangladesh. According to one account of his life, as a young man he had a vision of Tara in which she advised him to renounce his royal title and seek a guru in another country. After years of study in various part of India he sought out teachers in Sumatra, where he lived from 1013 to 1025. Upon his return to India he did stints at the monasteries of Nalanda, Odantapuri, Somapuri, and Vikramasila and soon became recognized as one of the greatest teachers of his age.

While at Vikramasila during the years 1036–1040 Atisha worked with a Tibetan named Nak-ts’o who had come to India to study the Dharma and translate Sanskrit Buddhist texts his own language. Atisha and Nak-ts’o worked together to translate into Tibetan “The Pearl Garland, A Praise of the Goddess Arya Tara”, a forty-three verse praise which had been was written by the Indian monk Candragomin in the seventh century. This later became one of the primary texts of the Tara cult in Tibet Verses four and six:

With magical body of space, unobstructed,
You cross with compassion samara’s great ocean,
And conduct migrators to the land
Of Liberation, great Captain—homage!

Subduing with mantras hostile gods,
Taking Your image upon one’s crown
Becomes a cause to achieve the four rites,
You of power unimpeded—homage!


In 1040. emissaries were sent from Tibet asking Atisha to come there and help re-establish Buddhism. At first Atisha hesitated, but in yet another vision Tara, his tutelary deity, advised him that although he would shorten his life by twenty years by doing so, going to Tibet would greatly aid the spread of the Dharma. He left Vikramashila later in 1040, the following year arrived in Nepal, and was in Tholing in Western Tibet by 1042. It is Atisha we are told, “who was to establish the Buddhist religion in Tibet once and for all . . .” Indeed, his fundamental lamrim text Lamp for the Way of Enlightenment is still in print and read today. The school which grew up around him, the Kadam sect, eventually developed into the so-called New Kadam, or Gelug sect, to which the Dalai Lamas and Zanabazar in his later life belonged. He was also instrumental in spreading the Tara cult in Tibet. Taraist Martin Willson points out, “. . . it would seem that her name was constantly on his lips and that She frequently helped him. There is hardly a significant event in this life that one or other of his biographers fails to connect with the Goddess. Thanks to his devotion, Tara became one of the two most popular deities of Tibet.”

Although not a prolific writer on Tara, Atisha did write at least one praise to Tara and three sadhanas (tantric rites devoted to a particular deity). The eleven verse praise read in part:

To those tired of circling long,
again and again, among the
Six Destinies, you grant the rest,
supremely pleasant, of Great Bliss

Goddess who works the weal of others!
Just to think of You dispels problems!
You, endowed with love and compassion,
liberate from samsara’s bonds . . .


Drolma Lhakhang (Tara Temple), where Atisha spent the last years of his life and where he died, is located about twenty miles from Lhasa on the main road to Shigatse Every visitor who arrives in Tibet via airplane passes by this temple on the way from the airport to Lhasa, but very few seem to stop, and it is not appear to be on the itinerary of guided tours. The first time I was there it was not even necessary to buy a ticket to visit the temple, a rarity in Tibet (two years a ticket was required.) It’s relative obscurity is puzzling, since it contains some of the oldest extant Buddhist statues in Tibet. Unlike almost all over temples in Tibet it was not damaged during the Cultural Revolution and most of its contents survived in tact. According to local monks the Bangladesh government made a direct please to the Communist authorities in Beijing to protect the temple of Atisha, who is considered a saint in his homeland, and as a result a unit of the PLO protected it against the rampages of the Red Guards. (I have never been able to confirm this story independently, but it’s clear the temple and its contents were not significantly damaged.) On the outside of the front wall, to the right of the entrance to the center temple, is a large painting of Tara, Atisha’s tutelary deity, and in the center temple itself is a large Tara surrounded by the other Twenty-One Taras.


White Tara on the front wall of Atisha’ Temple


These have a more than passing resemblance to the Twenty-One Taras made by Zanabazar and now on display in the Winter Palace. A statue of Tara which Atisha himself brought from India used to be here in this temple but it has since disappeared, no one knows how or where. The temple to the right, although not directly unconnected with Tara, contains huge statues of Amitayus, the past Buddhas Kashyapa and Dipamkara, and the Eight Great Bodhisattvas, all dating back to the eleventh century and untouched by Mao’s Little Generals. Here you can get an inkling of what temples in Tibet must have looked like before the iconoclastic upheavals of the late 1960s. Incidentally, sometime during that turbulent decade Atisha’s ashes, which were kept in an urn in the central temple, were returned for safekeeping to Bangladesh, where presumably they remain today.

See Photos of Atisha’s Temple

The New Kadam, or Gelug sect, a continuation of the Kadam tradition initiated by Atisha, was founded by the great reformer Tsongkhapa (1357–1437) This is the sect to which Zanabazar would later belong. One of Tsongkhapa’s two main disciples was Gedün Drup (1391-1475), who was posthumously given the title of First Dalai Lama after the Tibetan lama Sonam Gyatso had been given the title of Dalai Lama by the Mongolian chieftain Altan Khan in 1578 (Sonam Gyatso became the Third Dalai Lama, the second, Gendun Gyatso, was also given the title posthumously.) Gendün Drup received extensive teachings on Tara from a number of celebrated gurus and went on to write a “A Praise of the Venerable Lady Khadiravani Tara Called the Crown Jewel of the Wise,” and various other Tara-related works. Also, Tara supposedly appeared before him while he was meditating. ”It is said he always consulted Her before undertaking anything,” avers Taraist Martin Willson.

Perhaps then Tara had a say when in 1447 Gendün Drup established Tashilhunpo Monastery in the city of Shigatse. This went on to become one of the largest and most influential monasteries in Tibet. In the mid-seventeenth century the head of Tashilhunpo was a lama named Losang Chökyi Gyeltsen (1570-1662). This distinguished lama had begun studying at Tashilhunpo when he was seventeen and became abbot of the monastery at the age of thirty-one. In 1604 he journeyed to Drepung Monastery in Lhasa and served as the tutor and ordinator of the 4th Dalai Lama Yönten Gyatso. After the 4th Dalai Lama passed away in 1616 Losang Chökyi Gyeltsen led the search for his reincarnation and was instrumental in choosing Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso as the 5th Dalai Lama. He gave the young Dalai Lama his novice ordination in 1625 and his full ordination in 1638, and became his principal teacher. Later, after the Fifth Dalai Lama had achieved both spiritual and temporal control of Tibet, he declared that Losang Chökyi Gyeltsen was a manifestation of the Buddha Amitabha. Since an abbot of Tashilhunpo was traditionally known as a Panchen (“great scholar”), the Dalai Lama gave Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso the official title of Panchen Lama and also recognized as Panchen Lamas a line of three previous incarnations leading back to Khedrup Je, one of Tsongkhapa’s two chief disciples. Thus Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso became the 4th Panchen Lama, according to some reckonings, but still considered the first by many.


When Zanabazar made his first trip to Tibet in 1649 at the age of fourteen he met with both the Panchen Lama Losang Chökyi Gyeltsen and Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso, the Fifth Dalai Lama. He received numerous initiations and teachings from both, and although the record does not specifically say so we might assume that these included practices on Tara. As mentioned, he also traveled to the monastery of his previous incarnation Taranatha, author of The Golden Rosary Illuminating the Origins of the Tantra of Tara. Atisha’s Tara Temple is on the road from Lhasa to Shigatse and it’s tempting to think of Zanabazar stopping there to admire the Tara statute which Atisha had brought from India and the other Twenty-One Taras on display, but we have no proof that he did so. In any case, it might be averred that by the end of his first visit to Tibet he had acquired a thorough grounding in the whole Tara mythologem.

Just as important for Zanabazar’s immediate future, the Dalai Lama finally managed to convert him to his own Gelug sect and for the first time officially recognize him as an incarnation of Jebtsun Damba. For a fifteen year old to be told that he was the latest appearance in a spiritual lineage dating back to the time of Buddha must have been a heady experience. Indeed, Zanabazar was so deeply impressed by his experiences in Tibet that he wanted to stay in the country indefinitely. During one of his visits to Tashilhunpo he had told the Panchen Lama, “I wish to settle in Tibet and undergo instruction.” According to the Rosary of White Lotuses, the Panchen Lama finally had to tell him, “It will be much more beneficial to the Teachings and sentient beings if you go back to the Sog country [Mongolia] and set up new monasteries there, rather than stay and study here.” At some point he also intimated to the Dalai that he would like to stay in Tibet, but the Great Fifth gave him the same answer as the Panchen Lama: he could do the most good for sentient beings in Mongolia.

So Zanabazar tried to make the most of his limited time in Tibet. The construction of the Potala, the Dalai Lama’s great palace which to this day looms over Lhasa, was in progress while he was in Tibet, and there were many artists from Nepal and other countries in the Tibetan capital to assist in the construction of new building and to create new art work for its furnishing.


The Potala in Lhasa



Although the Mongolian accounts say nothing of this, it is possible that Zanabazar, who had shown marked artistic inclinations from early childhood, used this opportunity to acquaint himself with the techniques employed by these various artisans. In any case, art historians would later detect Nepalese influence in many of his most famous works. It’s also possible that at this time he became acquainted with the theoretical canons of art contained in the Tengyur, the vast collection of commentaries on the Buddha’s teachings.


While in Lhasa, Zanabazar stayed at Drepung Monastery, which as we have seen had been founded in 1416 by one of his previous incarnations, Jamyang Chöje Tashi. Pelden. The Gomang College at Drepung was traditionally where Mongolians monks who came Tibet to study stayed and it eventually became famous for its Mongolian scholars. Drepung continues to be an important pilgrimage site for Tibetans, as well as a standard stop on all tourist excursions in Lhasa. I have visited Drepung several times. Once I was there in the winter when the courtyards and hallways were jammed with Tibetan pilgrims from the countryside. On this occasion I had the benefit of a guide and translator, a Tibetan woman in her thirties who spoke excellent English. I explained to her that I would like to ask someone at Drepung whether they knew anything about Zanabazar, the famous Mongolian lama who had visited here in the mid-seventeenth century. I had intended that she ask someone in a position of authority about this, but instead she immediately turned to an old toothless monk who happened to be shuffling by and put the question to him. He was hard of hearing and my translator ended up shouting at him while he cupped his hands to his ears in order to hear. Immediately a crowd of pilgrims gathered around us to see what all the commotion was about. He finally understand her question and after ruminating at length, all the while twirling the half-dozen or so white hairs which constituted his beard, said “Oh,“ you must mean the famous Mongolian lama whose 9th reincarnation now lives in India.” Amazing, he was indeed referring to Zanabazar, whose current reincarnation is now headquartered at a monastery in Simla, India. I was startled to hear that he knew about Zanabazar, but even more so that he aware of Zanabazar’s present reincarnation. “Ask him how he knows about the reincarnation in India,” I told my translator. After another shouting match she replied, “He heard about this lama on BBC.”

“Come,” said the monk, “I’ll show you where Zanabazar lived.” He led us up some cobbled pathways to the back of the monastery and pointed to a mass of ruined walls and rubble covering the hillside. “Zanabazar lived in one of those buildings, but it were destroyed back during the troubles,” he said, referring to the Cultural Revolution. Unfortunately the monk could tell us nothing more about Zanabazar’s stay in Lhasa during his first trip to Tibet, but it seems significant that even the humblest of the monastery’s current inhabitants remember his presence at Drepung.


Ruins of the building Zanabazar lived in at Drepung


More Photos of Lhasa


Interesting as his stay in Tibet must have been it was soon time to return to Mongolia. On the Dalai Lama’s advice he took with him numerous Tibetan monks and fifty Tangut monks from the ancient land of Xi Xia (roughly the modern-day province of Ningxia, China). All of them were members of the Gelug sect and were to assist Zanabazar in converting Mongolia to the Yellow Hat Faith, as the Gelug were also known. In addition to the monks were an assortment of artists, painters, and other craftsmen to help Zanabazar build and adorn new monasteries in Mongolia. In total over 600 people accompanied Zanabazar back in Mongolia, in addition to his own entourage. From the artists among them he may have acquired the skills needed to create his Taras and other works. They arrived sometime in 1651, exact date unknown. The seeds of Tara had no doubt been sown in his mind, and they would later flower as the Taras here in the 8th Bogd Khan‘s Winter Palace.

Saturday, January 24, 2004


Zanabazar's Ratnasambhava in the Choijin Lama Museum

Friday, January 23, 2004


The 8th Bogd Gegen
Although Zanabazar's reputation in the political arena may have been tarnished in the eyes of some by his collaboration with the Qing Dynasty his standing as an artist has never been challenged. "Perhaps unique among world cultures, Zanabazar, a celebrated monk and statesman, was also Mongolia' greatest artist," declares one noted art historian, adding, "During his lifetime he was the greatest Buddhist sculptor in Asia." Among his greatest works are his depictions of the goddess Tara. His Green Tara and other Taras are on display at the Bogd Gegen Winter Palace Museum in Ulaan Baatar, and it was to here that I retired on my first free day in the city. At four o'clock in the morning light snow could be seen drifting down outside my hotel window and as often happens when it snows the temperature had warmed up to a relatively balmy -2 F. Around sunrise (8:34 A.M.) the skies cleared, however, and by the time I left my hotel at ten o'clock the temperature had plunged to -18 F. and a twenty-to-thirty mile-an-hour wind was howling straight out of Siberia. My cheeks were frosted by the time I reached the Ulaan Baatar Hotel and I had to duck into Millie's Espresso off the main lobby to warm up and revivify myself with two double espressos chased by a latte grande. Continuing on down Chingis Khan Boulevard I stopped briefly on the Peace Bridge to admire the Four Sacred Mountains surrounding the city, their ridgelines now starkly outlined against the wind-scrubbed mazarine sky. Just beyond where the road turns east to the airport stands the large white Winter Palace of the 8th Bogd Gegen.

The 8th Bogd Gegen (1869-1924) was the continuation of a line of incarnations known as the Jebtsun Dambas that in Mongolia began with Zanabazar. The 8th was actually a Tibetan. He was identified as as an incarnation of Jebtsun Damba in 1871 and he and his family moved to Mongolia two years later. Although Zanabazar was first Bogd Gegen of Mongolia, having been given the title at Shireet Tsagaan Nuur, he was actually the sixteen incarnation of Jebtsun Damba, and thus the 8th Bogd Gegen was the twenty-third incarnation.

According to the traditional chronology, the first incarnation of Jebtsun Damba was Lodoi-shindu-namdak, who appeared in the Indian city of Magadha and served as one of Buddha?s original 500 disciples. The second was Bardi-dzoboo, the head of the 500 pundits who dwelt at Nalanda Monastery in India, during the time of the famous Indian sage Nagarjuna (probably in the first century A.D. The next two were born in India, but other than their birthplace biographical information is lacking. The fifth Jebtsun Damba, Runsum-choi-san, was the first to appear in Tibet, during the lifetime of the famous Indian-born sage Atisha (982-1054 AD) who moved to Tibet and died at the Tara Temple about 20 miles east of Lhasa. The next five incarnations were also born in Tibet, although little else is known about them. The eleventh was apparently Jamyang Choje Tashi Pelden ("Dashi-baldan" in Mongolian accounts), born in Tibet near Samye Monastery, and a close disciple of Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelug sect. Jamyang Choje Tashi Pelden went on to establish Drepung Monastery in 1416 and more than one hundred other monasteries and retreat hermitages all over Tibet. He was followed by Choi-gii-nin-jid, born in Ceylon during the latter part of the life of the First Dalai Lama, Gendun Drubpa (1391-1474), and Gunga-doltsok, born in the Tibetan province of "Nari" (Ngari?) during the time of the Second Dalai Lama, Gendun Gyatso (1475-1542). The fourteenth incarnation of Jebtsun Damba appeared in India as the son of a Indian king. At the age of fourteen, while standing one day on the roof of his father's palace, a spirit, his so-called Dakini Mother, appeared in the sky and reclaimed him, i. e., he died. There followed the birth of Taranatha, Zanabazar?s immediate predecessor as Jebtsun Damba, in 1585.

Since there were only fifteen incarnations of Jebtsun Damba between the time of Buddha, generally recognized as about 2500 years ago, and the birth of Zanabazar, the first Bogd Gegen, in 1635, and given the average life time of human beings, there would appear to be long periods of time when there was no living representative of the line, and that it was in effect dormant. This is not precisely the case however. As learned lamas explained to the Russian ethnographer A. M. Pozdneev in the 1890s, "During the rest of the time he [Jebtsun Damba] was reborn in diverse parts of the universe with the purpose of benefit not only to people but to beings of other worlds; these reincarnations of him are unknown to anyone beside the Gegeen himself, and that is why there are no legends about them whatsoever."


This was the spiritual lineage of the 8th Bogd Gegen who built the Winter Palace. The two-story wood-framed building was constructed in 1905 according to the designs of a Russian architect working under direct orders of the Russian Czar Nicholas II, who was apparently trying to curry favor with the Bogd Gegen at this time. The Qing emperor, nominal ruler of Mongolia, took exception to the palace being built on European lines, since Europeans were Christians not Buddhists, and to placate him lotus patterns were painted on the walls and Buddhist ornaments added to the roof. (These latter are now no longer present.) The Bogd Gegen spent his winters here until his death in 1924.


The Winter Palace


Before entering the palace, however, I go around to the front, the south side of the complex. Here can be seen the Yampai, or Spirit Shield. A standard feature of Buddhist temples in Mongolia, it consists of a high free-standing wall, in this case made of bricks, which is supposed to deter malignant influences from entering the temple grounds. Just behind this is Three Open Gates, three wooden gateways which remained permanently open in order to allow all good influences to enter the temple compound. The Bogd Gegen and his advisors always entered the compound via the central gate, nobles and foreign guests via the East Gate, and guards, musicians, and other lesser personages through the West Gate. Just behind the Three Open Gates are two long chii-gan, or flagposts. In the Bogd Khan's day the one on the west flew the blue state flag of Mongolia and the one on the east the yellow flag of Buddhism.


Front of the Winter Palace Complex


Behind the flag poles is the Andi Men, or Peace Gate. This elaborate wooden structure was built for the Bodg Gegen between 1912 and 1919 to commemorate his ascension to King of Mongolia following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and the declaration of Mongolian independence. From then on the Bogd Gegen was also known as the Bogd Khan, the head of a theocracy such as existed in Tibet under the Dalai Lamas. The gate was designed by the famous Mongolian architect Baajar and built at a cost of over 385 pounds (280,000 lan) of silver donated by the Bogd Gegen's followers. The wooden structure does not contain a single nail but was instead constructed with 108 different kinds of interlocking wooden joints. Topped by a seven-tiered canopy, the gate was lavishly decorated with depictions of Buddhist legends and scenes from the life of Gesar Khan, but these have faded with time.

Now the gates are keep locked and I have to go around to the side to enter the Winter Palace compound. Although the Winter Palace is one of the standard stops on tours of the city in summertime in winter the place looks deserted. Inside three women bundled in heavy, lined deels (robes worn by both Mongolian men and women) and cradling bowls of milk tea in their hands seem slightly startled to see me. There's no heat in the museum and you can see your breath.

Although on this trip I am mainly interested in exhibits concerning the life of Zanabazar, I have to pause on the first floor and look at the incredible ger (the kind of circular tent used by Mongolia nomads, more commonly known as a yurt, which is actually a Turkish word) covered with the skins of 150 snow leopards. This was a gift from one Sangilig Dorj, a man from the old Setsen Aimag (roughly the area centered around the basin of the upper Kherlen River to the east of Ulaan Baatar), who presented it to the Bogd Gegen on the occasion of the latter's twenty-fifth birthday in 1893. Snow leopards are presently considered rare in Mongolia, although herdsman I have talked to say there are a lot more than commonly thought, especially now that hunting them is banned. They are certainly one of the world's most elusive animals and are very seldom seen. To accumulate 150 of their skins for a ger was a monumental accomplishment in itself, although one which modern environmentalist would hardly laud. There are currently several internationally funded programs in Mongolia to study and protect snow leopards, and several tourist agencies run "snow leopard tours" to their known habitat, although they cannot of course promise that anyone will actually see one of the legendarily secretive and guarded animals. Most visitors are satified with seeing a footprint.


The Snow Leopard Ger


In the middle room on the second floor is the first item connected with Zanabazar. This a huge wooden chair, glazed with what looks like black enamel and decorated with floridly painted panels and semi-precious stones, which was given to him by Kangxi, the Qing emperor with whom he stayed during his years in Beijing, as I detailed during my visit to the Forbidden City. The mere fact that this elaborately roccoco confection, which no doubt once hosted Zanabazar's posterior, had been conveyed all the way from Beijing, perhaps on the back of a camel, and then survived the wars, revolutions, and plunderings of the twentieth century is in itself remarkable.


Chair given to Zanabazar by the Qing Emperor Kangxi


The room at the northwest corner of the second floor is locked and I have to fetch one of the women downstairs to open it. Inside is an immense fur cloak made of eighty black fox furs. Its wide collar is decorated with sixty-one coral flowers and 800 pearls. Zanabazar was reportedly a big man physically, and he would have had to have been to fill out this tent-like garment. Like the chair, it was given to him by the Qing Emperor Kangxi.

The reader will recall that in my account of my visit to the Forbidden City I mentioned that according the book Rosary of White Lotuses Kangxi had given Zanabazar a sable cloak embroidered with pearls. There is a world of different between black fox fur and sable-the latter was then as now one of the world's most expensive and luxurious furs-but I cannot help but wonder if the author of the Rosary got his furs mixed up and that this is the very coat mentioned in the book. We are also told, however, that Kangxi's wife, in appreciation for a sermon given to her and her entourage, presented Zanabazar with a mantle, the type of fur unspecified, which also was embroidered with pearls. Maybe then this is the black fox cloak I am now looking, the fact that was it was Kangxi?s wife who gifted it to Zanabazar and not the emperor himself having been forgotten over the years. In any case, I spend a few meditative moments here, imaging Zanabazar draped in this stately garment.


Coat given to Zanabazar by the Qing Emperor Kangxi


I would liked to have lingered longer than I did over the elaborately decorated thrones of the Bogd Gegen and his consort in the room where he held audiences; the richly ornamented sleeping chambers where they spent their nights; the music box given to him by a Russian trade delegation in 1910 which played a variety of classical tunes; the silver vase and platter given to him as a token of their esteem by the newly founded Bolshevik government in Siberia (no doubt plundered from wealthy aristocrats); the bizarre collection of stuffed animals and fish, including aardvaks, anteaters, blowfish, tigers, monkeys and much else prepared for him in 1910 by taxidermists in Hamburg, Germany; the handsome trappings worn by the elephant he had imported to Mongolia for his amusement; and other ephemera connected with the life of the 8th Bogd Gegen, but I am anxious to get to the temples in the Summer Palace compound where Zanabazar's art works are kept.

Containing as they do art works of considerable-in the case of Zanabazar's, inestimable-value these temples are kept locked until a visitors arrives and then they are accompanied by an escort who opens the doors. The ladies in the front room are not eager to break up their tea chat to venture out into the cold, but finally one struggles into her fur coat (she's already wearing a thickly lined deel) and bids me to follow her.

The temples are in the old Summer Palace complex just west of the Winter Palace. The summer palace itself burned down, apparently during the lifetime of the Bogd Gegen, although details are vague. Seven temples remain in the compound. As with almost all temple complexes the first is in the form of an covered entryway containing the Four Guardians, each representing one of the four cardinal directions. Above the doorway is a blue, gold-framed sign in Sanskrit, Tibetan, Mongolian, Manchu, and Chinese scripts reading "Temple of Developing Wisdom." Inside are the four Makhranz, as the protective deities are called in Mongolian. Twice life-sized, they were made of paper mache in 1903, the same year the temple was built. I described the Chinese versions of these guardians in my description of Fu Hu Temple on Emei Shan. The Mongolian versions are somewhat different. They are thought to protect the continents which lie in the four cardinal directions from Mount Meru, the center of the universe. The guardian of the eastern continent is Yolkhosuren, who is white and carries a lute-like instrument whose music is said to inspire happiness. Red Jamiisan, connected with western continent, holds a snake and a stupa and protects again chthonic spirits. Pagjiibuu, blue in color, represents the southern continent and protects again war and physical enemies with the sword in his hand. Namsrai of the northern continent is yellow and holds in his hand a mouse spewing jewels; he is responsible for wealth and fortune.

When I pause for a moment my guide starts stamping her feet to keep warm and I suspect to hurry me on. We skip the intervening temples and head straight to the Lavrin Temple in the back of the compound. This is the biggest of the temples and in the last Bogd Gegen's time housed his personal collection of statues. In summertime it was used as a meditation and prayer hall. Now it hosts Zanabazar's art work. The woman has some difficult with the large, cumbersome padlock, which appears to have frozen shut, but finally she manages to open the door.

This security precautions are not uncalled for. In August of 1996 two of Zanabazar's works valued at $160,000 each were stolen from here. Later the thieves apparently had trouble fencing the statues or perhaps developed a guilty conscious; in any case, they got cold feet and threw the statues into the nearby Dund River, where they were eventually found by passersby and returned to the museum. There have also been cases of Zanabazar?s works stolen from Erdene Zuu Museum, although those too were eventually returned after the thieves were arrested. There is reportedly a large underground market in stolen Buddhist art in Mongolia, fueled by private collectors who aren't worried about a piece?s provenance. It is hard to say how much such people would pay for a Zanabazar. Very few of Zanabazar's works have ever appeared on the open market where their monetary value could be judged, but it?s not hyperbolical to say that some, like the Green Tara in this temple, are priceless.

The inside of the temple has the still, gelid air of a meat locker, but just to the right of the entrance, on a low shelf sits Zanabazar's incomparable Green Tara, somehow looking warm bathed as she is in the winter sunlight streamed in through the security barred windows. The statue including the base is just over thirty inches high. Rather than attempt to describe it myself I will yield the floor to Mongolian art historian N. Tsultem:

"The figure is seated, resting heavily on the left buttock, the upper part of the body inclined to the right in a twisting motion emphasized by the position of the right leg, which is stretched forward with the right arm resting alongside it; the left leg, bent at the knee, acts as a firm support. The full, firm, young breasts protrude; and the goddess sits in state with the upper part of her body learning slightly forward, twisting her slender, rounded waist, so that from the side, her shape resembles the soft curve of an S. Unlike other Taras, depicting deities far removed from this world, this one looks like a lovely, round-faced young Mongolian girl. Her features [show] us the face of a pretty young woman with a clear skin, a relatively flat-bridged nose, eyebrows just like a crescent moon, the eyes gazing out and encompassing the world, and round cheeks and chin. It is no wonder that there is a legend among Mongols that the stature once spoke."

I can only add that I have seen hundreds, if not thousands of statues, thangkas, and paintings of Tara in Mongolia, India, Nepal, Tibet, and China, and I don't think I have ever seen any others that that can compare to this Green Tara and Zanabazar's other masterwork, his White Tara.


Green Tara


In display cases on either side of Green Tara are Zanabazar's Twenty-One Taras, each about a foot high. These depict twenty-one of the innumerable forms in which Tara can manifest herself. These are described in a common Tibetan prayer called "Homage to Twenty-One Taras" which is often repeated by those who seek Tara's blessing.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004



The Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani has became the dominant figure now in Iraqi politics. Check out his Snazzy Website. Who's his website designer, I'm wondering. More from the Ayatollah: "What is Permissable and Forbidden is Clarified Here".

Tuesday, January 20, 2004


Mystery Building #1: Every time I take a walk around Ulaan Baatar I notice a new building that somehow mysteriously appeared almost overnight, like a mushroom after a spring rain. This building just materialized on Chingis Khan Avenue, just south of the Bayan Gol Hotel.
In early 1635, forty-eight years after Avtai Khan’s death, his grandson Gombodorj, now the ruler of the Tüsheet Khanate, was traveling by Yesön Zuul when he noticed a handsome lama sitting nearby the ovoo built by his grandfather. When asked what he was doing there the lama replied, “I am honoring this place with sacrifices.” Suddenly the lama disappeared and the sky was filled with rainbows. Shortly thereafter both Gombodorj and his wife Khandujamtso started having wonderful dreams filled with all kinds of good omens and portents. The couple did not limit their activities to dreaming and soon Khandujamtso found herself pregnant.

Gegen-Setsen Khan, who ruled the Setsen Khanate centered around the valley of the Kherlen River to the east of the Tüsheet Khanate, heard that Khandujamtso was with child and wrote a letter to her husband Gombodorj. “Since the thought continually comes to me that through the power of the former good prayers of the kings, princes and dignitaries of the Khalka there will be born to you a fine boy of the golden family of Chinggis Khan, who has the majesty of heaven, and that this boy will be our leader,” the letter said in part. He also suggested that he and his entourage visit Gombodorj and conduct seven days of games, probably the traditional Mongolian contests of horse racing, wrestling, and archery. It was a wonderful time that year in central Mongolia. Rainfall was plentiful and the grass and forests were green and luxurious; birds were everywhere and their melodious songs filled the air; there were was no plague or other sickness and people enjoyed fine health; all sorts of good omens and auguries appeared and the sky was filled with rainbows. (Indeed, the atmospheric conditions which prevail on the steppe between Erdene Zuu and Yesön Zuil are conducive to rainbows; I myself have seen as many as twelve in the sky at once in this area.) Now the dreams of Gombodorj and Khandujamtso were filled with images of Buddhas and the sound of Buddhist scriptures being read. Thus passed the summer of 1635.

Late that year Gombodorj was out riding near Yesön Zuil (Photos of Yeson Zuil) when he noticed place where a white dog had given birth to a litter of puppies. Sensing that this was an auspicious sign he had his winter camp set up here. According to legend, a white flower appeared out of the ground in the middle of the space where he had set up his ger and promptly bloomed, even though the nearby ground was covered with snow and the rivers already frozen.

On the morning of the twenty-five day of the ninth month of the year 1635 Khandujamtso felt birth pangs. At the same time milk started exuding from the breasts of a sixteen year-old serving girl who was attending Khandujamtso. The girl was deeply ashamed, but Khandujamtso explained to her that that when a woman of noble family gave birth it was common for her female servants to produce milk. Later that morning Khandujamtso gave birth to a boy. As Khandujamtso’s own breasts were dry, a council was held and it was decided to wash the servant girl’s breasts with holy water blessed by lamas and let her suckle the little nursling. The Gegen Setsen Khan, in anticipation of the birth, had sent the family a fine cradle decorated with jewels. The baby was placed in this cradle and servants watched over him day and night.

The little boy was given the name Zanabazar, a combination of the word zana, which is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning “knowledge” or “wisdom”, and the word bazar, meaning “thunderbolt”. Thus in English his name might be rendered “thunderbolt of wisdom”.


That spring Gegen Setsen Khan came to visit Gomdorj and his wife and new son. As he was dandling the little boy on his knee of vision of three acaryas—holy men from India—appeared in front of him. The tiny boy reached out his arms to these beings and started babbling as if trying to talk to them. The Gegen Setsen Khan, who could just barely manage to hold the animated little dandling on his knee, was utterly amazed by these events. Convinced that the little boy would someday became a great lama, Gegen Setsen Khan decided to give him his own honorary title—Gegen, (usually translated as “Supreme Holiness”—and henceforth go only by the name Setsen Khan.

Setsen Khan returned to his home in the valley of the Kherlen but could not get the boy out of his mind. He soon dispatched an “expert on portents” to examine the child further. This individual returned with the verdict that “‘the newborn son of Tüsheet Khan is in truth a darling child: the oblong quality of the corners of his eyes and the unusual regularity in the texture of the pupil and the white of his eyes attest to the fact that he is able to contemplate all the ten lands of the earth; as for his body, there are combined in it all the signs of the Buddha, and that is why one may consider beyond any doubt that he is a real Buddha.”

The boy began speaking at the age of three. According to legend his first words were the Buddhist invocation Ala-la-ma duy-sun-san-jiy-di choy-ji-kor-lo-bardu-la-na-med. Soon he was reading and reciting prayers for most of the day, without any instruction or coaxing. When he wasn’t praying or making offers he spent his time building small replicas of temples, fashioning small statues of Buddhas, and drawing portraits of great lamas. Although by tradition the son of a khan was supposed to be surrounded by playmates from other noble families the little boy chose to ignore them completely and instead focused all his energies to his devotional practices. Before the end of his third year, in early 1638, his father, by then convinced that the boy was destined for a religious life, arranged for a lama named Jambaling to give the him his first monastic vows. With these came a new monastic name, Jnanavajra.


Yesön Zuil, where Avtai met the mendicant who was thought, at least by some, to be the Third Lama Dalai in one form or another, and where Zanabazar was born, is located in what is now Övörkhangai Aimag, about twenty-seven miles south of a village of the same name. The geographical center of the current country of Mongolia is about thirty miles north of here, near the town of B ürd. At Yesön Zuil—Zanabazar’s birthplace, and not the village—were nine springs which never froze over in winter (according to locals these springs have since gone dry), and it is these which give the place its name yesön = nine; zuil = types, or kinds). Eventually a temple was built on the site where legend maintains that Avtai built the ovoo to commemorate his meeting with mendicant-lama he believed to be the Dalai Lama. Because it was surrounded by eight large stupas it became known as the Eight Stupas Temple. It was destroyed in the 1930s by the communists, who were particularly keen on erasing any memories of Zanabazar, the first of the Bogd Gegens, the figureheads of Buddhism in Mongolia. Local people and pilgrims later heaped up rubble from the ruins into a large ovoo which stood as a replacement for Avtai’s original monument and the Eight Stupa Temple. When I first visited here in 1997 the stone bases of two of the stupas were still visible.

Some locals claimed that Zanabazar was born on this spot, while others maintain he was born just behind a small pond about a mile and half to the northeast—there is no actual marker to show the place—and that his umbilical cord was buried here at the ovoo. Locals also say that about a mile to the southeast is a spot where Zanabazar’s baby clothes were burned, as was the tradition, after he no longer needed them. When I returned to Yesön Zuil in 2003 I discovered that the year before a small white temple had been built about a hundred yards away from the ovoo. This temple now commemorates the birthplace of Zanabazar.


New temple commemorating the birthplace of Zanabazar


A little over a mile away, on higher ground, Dashgungaa Dejid Monastery had also been established to honor Zanabazar. It too was destroyed during the anti-religious campaigns of the 1930s. In 1997 the ruined walls of some of the buildings of this monastery still stood, but by 2003 they had been torn down for building materials. In the early 1990s a small temple and a white stupa were constructed next to the ruins. In 1995 a painting and a near-life-sized statue of Zanabazar were placed in the otherwise sparsely appointed temple to commemorate the 380th anniversary of Zanabazar’s birth.

In 1997 an old monk who had witnessed the destruction of both the Eight-Stupas Temple and Dashgungaa Dejid Monastery still lived in a ger near the ruins, but he was ill and too weak to talk about those unfortunate times. It would appear that despite the deprecations of the past, however, once again Zanabazar is being remembered here.


It did not take long for stories of Gombodorj Khan’s remarkable little boy to spread throughout Khalkha Mongolia. Setsen’s Khan’s prophecy, allegedly made before the boy was born; the signs and portents surrounding his birth; the findings of soothsayer Setsen Khan had sent to examine the boy; the boy’s amazing utterances and extraordinary behavior; his taking of his first monastic vows at the age of three, all would have been commented on and elaborated upon at great length in a country where people thought nothing of traveling hundreds of miles by horse simply to visit acquaintances and hear some interesting tidbit of news. By the time he was four years old not only the Buddhist hierarchy of Mongolia but even the ruling khans and princes realized that he was destined to play a unique role in the history of their country. Thus in 1639 a great convocation was held to enthrone him as head of the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism in all of Khalkha Mongolia and establish for him his own monastery.

From as far away as Buir Nuur to the east and the shores of huge salt lakes in the Great Depression in the west, and from the edge of the Siberian taiga in the north and the depths of the Gobi Desert in the south, the khans and their entourages of the khanates of Khalkha Mongolia converged on the territory of the Zanabazar’s father the Tüsheet Khan Gombodorj. They all met about forty-eight miles north of Yesön Zuil, at a small lake surrounded on three sides by hills covered with the sand dunes of the so-called Mongol Els—a belt of dunes up to five miles wide and trending north-south for over fifty miles. On the fourth side loomed, like a backdrop of the huge natural amphitheater, the 5477 foot-high massif of Ikh Mongol Uul. This spot, thought to be very near the geographic center of ancient Khalka Mongolia, and just eighteen miles northeast of the geographical center of the current country of Mongolia, was known as the khüis—“navel”—of the Mongol realm. It eventually became known as Shireet Tsagaan Nuur (White Throne Lake).


Details of the composition of the convocation at Shireet Tsagaan Nuur are lacking but since all representatives of all four khanates and their no-doubt sizable entourages were present it is possible that several thousand people were in attendance. Before this assembled throng Zanabazar was officially given the title of Gegen which has been informally bestowed upon him by Setsen Khan shortly after his birth. He also received ordination into the first monastic degree, known as Rabjun, from the presiding lama, a Sakya monk named Bürilegüü. Then he was given another title, Sumati-Sakya-Dodza—“one who holds the Sakya banner of the great mind”—and, according to traditional account, a new name, Lobsang Dambi Jantsen, (”religious flag of good omen”). Since it had been decided to make him the superior of his own monastery, Zanabazar was taught the Khamboin-jinan, or “the superior’s instructions and ordination”. At some point he also received a Malakala initiation..

On a high grass-covered knoll between the shore of the lake and base of Ikh Mongol Uul a ger, the traditional felt tent of the nomads, had been erected. Because the ger was draped outside with yellow cloth it became known as the Shar Bösiyn Ord, or “Yellow Sash Palace”. Lama Bürilegüü carried the little boy up the hill and placed on a throne in the ger, thus signifying that the boy was now the head of the Buddhist faith in Mongolia. The ger itself was sanctified as the first temple of what eventually became Zanabazar’s own monastery. The assembled Mongols then appeared before Zanabazar, offering obeisance and making offerings. He received several dozen gers from each of the Mongol khans, the basis of what became his shabinar, or personal estate. Then began the games, feasts, and celebrations


Shireet Tsagaan Nuur (Photos of Shireet Tsagaan Nuur) is located 148 miles west-southwest of Ulaan Baatar in what is now Övörkhangai Aimag. I first visited here in 1997, as described in my book Travels in Northern Mongolia. At that time it appeared to be visited by only a few die-hard Mongolian pilgrims. No one I talked to back in Ulaan Baatar could tell me its exact location, and even local people along the main highway from Ulaan Baatar to Kharkhorin, which passes ten miles north of Shireet Tsagaan Nuur, could give only the sketchiest directions. Even though we got more detailed instructions from herdsmen in the valley of the Jargalant River, just to the south of Shireet Tsagaan Nuur, we found the extremely faint jeep track which led across the sand dunes of the Mongol Els to the old lake depression only by accident.

I returned to Shireet Tsagaan Nuur in the summer of 2002. Since my first visit a tourist map of the area had been published which showed the location of Shireet Tsagaan Nuur and other local landmarks. Still, we stopped at a herdsman’s ger in the valley of the Jargalant to get precise directions to the jeep track across the sand dunes. The young herdsman, after plying us airag (fermented mare’s milk), agreed to come along for the ride and show us the way, although now this would not have been necessary, as the jeep track appeared to be much more heavily used than before and was not at all hard to find. The herdsman said that now many Mongolians come here on outings and in the last couple of years even a few foreign tourist groups have started to show up.

Zanabazar’s original ger temple was supposedly located on a high hill overlooking the old lake bed— the lake which existed here in Zanabazar’s day has almost completely dried up—of Shireet Tsagaan Nuur, with Ikh Mongol Uul looming up just behind.. The site is surrounding on the other three sides by sand-dune covered hills. The site of the ger temple—the Shar Bösiyn Ord (the Yellow Sash Palace)—is marked by a ten-foot high white stupa. It was here that the four-year old boy was named as the first of Mongolia’s eight Bogd Gegens.


Ovoo marking the spot of Zanbazar's ger when he attended the ceremony naming him the first Bogd Gegen. The mountain Ikh Mongol Uul, which encloses the site on the fourth side, can be seen in the background (Location: N47º09.327 / E103º54.575).


This ger temple was the original core of Zanabazar’s traveling monastery, which eventually became known as Örgöö, meaning “palace” or “camp of an important person.” Örgöö would continually change places and transform itself many times until it finally settled at the confluence of the Tuul and Selbi rivers, in the large basin surrounded by the four holy mountains of Chingeltei Uul, Bayanzurkh Uul, Songino Uul , and Bogd Khan Uul, and became the foundation of the city of Ulaan Baatar. Thus Shireet Tsagaan Nuur is recognized as the original site of what is now Mongolia’s capital.

Since my first visit here mayor ’s office of the city of Ulaan Baatar has erected an eight-foot high stone slab at the base of the hill, at the edge of the old lake, commemorating the 360th anniversary of the founding here of what has become Ulaan Baatar. On the front, facing the stupa is a carved Mongolian inscription in Cyrillic alphabet with the date the monument was dedicated—October 29, 1999—and on the back is a much longer inscription in Old Mongolian vertical script. Above this inscription is the famous Soyombo symbol, which as we shall see was invented by Zanabazar, and which is now also found on the Mongolian flag, on Mongolian paper money, and many, many other places. Thus the city of Ulaan Baatar has given its imprimatur to Shireet Tsagaan Nuur as the original location of its founding.

Monday, January 19, 2004

It is now generally accepted that the city of Ulaan Baatar was founded in 1639. In fact, I had been in Ulaan Baatar on November 6, 2002, when the 363rd anniversary of the city’s founding had been celebrated with considerable hoopla. This assertion about the city’s founding might led some to believe that a town or settlement had actually been established at the current site of Ulaan Baatar in 1639. This is not the case. In keeping with Mongolia’s nomad traditions the “town,” or perhaps more properly the nomadic encampment, originated elsewhere and for decades keep moving to various locations in Mongolia before finally settling at its current location at the confluence of the Selbi and Tuul rivers, just north of Bogd Khan Uul. I have never been able to determine why November 6 was chosen for the day of the anniversary—I suspect this date was chosen arbitrarily in recent times—but the significance of the year 1639 is clear. This is the year when little four-year Zanabazar, the son of the Tüsheet Khan Gombodorj, was given the title of Bogd Gegen at a place called Shireet Tsagaan Nuur, 148 miles west-southwest of Ulaan Baatar in what is now Övörkhangai Aimag, and thus became of the first of the eight Bogd Gegens who served until the line was ended by the communists in 1924.


Zanabazar was born at a place called Yesön Zuil, about thirty miles south-southwest of Shireet Tsagaan Nuur, in 1635. He was the great-grandson of Avtai, the Tüsheet Khan. At this time the domains of the Khalkh, or Eastern Mongols, were divided into three semi-autonomous regions: the khanate of the Tüsheet Khan, centered around the valley of the Tuul River, including the area now occupied by the capital of Ulaan Baatar; the khanate of the Setsen Khan, in the drainage of the Kherlen River, to the east of the Tuul; and the Khanate of the Zasagt Khan, in the western Khangai Mountains and the desert regions to the south. A fourth khanate, that of Sain Noyan, on the middle Selenge, upper Orkhon, and the Ongkin River, south of the Khangai Mountains, was until 1724 considered subordinate to the Tüsheet Khan.

Although the three khanates enjoyed quasi-independent status the Tüsheet Khanate was probably the strongest, and its leader Avtai regarded as the first among equals. “He was a man of great courage and wealth,” the Rosary of White Lotuses tells us. Indeed, he is well remembered in Mongolia to this day. The people of the upper Kherlen River, where the river debouches from the southern foothills of the Khentii Mountains, still tell of the time when Avtai and his entourage came here on a hunting expedition. Avtai was an avid hunter and succeeded in killing many elk. That night Avtai dreamed that a bear came into his ger and tried to maul him. The next morning he said, “I had a bad dream that a bear tried to kill me. The spirits of the mountains must be angry with me because I killed so many animals.” Hoping to appease the mountain spirits he had a statue of a horse made and gilded it with silver. This statue, supposedly life-sized, was placed on the summit of a 7328 foot’ mountain about fifteen miles west of the Kherlen River. This peak became known as Möngönmort (möngön=silver; mort=horse) and is so-identified on government-issued maps today. A nearby town in the valley of the Kherlen is also known as Möngönmort. Local people claim that the statue stood on the mountain until the end of the last century and that some old people in Möngönmort still have pieces of it.

At some point in the late 1570s word filtered back to Mongolia that Altan Khan had met with Sonam Gyatso near Khökh Nuur and that the Tümed Mongols had converted to Buddhism. Avtai decided that he himself must met this great religious figure from Tibet. Then he would decide for himself what he thought of the Dalai Lama and his teachings. “If he is acceptable we shall recognize each other. If not we shall fight,” declared Avtai. Thereupon Avtai set out on horseback from of his homelands on the upper Tuul to the court of the Dalai Lama.

Details of this trip are sparse, and it is difficult to say where Avtai finally met the Dalai Lama. Charles Bawden, in The Modern History of Mongolia, says that the two met in Khökh Khot, the city founded by Altan Khan (now known as Hohhot) in 1577, but Sonam Gyatso did not leave Tibet until late 1577 and then proceeded directly to Khökh Nuur, arriving there in May. There are no time for a lengthy detour to Khökh Khot far to the east, nor do the available accounts suggest such a trip. Other sources indicate that Avtai Khan, accompanied by his brother Prince Tushshireet, met the Dalai Lama in 1580 but do not say where. The Rosary of White Lotuses states simply that while Sonam Gyatso was somewhere in Sog—roughly speaking, current-day Inner Mongolia, Gansu, and Qinghai provinces—“Ochir Opatai”, as he calls Avtai, had an audience with him.


After the May 1578 meeting between Altan Khan and Sonam Gyatso Altan himself had gone to Khökh Khot and established a monastery there. Khökh Khot, according to Bawden the “first permanent Mongol city of modern times”—i.e., after the fall the Yüan Empire—had been founded sometime in the mid-sixteenth-century by Altan Khan and built with the help of Chinese laborers. In 1579 Altan Khan ordered the construction of the Dazhao Temple and around the same time the Xilituzhao Temple, not far away.

Both of these temples still exist in Hohhot, as Khökh Khot is now called, and in addition to serving the city’s diminishing population of Mongolian Buddhists both are marginally famous tourist attractions. I visited both of them during the Chinese New Year of 2003, when they were packed with mostly Chinese people making offerings of incense and New Year gift boxes of apples and oranges which were for sale on almost every street corner of the city.

Meanwhile, the Third Dalai Lama had not returned to Lhasa after his 1578 meeting with Altan Khan but instead was spending his time teaching and building monasteries in what is now northern China and eastern Tibet. It is possible that in 1580 he was in Khökh Khot, where Altan Khan was in the process of establishing monasteries, and that Avtai met him there, but it is difficult to say for sure.


As for the meeting itself, we are told simply that Avtai found Sonam Gyatso—now the Dalai Lama—to his liking. “Let a scarf be brought for me to make obeisance,” he ordered. A black prayer scarf (khadag in Mongolian) was produced and Avtai offered it to the Dalai Lama. This was on the evening of the last day of the month. The next day, the first day of the new month, he again made obeisance to the Dalai Lama, offering him a white scarf. The Dalai Lama chose to interpret this in his own way: “When you first made obeisance to me, you offered a black scarf at the end of the month and bowed late at night. Now you have offered a white scarf at the beginning of the month and have made obeisance early in the morning. These are signs that the ten black sins which you have formerly committed are annihilated, and that from now on the ten white virtues will flourish.” He gave Avtai a relic of Buddha and a statue which was supposedly impervious to fire and instructed him to built a temple to house these objects, adding, “There is in your territory an area with the name of Old and New Orqon [Orkhon]. You should select an auspicious site and build it [the temple] there.”

The Dalai Lama was referring to the Orkhon River in central Mongolia. The 697 mile-long Orkhon begins in the eastern Khangai Mountains and after wending its way through the foothills of the Khangai debouches onto a vast plain near the present-day town of Kharkhorin. This plain and the surrounding foothills valley have been continually inhabited from at least the late Paleolithic 20,000 years ago down to the present day, and many of the great empires of the steppe were headquartered or had capitals here, including the Hsiung-nu (Hunni) from about the second century B.C. to the first century A.D.: the T’u-chüeh (Turks) from 552 to 734; the Uighurs from 745 to 840; and the Mongols in the thirteenth century. The grave mounds of Hsiung-nu; the imposing stone stele of the T’u-chüeh, inscribed with some of the very earliest examples of Turkic writing; the ruins of ancient cities like Karabalgasun, the capital of old the Uighur kingdom where white-robed Manicheans once chanted their orisons; all are mute reminders of the people and civilizations who flourished here and then vanished.

Chingis Khan himself apparently decided in 1220 to built a capital for his empire where the Orkhon emerges from the foothills of the Khangai, although little seems to have been done at the site by the time he died in 1227. It was his son Ögedai who started construction of the capital and by 1235 had placed a wall around it, and it was here in 1235 the Ögedai held a great khural at which it was decided that the Mongols would attack the Sung Dynasty in southern China. By then the capital was known as Kharkhorum. It remained the capital of the Mongol Empire until the early 1270s, when Khubilai founded the Yüan Dynasty and shifted the headquarters of the empire to Beijing. Henceforth Kharkhorum became a provincial capital. After the fall of the Yüan Dynasty in 1368 Mongolia was invaded by armies of the new Ming Dynasty, and Kharkhorum was thoroughly trashed.


It was on the site of Kharkhorum that Avtai finally decided to built a temple to hold the relics which the Dalai Lama had given him. Buddhism had enjoyed a brief fluorescence in Mongolia during the reigns of the Great Khans in the thirteenth century and at least one Buddhist temple had been built in Kharkhorin. Later the temple was destroyed by the armies of the Ming and Buddhism had all but disappeared from Mongolia. Now Avtai decided to built new temples from the ruins of the old one. In 1585—the five-year delay is not explained—he sent to Khökh Khot for a lama to help him with the construction of the temples. This lama happened to belong to the Sakya sect and not the Gelug sect of the Dalai Lama. Sakya Pandita and Sakya Pakpa, two Tibetan lamas who had first introduced Buddhism to the Mongols during the reigns of Great Khans, were Sakyas, and perhaps members of the sect still felt an affinity with Mongolia. Through the offices of the Sakya lama invited by Avtai they now gained foothold in Khalkh Mongolia.

By the summer of 1586 at least one temple, the so-called Khökh (Blue), also known as Ovgon’s Temple (Grandfather’s Temple), and perhaps another temple had been completed and a “minor dedication” performed by the Sakya lama. This lama then said to Avtai, “He who is called my Dalai Lama, reincarnation of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, and who has his seat in the land of Ü in Tibet, is a holy Vajradhara lama and most marvelous.” Of course, Avtai had already met the Dalai Lama when he had been given instructions to build the temple at Kharkhorum, but he apparently set out once again to have an audience with him.

This second meeting between Avtai and the Dalai Lama began less than auspiciously, according to the traditional accounts. Avtai rode ahead of his baggage train with forty-five armed escorts and as they passed by a place known as Black Tamarisk Head he and his men got into a battle with some local people. The leaders of these people went to the Dalai Lama and said, “The one called Abudai [Avtai] Qayan of the eastern Khalkha shot three times and inflicted wounds upon us. We have only just been able to come to you with our lives, O Lama.” The Dalai Lama replied, “This one called Abudai Qayan is a reincarnation of Vajrapani. Therefore do not harm him.” The Dalai Lama sent some men to met Avtai and his cohorts, but Avtai ignored them and rode straight away into his presence. “When I saw you being overwhelmed by the majesty of the Qayan [Avtai], even I was afraid,” the Dalai Lama exclaimed to the abashed leader of the Tibetan escorts, at least according to the Mongolian version of this event.

Avtai quickly redeemed the situation, making obeisance to the Dalai Lama and proclaiming, “I your servant am Qayan of the people called the Khalkha of the North.” He explained that he had built a temple in the land of the Khalkas, at Kharkhorum, and asked the Dalai Lama to come to Mongolia and perform a full inauguration of the new building. He presented the Dalai Lama with one hundred white prayer scarves with one hundred white gelded horses, another hundred white prayer scarves with a hundred bay gelded horses, one thousand assorted gelded horses, plus an assortment of jewels and fine cloths.

The Dalai Lama replied that he was not able come to Mongolia at that time—indeed he had very little time left to live—but that Avtai should return to Mongolia and fix a day for the inauguration of the new temple, and that he, the Dalai Lama, would inaugurate it from where he was at on that day.

It should be mentioned here that in 1586 the Dalai Lama is known to have been in Khökh Khot, where he gave a sermon before over 100,000 people. Intriguing, the Rosary of White Lotuses says that one “Dorje Gyalpo of Halha” was present at this event and presented the Dalai Lama with a number of precious gifts, including a tent made of sable skins. At another point, the Rosary refers to a “Halha Dorje Gyalpo” who built the Erdene Zuu Temple on the Orkhon. Was Dorje Gyalpo another name of Avtai, who elsewhere the Rosary calls Ochir Opatai? If so, then did in fact Avtai met the Dalai Lama at Khökh Khot in 1586?

In any event, Avtai had one more request of the Dalai Lama: “Moreover, I wish to invite a good lama, who will be of advantage to the faith which is revered forever, and to instal [sic] the most blessed shrines.” Could the Dalai Lama please recommend such a monk and send him to Mongolia? The Dalai Lama told him to interview various monks and then chose one himself. Here again the record is extremely vague. According to one account, Avtai then proceeded to Lhasa to look for a teacher of the Dharma who could come back with him to Mongolia. The Dalai Lama, it is clear, did not accompany him on this trip. While visiting a temple in Lhasa Avtai noticed a monk sitting all by himself at the end of a row of seats and for some reason felt drawn to him. Avtai eventually asked this lama to come Mongolia and teach. The man replied, “I am unable to go in this incarnation, but later I will meet you.”

This lama was supposedly Taranatha (1573?-1634), who later, in 1615, founded the Takten Phuntsok Ling Monastery in the Tsangpo Valley near Shigatse, and eventually achieved great renown as a teacher and historian (his famous History of Buddhism in India is still in print today) Admittedly, this story presents certain chronological problems. Taranatha was born in either 1573 or 1775, and thus would have had to have been very young indeed if and when Avtai met him in Tibet in mid-1580s. This is one of several inconsistencies in the account of Avtai’s second trip to Tibet, a journey which over the years may have acquired some accretions of a purely mythical nature

Taranatha, however, eventually did go to Mongolia, where he reportedly founded several monasteries. Little more is known about his years in Mongolia, except for the fact that he died there in 1634. It is related that while still in Tibet, Taranatha, known as a great humorist, made a joke about where he would be reborn. A Mongolian student studying under him cried out, “Oh, please come to Mongolia next time!” Zanabazar, the first Bogd Gegen, who was believed to be Taranatha’s reincarnation, fulfilled this request.


During his second meeting with the Dalai Lama Avtai apparently again asked the Dalai Lama to visit Mongolia. He replied,: “Although I cannot go now, later I will meet you at your own place.” Avtai then returned to Mongolia and prepared for the full dedication of the new temples at Kharkhorum, making offerings and sacrificial cakes as the Dalai Lama had instructed him to do. According to tradition, “On that very day, when, offerings and cakes were there prepared, barley fell in showers, like scattered grain, from the direction of the west [where the Dalai Lama dwelled], and this is how the seeds of barley became widespread among the Khalka.” According to another tradition, a shower of flowers fell, signaling that the Dalai Lama had indeed performed the inauguration from afar, as he had promised. When the famous Russian ethnographer A. M. Pozdneev visited here in the 1890s he was shown dried flowers on a temple altar which the monks maintained were the very flowers which had fallen during the long-ago inauguration.

Avtai would eventually build several temples on the old site of Kharkhorum. The first, however, was known as the Khökh Temple. At the same time or shortly thereafter he built was is now the Central Zuu Temple, apparently right on the site of the previous Buddhist temple in the old capital of Kharkhorum. Over the next century and a Right Zuu and a Left Zuu temple were built on either side of the Central Zuu. These Three Zuus formed the core of what was to become the vast Erdene Zuu Monastery, which by 1792 the monastery had sixty-two temples and over 500 other buildings. The entire complex was severely damaged during the anti-Buddhist campaigns of the late 1930s and today only eighteen temples remain. Most of these temples, including the Three Zuus, are now part of the Erdene Zuu Museum, although the Tibetan-styled temple toward the rear of the compound has recently once again become active, home to small community of monks. The Khökh Temple, the first one built by Avtai, has also survived, but it is quite small, inconspicuously located, and un-signposted, and many visitors to Erdeni Zuu, now one of Mongolia’s premier tourist attractions, walk right by it unaware of its significance.


Not long after the temple inauguration Avtai was out hunting with his entourage on the steppes about 60 miles east of Kharkhorum. From the middle of a wide plain bounded on east by saw-toothed ridges Avtai saw a thin plume of a smoke rising from a fire of a lone camper. “Go and see what sort of man that is, whether a hunter or a mendicant,” Avtai ordered one of his men. The man came back and reported that the stranger had wore a blue gown but had a shaved head. Avtai noted that the color of the gown made no difference, but since the stranger has a shaved head he must be a lama. “When formerly I made obeisance to the Dalai Lama I took an oath that I would make obeisance to the lamas I saw, since priests of the clergy are rare in our land,” said Avtai. To the amazement of his entourage Avtai went up and bowed to the simply-dressed stranger. “What a fortunate qayan you are,” said the man, “to be the only one to make obeisance when today so many men have not done so.” He then offered some of his simple food that he had prepared to Avtai, who ate it with relish. He offered what was leftover in his own bowl to members of his entourage but they refused to eat it, shocked that their Khan should be consorting with such lowly man. Then the stranger said, “This place where we have met is possessed of great significance. Erect a monument here.” A monument was built and the place was given the name Yesön Zuil. The traditional account of this meeting concludes with: “The mendicant took a most blessed object from his load and offered it to the Qayan, and this is how the Dalai Lama Sonam Gyatso, in accordance with his having said at an earlier date, ‘I shall go later’, met with him [Avtai] in the guise of a mendicant.”

Of course it is highly improbable if not impossible that the Dalai Lama actually traveled to Mongolia in the guise of a mendicant, particularly in the last year or two of his life—he died in 1588. Some might dismiss this story as a simple legend, while others might suggest the possibility that an emanation of the Dalai Lama appeared before Avtai. The place Yesön Zuil exists by the same name today, however, and local people are quick to point out the exact spot where Avtai supposedly met the Third Dalai Lama, in whatever guise he may have appeared.

Avtai himself died shortly after this alleged meeting, in 1587, a year before the Dalai Lama. Avtai’s remains were eventually placed in stupa-like tomb in front of the three Zuu Temples at Erdene Zuu, which are enclosed in a compound of their own. This tomb was damaged in the iconoclastic upheavals of the 1930s and it is not clear if Avtai’s remains are still present, although the structure itself has been meticulously restored. Again, it is not sign-posted, and very few of the thousand of visitors who walk by give it a second glance. Such is the fate of Zanabazar’s great-grandfather Avtai, the khan who brought Buddhism to Mongolia.

Sunday, January 18, 2004


A new revised and corrected edition of my book "Travels in Northern Mongolia" is now available as an ebook in Microsoft Reader format. Buy It Here. Don't everyone try at once, since my distributor says they can only handle 5000 hits a minute. Those of you eagerly awaiting an Abode Reader ebook edition will have to wait another month or two. Be patient.

The Mongolian Government Building on Sukhebaatar Square



The changing face of Ulaan Baatar: New multi-story building looming over the old Soviet-era buildings lining Sukhebaatar Square.

Friday, January 16, 2004

See New Photos of Tibet.
During one four-month stay in Ulaan Baatar I almost without fail had taken a daily constitutional to the war memorial located on the top of a small hill on the southern edge of town, a popular viewing point which presents a splendid panorama of Ulaan Baatar, the valley of the Tuul River, and the surrounding mountains. Being to some degree a creature of habit I decide to visit the war memorial again before continuing my Zanabazar investigations. In the milky-gray predawn (it’s a chilly –28º F) I leave my hotel and walk south on Baga Toiruu (Little Circle Road) to the Ulaan Baatar Hotel, then turn right and debouche onto now-deserted Sukhebaatar Square. Located at the center of the city, the eight hundred feet long, six hundred wide square is bounded on the north by the huge gray hulk of the four-story Parliament Building and on the east and west by ponderous Soviet-style buildings of the Stalinist era, including the wedding cake-like Opera Hall. In the middle of the square, on an immense stone plinth, is a statue of Sukhebaatar, one of the founders of the Mongolian communist party and a hero of the Mongolian Revolution. This morning he is wearing a little white cap of snow.

At the far corner of the square I follow Chingis Khan Avenue, formerly Lenin Street, south across the Peace and Friendship Bridge which straddles the Dund Gol, a tributary of the Tuul River, and the main line of the Mongolian Railroad. Just past the bridge Chingis Khan Avenue veers west, eventually turning into the road leading to the airport. I continue south on Zaisan Street. On the right is the Winter Palace of the eighth and last Bogd Gegen of Mongolia, the former head of the Buddhist religion in Mongolia who died in 1924. His wooden two-story palace and a complex of attendant temples are now a museum. Several examples of Zanabazar’s artworks and other items connected with his life are found here and I intend to return later.

Not far past the palace is the bridge over the Tuul River. About a hundred feet wide, the river is now completely frozen over. The Tuul, one of Mongolia’s five longest rivers, measuring 508 miles in length, begins in the Khentii Mountains about 95 miles north of Ulaan Baatar as the crow flies. It eventually joins the Orkhon River, which itself flows into the Selenge (Selenga in Russian) River just south of the Russian border. The Selenga continues on another 267 miles through the Autonomous Republic of Buryatia (part of the Russian Republic) before flowing into Lake Baikal, the deepest and most voluminous lake on earth. Baikal drains northward via the Angara and Yenisei rivers into the Kara Sea, bordering on the Arctic Ocean. The Yenisei is the largest, in volume of water, north-flowing river on earth, and the Yenisei-Angara-Selenga river system—3683 miles in length—is the fifth longest.

To the west of the source of the Tuul are the headwaters of the Onon and the Kherlen rivers. Like the Tuul both begin in the Khentii Mountains, but instead of draining westward, into the Selenge, they flow to the east. The Onon eventually flows into the Shilka, which then combines with the Argun River to form the Amur, the immense river which serves as the boundary between Russia and China before flowing into the Pacific Ocean opposite Sakhalin Island, north of Japan. The Onon-Shilka-Amur is 2737 miles long and ranks as the eighth longest river system in the world. The Kherlen River, via Dalai Lake in Manchuria, and the Argun River, also eventually drains into the Amur.

The upper basins of these three rivers—the Tuul, the Onon, and Kherlen—located at the navel of northern Asia, at the headwaters of two of the world’s greatest river systems, are known collectively as the “Three Rivers Region,” an area believed to be the homeland of the Mongol People. In the twelfth century the middle Tuul, here in the vicinity of Ulaan Baatar, was also the headquarters of the Kerait tribe, whose chieftain, Tooril, was the original patron of Chingis Khan.

I stop on the middle of the bridge over the Tuul and stare upstream along its banks as I have done so many times before while walking this way. On the north side of the river is a broad strip of gravelly ground sparsely vegetated with ten-to-twenty foot high willows and other brush. For me it is the landscape of a dream. The very first time I walked across this bridge and viewed this scene I had an uncannily intimation that I, or more properly speaking, someone whose actions I remember, had once, long ago, camped on the banks of this river, at this very spot. I can still picture the campfire of glowing embers surrounded by river cobbles, smell the sheep skin sleeping cloaks, and hear the snorting of camels standing just beyond the light of the fire. Traveling, it occurs to me, is not only a process of moving forward through time, but also moving backwards. Not for the first time do I have the feeling that I am merely retracing a path already traveled.

At the far side of the bridge I am jolted back into the present. From a manhole by the side of the road three men are emerging. Each is dressed in filthy deels (traditional robes worn by both Mongolian men and women) whose original color is now indistinguishable. Their hands and faces are likewise black with grime. Each has a small grubby burlap bag containing his possessions. These are the so-called “tunnel people” who inhabit the labyrinth of utility ducts beneath the entire city. Most are people who have somehow fallen through the cracks of the new society which has evolved after the fall of communism, or are victims of the disastrous zeds, severe winter storms which have killed millions of head of livestock in the countryside over the past several years, leaving many herders destitute. It was estimated at one time that there are up to a thousand of these tunnel people, including many children, although now most have reportedly been flushed out by the authorities. They are most numerous in winter, when it is impossible to lead a homeless life on the surface. Most survive by begging and thievery. I once talked to a translator who had a client whose passport had been stolen. In a runabout way the translator heard that there was a man in the tunnels who acting as a kind of clearing house for stolen passports and credit cards. A street urchin agreed to take the translator to met this man. Visitors to the tunnels had to pay an entrance fee of a bottle of vodka or a carton of cigarettes or face dire consequences. The translator was led to this man’s liar deep in the catacombs beneath the city and finally managed to buy back the passport for one hundred dollars.

The three men, having climbed out of the manhole, turn their attention to me as I walk by. There is nothing threatening in their demeanor. They simply stare at me with the surprisingly calm eyes of those who no longer harbor any hopes or illusions about anything.



Straight ahead is a short valley leading into Bogd Khan Uul, the huge massif which dominates the skyline to the south of the city. Just in front of the mouth of the valley is a three hundred foot-high conical hill surmounted by the War Memorial. The hill itself and the village just behind, in the mouth of the small valley, are both called Zaisan. A road goes from the backside of the hill to a parking lot about halfway up. On the front side a long concrete stairway leads to the parking lot and on to the summit. I take the stairway, now treacherously slick with ice. The parking lot in summertime is a extremely popular place for Ulaan Baatarians. In the evenings there may be several dozen people here, school kids with boom boxes, adults drinking beer and vodka, and oldsters out for exercise and a view. I continue on through the now deserted parking lot.

At the very top of the hill is a sixty foot high concrete statue of a soldier holding a stylized flag—the soldier is perhaps thirty feet high with the flag extending another thirty feet. The monument, which locals say was built and paid for by the Soviet Union (I am unable to confirm this) is to the “Taking of Berlin.” Apparently Mongolian troops, who of course fought with the Soviet Union, did play a part in the taking of Berlin in 1945. Just behind the stone monument itself is a paved circular area perhaps sixty feet in diameter surrounded by a five foot high wall. Elevated on concrete posts on top of the wall is a huge concrete ring. Between the wall and the concrete ring is a six foot space through which the city can be seen. The inside surface of the ring is completely covered with multicolored mosaics featuring soldiers in battle, some of them trampling on Nazi banners and in other heroic poses, along with weeping wives and children. Both Mongolians and blonde-haired Russians are featured side-by-side in a sense of socialist harmony which has since disappeared. In the early 1990s, after the collapse of socialism, Russians had became persona non grata in Mongolia, but now geo-political realities have reasserted themselves and Russians are back (there are several extremely noisy groups of them at my hotel), but now as businessmen and not imperialists. On the middle of the paved circle is a large marble font which once hosted an eternal flame. Like the Soviet Union, it too proved to be not so eternal.

I go back out and sit on one of the benches on front of the huge stone soldier. From here can be seen all of Ulaan Baatar. Over a fourth of Mongolia’s population, about 620,000 people, lives here in the capital. The city is contained in a basin measuring five to eight miles wide and perhaps twenty-five miles long. On the four sides of the basin are the four sacred mountains which surround the city: about ten miles to the east is Bayanzurkh Uul; to the north about eight miles is Chingelt Khairkhan Uul; to the west about fifteen miles is Songino Uul; and to the south, directly behind Zaisan is Bogd Khan Uul.


I have at one time or another climbed all four of these peaks. Bayanzurkh Uul (Rich Heart Mountain) lies just north of the main road leading east from Ulaan Baatar. North of the mountain itself the Tuul River enters the Ulaan Baatar basin through a narrow defile. From the base of the mountain, near the Women’s Penitentiary compound, it’s about an hour’s hike up a steep ridge to the summit. The peak itself is 5430 feet high, or 1000 feet above Ulaan Baatar, at an elevation of 4415 feet. On the summit are two ovoos, conical piles of rocks with which Mongolians honor summits, passes, and other significant places. Both are surmounted with posts draped with hundreds of blue and white khadags—Buddhist prayer scarves. Arranged around the posts are several horse sculls. When a favorite horse dies Mongolians like to place its scull on consecrated spots like this. In pre-communist days each of the four sacred mountains were worshipped by a particular part of town. The easternmost suburb of Ulaan Baatar, now known as Bayanzurkh, was in the old days this area known as the Mai-mai-ch’eng, or Chinese trade quarter. During the third month of summer the residents of Mai-mai-ch’eng would go to the summit of Bayanzurkh, place khadags on the ovoo, and make offerings of dairy products, tea, etc. Ovoo worship was specifically proscribed during the communist era, but now once again offerings are being made on Bayanzurkh Uul.


Chingelt Khairkhan Uul is about eight miles north of here, or about six miles north of Sukhebaatar Square. In the pre-communist era it was worshipped by lamas who lived around the temples located in the center of the city which were later razed to accommodate Sukhebaatar Square. Offerings to the ovoo on its summit were made during the second month of summer. Nowadays if you ask locals to point out Chingelt Khairkhan Uul most will point to a barren point which directly overlooks the city just to the northwest of the Chingelt residential district. Maps of the city and local residents who are sticklers for fact insist that the real Chingelt Khairkhan Uul is a forest-topped dome about a mile and a half northeast and several hundred feet higher (6677' or 2266' above the city) than the foreground peak. I climbed both peaks in one day, a fairly routine if strenuous walk from the bus turnaround in the Chingelt suburb. The lower point, immediately in the foreground when viewed from Sukhebaatar Square, presents the best view of the city. Here and on the barren summit ridge line behind are three ovoos, each about a hundred yards apart. The middle one is the highest, but the first, on the point, is the largest, a conical pile of rocks about eight feet high surmounted by several tree trunks. Hanging from the trunks are innumerable prayer flags. The backside of the ridge connecting the foreground point with the higher Chingelt Khairkhan was once forested with surprisingly large larch and cedar—some close to three feet across the stump—but has now been almost completely logged off in the relentless search for firewood by Ulaan Baatar residents.


Songino Khairkhan Uul, west of here, about five miles past the airport, was the mountain once worshipped by residents of the western suburbs of the city. The peak called Songino Khairkhan is actually the easternmost point of a eight-mile long ridge trending southwest along the Tuul River. It is several hundred feet lower than the highest point of the ridge, 5402-foot Dartsagtyn Gozgor Uul. Songino Khairkhan is the most visible peak from the city, however, and when asked about the holy mountain of Songino most residents point to it. Planes approaching Ulaan Baatar from China and Korea circle right around Songino Khairkhan on their approach, and passengers can see the mountain off the right a few minutes before landing.

I had wanted to climb both Songino Khairkhan Uul and and Dartsagtyn Gozgor Uul but as it turned out I never made it to the later. For this I still blame Dashpurev, a cab driver I had met on my very first visit to Ulaan Baatar and with whom I remained friends until his untimely death from a heart attack. One March day several years ago I called Dashpurev to see if he was free to drive me to the base of Songino Khairkhan Uul the next morning. I explained that I hoped to climb that peak and then follow the ridgeline to the summit of Dartsagtyn Gozgor Uul. He said he could take me the next morning but added that he had something he wanted to talk to me about this evening.

Later he comes to my room with a woman he introduces as his cousin, but is actually his wife’s sister’s daughter. Her name is Purevsuren and she speaks no English. I would have guessed she was in her late twenties, but it turns out she has two children aged sixteen and fourteen, so apparently she is older. After some chitchat Dashpurev gets down to business. His relative along with her two children want to decamp to America. Can I help her get a visa?

Of course I have been asked this dozens of times in Mongolia and in Siberia, where I lived for three years before coming to Mongolia, and I have in fact gotten American visas for numerous people. But the invitations for these visas was always more-or-less on the up-and-up; for example, a translator in Mongolia who had worked for me in the past I invited to the United States on the pretext—feeble, I will admit—of planning with her my next trip to Mongolia. Now Dashpurev says that this woman is prepared to give me $1500 if I can get her an American visa, and he freely admits that if she gets to America she is not coming back. There are many stories going around about how Mongolians have eased into the huge pool of illegal immigrants in the States with scarcely a ripple. This woman thinks she can do it too, if only she can get to the States in the first place. There are several agencies in Ulaan Baatar that claim they can get American visas for $1000 to $1500, but they want the money up front and make no guarantees. If they can’t get the visa they keep up to half the money anyway. Couldn’t I use the $1500, Dashpurev wonders?

I explain to him, a bit disingenuously but wishing to put an end to the matter, that all other considerations aside I cannot invite someone to the United States because I am not myself in the United States and am not returning there any time in the near future.. Dashpurev mulls this over for awhile, then says, prefacing his remarks with a laugh, as if to making a joke, “Well, you are single. Why don’t you marry her. She is quite nice”—here he invites me to appraise her myself with an expansive wave of his arm—“and she will still give you the $1500.”

Curiously, just a couple of days ago I was in an internet cafe where I struck up a conversation with Mongolian woman in her forties who made a similar proposal. It was also made teasingly, as if a joke, but I had no doubt she was serious. She too had several thousand dollars at her disposal. I squirmed out of that proposal the same way I did now with Dashpurev’s relative, explaining that I spent very little time in the States, don’t have a house or apartment or even a job there, and so was hardly in a position to maintain a wife. His relative listens to his translation of all this without a flicker of emotion. Actually, under different circumstances I would have liked to get to know her. Now of course any interest would be misinterpreted.

I woke up the next morning to a blizzard, not the fine, dry snow of the Mongolian winter which is soon blown away, but big, wet flakes which stuck to the ground, piling up a half-inch deep by day-break. I called Dashpurev and cancelled the trip to Songino Uul, which was a good idea because the snow didn’t stop until afternoon, by which time five inches had heaped up.


About a week later Dashpurev, his wife’s sister Purevsuren, and his friend Dashzeveg, a profession translator, came to visit. At first I thought we thought we were going to have another round about visas; but no, it seems they have come just to chat. Surprisingly Dashpurev produces a six-pack of beer. During the several years I have known him I have never seen him drink alcohol before. He relates a convoluted story about a plot to smuggle falcons out of Mongolian which has been recently uncovered. He claims that Arabs, particularly Kuwaitis, will pay up to $50,000 for a falcon, which I find extremely hard to believe, but what do I know about Arabs? I do know there is traffic in falcons because periodically the smugglers get caught and the whole affair makes the news. But according to Dashpurev hundreds more are smuggled out undetected, with police and customs paid to look the other way.

While we are discussing this Dashzeveg picks up a book from my coffee table—David Christian’s A History of Russia, Central Asia, and Mongolia—and flips through it. In his fifties, he is a well-known translator, fluent in Russian (married to a Belorussian), English, and Spanish (he lived for several years in Havana), and with a passing interest in history. Christian’s book, I tell him, is the latest study of the so-called Inner Eurasia region, including Mongolia, up to the time of the Chingisid Empire. It’s an excellent book, I add, and will probably become the standard work on the area, although it does contains some trifling errors about Mongolian history (besides claiming that Anchorage is the capital of Alaska, an assertion sure to upset the residents of Juneau). For example, at one point the book avers that Chingis was a member of the Taichuud clan, when he was, famously, of the Borjigin clan. Dashzeveg turned to Purevsuren for confirmation of this and she says yes, Chingis was a Borjigin and not a Taichuud. During our last meeting Purevsuren had not said a word—she does not speak English—but now it suddenly appears she is a history maven. As it turns out she graduated from Mongolian State University with degrees in history and teaching. For several years she had taught history in schools here in Ulaan Baatar, from the fourth grade on up to the tenth. I ask if Mongolian school kids are interested in history, expecting the stock answer that like most kids they couldn’t care less, but she says, to my surprise, that many Mongolian school children are quite interested in history, especially their own.

I peer at Purevsuren a little more closely. She is tall—probably 5 feet 8 inches—and slim, with thick, lustrous, perfectly straight black hair down to just below her breasts and a finely molded face, her lips glossed with ox blood-colored lipstick. As was the fashion with stylish Mongolian woman she was dressed in all black—black high-heeled boots of soft leather, neatly pressed black slacks, black silk blouse, and thigh-length black leather jacket. She doesn’t look like any high school history teacher I ever had. But she is not longer teaching. I ask through Dashpurev what she is doing now but never got an answer. As I mentioned earlier she has two children, one sixteen and one fourteen, but seems to have no husband at the moment, although even that is not precisely clear. One thing is sure, she wants to get out of Mongolia. She has come along with Dashpurev to visit me again so she could pick up some English, now the global lingua franca, from our conversations. Dashpurev himself never studied English formally, just picked it from talking with foreigners. He thinks Purevsuren can do the same. “She is very smart,” he says. I don’t doubt it for a second. I had a feeling I hadn’t seen the last of her, and I was right.

Ten days later I again called Dashpurev and asked he was free to take me to the base of the Songino Khairkhan Uul the next day, a Sunday. He said he was. An hour later he called back and asked if it was OK if his relative Purevsuren came along with me on my hike. At first I wasn’t sure I heard him correctly. From what I had seen of Purevsuren she didn’t look like the outdoors type—but then again she didn’t look like school teacher type either—and why did she want to come along on an all-day hike into some very rugged mountains? “Fresh air! Exercise!” enthused Dashpurev. “Does she have walking shoes?” I asked dubiously. The last time I had seen her she was wearing stiletto heels. No problem, said Dashpurev.


So they show up and 7:30 the next morning and we head out of town. The weather hasn’t cooperated. Yesterday the sky was faultless blue from horizon to horizon, today is overcast with the threat of snow in the air. Songino Mountain isn’t even visible from Ulaan Baatar, although today this may be due to the pall thrown up the intervening coal-powered electric plants. Just past the police checkpoint on the road to Kharkhorin we turn off on a dirt road that leads to the base of the front rampart of the Songino mountains. I had originally planned to climb the highest peak of the Songinos, 5402' Dartsagtyn Gozgor Uul, but I soon put this plan on hold. Purevsuren’s hiking shoes turned out to have three-inch thick platform soles, and on the ascent to Songino Khairkhan at the eastern end of the range we had to stop a half dozen time while she caught her breath. As mentioned she speaks no English and I only a few words of Mongolian. That didn’t matter, as I intended to do some serious hiking and not engage in pointless babary. It turns out she speaks Russian however, so soon we are engaged in a conversation of sorts.

She’s originally from a small village in the Khentii Mountains. As girl, she assures me, she had done a lot of hiking in the hills around her home but admits to being a bit out of practice. She finally confesses to being thirty-five, although at first glance she appears quite younger, an impression enhanced by a perfect set of blindingly white teeth and a figure of a twenty year old. She has on a full complement of makeup for this hike, but in the unmerciful sunlight here on the mountain her thirty-five years are beginning to show around her eyes. She had her first daughter at the age of nineteen. This was in the 80s when, she explains, there was an official campaign to get woman to have more babies—if you had eight or more you became a Hero Mother of the People’s Republic and received an award and various cash grants—and getting into the spirit of the movement she had another daughter just a little over a year later. I ask several times about her husband, but she is not forthcoming about his current status in her life. She does mention casually that not long ago she and one of her daughters spent a year and a half in Poland. What were they doing in Poland all that time? They were just tourists, she claims, and refuses to elaborate on how or why one would spend a year and a half in Poland as a tourist. As could be expected with a conversation taking place in a language not native to either speaker a lot more questions are raised than answered. Finally she announces that she does not want to speak in Russian—she doesn’t like Russians or their language—and that I should speak in English, as that is the language she is trying to pick up. After a few more breathers we reach the top the 5110-foot Songino Khairkhan, the foreground peak as seen from Ulaan Baatar. On the summit is an six-foot high ovoo surmounted with a section of tree trunk draped with dozens of khadags and Tibetan prayer flags and surrounded by several horse sculls. Three ravens continuously circle the ovoo, banking and wheeling on the stiff wind coming straight out of Siberia.


Directly below, at the base of this peak, the Tuul makes a bend to the southwest. Directly across the valley, here narrowing to about a mile in width, are foothills extending from the western end of the Bogd Khan Uul, the mountain to the south of Ulaan Baatar. These foothills and the eastern end of the Songino mountains form a natural gateway to the large basin occupied by the city of Ulaan Baatar to the east. The right side of the river to the southwest is flanked by the rest of the Songino mountains for perhaps ten miles. Beyond here the Tuul enters another vast basin which drops off beyond the far-distant horizon.

The Songino Mountains were once thought to be the abode of powerful shamans and their attendant spirits. One famous shaman who lived on Songino Mountain was known as the Dark Old Man. According to legend he was also buried here, and he, or perhaps more properly his spirit, was later incorporated into the Buddhist pantheon. Although opposed to shamanism, early Mongolian Buddhists had incorporated many shamanic elements into their rituals as a means of making their religion more compatible to the common people of the country, many of whom retained a deep-seated belief in the power of shamans. Thus the Dark Old man was eventually recognized as one of the Lords of the Four Mountains, the spirits which rule over the four mountains surrounding the city of Ulaan Baatar. A paper maché mask representing the Dark Old Man was worn during the sacred Tsam dances which were held in Urga (Ulaan Baatar) up through the 1920s. The mask, with its ferocious black face and long white fangs conjuring up an archaic belief system which supposedly succumbed to the spiritual authority of Buddhism, can still be seen at the Choigin Lama Temple Museum in downtown Ulaan Baatar.

Other important individuals were also buried on Songino Khairkhan. On the slopes of the mountain archeologists have found a tomb of an chieftain or warrior, 5 feet 8 inches tall and fifty to sixty years old, dating to the 12th or 13th century. In the grave was found a pommel from a saddle; two metal stirrups, traditionally buried with their owners; a sheep shoulder blade which was probably part of a food offering; a knife with wooden handle; a birch bark quiver twenty-five inches long containing three metal-tipped arrows; part of a three-footed cast iron pot; and other oddments.

Most striking however, was a leather belt found on the body. Adorning its length were twenty-seven rosettes of solid gold, each several inches in diameter, and hanging from the belt onto the man’s right hip was a beetle-shaped pendant, also of gold. Given the richness of the burial and the man’s personal adornment he was undoubtedly a member of the steppe aristocracy. Given the time frame he could have been either a Mongol or a Kerait—the tribe which lived here along the Tuul in the 12th century; whichever, Songino Khairkhan was chosen as his final resting place.

From the ovoo we continued hiking along the knife-edge ridge leading the southwest. The wind had abruptly picked up force, now blowing straight out of the north at sixty or seventy miles an hour. Crossing gaps in the ridge where the wind was particularly strong I was almost bowled off my feet several times. Purevsuren gamely picked her way across the crumbly scree, holding on to her stocking cap with one hand and trying to keep her balance with the other arm. Her cheeks were soon burnished bright red by the frigid wind. Reaching one high knob on the ridge we worked our way around the lee-side and suddenly found ourselves in a protected nook, eerily calm without a breath of breeze, even though overhead the wind continued to shriek and moan. The mid-morning sun radiating off the rocks created here a pocket of warm air. It was as if we had stepped into a greenhouse. We unburdened ourselves of parkas and gloves and broke out a picnic lunch. Both of us had brought thermos of hot tea.

Below, in the gateway formed by Songino Khairkhan and spurs of Bogd Khan Uul, can be seen the village of Bio Uildvar. For several miles on either side of Bio Uildvar the banks of the Tuul are lined with scattered stands of deciduous trees. Now shorn of their leaves they appear black from our viewpoint. These trees are what remains of the Black Forest of the Tuul, where Tooril, leader of the Kerait and the original patron of Chingis Khan, made his headquarters during the last part of the twelfth century.

This Black Forest of the Tuul is mentioned several times in the Secret History of the Mongols, the thirteenth-century account of the rise of the Mongols and the life of Chingis Khan. Various sources, notably the French scholar of Central Asia, Rene Grousset, have opined that the Black Forest of the Tuul was actually a name for the thick woods covering Bogd Khan Uul, the mountain just west of here and south of the Tuul Valley. Indeed, anyone approaching Ulaan Baatar today by airplane during the day will be struck by the site of this huge largely tree-covered massif rearing up straight ahead after the featureless, treeless expanses of desert and steppe directly to the south, and like the Black Hills of South Dakota the mountain from a distance does in fact appear to be black, an impression especially pronounced in winter time. Thus it would be easy to assume that is the Black Forest of the Tuul mentioned in the Secret History.

I had, however, discussed this matter with two leading Mongolian scholars of the Chingis era, D. Bazargür’s and D. Enkhbayar, compilers of a book entitled Chinggis Khaan Atlas, and they maintained that according to various written sources and oral legends the Black Forest of the Tuul refers not to the forest on Bogd Khan Uul but to the stands of trees along the Tuul itself in the vicinity of Songino Mountain which were probably much more extensive in the thirteenth century.

This, then, was where Tooril, also known as Ong Khan or Wang Khan, had his camp. The Persian historian Juvaini, writing in the 1250s, noted: “In those days Ong Khan, the ruler of the Kerait . . . surpassed the other tribes in strength and dignity and was stronger than they in gear and equipment and the number of his men. And in those days the Mongol tribes were not united and did not obey one another.”

The Kerait too at times suffered from disunity, however, and Tooril himself became embroiled in a vicious civil war with his uncle Gur-khan for control of the Kerait throne. Tooril turned for help to a man named Yesükhei, then a minor leader of the Kiyat-Borjigin clan of the Mongols. Yesükhei saw a chance to strengthen his own hand by allying himself with Tooril. With the assistance of Yesükhei and his men Tooril defeated the Gur-khan, who along with his followers was forced to flee to the land of the Xi Xia, in what is now the Chinese province of Ningxia. To cement their alliance Tooril and Yesükhei became blood brothers (anda) in what became known as the Oath of the Black Forest, named after Tooril’s camp at the Black Forest of the Tuul, here at the base of Songino Mountain. Tooril proclaimed, “In memory of the service you have rendered me, my gratitude shall be manifested to your children and to your children’s children, may the high heavens and the earth be my witness.” Yesükhei’s son Temüjin, later known to the world as Chingis Khan, would later have due cause to remind Tooril of his oath made here at the Black Forest of the Tuul, and to hold him to it. Still later, after the two had become bitter enemies and he had finally defeated Tooril, his erstwhile ally, Chingis himself come here to live at the Black Forest, and eventually he built himself a palace somewhere in or near the forest, one of the few permanent abodes he ever had.


While rummaging through a collection of documents made by early Russian trade missions in Mongolia I had come across a report filed by a Russian named Porshennikov who in 1675 led a caravan south from the Russian settlement of Seleginsk in what is now Buryatia, nominally part of the Russian Republic. Nine days after leaving Seleginsk they arrived at “the river Tola [Tuul] on which dwells the Khutukhta lama, celebrated as being the head of all the sacrificers, the Metropolitan as we would say; and in that place they have built for their idol a great temple of stone, as it were a town, the masons who built it having been brought from China.” This might well be the first description in a Western language (assuming Russian qualifies as a western language) of the town which eventually became Ulaan Baatar, and also the first mention of Zanabazar—called here the “Khutukhta lama.” Porshennikov goes on to say, “On the same river [the Tuul], a little lower down, is a deserted stone-built city, a very strong one even now, were but the walls repaired a little.”

During one of my interviews with the scholars of the Chingisid Era D. Bazargür’s and D. Enkhbayar I asked them if this was possibly a reference to a settlement built by the Keraits, maybe Tooril’s “camp” on the Tuul, or did it perhaps refer to Chingis’s “palace” on the Tuul where, as the Secret History tells us, Chingis repaired to in 1225, after his seven year campaign against the Moslem empire of Khwarazm. Not much is known about Tooril’s camp, opine my two interlocutors, but there were probably some baishins (small houses of logs or stone), Bazargür says, in additional to a large collection of gers, or felt tents. As for Chingis’ palace, very little is known about it, but it is entirely possible that Chingis had erected here a “stone city,” perhaps on the site of Tooril’s original encampment. This may be what Porshennikov was referring to. Currently, however, no ruins of any palace or town remain in the Songino area, according to Bazargür. This seems a bit odd actually. Mongolia is littered with surprisingly well-preserved ruins much older than this. Perhaps their proximity to Ulaan Baatar was their downfall; the ruins may have been bull-dozed over for some development, or the building materials recycled into new structures.


Tooril, the Ong Khan, who as the ruler of the Kerait had once dwelt here at the base of Songino Khairkhan Uul, met an ignominious death. Unwillingly forced into by battle with Chingis by his own son Senggüm, who was jealous of Chingis’s close relation with his father, Tooril and the Keraits were defeated. Tooril fled with a few retainers across the Gobi Desert and was finally killed by some Naiman sentries he stumbled upon who mistook him for a common thief.

Now Tooril would be almost totally forgotten had not the peripatetic Venetian traveler Marco Polo in his book Description of the World identified him as Prestor John, that legendary figure who many Europeans at the time believed ruled a vast kingdom of Christians somewhere in the East and was prepared to come to the aid of the Crusaders by attacking the forces of Islam from the rear. Marco Polo, who was almost certainly never in what is now Mongolia—although his father and uncle probably were—conflated the stories he had heard about Tooril into the Prestor John legend and thus immortalized the Kerait chief who of course never had the means or the desire to attack the Moslems of the Middle East.


The wind had gotten even stronger and Purevsuren did not want to continue on to Dartsagtyn Gozgor Uul, the highest point on the ridge. After our tea break we decided to retrace our steps back to the road. I never did make it back to climb Dartsagtyn Gozgor Uul. Nor did I ever see Purevsuren again. A couple of weeks later Dashpurev informed me that she and her children had left for Korea. It seems she had met a Korean businessman in a night club who invited them to come and live with him in Seoul. Generous guy, what with the kids and all.


By far the largest, highest, and most hallowed of Ulaan Baatar’s four holy mountains is Bogd Khan Uul. While the other three holy mountains were worshipped chiefly by the inhabitants of separate quarters of the city Bogd Khan Uul was venerated by all. The entire massif, extending some twenty miles east to west and up to ten miles north to south, dominates the southern skyline of the city. Tsetsee Gun Peak, which according to maps and reference materials is the top of the massif, reaches an elevation of 7,377 feet, almost 3000 feet above the city, but oddly enough, as I will elaborate upon below, this is in fact not the highest point of Bogd Khan Uul. Almost the entire massif is heavily mantled with larch and cedar forests which constitute the southern edge of the latitudinal tree line in this part of Mongolia; beyond here steppe-covered ridges eventually grade into the Gobi Desert..

This mountain has an interesting history. It may be the world’s oldest wildlife refuge and national park; it is certainly one of the first. A number of books, pamphlets, and tourist ephemera about Ulaan Baatar claim, without citation, that the great Mongol khans of the thirteen-century first declared the whole mountain a sacred preserve where no hunting was allowed. I have done extensive research on this era and have never been able to find a direct source for this assertion. There is no mention of such a preserve, for example, in the seminal thirteenth-century Secret History of the Mongols nor in any of the thirteenth-century Persian histories of Mongolia.

Although the story of a thirteenth century nature preserve centered around the mountain may be apocryphal, we do know that starting in the 1700s the Bogd Gegens of Mongolia, who eventually settled here at what is now Ulaan Baatar, began to make twice-a-year offerings on the mountain and that by then prohibitions against hunting and tree felling were codified and enforced and enforced on a local level.

Apparently the mountain was first known as Khan Uul. This name was supposedly based on a legend that Chingis Khan had been born at its foot. This is certainly apocryphal, since all thirteenth-century sources agree that Chingis was born in the watershed of the Onon River. It’s true, however that in 1225 Chingis, after his triumphant seven-year campaign against the Moslem empire of Khwarazm, returned to Mongolia and set up his headquarters near the base of the mountain, perhaps, as mentioned earlier, even building a stone palace here. This legend may then be an echo of the fact that Chingis once lived here. In 1778, Buddhist officials nevertheless submitted to the Qing Emperor in Beijing (as mentioned earlier, at that time the Qing Dynasty enjoyed suzerainty over Mongolia) a petition reiterating this legend and noting that for several generations various Bogd Gegens had been making offerings to the mountain. In the petition the Mongolians sought permission to declare a civil holiday in honor of the mountain and asked that the Qing Court itself make offerings to the mountain on this day. The Chinese quite rightly did not believe this legend but they did not want to offend the Mongolians either. The reply to the petition read “The veneration of Khaan uula is a worth thing. Therefore . . . the appropriate ministry is empowered to send incense, candles, and silk stuffs in the ordained amount, in the spring and autumn of each year with instructions to Sanji Dorji [a Mongol representative of the Manchu government in Urga] that he make offerings in the presence of the wangs, kungs, and dzasaks [Mongolian officials and dignitaries]. Apparently the name Bogd (Holy) Khan Uul dates from this time. The exact dates of the twice-yearly offerings were to be determined by Mongolian astrologers. These offerings continued in one form or another until the communist era, when ovoo worship was outlawed, although they might well have continued clandestinely.

Other customs applied to Bogd Khaan Uul. For instance, criminals could not be executed within view of the mountain. Those condemned to death were taken to some other city to meet their fate. This ban may have implemented because the Bogd Gegen lived in the city, at the base of the mountain, and executions were considered unseemly in his presence. The injunction was in effect as late the 1890s, when two Mongols were convicted of slaughtering an entire family of seven Russians. When the Qing government ordered that they be executed in the city lamas made strenuous objections. Finally a compromise was reached. The condemned men were taken to a narrow gorge five miles outside of the city where high cliffs blocked off view of either the city or Bogd Khan Uul, and here they met their fates.

Whatever may have been Bogd Khan Uul's status in the past it is now officially designated Strictly Protected Area, one of several classifications of parks and preserves in Mongolia. Within the protected area, which covers over 103,000 acres, hunting, tree-felling, pasturing animals, and permanent residence is forbidden. The mountain remains a popular destination for day-hikers, both Mongolians and foreigners, although a permit is supposedly required even for day use.

Of course laws in Mongolia, as elsewhere, are not always obeyed. In 1999 a lengthy article in the Mongol Messenger revealed that rangers who patrol the preserve had requested tear gas and electric prods for use in protecting themselves against illegal trespassers. In early July of 1999 a ranger—one of twenty-one patrolling the preserve—was badly beaten when he tried to stop people carrying away trees they had cut down. “Some of these people have a well-maintained retail network [for firewood] and would stop at nothing to acquire merchandise—this forces rangers to take the line of least resistance for fear of being stabbed to death,” said T. Tserendovdon, age thirty-five, whose wife is also a ranger. Subsequent inspections by groups of rangers revealed that at least thirty-five households had moved onto preserve land, grazing livestock, growing vegetables, and even maintaining greenhouses. Unfortunately there was no money available for either tear gas or electric prods. The remedy which no doubt would have first come to mind in the United States—firearms—was apparently not considered.

The first time I considered climbing to the summit of Bogd Khan Uul I was warned off most forcefully by a knowledgeable local resident who claimed that several small bands of escapees from the men’s penitentiary, located at the base of the mountain just above Zaisan village, behind the War Memorial, were hiding out on Bogd Khan Uul and survived by robbing hikers and others. They had not actually hurt anyone so far but I was assured that I did not want to encounter these people.

A year later these desperados had been rounded up, supposedly, and I was told it was once again safe to go on the mountain. There are several routes to the summit, but from the north side the easiest starts near the Khureltogoot Astronomical Observatory, about seven miles east of downtown. Just across the bridge over the Tuul River bridge the observatory complex of several buildings can be seen on the hillside to the right, partially hidden in the forest at the edge of the tree line. (Here the tree line indicates how far down the mountain the forest extends, and not how far up; the valley of the Tuul and the lower slopes of the mountain are covered with steppe.) Just to the right of the observatory a deep valley runs several miles directly south, ending at the steep slopes leading directly to the twin knobs of what I had been told by my friend the taxi cab driver Dashpurev was Tsetsee Gun Peak.

From the observatory I followed the crest of the ridge east of the valley. Soon I was into a forest primeval of large, mature larch and cedar. Clearly no illegal timber-felling was taking place on this part of the mountain. A fox skittered across my path, and I saw several beds used by izubr, a large Asiatic elk. Farther on I carefully plied my way across several large boulder fields before emerging on the main ridge line of the massif. Due west could be seen a high point topped by dramatic granite tors. These were the knobs which had been pointed out to me by my cab driver from the road. Wending my way upward through house-sized granite blocks I soon emerged into a tennis court-sized flat area surrounded on all sides by thirty-to-forty foot-high tors. Scrambled up the side of one for an unobstructed view I could clearly see that I was on the top of the Bogd Khan massif.

Nature could not have conspired better to create a setting more conducive to the worship of a mountain. The flat area at the summit surrounded on all sides by soaring tors gave the immediate impression of a large altar, and standing there I could not help but feel I had entered a sacred precinct. Indeed, in the middle of the flat area was an large ovoo draped with khadags and Tibetan prayer flags and surrounded by moldering bricks of tea which had been left as offerings, as well of dozens of empty vodka and beer bottles left by more profane worshippers. On a flat rock near the ovoo I laid out a line of incense made from konan artz (a kind of dwarf juniper) which I had gotten from the monks at Gandan Monastery and lit it. There was no wind whatsoever and the aromatic smoke hung in a thin layer about the ovoo.

After a suitable period of reflection I took out the map I had brought along. Tsetsee Gun Uul, the alleged summit of the mountain with an elevation of 2256 meter (7,377) was clearly marked by a small triangle. I immediately noticed however, that about a mile to the east there was a point that according to the typographical contour lines was clearly higher. I took a GPS reading and discovered that I was standing almost exactly at longitude E107º, the location of the highest point on the map, and not at the point indicated as Tsetsee Gun Uul. I strolled over to this latter point and discovered a pyramid-shaped metal marker and a bronze plaque giving the elevation as 2256 meters. The ridgeline here is almost perfectly flat, and any point for several hundred yards in any direction probably had the same elevation. Yet looking back east I could clearly see that the point surmounted by the tors was at the very least a hundred feet higher. I have never been able to confirm this, but I have often wondered whether the topographers, not wishing to profane the true summit of the Bogd Khan Uul massif, purposely designated a lower point as Tsetsee Gun Uul. I might point out that there is no ovoo or offerings at this lower point.

I returned to the tors and camped that night on a grassy bench just below the flat altar area. I had originally planned spend the night on the summit, but I had a vague feeling of unease about this: it would have been like sneaking into a church and sleeping on the pews. That night was the summer solstice—I had purposely planned to be on the summit of Bogd Khan Uul on the longest day of the year—and the next morning in the pre-dawn I went up to the altar area to view the sunrise and contemplate further on Bogd Khan Uul.


The Summit of Bogd Khan Uul


Did Chingis himself, I could not help but wonder, ever himself stand here at the summit of this mountain? Chingis, we know, revered high mountains, whose summits brought him closer to the Eternal Blue Heaven worshipped by Mongolians. Before the start of his campaign against the Chin Dynasty of China he climbed to the top of Burkhan Khaldun Mountain, near where earlier he had escaped with his life from pursuing Merkit tribesmen, and for three days and three nights prayed for guidance and assistance from the ancient gods of Mongolia. In 1219, before starting his campaign against the Moslem empire of Khwarazm he again “climbed to the top of a hill, bared his head, raised his face . . . and prayed to Heaven for three days. In 1126, a year after arriving at his camp at the edge of the Black Forest, Chingis left with his armies on the campaign against the Xi Xia of northwestern China. Did he climb here to the summit of Bogd Khan Uul and, as was the custom, hang his belt around his neck and bare his head, make offerings of airag (mare’s milk) and then fast for three days while supplicating Heaven for success in his upcoming campaign? It he did there must have been a special poignancy to his entreaties, since by then Chingis was an aging man, in his mid-sixties, and indeed he did not return alive from the Xi Xia campaign, dying in China a year later in 1227.

Whatever role Bogd Khan Uul played in the ancient animist religion of the Chingisids, it was later among the Buddhists that the mountain took on the aura of sanctity which continues on down to the present day. Among the many Buddhist places of worship found in Ulaan Baatar (then known to foreigners, although not to Mongolians, as Urga) during the pre-communist era there was one known as the Shar (Yellow) Temple. It was quite active in 1892, when it was visited and described by the Russian ethnologist and linguist A. M. Pozdneev. Each autumn lamas held ceremonies in the temple honoring Bogd Khan Uul while other lamas presented offerings on the summit of the mountain itself, presumably the summit where I greeted the dawn. The Shar Temple was subsequently destroyed by the communists, and now no one I talked to has a clue as to where it might have been. The Shar Temple was dedicated to Padmasambhava (Sanskrit for “the Lotus-born”), one of the principal founders of Tibetan Buddhism. Born in Kashmir in the eighth century, he studied various Tantric teachings before undertaking a mission to Tibet, then under the sway of shamans and followers of the Bon religion. In Tibet he became famous for his subjugation of demons and indigenous nature spirits who ruled the countryside. In Tibet of these entities were “converted” to Buddhism and incorporated into the Buddhist pantheon. This same process took place in Mongolia. All four of Sacred Mountains I have mentioned were thought to have been ruled originally by spiritual entities whose influence on human beings was often malignant. One of the duties of Buddhism was to destroy or at least suborn these entities. After the reintroduction of Tibetan Buddhism into Mongolia in the sixteenth century by the Tüsheet Khan Avtai (it has enjoyed a brief florescence in the court of the great Mongol khans of the thirteenth century, but had largely disappeared after the dissolution of Mongol Empire), a similar campaign was launched against the chthonic spirits of Mongolia, which hitherto had been the sole concern of shamans. The third Dalai Lama of Tibet was directly involved in this endeavor, apparently with the sanction of the Qing government, which in an attempt to establish a state religion “aimed at easing the differences between Mongolian folk beliefs and those of officially sanctioned Buddhism.” in the words of one study. In order to objectify these spirits they were identified with a specific image from the Buddhist canon which eventually came to serve as a kind of demonifuge. In the case of Bogd Khan Uul Garuda the Devourer was chosen. Originally Garuda was a entity from the Hindu pantheon, half man and half vulture, which feasted on snakes, the archetypical chthonic creatures. Tibetan Buddhist later fastened on this image because of its similarity with the mythical Himalayan bird known as the khyung which was associated with the air, or the heavens above. “With his heavenly associations and his sworn enmity to the evil forces of the earth, Garuda appealed to Mongolian Buddhists, whose own native shamanism honored the sky above all. . . ,” notes one commentator. During the performance of Tsam, the ceremonial dances which once played a key role in the liturgical life of Mongolian Buddhists, especially in Urga, Garuda appeared as a masked figure, one of the Lords of the Four Mountains representing Bogd Khan Uul. An incredibly elaborate nineteenth century tsam mask of Garuda now resides in the Choigin Lama museum in Ulaan Baatar, where I had seen it earlier.

I reluctantly left my mountain-top aerie. Rather than retracing my route I decided to descent via the southern side of the mountain. I returned to the Tsetsee Gun Uul marker then headed due south, clambering down some steep rock faces before emerging into thick woods. There is very little water on Bogd Khan Uul—none on the route by which I had ascended the mountain—and I had brought only two liters along, the last of which I used for tea in the morning. The temperature climbed into the eighties and parched as I was I was overjoyed when I stumbled upon a small wash basin-sized spring with water bubbling up out of a rock crevice. I consider myself a connoisseur of drinking water, and this was excellent—soft, with no mineral taste, and bitingly cold, straight from the bowels of Bogd Uul Khan. Of course I was not the only sentient being to frequent this spot. Izubr (Asiatic elk) had trampled the banks of the tiny rivulet just below the spring, and on a small patch of mud on the edge of the pool was imprinted a perfect four-inch long track of a wolf.

Eventually I emerged at Manzshir Monastery, a thriving establishment in the pre-communist era but later almost completely destroyed. It has been partly rebuilt and one temple now serves as a museum. The scenic environs, well wooded and watered, are very popular with Mongolian day-trippers and party animals and I had no trouble hitching a ride back to town.

As I mentioned Bogd Khan Uul once fell under the purview of the Shar Temple, which was destroyed back in the 30s. Now the lamas at one of the temples at Gandan Monastery have reinstituted rituals honoring the mountain. These usually take place in June, at various easily accessible locations at the base of the mountains, and are of course open to the public. Thus Bogd Khan Uul’s traditional role as the main Holy Mountain of Ulaan Baatar has been restored.