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.