The spring after Zanabazar’s birth 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.
It did not take long for stories of Gombodorj Khan’s remarkable little boy to spread throughout Khalkh 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 Khalkh Mongolia and establish for him his own monastery.
From the four aimags of Khalkh Mongolia the khans and their entourages 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 Khalkh 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 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. Also, jeep track appeared to be much more heavily used than before and was not at all hard to find. A local 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.
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 had 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 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.