Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Step back in time and visit two of Mongolia's Monestaries

Erdene Zuu Monastery

photo from Mongolia Tourism

The Erdene Zuu Monastery is probably the most ancient surviving Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. It is located in the heart of Mongolia in the Ovorkhangai Provence, approximately 2 km north-east from the centre of Kharkorin and adjacent to the ancient city of Karakorum. It is also part of the World Heritage Site entitled Orkhun Valley Culturla Landscape.

Construction of the Erdene Zuu monastery was started in 1585 by Abtai Sain Khan, upon the (second) introduction of Tibetan Buddhism into Mongolia. Stones from the ruins of Karakorum were used in construction. It is surrounded by a wall featuring 100 stupas.  The number 108, being a sacred number in Buddhism, and the number of beads in a Buddhist rosary, was probably envisioned, but never achieved. The monastery temples' wall were painted, and the Chinese-style roof was covered with green tiles.

The monastery was damaged during the warfare with Dzungars in 1688, when local people dismantled the wooden fortifications of the abandoned monastery. Monastery was rebuilt in the 18th century and by 1872 had a full 62 temples and up to 1000 monks inside. Bunia, disciple of this monastery, attempted human flight with a device similar to a parachute in 1745 in this monastery.

In 1939 the Communist leader Khorloogiin Choibalsan had the monastery ruined, as part of a purge that obliterated hundreds of monasteries in Mongolia and killed over ten thousand monks. Three small temples and the external wall with the stupas remained; the temples became museums in 1947. They say that this part of the monastery was spared destruction on account of Joseph Stalin's pressure. One researcher claims that Stalin's pressure was connected to the short visit of US vice president Henry A. Wallace's delegation to Mongolia in 1944.

Erdene Zuu was allowed to exist as a museum only; the only functioning monastery in Mongolia was Gandantegchinlen Khiid Monastery in the capital, Ulaanbaatar. However, after the fall of Communism in Mongolia in 1990, the monastery was turned over to the lamas and Erdene Zuu again became a place of worship. Today Erdene Zuu remains an active Buddhist monastery as well as a museum that is open to tourists.

Tuvkhun Monastery

photo from Mongolia tourism
The monastery was built in 1654 by Saint Zanabazar who was a great sculptor and one of the biggest representative of Buddhism in Mongolia. The creation work temple dedicated to religious study and art works became the foundation of today's Tuvkhun Monastery. It is located on a rocky mountain hill surrounded by forests elevated in 2300 meters above sea level. In 1651, the first religious statesman Zanabazar built a small stony building.

In 1648, about the time he had found what now Shankh monastery on the Shariin gol, Zanabazar noticed an unusual armchair-shaped peak among the ridges west of the Orkhon River. He soon concluded that the mountain, known as Shireet Ulaan Uul, was an auspicious spot. Upon his return in 1651 from his first trip to Tibet he had a small walled stone meditation hut built here. 1653, he visited Erdenezuu, founded by his great grandfather, and appeared before a convocation of kalkh nobility. While there he prevailed upon his followers to build temple and retreat at Shireet Ulaan Uul in his own personal use. Later it became worship where many of his famous artworks were created; including five transcendent Buddha's now located in the Zanabazar Fine Art Museum and Choijim Lama Musuem. Zanabazar also reportedly designed his Soyombo Alphabet while his residing here. During Zanabazar's lifetime retreat was called Bayasgalant Aglag Oron (Happy Secluded Place).

After his death it became Tuvkhun Monastery, the name which it is known today. The small temple was heavily damaged by communists during the upheavals of the late 1930s. During the summer of 1997 extensive ceremonies were performed here and new statue of deity Gombo Makhagal (Mahakala) was placed in top of refurbished and consecrated. Several monks live at the monastery full time.

The peak of where Tuvkhun is located resembles an easy chair with arm rest on either side. In the seat of the chair, several hundred meter above the base of peak to the temples. According to legend, only Zanabazar was allowed to right up to the temples. Others had to dismount at the base at base of the peak and walk up. Near the top of staircase, to the right of temples, are two wells about fifteen feet from each other. One has fresh water in it, while the other has slightly brackish water.

No one has been able to explain why one is brackish and one not, or for that matter, how there can be wells at all here in there solid rock very close to summit of mountain where ordinarily there would not be any underground water sources. From the temples trial to the left, when facing the mountain, leads to two meditation caves. Near the cave is "Zanabazar's throne", a stone seat where, according to monks in residence, Zanabazar would seat each morning at dawn. On a sloping shelf of stone below the caves, pressed into native rock, are the imprints of several feet. Local monks say one is the bare foot of Zanabazar as a small boy, while another is of his foot as grown man, shod in Mongolian style boots. There also an imprint of what is said to be his horse's hoof. To the right of temple a path leads upward to summit of the rock. One branch of the path leads to the so called mother womb, a narrow passageway which pilgrims crawl through to be symbolically reborn, cleansed of their sins. An extension of the path continues to peak, where the sizable flat area created with the help of stone retaining walls is surrounded with the large ovoo.

Join us as we visit these two wonderful locations on our trip to Mongolia on the summer of 2013. Please read information on this trip here