Friday, November 11, 2005

Mongolia | Zanabazar | Gandan Monastery

Location: Ulaan Baatar. To the west of city center, off Ikh Toiruu (Big Ring) Road, at the end of Öndör Gegeen Zanabazar Street.

The full name of Gandan Monastery is Gandantegchenling, the exact meaning of which is uncertain, but which might translate into something like “Great Place of Complete Joy” or “Great Way to the Cosmos.” The monastery was founded in 1809 by the 4th Bogd Gegeen, one of Zanabazar’s Successors, as a center for Tsanid, or advance studies in Buddhist philosophy and practice. According to A. M. Podzneev, the more advanced of the lamas at Ikh Khuree, centered at that time around current-day Sukhebaatar Square in downtown Ulaan Baatar, asked the 4th Bogd Gegeen to create a separate monastery for them:
. . . as soon as Urga began to emerge as a governmental and trading center, life at the Khuree began to oppress the learned lamas, and they planned a way to separate themselves from it. Their requests concerning this matter began as early as the times of the third gegen, though it was the fourth gegen who first heeded their wishes and in 1809 established Gandan on the spot where it stands today.
The first temple built at Gandan was known as the Shar Süm, or Yellow Temple, and in 1824 the Lamrim Temple was completed. After the return of the 5th Bogd Gegeen in 1836 from a visit to Tibet he moved his residence to Gandan and several more temples were constructed, including the main Gandantegchenling Temple in 1838 and the Vajradhara Temple in 1840-41. (Some sources cite the completion of Gandantegchenling Temple in 1838 as the beginning of Gandan.) According to Podzneev, Gandan grew rapidly in size at this time:
When . . . the Gegen’s palace was founded at the Gandan, the majority of the lamas began requesting to be enrolled in the Tsanid school in order that they might be closer to the Gegen, and the Gegen enrolled each of them, for this reason the Tsanid schools, they say, were never as full in Urga as they were at the time of the fifth Gegen
The 5th Bogd Gegeen died in 1842, at the age of twenty-seven, and was entombed at Gandan. His short-lived successor, the 6th Bogd Gegeen (1842–1849) also lived at Gandan before succumbing to small pox while still a young boy. The early deaths of these two Bogd Gegens while living at Gandan led subsequent Bogd Gegens to believe that the monastery was not a propitious residence and as a result they established living quarters elsewhere. Many monks followed, “leaving Gandan once more as the exclusive residence of the learned lamas,” according to Podzneev. The 7th and 8th Bogd Gegens were entombed at Gandan, however.

Gandan escaped the wholesale destruction suffered by most monasteries during the communist suppression of Buddhism. Some temples and stupas were destroyed or damaged, but at least six temples and the surrounding wall survived more or least in tact. The monastery itself was shut down during the height of the repressions in 1938. Religious services were reinstituted in 1944, and Gandan became a kind of showcase on display to foreign dignitaries and other visitors as proof that Buddhism had not been completely snuffed out in Mongolia.

Today Gandan is once again very active, with reportedly over 400 monks in residence. The monastery hosts a college of Medicine and Astrology and four other colleges of Buddhist philosophy and tantric practices. Gandan is also home to Zanabazar Buddhist University, founded in 1970. Specializing in Buddhist and Indo-Tibetan studies, the university attracts students and researchers from all over Mongolia and the rest of the world.

As for Zanabazar’s artworks, one of his most famous creations, the Vajradhara crafted in 1683 at his Tövkhon retreat (see above), can be seen in the Vajradhara Temple, located in a separate walled compound to the left of the main entrance to the monastery. This is the original Vajradhara Temple constructed in 1840 but subsequently remodeled.
Vajradhara Temple (Left)
Gandantegchenling Temple, dating from 1838 and located in the same compound, contains what is said to be a self-portrait of Zanabazar made at the request of his mother, although as with other of Zanabazar’s “self portraits” there is some question as to who actually made it.

Also of interest, although not directly connected to Zanabazar, is the huge Tibetan-style Megjid Janraisig Temple towards the back of the main compound, built in 1912 to house an eighty-two foot-high statue of Janraisig (Avalokitesvara). The original statue was destroyed by the communists and the metal used, at least according to anecdotal history, to make bullets. A campaign to build a replacement statue was launched in the mid-1990s under the direction of now-president of Mongolia Enkhbayar, and a new eighty-seven foot high Janraisig statue was installed in the temple in 1996. The temple now attracts hundreds if not thousands of devout pilgrims and sightseers a day and is one of the main tourist attractions in Ulaan Baatar.
Janraisig Temple
Just to the right of the Janraisig Temple is the Kalachakra Temple, also known as the Dechengalpa Datsan. Although Zanabazar was not known for his interest in the Kalachakra (Mongolian = Duinkhor) doctrine, his previous incarnation, Taranatha, wrote extensively on the subject and translated a guidebook to the kingdom to Shambhala, whose kings first propagated the Kalachakra doctrine, from Sanskrit into Tibetan. He even claimed to have visited Shambhala in a dream state (unlike other visitors to this realm, he found it inhabited almost completely by women). The Kalachakra Temple was founded by the 4th Bogd Gegeen in 1806 for the study of the Kalachakra teachings, and in 1807 Kalachakra rituals were held in the datsan for the first time. Originally the datsan was located in Ikh Khuree, in the general area of present-day Sukhebaatar Square. It was reestablished here at Gandan in 1992, and Kalachakra rituals are now held in the temple on a regular basis. The current temple contains seven extremely rare thangkas depicting the 722 Kalachakra Deities, and other thangkas depicting thirty-one of the thirty-two Kings of Shambhala (one was reportedly stolen), as well as Shambhala itself. Incidentally, the 14th Dalai Lama will be giving a Kalachakra Initiation in Amaravati, India, from January 5 to January 16, 2006.

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