The immense granite massif originally known as Bat Khan Uul extends north-south some twelve miles, east-west up to six miles, and looms to a height of 6453 feet or some 2000 feet above the surrounding steppe. The mountain was thought to be ruled by a spirit known as Tudevvaanchig, and according to local informants the mountain was a favorite haunt of shamans both before and after the advent of Buddhism in Mongolia.
The origins of Khögnö Tarnyn Monastery, at the northern base of the massif, are shrouded in myth and legend. According to a story now related by local people, in the fourteenth century a very learned lama by the name of Lalambaldorj came to the base of what was then Bat Khan Uul and meditated for a long time. He eventually left the mountain and began traveling around Mongolia. One day he was approached by some Tibetan monks who claimed they had fled Tibet because the king of Tibet, Langdrom, was persecuting members of their sect, the so-called Yellow Hats or Gelukpas. After listening with great interest to their story Lalambaldorjj asked the Tibetan monks, “What are the favorite things of King Langdrom?” The monks said that Langdrom liked all black things: black clothes, black shoes, black horses, everything black. Lalambaldorjj said he wanted to go to Tibet to met this king but first the monks had to prepare for him a set of elaborate black clothes, like those of a tsam dancer, with very wide sleeves. This the monks did, and Lalambaldorjj finally set out for Tibet. He arrived at the king’s court but the soldiers guarding the king would not let Lalambaldorjj into his presence. Finally Lalambaldorjj approached one soldier and said, “You must tell your kings that a lama wearing all black and riding a black horse has come from Mongolia to met him.“ The message was relayed, and the curious king agreed to met Lalambaldorjj. As soon as he was in the king’s presence Lalambaldorjj pulled a bow and arrow out of his sleeve and shot Langdrom dead. He fled the king’s court and rode his horse across a river. Actually it was a white horse which he had earlier colored black with ashes. The ashes were washed off in the stream and Lalambaldorjj emerged on the other side on a white horse. He threw off his all black clothes, revealing ordinary clothes underneath. The king’s soldiers searched everywhere for man wearing all black, riding a black horse, but were unable to find anyone. Lalambaldorjj returned to Mongolia and again settled at the base of Bat Khan Uul. He lived here for many years, instructing the local people in Buddhism and teaching them various sutras and tantras. Ever since then the area around Bat Khan Uul has been considered auspicious, and it is said that Lalambaldorjj’s retreat here was the foundation what eventually became Khögnö Tarnyn Monastery.
This is, of course, a fanciful retelling of a very famous incident in Tibetan history. King Langdarma (Langdrom) lived in the ninth century, however, and not the fourteenth. A follower of the Bön religion, he did launch a violent persecution of Buddhism in Tibet, but not of course against the Geluk sect, which was not founded until the fifteenth century. He was assassinated by a Buddhist monk named Lhalungpa Pelgyi Dorje (apparently Lalambaldorjj is a corruption of this name) in 842, by means of a bow and arrow, and according to Tibetan legend the monk did escape by riding a black-colored horse across a river and emerging on a white horse, thus throwing off his pursuers. Lhalungpa Pelgyi Dorje hid out for awhile in the caves at Drak Yerpa, some thirty miles northeast of Lhasa, where his hat was enshrined until 1959, and then escaped to eastern Tibet, beyond the reach of the Langdarma’s avengers. (See Photos of Drak Yerpa)
While the story of a Mongolian lama named Lalambaldorjj killing a Tibetan king named Langdrom in the fourteenth century is purely legendary, it is an interesting example of how actual incidents are reworked into legends which over the years become accepted as fact. It also should be noted that there are numerous variations of this legend. In one variant Lalambaldorjj lived in Tibet in the ninth century, at the time of the historical King Langdarma, and was the servant of a previous incarnation of Zanabazar’s. Having killed King Langdarma he fled to Mongolia and settled at the foot of Bat Khan Uul, where he taught the Dharma to local people. Thus when Zanabazar later founded a monastery here he was reestablishing a karmic connection first made in Tibet, at least according to legend. There is, of course, no historical evidence of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia in the ninth century.
On firmer ground, written sources maintain in the early 17th century one the Tüsheet khans, Bishrelt Gün, probably a son or grandson of the Tüsheet Khan Avtai, who founded Erdene Zuu, built at least one temple at the southern base of the mountain. Local sources maintain, however, that BIshrelt Gün had nothing to do with the founding of the monastery here. They maintain that it was Zanabazar, who had been enthroned as the first Bogd Gegen at Shireet Tsagaan Nuur, about twenty miles to the southeast, who initiated the construction of temples here in the 1660s. Written sources confirm that Zanabazar was instrumental in the creation of a monastery here. Construction continued through the 1670s and early 1680s at two different sites, one at the base of the mountain and another 1.2 miles and 550 feet higher up a valley to the southeast. Apparently at first the so-called Upper Monastery was the most important. Eventually ten or more temples were built here, including the Övgön Khiid (övgön = “grandfather” or “old man”), supposedly a much scaled-down model of the Potala in Lhasa.
Zanabazar dedicated this monastery to one of his teachers, Erdene-Tsorj, who had studied in Tibet, probably at Gomang College at Drepung Monastery in Lhasa, where most Mongolian monks studied. (See Photos of Lhasa and Drepung) While in Tibet Erdene-Tsorj became a devotee of the deity Begtse, better known in Mongolian as Jamsran, and he later dedicated one of the temples at the Upper Monastery to this deity. When Erdene-Tsorj eventually became head of the monastery it became known as Erdene Khamba Khiid.
Before the invasion of Galdan Bolshigt in 1688 there were at least 300 monks at the lower and upper complexes. The monks at the upper monastery were said to specialize in the study of the Yamantaka Tantra and were especially well known for their chanting. According to legend some of the monks could make themselves levitate by chanting. Just to the west of the mountain is the Tarnyn River (tarnyn = chanting). It is tempting to think that the river was originally named something else, and was renamed in honor of the famous chanting monks of Erdene Khamba Khiid, but locals maintain that the river always had that name and it is just a coincidence that the monks at the nearby monastery became famous for their chanting.
In 1688 the Zungarian chieftain Galdan Bolshigt invaded Khalkh Mongolia and soon sacked Erdene Zuu Monastery just to the west of here. Erdene Khamba Khiid is pretty much hidden from the view of passersby by intervening ridges, and according to legend the monks, hoping to further conceal their monastery, wrapped in felt the golden ganchirs, the ornaments on the roofs of the temples which normally glistened in the sun and could be seen a long way off, so that they would not attract Galdan‘s troops. Sure enough, Galdan and his men rode right by Bat Khan Uul, seemingly unaware there was a monastery hidden in the folds of the hills at its base. That night they camped on the side of a nearby mountain. The next morning the monks, thinking that they were safe, removed the felt from the ganchirs. Some of the soldiers saw them glistening in the sun and Galdan sent a party back to investigate. According to yet another fanciful legend, the monks, hearing off the approach of Galdan‘s men, decided to turn into scorpions (another version as it as ticks) and hide on the ceiling of one of the temples. One lama then declared that they should not hide; if their individual karmas dictated that their lives were over they should turn back into monks and accept their fate.
Although this tale may be a legendary accretion to what actually happened, it seems fairly certain that at least forty or fifty of the 300 monks in residence were captured by Galdan‘s men (Galdan himself was apparently not present). The rest escaped into the hills. The captives were tied up by the neck in a long row using the kind of knot which herdsmen use to tie up a row of sheep or goats for milking. What happened then is again unclear. One version maintains the monks were beheaded; another maintains they were castrated; yet another claims they were castrated first and then beheaded. Local informants maintain, however, that none of these versions are correct and that they were instead strangled to death by pulling tight the ropes around their necks. The verb knognökh is said to mean “to strangle,” but some competent Mongolian linguists maintain that it can also mean “to slaughter (an animal) by cutting its throat” or “to castrate.” These various meanings have no doubt added to the confusion of what actually happened to the monks. In any case, the name of Bat Khan Uul (uul = mountain) was changed to Khögnö Khan Uul in recognition of this event, the name by which it is called today, and the monastery became known as Khögnö Tarnyn Khiid, tarnyn referring to the chanting for which its monks were famous (or if you prefer to the nearby river).
Galdan‘s men also destroyed the temples at both the lower and upper sites. The upper complex was abandoned and never rebuilt, but after the war with Galdan had ended and Zanabazar had returned from exile in China the lower complex was reconstructed. A new temple dedicated to Jamsran was built and also a temple dedicated to the Tavan Khaans, or Five Kings, said to represent five spirits which ruled Knögnö Khan Uul. Numerous other temples and buildings were added over the years. In 1937 communist iconoclasts leveled most of the temples and heavily damaged the rest.
Restoration work began in the early 1990s, led by the granddaughter of one of the monks who was living at the monastery when it was destroyed. This woman‘s daughter is currently the caretaker of the monastery and the repository of the history and legends of the site. The Jamsran Temple was reopened in 1994. For the last few years young monks under the age of fourteen have come here each summer to practice chanting in the Jamsran Temple, and delegation of monks from Gandan Monastery in Ulaan Baatar also come here periodically for chanting ceremonies. One elderly lama told me that Jamsran is also thought to be the guardian of the gateway to Shambhala, leading some to speculate that Khögnö Khan Uul is itself an entrance to that fabled realm. The Five Kings Temple, on a high shelf above the rest of the site, was also reopened in 1994. Two small shrines, one containing a huge prayer wheel and the other the deity Bazarsad, were reopened in 1999. In 2000 a new stupa was built at the site and in 2004 another larger stupa was constructed.
The upper site is reached by a trail leading up a valley to the east of the lower complex. The walking distance is about 1.2 miles. There is one complex of ruins about 200 by 200 feet square and the ruins of at least ten other temples on the nearby hillsides. The Övgön Khiid built by Zanabazar, supposedly a much scaled-down model of the Potala in Lhasa, was one of the hillside temples, although at this point in time it is not clear which one. The two famous springs here, probably one of the reasons the monastery was located at this site, have since gone dry. The air was redolence with flowers when I was there:
See More Photos of Khögnö Tarnyn Khiid