Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Mongolia | Selenge Aimag | Amarbayasgalant

Made a quick dash up to Amarbayasgalant Monastery, the final resting place of Zanabazar, 137 miles as the crow flies northwest of Ulaan Baatar, or 221 miles one-way by road.


Sometime before Zanabazar ended his exile in China the Qing Emperor Kangxi said to him, “In 1723 I will be seventy years old and thou whilt be ninety; during this year come thou without delay to me.” In 1722, while Zanabazar was in Mongolia, Kangxi transmigrated. Zanabazar, by then probably eighty-eight years old, immediately set out for Beijing to pay his respects to the emperor’s remains. It was a visit from which he would not return alive. At the Yellow Temple in Beijing, which had been built as the 5th Dalai Lama’s residence during his 1651 visit to Beijing, Zanabazar himself transmigrated on the fourteenth day of the First Moon of the Water Hare Year (probably February 18, 1723, according to the Gregorian calendar).

Another view of Amarbayasgalant

According to legend on the day of his death a five-colored rainbow appeared over his temple at Örgöö (apparently in current-day Ulaan Baatar) and a clear light hovered over his throne. The monks who witnessed these phenomena, assuming that they signified some change the Bogd Gegen’s condition, held a puja for his good health and longevity. Many days passed before messengers traveling by horse apprised them of the Öndör Gegen‘s death.

Most traditional accounts say that Zanabazar died of an unspecified illness. The Chinese Li-fan-yuan, the Ministry of Religion, issued a statement which claimed that Zanabazar was acting on Kangxi’s request that he return to China for a visit in 1723: “Having got such an invitation, the hutukhtu returned to his homeland. But he carried out the imperial will: near the date that had been set he arrived in Peking, bowed to the emperor’s grave, and having decided to follow him, quietly passed away.” The exact circumstances of Zanabazar’s death remain unclear, but there is a persistent belief among Mongolians to this day that he was murdered by agents of Yung Cheng, who had became the Qing emperor upon the death of his father Kangxi in 1722. Any number of Mongolians with whom I have discussed the life of Zanabazar related this belief about Zanabazar’s alleged murder in one variant or another. This assertion has also found its way into print in a book by J. Choinkhor, published under the august auspices of UNESCO. According to the author, Yung Cheng invited Zanabazar to Kangxi’s funeral with the express purpose of eliminating him. Yung Chen “did not share his father’s policies . . . He invited [Zanabazar] with a purpose of getting rid of all those, who were close to Emkhamgalan Khan [Kangxi]. And when Zanabazar, receiving his invitation, visited Beijing on the 14th day of the first month of the Water Hare (1723), he was killed in the Yellow Monastery.”

If Yung Chen was implicated in Zanabazar’s demise it did not stop him from delivering a refulgent eulogy to the deceased Bogd Gegen: “The hutukhtu enjoyed the excellent love of my deceased regal father and extraordinary honors. My regal relative migrated to eternity on the day of Chia-wu, and the hutukhtu also died on the day of Chia-wu; does not that give evidence of the connection between [the two]? The hutukhtu was an extraordinary lama, and I am setting forth personally, for the sake of expressing respect to him, in order to present a khadag [prayer scarf] at his grave and to perform a libation with tea.” Reportedly Yung Chen did make an offering to Zanabazar’s body, and even bowed down and touched his forehead to Zanabazar’s knee, a very conspicuous show of respect on the part of someone who was by then the Qing Emperor. Zanabazar’s embalmed body, or sharil, was kept on display for several months in Beijing and then, accompanied by an honor guard, was taken back to Mongolia, probably to Örgöö, or what is now Ulaan Baatar.

In his will Kangxi had bequeathed 100,000 taels (3860 kilograms—8378 pounds—according to some sources ) of silver with instructions to his successor that it be used to construct a monastery to house Zanabazar’s remains. In 1727 Yung Cheng finally ordered the construction of the monastery. According to legend, he sent a team of geomancers to Mongolia to search out a propitious location. They searched far and wide but were finally drawn to the foot of Mount Buren Khan, in the valley of the Even River, a tributary of the Orkhon, in what is now Selenge Aimag. Here they found a little boy and girl playing together. When asked their names the boy said “Amar” (amar = happiness, peacefulness) and the girl “Bayasgalant” (bayasgalant = joy, pleasure, happiness). This was deemed auspicious, and it was decided to build the new monastery on this spot and call it Amarbayasgalant. When Amar and Bayasgalant eventually died they were buried in the front courtyard of monastery, at least according to legend. According to historical sources, however, Khüree, Zanabazar’s traveling monastery, was already located at the site at the time of his death in 1723, and this may well have influenced the choice of the site for the monastery to house his remains.

An extensive construction project was initiated employing skilled labor imported from China. Roofing tiles and decorative plaques were made with clay from a deposit on nearby Barun Khan Uul. The roofing tiles were treated with a glaze said to be so bright that on sunny days horses were spooked a mile away and had to be led to the monastery blindfolded. The main Tsogchin Temple was constructed with an unusual and possibly unique architectural feature. The eaves of the roof form a square which is open in the middle. Rainwater drains both outward toward the exterior of the temple and inward toward a square-shaped gutter on the second floor. This rainwater then drains downward through the middle of the four main pillars in the center of the temple and outward through gutters beneath the floor.

By 1736 most if not all of the major temples had been built. In 1737 Ch’ien Lung, Yung Cheng’s son and successor as Qing Emperor, had a large stele placed in a pavilion in front of the main temple On the stele was an inscription written by Ch’ien Lung himself “In the first year of the rule of Ch’ien Lung, the monastery was completed and I, [Ch’ien Lung], decreeing the name of Amur-bayasqulangtu for the monastery, bestowed upon it an inscription from my own hand, calling it the ‘foundation of the virtue of the worlds which are as many as the grains of sand in the Ganges.’ Assenting later to the requests of the officials in charge of the business of construction, I commanded that an obelisk be erected and that it be engraved with an inscription setting forth all the circumstances attending this work.”

Pavilion with Ch’ien Lung’s stele

The message from Ch’ien Lung continues:
As I will think, all men born by heaven possess one eternal and true quality. This true quality does not know rich or poor, does not make distinction by external appearance and surfaces . . . The Yellow Faith [the Gelug sect to which Zanabazar belonged] is widespread in the northern countries . . . and there is no one who would not want to confess it with true devotion. The essence of its teachings are the principles by which evil vices are to be corrected and beneficial virtues are followed . . . My royal forefathers graciously showered the foreign aimaks with their favors and gave prosperity to all lands. Hence vast multitudes of peoples have been entirely happy, and works of every sort are in plenty and abundance. The superiors of the temple must exhort and guide all living creatures, bring them tidings of the true virtues, and urge them to strive unanimously for illumination and decorum, in order that all separate individuals and families may enjoy peace and tranquility. Only then will they duly appreciate the lofty purposes with which my royal parent gave his favors and benefits . . .
For reasons unclear Zanabazar’s sharil, or mummified remains, were not actually moved to Amarbayasgalant until 1779, fifty-six years after his death. They were placed in a suburgan, or reliquary, which was eventually housed in a wooden pavilion in the third courtyard of the monastery. In 1797 the 4th Bogd Gegen visited Amarbayasgalant and ordered the suburgan opened and a portrait painted of Zanabazar. The following year he had made, based on this portrait, what was said to be the first statue of Zanabazar. It is unclear what happened to the posthumous portrait and the statue; however, art historians have long speculated if any of the numerous statues and portraits of Zanabazar now existing are are based on these originals, or even if they are perhaps one of the originals themselves. (One candidate for the original statue is found in the Winter Palace Museum—see below).

In 1813 the Fourth Bogd Gegen, aged thirty-eight, died of pneumonia while on a pilgrimage to Wu Tai Shan, in what is now Shanxi Province of China, the mountain dedicated to Manjusri to which Zanabazar had also made a pilgrimage in the company of the Qing Emperor Kangxi during his exile in China. In 1816 the Fourth Bogd Gegen’s remains were transferred to Amarbayasgalant and placed in a wooden building to the left of Zanabazar’s tomb.

By the early 1890s Amarbayasgalant was one of the greatest pilgrimage destinations in Mongolia. The Russian ethnologist Podzneev, who visited here in 1892, noted, “there were Mongols here from every Khalkha aimag without exception.” In addition to the main monastery within its walled compound, which had been built by the Qing emperors, there were numerous temples built by donations from Mongols themselves. One of them contained a huge statue of Maidar, the Coming Buddha, which Podzneev claims was “sixty armspans” in height. (The usually pedantically precise Podzneev is a bit vague here about what constitutes an “armspan”; if it is anything much longer than a foot he would seem be an exaggerating. The immense statue of Janraisig now residing at Gandan Monastery in Ulaan Baatar is eighty-five feet high and it’s doubtful that the Maidar at Amarbayasgalant could have exceeded that.) Attached to the monastery and temples were over 2000 monks.

Podzneev also reported that at the time of his visit ceremonies were conducted over the remains of both Zanabazar and the Fourth Bogd Gegen each day at five in the morning and again between eight and nine in the evening. “To officiate at these services,” he adds, “five distinguished and most honored lamas are appointed in turn, whereas all the other more humble inhabitants of the monastery do not even have the right to approach these holy objects and must confine themselves to worshipping before the door of the temple in which they are.”

In addition to the already mentioned Fourth, other Bogd Gegens made pilgrimages here. Not all of them lived up to the high standards set by Zanabazar and the Fourth. The notoriously profligate Seventh Bogd Gegen, known for his drinking bouts and frolics with prostitutes, both male and female, visited the monastery in 1867. He stayed for two months, apparently using the opportunity to engage in bacchanals far from the eyes of monastic and civil authorities in Örgöö. The eighth and last Bogd Gegen came to the monastery in 1889 on an official trip sanctioned by the Qing Emperor. Apart from performing his religious duties, he too apparently found time for indulging his legendarily catholic appetites. He had such an enjoyable interlude that he returned twice the following year, in 1890, both times without the permission of the Qing government, which was strictly against the rules. According to Podzneev, who visited two years later and picked up the story from scandalized local monks, “[the Bogd Gegen] was surrounded by six or seven young lamas who . . . were distinguished only by their inclination and ability to carouse.”

Amarbayasgalant was sacked during the repressions of 1937. According to local informants seventeen large army trucks manned by both Mongolian and Soviet Russian troops pulled up in front of the monastery one summer day in 1937. The soldiers ransacked the temples and hauled away seventeen truck loads of rare books and scriptures, thangkas, statues, and other art work. Some lamas and local people had been expecting the arrival of the troops and had hidden away some of the more valuable articles but the vast majority were lost. They were taken behind the mountains to the right of the monastery and burnt in a huge bonfire. The remains of both Zanabazar and the Fourth Bogd Gegen were removed from their suburgans and according to local informants also burned in the fire. For days huge plumes of black smoke roiled from the conflagration. All the temples outside the walled compound were leveled. There is no record of what happened to the immense Maidar reported by Podzneev. The temples within the walled compound were heavily damaged, but not leveled, and some were later used as warehouses and granaries.

Restoration of the monastery began in 1990. A Tibetan lama born in the Ordos Desert of China by the name of Lobsang Tenzin Gyatso Pal Sangpo (also known as Guru Deva Rinpoche) reportedly made a private donation of half a million dollars toward the restoration. The monastery was officially reopened in August of 1993 in a ceremony attended by Guru Deva Rinpoche, Bakula Rinpoche, then Indian ambassador to Mongolian, and P. Ochirbat, then President of Mongolia, and in 1996 it was nominated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. In September of 2002 a Tsam Dance, one of the main ceremonies at the monastery in pre-communist days, was held for the first time in sixty-five years. Currently there are about sixty novices and ordained monks in residence.

The outer wall around the monastery measures 675 feet by 580 feet. In front of this walled compound is the so-called Pailur, or Spirit Gate, emblazoned one either side with large glazed plaques decorated in floral motifs. On either side of the Pailur are two brick columns. At one time the column on the left, facing the monastery, contained a wooden sign stating that everyone, including the Bogd Gegen himself, must dismount their horses here and walk the rest of the way to the entrance gate. This sign is now missing. Directly in front of the entrance gate is a new stone column with an inscription in Old Mongolian describing the monastery. Just above the main gate is a blue placard with gold script in three languages—Manchu, Mongolian, and Chinese—reading “Amarbayasgalant Monastery—Built by Imperial Command.” The original sign was destroyed; the current one is an artful reproduction.

Entrance with new stone column

Inside the gate is the first of four courtyards, all of them surrounded by an inner wall measuring 150 feet by 630 feet. The first courtyard contains two pavilions to the right and left. One of these formerly held a bell reportedly given to the monastery by the Qing emperor and the other a large drum or gong. The bell can be seen near the right pavilion. In front of each pavilion is a tall post. According to the legend, Amar and Bayasgalant, the two children who gave their names to the monastery, were later buried beneath these posts. Monks now are quick to point out, however, that this is only a fable.

The second courtyard is entered via the Tamagiin Süm. This temple contains large statues of the four traditional temple guardians: white Yolkhosuren, red Jamiison, blue Pagjiibuu, and yellow Namsrai.

One of the Temple Guardians crushing a red-haired, blue-eyed hussy beneath his heel

Beyond the Tamagiin Süm, to the left and right of the walkway leading to the main Tsogchin Temple, are two pavilions. The 1737 stele with the inscription of Ch’ien Lung can be seen inside a pavilion to the left. Those fluent in Old Mongolian script can still read the inscriptions, which are also rendered in Manchu and Chinese.

The Tsogchin Temple, measuring 105 by 105 feet, is the main assembly hall of the monastery where monks perform services each morning. The main statue in the front is Tsongkhapa (Zonkhov in Mongolia) founder of the Gelug sect. To the right is a life-sized statue of Lobsang Tenzin Gyatso Pal Sangpo (Guru Deva Rinpoche), the lama from Inner Mongolia who was largely responsible for the restoration of the monastery in the 1990s. It is possible to ascend to the second floor of the monastery through a door to the right of the entrance as you enter and see the working of the drainage system described above and also to walk around the temple on the second floor balcony.

Tsogchin Temple

Behind the Tsogchin Temple stone steps lead to the third courtyard. In the middle of this courtyard is the Zuu Temple, featuring a large statue of the Buddha. To the right of the Buddha is an unusual thangka of Zagzanibar, the God of Time (Tsag Toonii Burkhan). Just to the right of the Zuu Temple is the temple which contained the stupa with Zanabazar’s remains. The original stupa in the center of the temple was destroyed. The replacement stupa and statue of Zanabazar was placed here in 1992. In front of the stupa is a small painting depicting the eight Bogd Gegens and the Panchen Lama. The walls to the left and right of the stupa are covered with depictions of Zanabazar printed on cloth.

Zuu Temple (left), Zanabazar’s Tomb Temple (center-left), Sakhuis Temple, (right), with Zanabazar’s yellow ger in front
Just in front of Zanabazar’s tomb temple is a yellow ger which represents the original Shar Bösiyn Ord (Yellow Sash Palace) in which Zanabazar was named the Bogd Gegen at Shireet Tsagaan Nuur (see above) in 1639. This ger was dedicated on July 18, 1993. In the middle of the ger is a fireplace made from four stone slabs which are said to be from Zanabazar’s own residence at Shar Nokhoitiin Am, at the base of Buren Khan Mountain, just behind the monastery.

To the right of the ger, facing the center of the courtyard, is the Sakhuis (Protector) Temple. This contains thangkas of Jamsran, one of the two Protectors of the monastery, Ochirvaani (Malakala), and Jigjid (Yamantaka). As mentioned above, Erdene Tsorj, student of Zanabazar and co-founder of Khögnö Tarnym Khiid (see above), was instrumental in introducing Jamsran into Mongolian Buddhism.

To the left of the Zuu Temple is the temple which contained the original tomb-stupa of the Fourth Panchen Lama, who visited here at Amarbayasgalant in 1797 and who died in 1813, at the age of thirty-eight. As with Zanabazar’s tomb-stupa the original was destroyed. The current stupa and statue of the Fourth were placed here in 1992. As in Zanabazar’s temple the walls are covered with depictions of Zanabazar printed on cloth.

In front of Fourth Bogd Gegen Temple, facing the center of the courtyard is the Ayuush (Amitayus) Temple. Inside is a large statue of Ayuush flanked on either side by eighty sixteeninch high statues of Ayuush brought from Tibet in 1992. Also on display are a recently produced set of 108 volumes of the Gaanguur (Kanjur) written in Old Mongolian script.

Behind the Zuu Temple is the fourth courtyard. In the middle is the Laviran Temple, reserved as the residence of high-ranking lamas when they visit Amarbayasgalant and generally not open to the public. To the right is the Yam Temple, reserved for those who come to consult with high-ranking lamas when they are in residence and generally not open to the public. To the left of the Laviran Temple and facing the courtyard is the Dorje Shugden Temple, also closed to the public. Dorje Shugden is one of the two Protectors of the Monastery, along with Jamsran. Dorje Shugden is a controversial figure within Tibetan Buddhism and in recent years the Dalai Lama has spoken out quite forcefully against those who venerate him. An examination of this controversy is outside the scope of this guidebook.

To the right of the Laviran Temple, in a separate walled compound, is the Maidar (Maitreya Temple), containing a statute of Maidar. The Maidar ceremony, which involves circumambulating the monastery with a depiction of Maidar, was once a well-known event at Amarbayasgalant and is now once again being performed yearly, usually in July.

To the left of the Laviran Temple, also in its own separated walled compound, is the Narkhajid Temple, dedicated to the goddess Narkhajid. The role of Narkhajid in Zanabazar’s life is the subject of many legends. According to one, an emanation of Narkhajid was the wife of the King of Shambhala during Zanabazar’s lifetime. The King of Shambhala sent another emanation of Narkhajid to Zanabazar which took the bodily form of his wife or consort, Dorjiinnaljirmaa. This is the woman who according to legend served as the model for Zanabazar’s famous statues of White Tara and Green Tara. When Dorjiinnaljirmaa died, according to legend, a brilliant light appeared above her tomb, leading many of those present to conclude that she was indeed an emanation of Narkhajid. Other than these legends, very little seems to be known about the goddess Narkhajid and what role she played in Mongolian Buddhism. In any case, this temple now contains a striking statue of her, along with dozens of eight-inch high clay statues of Zanabazar fashioned by monks at the monastery.


Just outside the outer wall of the monastery, to the west, is an immense kettle, made in 1818, which monks once used to make tea. Further on up the hillside is a stupa, apparently the only religious structure outside the compound walls which survived the destruction of 1937. Visible still higher on the flanks of Buren Khan Uul can be seen a large inscription in Tibetan script fashioned from white stones. This is the familiar Om Mani Padme Hum mantra of Janraisig (Avalokitesvara), rendered Um Maani Bod Ni Khum in Mongolian. Above this are three smaller lines of Tibetan script rendering into Mongolian as:
Um Maani Bod Ni Khum—Janraisig mantra
Um Bazar Vaanii Khum—Ochirvaani (Malakala) mantra
Um Ara Bazaradi—Buddha mantra

About a half mile west of the monastery is a newly constructed stupa. Next to the stupa is a stele erected by the city of Ulaan Baatar noting that Amarbayasgalant was once the site of Zanabazar’s traveling monastery, known as Khüree, and thus one of the many locations of the Mongolian capital before it finally settled at its current location at Ulaan Baatar.

Dorje Shugden Temple

Two miles to the west of the monastery, on the hillside on the opposite side of the Even River, is the newly constructed Dorje Shugden Temple. Formerly there were three temples here dedicated to Zanabazar, Dorje Shugden, and the Eighth Bogd Gegen. These were destroyed in the late 1930s. The Dorje Shugden Temple was rebuilt and two large stupas constructed in place of the temples of Zanabazar and the Eighth Bogd Gegen. Between these stupas eight slightly smaller stupas have also recently been constructed. The lone stupa higher on the hill is an original dating from 1868. Within the temple itself is a large statue of Buddha flanked by hundreds of clay statues of Zanabazar fashioned by local monks. There is also a thangka of Dorje Shugden. According to the caretaker, devotees of Dorje Shugden from many foreign countries have come here in recent years to do meditation retreats.