Thursday, May 21, 2009

Russia | Kalmykia | Elista | Lagan

I no sooner expressed a desire to go to Astrakhan, the ancient city near the mouth of the Volga River, than Telo Tulku Rinpoche says, “You should go to our temple in Lagan, near the shores of the Caspian Sea, stay a day or two there, and then go Astrakhan. On the way you can stop at the famous Khosheut Khurul; it is in ruins now but you might find it interesting.” Great, I said, how do I get to Lagan. “I’ll try to find you a ride,” he said. A half hour later he called back. “I have found a man who is going to Lagan tomorrow. You can stay at our temple tomorrow night, or longer if you wish, and then when you want to go to Astrakhan this same man has agreed to take you. One the way you can stop at the Khosheut Khurul. How does that sound?” It sounded great.

The next morning at 10:00 am the driver pounded on a my door. He is in his forties and does not speak a word of English. He has the un-Kalmykian name of Albert, and I soon discover that his wife is a school teacher in Lagan and that he has four children. His wife, is adds, is quite interested in history and is preparing some material for me about Khosheut Khurul. She wants to go with us to the temple and then on to Astrakhan. Albert has a new Honda and I as a soon discover a lead foot. As we barrel out of town I asked if we can stop for a few minutes at Geden Sheddup Choikorling (A Holy Abode for Theory and Practise of the School of Gelugpa), located about four miles outside of Elista.

Geden Shaddup Choikorling

Officially opened on Oct 5, 1996, it was the first Buddhist temple to be built in Kalmykia since the 1920s. The site for the temple had reportedly been chosen by the Dalai Lama during one of his trips to Kalmykia back in the early 1990s. The temple is locked and there doesn’t seem to be anyone around. This temple has clearly been eclipsed by the huge Golden Temple in downtown Elista.

Geden Shaddup Choikorling

We have to drive past Elista to get on the road to Lagan and one the way points out a complex of new looking buildings off to the left. It’s the famous Chess City built by Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, Kalmykia’s chess-crazed president. Among his other distinctions and eccentricities, Ilyumzhinov may be the only sitting head of state who openly admits to having been Kidnapped by Aliens. Albert is a bit surprised to discover that I had not visited the Chess City. It is the first place most tourists head for. I tell him that despite living in equally chess-crazed Mongolia I myself have absolutely no interest in the game. In fact, I have a deep aversion to all board games (and cards too).

On the main highway east from Elista we soon pass a huge tractor-trailer rig lying on its side along the side of the road. Apparently it had just wrecked. The cops were arrving just as we passed. I noticed that there was a steady stream of tractor-trailers on this road. Albert said they were coming from Dagestan, which borders Kalmykia to the south, and from Azerbaijan, Georgia and the other countries of the Caucasus. There was also some traffic from Iran, although most freight from Iran comes by boat via the Caspian Sea.

We have been on the main road to Astrakhan, but at one point we turn off to the right on the road to Lagan. After a half hour or so we arrive in the sleepy little town of Komsomolsaya.

Quiet Komsomolskaya

Memorial to the Mass Deportation of the Kalmyks to Siberia in 1943. Survivors were allowed to return after 1957
We make a brief stop at the Buddhist Temple and nearby stupa, just recently constructed, and then move on.

Temple in Komsomolskaya

Newly constructed stupa in Komsomolskaya

Beyond Komsomolsaya the country is increasingly arid. The grass, quite lush around Elista, get shorter and and skimpier and soon you can detect the reddish-brown soil beneath the vegetation. Soon patches of sand, like sand traps at a public golf course appear. Camel thorn and wormwood appear amidst the patchy grass. This is the edge of the Caspian Lowland Desert which extends from the edge of the steppe to the Caspian Sea.

Steppe starting to grade into desert

Arriving on the outskirts of Lagan, we turn left off the main road and I soon spot the cupola of the Lagan Temple. We are greeted by a monk I had noticed at the reception for the Drepung Tripa a couple days before. His name is Ngawang Thakhey.

Ngawang Thakhey greets us at the Lagan Khurul

Lagan Khurul

Ngawang Thakhey is a Tibetan, not a Kalmyk. He leads us into the low-slung guesthouse and shows me a small room where I can spend the night. The bookshelves above of the small desk are lined with Tibetan language books printed in India. In the dining we sit down at a long table and two Russian women who have been cooking bring out half a dozen dishes. There’s salted sturgeon from the Caspian Sea (the shore of which is four miles from here), baked sturgeon layered with slices of potatoes, buuz (steamed meat dumplings), a salad of fish with peas, finely diced potatoes in a cream sauce, bread with butter and sour cream, milk tea, and a big place of apples, oranges, and dates. After tucking into this Albert leaves, announcing that he will be back with his wife at five o’clock. The monk suggests I rest in my room until then.

Albert’s wife arrives at 5:00 sharp. She has the real Mongolian name of Tsagaan (White). It turns out she is a teacher of English and German at the local school. Lagan, she tells me, is the second largest city in Kalymkia, with a population of 15,000. She pulls out big sheave of papers written in English by her pupils on various aspects of Kalmykia history.

She has also brought along sampling of books from the school library about the history of the Kalmyks, about Buddhist in Kalmykia, and about Buddhism in general. Flipping through the pile I am surprised to see a book by E. I. Rerikh (Helena Roerich) entitled Osnovy Buddhism (Foundations of Buddhism). Helena Roerich, along with her husband Nicholas and her son George, had spent the winter of 1926–27 in Ulaan Baatar as part of their Three-Year Circumnavigation of Inner Asia. The House Where They Stayed is now being converted into a Museum Dedicated to the Roerichs. This book may be have been written while they were staying in their house in Ulaan Baatar; in any case the book was published while they were in the city.

She also showed me several books about the temple which we will visit tomorrow. She even gives me a Power Point Presentation about the temple which one of her students has prepared. She says she knows the Russian woman who is the unofficial caretaker of the temple ruins and that she has called and notified her that we will be visiting tomorrow. She and Albert will be back at 9:00 tomorrow morning. She is taking a day off work from her school and Albert is also taking a day off work. They really want me to see the temple.

After they leave the monk starts preparing dinner. Apparently the big fish repast earlier was mainly for me and Albert. I noticed he had eaten very little. Now he whips up a big pot of tupa—mutton soup with big thick home-made Tibetan-style noodles. He stands over the stove, throwing the noodles into the pot one-by-one as he makes them. Over bowls of the tupa he tells me that he was born in Kham, in eastern Tibet, in 1966, making him forty-three years old. In 1989 he left Tibet for Drepung Gomang in India, where he took up the study of Buddhist philosophy. He was the youngest of six children and the only one to become a monk. At Drepung Gomang he met Telo Tulku Rinpoche and through his influence ended up here in Kalmykia. Now he is the only monk in residence here at Lasang. He says he has not seen his family in twenty years and leaves unsaid that he will probably never see them again, given the current situation in Tibet. The flat steppe-desert on the shores of the Caspian Sea is a far cry from the mountains of eastern Kham, and I can only wonder if Buddhist philosophy provides consolation for all he left behind and very different world he has ended up in.

Ngawang Thakhey

After tupa and several bowls of milk tea he goes to close the temple for the evening and invites me to come along. In the temple he methodically empties the water from all the offering bowls. While he’s doing this I cannot help but notice a framed poster of Zanabazar’s famous Green Tara, the original of which is in the Bogd Khaan’s Winter Palace in Ulaan Baatar. The monk has of course heard of current Bogd Gegeen, who lives in India and who has himself Visited Kalmykia, but he was unaware of Zanabazar, the First Bogd Gegeen. I pull out some Mongolian money and show him the Soyombo Symbol invented by Zanabazar, and mention that Zanabazar, like the Zaya Pandita, had invented his own alphabet, the so-called Soyombo Script. He was also, I point out, a world-class artist whose works now figure prominently in museums in Ulaan Baatar, not the least of which is the Zanabazar Fine Arts Museum. Also above the altar in the temple here is a thangka of the 21 Taras, including Green Tara. I mention that Zanabazar also did a set a the Twenty-One Taras. Ngawang Thakhey then turns over the thangka next to the Green Tara. On the back is a hand print in red ink. It is the hand print of the current Dalai Lama, who visited Lagan on one of his trips to Kalmykia. The hand print is long and thin and has an uncanny similarity to the hand print of Zanabazar on a thangka in the Zanabazar Fine Arts Museum in Ulaan Baatar.

Handprint of Zanabazar (1635–1723)

Outside Pegasus is in the sky overhead and the air is redolent with the smell of sage from the steppe and juniper from the bushes that have been planted around the temple. The water offerings from the bowls on altar which Ngawang Thakhey has collected in a bucket he now pours out at the base of a young pine tree next to the temple, ending his day’s activities. He turns in while I stay outside for a bit longer watching the Big Dipper turn on its handle before turning in myself.