Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Russia | Kalmykia | Lagan | Khosheut Khurul

The next morning I returned to the Lagan Khurul with Ngawang Thakhey and performed my mornings orisons while he filled the offering bowls with water. Later we returned to the guesthouse and he cooked me up a excellent omelet. This along with the tupa from the night before convinces me that if he had not become a monk he would have had a successful career as a chef.

Ngawang Thakhey filling offering bowls in the temple

We sit and drink milk tea until Albert and Tsagaan arrive at 9:00 sharp. We have to leave immediately, says Albert, since we must catch a ferry across the Volga River to Khosheut Khurul and if we miss the crossing at noon there will not be another one until three in the afternoon. From Lagan we drive north through patchy steppe and sand dunes. The Caspian Sea is a few miles off to your right, but maddeningly it keeps out of sight. In this low, level country you cannot see it unless you come right up on the shore. The Caspian Sea is, of course, the largest land-locked body of water on Earth in terms of area. It could be considered the world’s largest lake in area, although not in volume of water, a distinction held by Lake Baikal in Siberia by virtue of its enormous depth. Or, since much of it is saline, it could be considered the world’s largest inland sea, with no outlet to any ocean. The Caspian, like the Black Sea and the Aral Sea, is a remnant of vast Paratethys Sea. Bordered by the countries of Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Kazakhstan the sea is of increasing importance a gate-way to the oil-rich Caspian Basin and Central Asia to the east.

As we drive, the conversation turns to Mongolia, which Albert hopes one day to visit. He asks me if it is true, as he has heard, that Chingis Khan’s bodyguards were Kalmyks. Technically, there were no Kalmyks at that time; the people who later moved west and became known as Kalmyks were then called Oirats. In any case, I do not know if they were any Oirats in Chingis’s bodyguard. Albert adds that the current mayor of Moscow, a pretty rough city, has only one bodyguard, but he is a Kalmyk and so one is enough. “My husband likes to believe that all Kalmyk men are real tough guys who make good bodyguards,” Tsagaan confides to me in English.

Soon we start crossing small channels of water which Albert says are part of the Volga River. We have entered the vast 120 mile-wide delta of the Volga cut by thousands of capillaries of the river. Dozens of white swans paddle in the channels and overhead wheel huge flocks of ducks and geese. The banks of the channels are lined with high grass, brush and trees, but the slightly higher ground in between the channels is still surprisingly arid steppe and desert.

Then we reach the town of Olya, located on one of the main channels of the Volga, big enough to accommodate big sea-going freighters. The bank is lined with huge freight cranes. Albert says most of the ships which dock here come from Iran. There is also a passenger ferry from here to Iran. Following the west bank of this large channel north we then pass through the town of Ikryanoye, which as the name implies, is famous as a possessing center for ikra—caviar. This of course is the famous black caviar from the Caspian sturgeon. The Caspian Surgeon Population has been hammered by over-fishing and pollution, but Albert says it is still possible to buy caviar here. I eat only red caviar, so I did not bother checking on the price.

From Ikryanoye the road veers away from the river and back into the desert steppe. At one point we pass the turnoff to Astrakhan, twenty-eight miles to the east, but we keep going straight. Our destination is the ferry crossing about thirty-five miles north of Astrakhan. We are running a bit late and Albert is soon careening along at ninety miles an hour. We arrive at the cross at 11:55, with five minute to spare. About a dozen cars are lined up ready to board. We are the last in line.

Ferry across one channel of the Volga

The Volga, the largest river in Europe in terms length, discharge and watershed, drops only 738 feet in its entire 2,294 mile-length, but the current is surprising strong here in its lower stretch. The channel here is about a half mile wide, but its take a half hour for the tugboat to pull the ferry to the opposite landing stage slightly upstream on the other bank.

Ferry Barge and Tugboat

Approaching the landing place on east side of ferry crossing

We disembark and drive through a thick woods before emerging out onto open pasture lands. Off to the right can be seen another channel of the Volga. It turns out that Khosheut Khural is on an island, a detail that Albert had not bothered to point out before. There is a maze of roads leading in all directions and now Tsagaan could not remember which one leads to the temple. Finally she calls her contact who was to meet us there and this woman sends a car to lead us to the temple. Following this vehicle we finally pull up in the little village of Tyumenevka (also known by its Russian name of Rechnoye). In the middle of the village stands Khosheut Khurul.

The Main Temple of Khosheut Khurul

We are greeted by a small welcoming committee: a tiny Russian woman who lives next door to the temple and serves as its unofficial, unpaid caretaker, two Kalmyk men in their sixties who are eager to show the temple to a traveler, and a young Russian woman who runs a small grocery shop next to the temple who is simply curious to see what is going on. The little Russian woman recounts quickly the history of the temple. It was built by the Kalmyk Prince Tumen to celebrate the Russian defeat of Napoleon. He had raised his own regiment of Kalmyks and accompanied the Russian troops who chased the French back to Paris. The temple was started in 1816 and finished in the 1820s. Prince Tumen’s seal, in the form of a bow and arrow, was stamped on many of the bricks used in the construction and can still be seen today.

The seal of the Kalymk Prince Tumen in the bricks of the temple

Another view of the Prince Tumen’s stamp

The original complex was much bigger, consisting of three temples connected by elaborate colonnades. The buildings quit functioning as Buddhist temples in the 1930s during the crackdown on religion. The main temple was turned into a meeting hall for communist youth groups and the other two temples were used as granaries. In the 1960s the two side temples and the colonnades were torn down, leaving only the main temple. Recently a small Buddhist altar has been installed in the main temple, restoring its original function, but the floor and walls are still in disrepair. There have been various attempts to do a complete restoration but so far they have come to naught. According to the caretaker, the Federal government in Moscow, recognizing the temple as a historical and architectural monument, allocated 19,000,000 rubles ($590,000) to its restoration, but the money somehow disappeared after reaching Astrakhan Province officials, who are reportedly not keen on restoring a Buddhist temple in what is now a mostly Orthodox Christian area.

New altar in the otherwise unrestored interior of the temple

Altar in the temple

Our group in the temple: Albert at left, Tsagaan third from right, and Russian caretaker lady in middle.

Another view of Khosheut Khurul
While the others chat away inside the temple I go outside to take photos. As I am examined the temple from a distant I have a sudden recollection of having read about this temple before. I may not have mentioned it earlier, but it was Professor Bicheev, during our Discussion About Dambijantsan, who first brought up the subject of Khosheut Khurul. I mentioned that I was thinking about going to Astrakhan after Elista, and he said, “In that case, you must visit the Khosheut Khurul. It is on the steppe about sixty kilometers north of Astrakhan.” He had said nothing about the ferry crossing and had not mentioned that the temple was on an island. Then today, during our drive here, Tsagaan had mentioned that the temple had been built by a Kalmyk noblemen by the name of Prince Tumen. A temple built on an island in the lower Volga by a Kalmyk prince now rang a bell in my mind.

This is almost certainly the temple Madame Blavatsky (1831–1891), proto-hippy, founder of the Theosophical Society, and Fairy God Mother of the New Age movement visited when she was a little girl.

Madame Blavatsky in her mature years

Andrei Fadeyev, father of Helena Andreyevna von Hahn, the mother of Helena Blavatsky, I recalled, was the vice-governor of the province of Astrakhan as well as a member of governing board for the Kalmyk people. In the Spring of 1836 he appeared in St. Petersburg on business and when he departed for Astrakhan in June he took his daughter and five-year old granddaughter with him, effectively ending the unhappy marriage of Helena Andreyevna and army officer Peter Alexeyeivich von Hahn. Thus little Helena von Hahn, the future Madame Blavatsky, found herself living with her grandfather in Astrakhan. According to her biographer Marion Meade, in her enormously entertaining Madame Blavatsky: The Woman Behind the Myth:
Life in the Fadeyev household was lively and bustling, largely owing to the nature of Andrey’s position. As second in command of the province and curator-general of the Kalmucks [sic], he was able to reside in an aura of privilege and aristocratic sumptuousness. Aside from balls, soirées and dinners for foreign visitors, diplomatic relations had to be maintained with the Kalmuck chieftains. The wealthiest and most influential of these was a Prince Tumene, who owned an island a short distance up the Volga. The prince, during the Napoleonic war of 1815, had raised a regiment at his own expense and led it to Paris, for which the Czar had rewarded him with numerous decorations. Now he lived in a white palace that was half-Chinese, half “Arabian Nights” in décor, but passed much of his day praying in a Buddhist temple he had erected nearby. There was nothing about Tumene's little enclave that was either Russian or Kalmuck; rather it suggested the court of a rich Asiatic nabob. An imaginative child like H.P.B. could easily be transported into a land of fairies an mysterious legends. Lost in a perfect playland, Helena observed with wonder the water-encircled palace—its exterior fretted with balconies and fantastic ornaments, its interior filled with tapestries and crystals-giving the appearance that a touch of a wand had produced this preposterous mirage from the bosom of the Volga. To complete the mystical illusion, the author of these marvels was supposedly a half-savage tribesman, a worshiper of Buddha, an a believer in reincarnation. It is doubtful that anyone took the trouble to explain Buddhism to Helena, but it is certain that the shaven-headed lamas and the painted effigies of Buddha stirred her a great deal more than the rituals and icons of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Her stay in Astrakhan province undoubtedly made a big impression on the budding little magus. "I was myself brought up with the Buddhist Kalmucks," she would later brag in a letter. "I was living in the steppes of Astrachan [Astrakhan] till the age of ten.” As her biographer points out, “This statement is an example of the surprisingly uneven nature of H.P.B.'s memory, as well as of her habit of rearranging her past to suit present convenience.” Actually she only lived in Astrakhan province for ten months starting when she was five years old. In any case, even this short stay in Astrakhan had lasting results.

First, Helena was introduced to Buddhist here, and perhaps here the needle of her personal inner compass first veered to the East, where much of her destiny would be played out. Secondly, the precocious little girl learned to ride a horse at this time, perhaps from the Kalmyks she met, who themselves were legendarily accomplished horsemen. “Ten years later, when conventional young ladies were sedately riding sidesaddle,” her biographer notes, “she would still be straddling a horse like a tribesman, having near-fatal accidents, and causing her worried family to gnash their teeth. They could not deny, however, that she was a superb horsewoman.” Indeed, according to one version of her life (there were many) she later performed as an equestrian in a circus. This of course was when she was still a svelte young woman and had not yet reached the elephantine proportions she was to achieve in later life.

Another view of Khosheut Khurul

Another view of Khosheut Khurul

Iron fixtures on the temple dating back to the 1820s

Rejoining the group, I learn from the Russian caretaker that Prince Tumen’s residence was indeed nearby but that today not a trace of it remains. She adds that the Kalmyk cavalrymen brought back as war booty numerous French women. The descendants of the resultant couplings still live on the island. Prince Tumen himself brought back a French boy whom he later adopted, although it is not clear if his interest in the lad was entirely paternal. She also mentioned the numerous famous people who visited the temple over the years, including Alexander Dumas, Czar Alexander II, and Lenin, who before the Revolution once came here with his wife on a vacation (Lenin himself had a Kalmyk grandmother). Dumas, she says, wrote that the Prince, although by that time aging, had a gorgeous eighteen year old Kalmyk wife with teeth as white as pearls. He himself was hacked off because he got nowhere with the local Kalmyk women. “As a Frenchman he thought the Kalmyks girls would be attracted to him, but they were not,” claims my informant. She has never heard of Madame Blavatsky, however, or the Theosophical Society.

From the temple we drive to the nearby village of Ushakova, where a noon repast has been laid on for us, oddly enough on a table in the main reading room of the small public library. Apparently the women present had brought the prepared dishes from their own kitchens: three different kinds of fish from the Volga—tasty but incredible bony—and the ever-welcome buuz, plus various salads, freshly baked bread, and milk tea. The latter we slurp down quickly as we have to meet the ferry at three o’clock. After taking several wrong turns we finally reach the ferry dock with three minutes to spare.