Monday, May 7, 2007

Mongolia | Bayankhongor Aimag | Amarbuyant Khiid

Amarbuyant Khiid
Amarbuyant is a Gelug monastery located on the high desert steppe north of the Gov-Altai Mountains in Bayankhongor Aimag. Monks now in residence say that the monastery was founded in the 1790s. Originally there were forty monks, and from the very beginning they were famous for their unzad (chanting) in a particularly forceful style. The monks of Amarbuyant eventually became known as the “Beautiful Voiced.” Other than this, little is known about the history of the monastery. It does not appear, for example, in the Mongol Hytag Dakh Tüükh Coyolyn Dursgal (Historical and Cultural Monuments in the Territory of Mongolia), nor does there seem to be much other literature in Mongolian about it.
Another view of Amarbuyant Khiid
The monastery was at one time well-known as the junction of two important caravan routes; the east-west Great Mongolian Road from Hohhot in Inner Mongolia with branches leading to Khovd and Uliastai in Mongolia and Qitai and Urumqi in Xinjiang Province, China; and the north-south route from here to Suzhou (now Jianguan, in Gansu Province of China), across the Black Gobi and the Mazong Mountains. The monastery lost much of its important as a caravan crossroads after the communists closed the Mongolian-Chinese border in the mid 1920 and halted much of the caravan traffic to Xinjiang.

The monastery is also remembered for the visit of the 13th Dalai Lama here in 1904. The Dalai Lama had fled Tibet after the invasion of the Younghusband Expedition. His exact route after leaving the Tibetan Plateau is unclear, but apparently at some point his party picked up the Suzhou–Amarbuyant route across the forbidding Black Gobi. Locals now claim he used this remote and difficult route to avoid the attentions of the Chinese. After crossing the Mongolian border his party, said to number about one hundred people—monks in the Dalai Lama’s entourage, Tibetan governments officials, bodyguards, camel men, cooks, etc.—camped at Shar Khuls Oasis. Word had already reached Amarbuyant of the Dalai Lama’s approach and a party of monks and notable local herdsmen was sent to meet him at Shar Khuls.

The head of the delegation, and also reputed to be the best chanter, was a man named Gendensüren. His grandson Tserendash, who was five at the time, went along with the delegation to Shar Khuls. Tserendash lived until the late 1980s and was the source of much of the information about the Dalai Lama’s sojourn through Bayankhongor. He became famous in Bayankhongor for his eccentricity and stubbornness. This latter trait earned him the nickname of Zörüüd (stubborn). Accompanied by the delegation of chanters and local dignitaries the Dalai Lama and his party made their way north to Amarbuyant. The trip took six long days by camel. All day long while riding their camels the Amarbuyant monks chanted in their famous style. Later, when the Dalai Lama was in Örgöö, he heard many chanters and was asked what he thought of them. He said they were good, but could not match the “Beautiful Voiced” chanters of Amarbuyant. At least this is what local monks now claim. This story may of course be apocryphal.

Meanwhile, the monks at Amarbuyant were preparing for his arrival. Starting two and a half miles south of the monastery, at a place now marked by two ovoos, a pathway was smoothed out for the Dalai Lama’s approach by removing all the large rocks and throwing them to one side. This pathway, with the piles of rocks on either side, can still be seen today. The edges of the pathway was lined with “carpets,” as the monks now describe them, of red, green, yellow, blue, and white Buddhist designs made from powdered minerals found in the surrounding hills (samples of these minerals can now be seen in the small but well-appointed museum in the nearby sum center of Shinjinst).
The beginning of the smoothed path for the Dalai is marked by the two small ovoos shown here.
About 1.8 miles south of the monastery, along the pathway, an assembly area measuring about 150 feet by 200 feet was created by leveling and smoothing the ground. This area, outlined with stones, can also still be seen today. On the northern side of the assembly area is a smaller area outlined with stones where the Dalai Lama sat. The Amarbuyant monks sat on either side of the assembly area and the Dalai Lama proceeded up an aisle in the middle to take his seat.
Roadway smoothed for the Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama reportedly stayed at Amarbuyant ten days, meeting with monks and giving teachings. He also gave instructions for the building of a new Tsogchin Temple. He first picked out the location for the temple, then built a small ovoo on the ridge directly to the south of the monastery. He instructed the monks to build the temple directly facing this ovoo. Thus the ovoo now directly faces Bor Khairkhan Mountain far off to the south across the desert, as was the Dalai Lama’s intention, although the mountain is not visible from the temple itself. The ovoo can still be seen today. Locals say that while It is the custom for people to add rocks to ovoos while circumambulating them out of deference to Dalai no stones have ever been added to this ovoo, nor has it been adorned with khadags or anything else.
Ovoo built by the Dalai Lama to align new Tsogchin Temple with Bor Khairkhan Mountain, just visible in the distance.
The restored Tsogchin Temple
Looking south across the Gobi from the Tsogchin Temple
One of the monks who had accompanied the Dalai Lama the whole way from Lhasa, the enigmatic world-class intriguer Agvan Dorjieff, a Buryat who had once studied at Gandan Monastery in Örgöö (Ulaan Baatar)) and went on to become the Dalai Lama’s tutor, hurried on from Amarbuyant to Örgöö by himself to inform the Russian government via telegraph that the Dalai Lama was now on the territory of Mongolia. At this point the Dalai Lama’s itinerary was unclear, and it was mooted that he might want to continue on to Russia. Dorjieff, a dedicated Shambhalist (it was probably he who introduced Nicholas Roerich and his wife Elena to the Shambhala mythologem) had once hinted that Russia was actually the legendary kingdom of Northern Shambhala and that the Czar of Russia was the King of Shambhala. Thus the Dalai Lama might be interested in visiting Russia and meeting the Czar. As it turned out nothing came of these overtures.

Amarbuyant appears in the travel accounts of George and Nicholas Roerich, Owen Lattimore, and other non-Mongolian travelers as Yum Beise (or Yun Beise) Monastery. On my first visit to Bayankhongor in 1998 I asked dozens of otherwise well-informed people about the whereabouts of Yum Beise Monastery. No one had ever heard of it. I first assumed that it had been totally destroyed by the communists and had now even passed from people’s memory. Then I met a very knowledgeable man who worked as a cashmere buyer, traveling all over the Bayankhongor (he claimed to have met every herder in the entire aimag), and he explained that beise is a title given by the Qing to Mongolian noblemen. Yum Beise was a local nobleman and the monastery was located on his territory; thus foreigners, perhaps due to faulty translations, began incorrectly calling it Yum Beise Monastery. This name was never used by Mongolians.
Stupas behind the Monastery
The Roerich Expedition headed by famous artist Nicholas Roerich and his son the well-known scholar and Tibetan translator George visited Amarbuyant in April of 1927. Oddly enough, even at this early date they were able to drive from Örgöö to Amarbuyant, although not without a great deal of difficulty. The grandly styled Roerich Expedition left Urga on April 13, 1927 in three trucks and two Dodge touring cars and arrived in Yum-Beise, as they called it, about a week later. By then the caravan routes to Hohhot and Xinjiang had been closed by the communists and the monastery had fallen on hard times. Nicholas Roerich was not impressed by what he found: “Yum-Beise is an unpleasant, windy place. The monastery itself is not an inviting one and the lamas are not gracious. Beyond and above the monastery, on the mountain, a tremendous phallus is erected. . . .”

Nor was George Roerich enthusiastic:
The northern wall was occupied by the state throne of the Incarnated Lama of the monastery and several cases containing brass and clay images of crude workmanship . . . We noticed only a few painted banners. A big one hanging on one of the columns displayed a black and white drawing of the mandala or mystic sphere of influence of Shambhala, said to have been presented to the monastery by order of the late Bogdo Gegen. The rest of the banners were painted in bright colors, but of a very inferior design. We searched in vain for the finely executed banners from eastern Tibet and Derge. Most of the brass images in the glass cases either came from eastern Tibet or from Dolon-nor. We were surprised to find such a paucity of really good things. The küren situated on the caravan route to Tibet should possess better examples of Tibetan religious art.
They had planned to continue on by car and truck south across the Gobi, but the monks and caravan men at the monastery warned them that this was impossible. They finally hired a man named Lama Sambu, “well-known guide and caravan leader,” and proceeded south by camel on the caravan route used by the Dalai Lama.

One of several stupas on the ridge north of the the monastery built to protect it from prevailing north winds
In the mid-1930s the monks at Amarbuyant heard rumors that the communists were planning to close their monastery. Some of them fled to China. When the communists finally did come the monks under the age twenty-five were drafted into the army and reportedly many ended up fighting with the Soviet Red Army in Germany. Older, high-ranking monks were executed, reportedly shot while holding their begging bowls in their hands. Most of the temples are destroyed or heavily damaged. Restoration work began in the 1990s. About a dozen monks are now in residence and they are attempted to revive their reputation as the “Beautiful Voiced.”
Ruins of temples destroyed by the communists