Monday, November 21, 2011

Mongolia | Övörkhangai Aimag | Erdene Zuu | Zanabazar’s Birthday

Around the middle of the week a big snow storm hit Ulaanbaatar, leaving as much as four inches on the ground at places—a lot for UB. I had planned to go to Erdene Zuu Khiid on the outskirts of the town of Kharkhorin in Övörkhangai Aimag over the weekend, but the weather was definitely putting a crimp on my plans. Kharkhorin is 240 miles by road from Ulaanbaatar and there was no telling what road conditions would be like farther on out west. I kept a close eye on the weather forecasts, and skies were supposed to clear by Saturday morning in both Ulaanbaatar and in Avaikheer, the capital of Övörkhangai Aimag. So it looked like the trip was on. Then Friday afternoon the driver who was supposed to take us backed out. He did not give a reason, but I suspected he was a bit leery of the road to Kharkhorin, which was likely to be covered with fresh snow for much of the way. Early Friday evening I got a call from Saka, who had agreed to go along with me on the trip as an historical consultant. Although she works full time as an accountant for one of the big mining companies in Ulaanbaatar she also serves as accountant for my company, Polar Star Books, and is an expert calligrapher in Uighuro-Mongolian vertical script and a keen student of Mongolian history. She had managed to find another driver so it looked like the trip was back on. We planned to leave at 9:30 Saturday morning. At 8:00 Saturday morning the weather did not look promising. The clear skies had not materialized and fresh snow was drifting down from the leaden skies. At 9:30 Saka and the driver, a man in his sixties named Davaa, arrived at my hovel. Davaa, who said he had worked all his life as a professional truck driver, said he was not worried about the road to Kharkhorin. So the trip was on. 

I was eager to visit Erdene Zuu this weekend because Sunday, November 20  by the Gregorian Calendar, was the 25th day of the month according to the lunar calendar and thus an auspicious day for Buddhists. Usually on the 25th of the Buddhist lunar calendar a big puja is held at the Laviran Temple at Erdene Zuu. This month the puja was of special significance because it marked the celebration of the 376th birthday of Zanabazar, The First Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia. Zanabazar was born at a place called Yëson Züil in what is now Övörkhangai Aimag in 1635, right after the rivers had frozen over solid, according to traditional accounts (see Yëson Züil Chapter from Travels in Northern Mongolia).

The road to Kharkhorin was snow-covered in places, but other stretches had been swept clean by high winds and we were able to barrel along at sixty miles an hour. Only the last forty-two miles, on the cutoff to Kharkhorin from the main highway, were completely snow-covered. Still, we arrived at Kharkhorin in good time, at 3:30 in the afternoon. We immediately went to the home of an old classmate of Saka’s who now works at the new Kharkhorin Museum. This museum only opened last year and I have never had an opportunity to visit it. Unfortunately it is closed over the weekends in wintertime, when very few tourists come to Erdene Zuu, so I will have to come back again to Kharkhorin to visit it. Saka’s friend has two young children of her own, a boy and girl, and two adopted children, and these kids romped around the room as we drank airag (fermented mare’s milk). Opinions do differ, but some people (including myself) maintain the airag from Övörkhangai Aimag is the best in Mongolia and that Kharkhorin qualifies as the Airag Capital of the World. 

Eventually her husband, who is a monk at Erdene Zuu Khiid, and a friend of his, who is also a monk, arrived. He informed us that chanting would begin at the Laviran Temple at Erdene Zuu at 9:00 the next morning and the puja would start at 1:00 pm. Saka’s friend had a lot to say about the early Turkic People of the Orkhon Valley (the fabled Orkhon River runs through Kharkhorin), a subject which I hope to write more about soon. I had already been to the old Uighur Capital of Khar Balgas a couple times before, and had even considered visiting it again on this trip, to get photos with snow on the ground, but now it appeared there might be too much snow to even reach the place. So I cancelled that part of the trip until next time. Perhaps it was good I did, since after visiting Saka’s friend we took a shortcut to our hotel just outside of Kharkhorin and soon got hung up in a two foot-high snow drift, even though we had a four-wheel drive vehicle. It took us over an hour to shovel our way out. This may have been a harbinger of what would have happened had we taken the trail across the steppe to Khar Balgas. 

Overnight the temperature dropped to 20 below 0 Fº. Sunday dawned clear, however, without so much as a whisker of a cloud in the sky. We headed over to Erdene Zuu and I walked about the perimeter of the complex while Saka and Davaa went in for the chanting. The wall around Erdene Zuu measures about 1315 feet on all four sides and is studded with 108 stupas.
Erdene Zuu. The three Zuu Temples are to the left, bottom; the Laviran Temple is at the left, top. See Erdene Zuu from Guidebook to Locales Connected with the Life of Zanabazar)
 Bottom left corner of Erdene Zuu
  Bottom left corner of Erdene Zuu looking east

  Bottom left corner of Erdene Zuu looking north
Bottom right corner of Erdene Zuu
 Bottom right corner of Erdene Zuu
Eastern Wall of Erdene Zuu
Eastern entrance to Erdene Zuu
Southern Wall
 Historical Consultant and Gazarchin Saka at the wall
 The three Zuu temples inside the compound
Center and Left Zuu Temple; the white structure in the foreground is the tomb of Gombodorj, the father of Zanabazar (click on photo for enlargement)
 Central Zuu Temple
Central Zuu Temple 
 Past Buddha in the Right Zuu Temple
Current Buddha (Sakyamuni) in the Right Zuu Temple
Future Buddha (Maidar) in the Right Zuu Temple 

Wall painting in the Right Zuu Temple
Wall painting in the Right Zuu Temple 
Statue in the Central Zuu Temple
Closeup of Statue in the Central Zuu Temple
Statue in Zuu Temple 
 Statue in Zuu Temple
 Statue of Zonkhov (Tsongkapa) founder of the Gelug Sect, in the Right Zuu Temple
  Wall Painting in the Right Zuu Temple
 Stupa between the Zuu Temples and the Laviran Temple
While the Zuu Temples are now part of Erdene Zuu Museum, the Laviran Temple, above, is an active temple of the Erdene Zuu monastery. It is one of the few temples in Mongolia featuring purelyTibetan-style architecture. This is where the Puja was held (click on photo for enlargement).
Historical consultant and Gazarchin Saka with statue of Taranatha (1675-1634), the sixteenth incarnation of Javzandamba and the incarnation previous to Zanabazar. I have already visited Takten Damcho Ling, the monastery in Tibet founded by Taranatha. As you no doubt know, the current incarnation of Javzandamba, the Ninth Bogd Gegeen, is currently living in Ulaanbaatar (click on photo for enlargement).
Perhaps two or three hundred local people piled into the Laviran Temple for the Puja. This was a three hour ceremony with chanting, singing, and offerings interspersed with teachings by Basaansüren Lama, the abbot of Erdene Zuu Monastery. Outside the temperature had risen to about 0º F and it was fairly cozy inside. I was soon entranced by the mantras accompanied by the slow but incessant pounding of drums and the punctuation of crashing cymbals:

Makha zala raljig dodkhan maa
Khodjin yavyuum budra badra srin
Senge sigden donded don ma shii
Jüdsüm degtsog jishin rolbar zad
Makha zala raljig dodkhan maa
Khodjin yavyuum budra badra srin
Senge sigden donded don ma shii
Jüdsüm degtsog jishin rolbar zad
Makha zala raljig dodkhan maa
Khodjin yavyuum budra badra srin
Senge sigden donded don ma shii
Jüdsüm degtsog jishin rolbar zad . . . 

We stayed for the “Um aa shri makha gala ee khum pad suukhai” mantra, a particular haunting invocation which was also half-chanted-half-sung by the attendees, but as soon as that was over we left, since we had a five to six hour drive on snowy roads ahead of us, partly in the dark. I did however feel very lucky to take part in at least part of the Puja on this extremely auspicious day. 

Um aa shri makha gala ee khum pad suukhai
Um aa shri makha gala ee khum pad suukhai
Um aa shri makha gala ee khum pad suukhai
Um aa shri makha gala ee khum pad suukhai
Um aa shri makha gala ee khum pad suukhai
Um aa shri makha gala ee khum pad suukhai


No comments:

Post a Comment