Friday, July 31, 2015

Mongolia | Khövsgöl Aimag | Deer Stones | Graves

Wandered out to Mörön, capital of Khövsgöl Aimag, 575 miles west of Ulaanbaatar ASCF. The plane was supposed to leave at 10:30 am, but due to some unexplained technical problems the flight did not get off until 6:30 pm. The original plan had been to arrive in Mörön at noon, stock up on groceries, and then head north by chartered Russian van into the Darkhat Depression, where we had a horse trip planned. With the late departure we did not arrive until 8:00 pm, after all the stores were closed and it was too late to head out for the day. With the election only two weeks away and all the politicians in town hotel rooms on Mörön were scarcer than in Bethlehem on the first Christmas Eve. The driver of our van allowed us to spend the night in a spare room in his house. The room had no furniture, but nice carpets, so we threw out out sleeping bags and settled in for the night.

The next morning we visited various markets and bought potatoes, carrots, cabbage, onions, rice, flour, salt, sugar, soy sauce, yeast, and for Yooton, who was along as guide and historical consultant, blueberry jam and two kilo of candies (she has a sweet tooth). I had brought tea along from Ulaanbaatar—five-year old Puerh for breakfast, Imperial Gold Needle Yunnan Black Tea for lunch, Taiwan Oolong for dinner, and Tie Kwan Yin (Iron Goddess of Mercy) Oolong for evenings around the campfire—and we intended to buy a sheep to complete our larder when we arrived in the Darkhat Depression. By 11:00 a.m. we were barreling north out of town.

Although we were a bit behind schedule to met our horsemen we made a short detour to visit the Erkhel Ulaan Tolgoi Deer Stone and Grave Complex, twenty-six miles ATCF north of Mörön. One of the more famous Deer Stone sites in Mongolia, it boasts of what is reported to be the tallest deer stone in Mongolia, if not the world. This and several of the other deer stones are quite well preserved, with the carving on them still very distinct. Our driver tells us that a team of American researchers from the Smithsonian Institute has visited this site several times and that they are expected to arrive again in three or four days. In fact, he himself is going to bring them here.

Deer Stones date from the Bronze Age, c. 2500-3000 years ago. They are so called because most of them have depictions of deer, often appearing to be flying through the air. There is much speculation but not much agreement on what the deer and other common motifs on the stones are supposed to mean. They may be what twentieth century magus G. I. Gurdjieff calls “legominisms,” i.e. means by which "ancient wisdom is transmitted beneath a form ostensibly intended for a quite different purpose.” According to Gurdieff the information contained in Legominisms could be interpreted only by initiates of certain ancient wisdom schools. “This information,” says Gurdjieff, “is necessary for subsequent generations to enable them to meet the difficulties that arise in the rise and fall of cultures, difficulties that people believe will never occur again because ‘the world is now different.’” Thus what may appear simply as primitive art to most observers may be encoded messages intended for initiates perhaps thousands of years after their creation.

Certainly down through the ages people have considered this site of some importance. Near the deer stones are several Türk grave mounds dating from probably the seventh century. The largest Türk grave mound is surrounded by a square made of small rocks and measuring about 100 feet on each side. At each corner is a small mound of rocks. The exact significance of these structures is also unknown. Near the Türk tomb are also several Chingis-era tombs dating to the thirteen century. Perhaps the Türks and Chingis-era Mongols understood the true significance of the deer stones and choose this site for the tombs. To my knowledge the code of the deer stones has not yet been cracked by modern observers.
The Deer Stone Complex
5 foot-4 inch Yooton with 12 foot-6 inch deer stone, said to be the tallest in Mongolia
Detail at top of tallest Deer Stones
Well preserved Deer Stone with the equally well preserved Yooton
Detail at the top of Deer Stone. Some commentators believe the circle represents the sun.
Detail at bottom of Deer Stone
Deer Stone with two flying deer at the bottom
Chingis-era grave mound surrounded by a circle of small rocks
Türk grave mound from the seventh or eighth century. This tomb appears to have been looted.
One of the smaller mounds at the four corner of the stone square around the Türk tomb

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Uzbekistan | Bukhara | Kalon Mosque

Kalon Mosque, right (click on photos for enlargements), with the facade of Mir-i-Arab Madrassa on the left
 Entrance to Kalon Mosque
  Entrance to Kalon Mosque
 Courtyard of Kalon Mosque
  Courtyard of Kalon Mosque
Interior gallery of Kalon Mosque

Friday, July 24, 2015

China | Xinjiang | Khotan | Carpet Factory

Wandered by the carpet factory in Khotan. A friendly Uighur woman who spoke a little bit of English explained to me what was going on. Although they made the silk carpets here for which Khotan is so famous, at the moment they were making only wool carpets. They use both Chinese and Uighur designs. A 1.2 x 1.8 meter wool carpet takes two people two months to make. A 3.3 x 4 meter carpet takes five people two months to make. A mammoth 15 by 20 meter (50 by 65 feet) carpet, one of the largest ever made here, and now on the wall of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, took fifteen people four months to make. In the sales room (where, curiously, photography was not allowed) I was shown a 4.3 by 6.8 meter (14 by 22 feet) carpet selling for about $2400). This was wool of course. Silk carpets are much, much more expensive. A four-by-six-foot silk carpet could easily sell for $6000-$8000 even here in the factory. Back in Urumqi, in the carpet store at the Provincial Museum, I was shown a 14 by 22 inch rug (that’s inches, mind you) that was selling for a whopping $5800). This was a 1200 knots per inch with a very special design. Obviously this small piece was intended as a wall hanging, a work of art, and not a carpet to be trod on; it was barely big enough to serve as a door mat.
 Women working in the carpet factory (click on photos for enlargements)
  Woman working in the carpet factory
  Woman working in the carpet factory
 Women working in the carpet factory
Even back in Beijing I had been informed by knowledgeable people that the women in Khotan are renowned all over Xinjiang for their beauty. My friend, a Uighur from Ili, in northern Xinjiang, could not keep a note of envy, even jealousy, out of her voice when talking about the women of Khotan. Such eyes! Like amber and obsidian! Such hair! Like Khotanese silk (of course)! Such eyebrows! Like young willow leaves! Such straight noses! Like carved from jade! Such lips! Like ripe pomegranates! Such breasts! Like Hami melons! she kept raving. All Xinjiang men want a wife from Khotan, she claimed. Xuanzang, the peripatetic Chinese monk who visited here in 644, was noticeably silent on this issue, however. Marco Polo also visited Khotan, in the thirteenth century, and although he had much to say about the women of Hami—another town in Xinjiang—who were renowned for their unbridled sensuality, if not necessarily for their beauty, apparently none in Khotan caught his fancy, or at least none that he cared to write about.
 Khotanese beauty working in the carpet factory. Note the young-willow-leaf-like eyebrows and carved-from-jade-like nose.
Another Khotanese beauty working in the carpet factory. Note the amber-and-obsidian-like eyes.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

China | Xinjiang | Khotan | Silk Factory

Wandered by Khotan on the southern edge of the Taklimakan Desert in western China. I was following the footsteps of Chinese Buddhist pilgrim and inveterate gadabout Xuanzang who visited Khotan circa 644 A.D. during his 17-or-so-year sojourn from China to India and back.  He left the following account of what was then the kingdom of Khotan:
This country is about 4000 li in circuit; the greater part is nothing but sand and gravel; the arable portion is very contracted. What land there is, is suitable for regular cultivation, and produces an abundance of fruits. The manufactures are carpets, haircloth of the highest quality, and fine-woven silken fabrics. Moreover, it produces white and green jade. The climate is soft and agreeable, but there are tornadoes which bring with them clouds of flying gravel. They [the residents of the country] have a knowledge of politeness and justice. The men are naturally quiet and respectful. They love to study literature and the arts, in which they make considerable advance. The people live in easy circumstances, and are contented with their lot.
 Location of Khotan (click on photos for enlargements)
To this day the products of Khotan have not changed much. Silk, carpets, and jade remain the city’s chief attractions. First I checked out the Silk Factory.
 Graybeard at his loom in the silk factory 
Silk worm cocoons
Closer view of the silk cocoons. Now about 40% of the raw silk cocoons are imported from Pakistan. Each cocoon, when unwound, contains about a one-kilometer-long length of silk filament.
The cocoons are heated over fires to kill the worm within, and then boiled to loosen the filaments. Then a mass of filaments are gathered together and twisted into one silk thread.
The silk thread runs from through the gadget in the middle to the foot-trundle powered spindle run by the woman on the left.
Spindle of pure silk thread
Skeins of pure silk thread
The main product of this factory is so-called atlas silk. The silk is tie-dyed using either chemical dyes or natural dyes made from local plants and minerals and then woven into four-meter-long lengths which can be used to make dresses, etc. The loom above is using chemically dyed thread.
Chemically dyed atlas silk
Naturally dyed atlas silk
 Naturally dyed atlas silk
Huge skeins of dyed silk in the factory showroom. The naturally dyed silk is much more expensive than the chemically dyed version. One four-meter-length of chemically dyed atlas silk costs about $30, while the naturally dyed version cost about $72.
These are the prices at the factory. Even the stores in Khotan, like this one, itself charge much more, and in Urumqi the price is typically doubled, although of course hard bargaining can knock the price down considerably.
It might be added that Khotan, and the Taklimakan Desert in general, has been posited as One Of The Physical Locations of the legendary kingdom of Shambhala. However, Lamas in Mongolia staunchly maintain that Shambhala can be found only in the Seventh Dimension, and not in the mundane three-dimensional world that most—but not all!—of us know and love.
G. Nyam-Ochir, currently one of Mongolia’s leading Shambhalists
 Superimposed here on the Taklimakan Desert is Kalapa, the capital of Shambhala. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Iran | Yazd | Zoroastrian Fire Temple

After visiting the Towers of Silence in Yazd I wandered by the Zoroastrian Fire Temple. Zoroastrianism is still practised in Iran and may be experiencing a Revival in Iraq.  A dozen or more people came to worship at the Yazd temple while I was there. 
The Fire Temple Grounds (click on photos for enlargements)
The Fire Temple
Faravahar, shown above on roof of the temple porch is one of the best-known symbols of Zoroastrianism. Below is an Explanation of the symbol: 

1. The figure inside is that of an old man, representing wisdom of age. 2. There are two wings in two sides of the picture, which have three main feathers. These main feathers indicate three symbols of "good thoughts, good words, and good deeds," which are at the same time the motive of flight and advancement. 3. The lower part of the Faravahar consists of three parts, representing "bad reflection, bad words and bad deeds" which causes misery and misfortune for human beings. 4. There are two loops at the two sides of the Faravahar, which represent positive forces and negative forces.  The former is directed toward the face and the latter is located at the back. This also indicates that we have to proceed toward the good and turn away from bad. 5. The ring in the center symbolizes the eternity of universe or the eternal nature of the soul. As a circle, it has no beginning and no end. 6. One of the hands points upwards, indicating that there is only one direction to choose in life and that is forward. The other hand holds a ring and some interpreters consider that as the ring of covenant and used in wedding ceremonies representing loyalty and faithfulness which is the basis of Zartosht's philosophy. This means when a true Iranian gives a promise, it is like a ring and it cannot be broken. 
Meanwhile, the American rapper, Roaster, and serial stoner Snoop Dogg has managed to Seriously Annoy Zoroastrians by appropriating this symbol. Also see Parsis Miffed. They claim Snoop is “insensitive towards the religious beliefs of one of the oldest monotheistic religions in the world.” Snoop Dogg being insensitive toward religions, imagine that! This is a guy who says he celebrates “Bong Kippur”. 
Snoop chillin’ with Faravahar. And I thought he was a Rastafarian!
The Sacred Flame in the temple. Reportedly it has been burning continuously since A.D 470, although not always at this location. It is behind glass, so it is difficult to get a photo without reflections. That’s me taking the photo.
The Sacred Flame
Inside the small museum attached to the temple is an artist’s rendering of Zoroaster, founder of Zoroastriansim (no one knows what he really looked like) with the holy texts of Zoroastrianism below. 
One of the tenets of Zoroastrianism

Iran | Yazd | Towers of Silence

My main reason for wandering by Yazd was to visit the two Towers of Silence, located on the southern edge of the city. These towers, known in Persian as Dachmas, were places where Zoroastrians disposed of their dead. I have also visited a Tower of Silence in Uzbekistan. Since I was a Zoroastrian before I transmigrated to this current Vale of Tears this subject is of some interest to me. 

When Zoroastrians died their bodies were taken up into a Tower of Silent and exposed to the elements. Vultures and other carrion-eating birds were allowed to strip all of the flesh off the corpses. The bones were then dried and bleached in the sun. In Uzbekistan the bones were places in ossuaries and preserved, but here in Iran the dried bones were placed in a pit in the middle of the Tower of Silent platform where they were allowed to disintegrate into dust. 
 One of the two Towers of Silence near Yazd (click on photos for enlargments)
 Tower of Silence
  Tower of Silence
 Entrance to the Tower of Silence
Interior of the Tower of Silence with pit in the middle
The pit where dried bones were placed

Monday, June 15, 2015

Buryatia | Mongolia | Agvan Dorzhiev

Look behind the curtains of late nineteenth-early twentieth century Russo-Tibeto-Mongolian affairs and you are more than likely to find there, directing the hesitant actors, prompting the tongue-tied, and ready to stride on stage himself whenever necessary, the enigmatic figure of the always-present but paradoxically ever-elusive Agvan Dorzhiev, or Ngawang Losang, as he was known in Tibetan. Dorzhiev was born in the valley of the Uda River, which flows into the Selenga River at the city of Ulaan Ude (in Dorzhiev’s time, Verkhneudinsk) in the current autonomous republic of Buryatia in the Wood Tiger Year of the 14th sixty-year cycle of the Kalachakra calendar (1854 according to the Gregorian calendar). A precocious student with obvious linguistic talents he soon excelled in Russian—his native language was Buryat—and, oddly enough for the time and place, French. He showed an early interest in Buddhism and quickly added Tibetan, the language of most religious texts, to his resumé. At the age of thirteen he received an Amitayus Long-Life Empowerment from a local lama, who also advised him to go to Tibet for further studies.
Agvan Dorzhiev
Tibet, however, was far off; and Dorzhiev’s means were limited. Örgöö [Ulaanbaatar], in Mongolia, was much closer, and it was there that Dorzhiev went a year later, in 1868. He took the precepts of an upsaka, or religious layman, restraining himself from killing, stealing, lying, irresponsible sexual activity, and the use of intoxicants. Apparently at this point he was not totally convinced of his religious vocation and not yet ready to become a fully ordained monk. Instead he soon married a woman named Kholintsog and may have fathered a child—coitus in the married state not being considered irresponsible sexual activity. He quickly discovered that “the household life, both in this and future births, is like sinking into a swamp of misery.” After consulting with his teacher, the revered Mongolian lama Penchen Chomphel, he decided to advance a further step on the path of his religious vocation by taking the vows of a celibate layman, or ubashi. At this point wife and purported child disappear from his curriculum vitae, never to be heard from again.

For the really serious student of Buddhism there was only one ultimate destination—Lhasa, the lodestar of Inner Asian Buddhists. Dorzhiev was nothing if not ambitious and he soon trained his sights on the Tibetan capital, where he hoped to eventually acquire the degree of geshé, the Buddhist equivalent of a doctorate. But here we get the first whiff of intrigue that was to hover like a miasma around Dorzhiev for the rest of his life. Historian of Russian and Tibetan relations Alexandre Andreyev has speculated that even at this early date Dorzhiev may have working for Russian intelligences services. Documents in the archives of the Imperial Russian Geographical Society propose “sending one or more Buryat Buddhists to Lhasa . . . with a Mongolian mission which was to bring back to Urga a new incarnation of the recently deceased Khutukhtu.” The Buryats were to concern themselves with “intelligence gathering.”

According to one source Dorzhiev and Penchen Chomphel left Mongolia for Lhasa in the winter of 1873. They may well have been accompanying the caravan sent to bring back the little Tibetan boy, a relative of the Dalai Lama, who had determined to be the Eighth Bogd Gegeen. As mentioned, all Europeans and citizens of the Russia empire were still strictly barred from entering Tibet at this time, and Dorzhiev, although a Buryat and a Buddhist, was still a citizen of Russia. Thus he went along on the caravan disguised as a Khalkh Mongol attendant to Penchen Chomphel. This was quite a dangerous undertaking for the Buryat. If exposed he would have been subjected to severe punishments, perhaps even ending up in a Tibetan dungeon. Any Tibetan who aided him risked having his property confiscated, or might have even be sewed up in a leather bag and thrown into the Tsangpo River to drown, the fate of Lama Senchen, the Shigatse monk who in the early 1880s had befriended the Indian pundit Chandra Das, who was in the pay of the British.

In Lhasa Dorzhiev found temporary refuge at Gomang College in Drepung Monastery. Here he could blend in with Mongolian monks who would be unlikely to expose him even if they know his true status. We cannot say for sure if Dambijantsan was there at the time. If our chronology is correct he entered the monastery at Dolonnuur around 1867 but we do not know how long he studied there before moving on to Drepung in Tibet. If they were both at Drepung at they had one thing in common; as Russian citizens they were both in Tibet illegally. Dambijantsan, perhaps already at this time a master of assumed identities, did not seem to have a problem, but word seems to have leaked about Dorzhiev’s true origins. His position precarious and running low on funds, he decided to forgo for the moment his dream of pursuing Buddhist studies in Lhasa and instead return to Örgöö. Here the record is clearer; he and Penchen Chomphel did accompany the caravan bringing the little four-year-old 8th Bogd Gegeen to Mongolia.

The Tibetan monk Luvsanchoijinimadanzinbanchug (1870–1924) was the twenty-third incarnation of Javsandamba and eighth in the line of Bogd Gegeens of Mongolia established by Zanabazar. He would witness the fall of the Qing Dynasty and oversee the rise of an independent state of Mongolia; in additional to his role as head of Buddhism in Mongolia he would eventually be crowned king of Mongolia; and he would live to see his power usurped by the Bolshevik communists who had seized control of the country in 1922. As his life was inextricably intertwined with that of Dambijantsan’s we will have more to say about him later.

By the time Dorzhiev returned to Örgöö he had decided on his religious vocation. At the age of twenty-one he was given full ordination as a monk by Penchen Chomphel and began studies with a number of other venerable monks who initiated him into various tantric practices, including the sadhana of Vajrabhairava, which would become his life-long practice. He also studied at monasteries at Wutai Shan in Shanxi Province, China, a mountain (actually a cluster of five peaks) dedicated to Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. He had not given up his dreams of continuing his studies in Lhasa, however. Informed by knowledgeable lamas at Wutai Shan that the obstacles he had previously faced could be overcome by generous offerings to monasteries and officials in Lhasa, he returned to Buryatia and managed to solicit a considerable amount of alms from his fellow countrymen, duly impressed as they were by the energetic and charismatic monk who already seemed destined for greater things. Part of this booty was given to Dzasak Rinpoche, a high-ranking lama at Wutai Shan. This worthy, who apparently had good connections in Tibet, smooth the way for Dorzhiev’s trip back to Lhasa and even determined an auspicious time for him to leave on his journey.

The twenty-six year old Dorzhiev arrived back in the Tibetan capital in 1880. Upon his arrival he made generous offerings to the Big Three monasteries of Sera, and Gandan, and Drepung, with an extra and especially munificent donation to Gomang College at Drepung. “By this means,” relates his biographer, “which may not exactly have been bribery, but something very much like it, the earnest and energetic young Buryat was able ‘to create favourable conditions for my studies’”. The matter of his Russian citizenship was for the time being forgotten.

Dorzhiev’s subsequent career at Lhasa was nothing short of meteoric. He studied with some of the most distinguished lamas in Tibet and in 1888, just eight years after his arrival in Lhasa, he was awarded the Buddhist equivalent of a doctorate, passing the exams with the highest honors. Normally it took fifteen or twenty year to earn such a degee. “It is . . . a little puzzling how he managed to complete the course so quickly,” observes his biographer, “for there is usually a waiting list and ample funds are necessary to pass the final hurdles. Everything points to Dorzhiev having an influential patron and sponsor. Perhaps money was reaching him from Russia—and perhaps from high places in Russia. Naturally he is reticent about anything of this kind.” He immediately began instructing Mongolian and Buryat students in Buddhistic logic and metaphysic and soon became “a recognized member of the monastic elite.”

All this would pale in comparison to his next assignment. That same year, 1888, he was appointed as tutor of the-then twelve-year old Thirteenth Dalai Lama. For the next ten years he was the Dalai Lama’ ‘inseparable attendant,” himself instructing the Dalai Lama on a near-daily basis and present when other lamas gave him initiations into the highest teachings of Vajrayana Buddhism. He would also eventually rank as the Dalai Lama’s closest political advisor. The fact that he was a Russian citizen had been forgiven but not forgotten. Some in the Dalai Lama’s entourage were appalled that a foreigner should have became the religious leader’s right hand man, and they intrigued to have him dismissed and thrown out of Tibet. But he had the support of the Dalai Lama himself and all their objections were in vain. The Buryat monk who had first slunk into Lhasa in disguise had become one of the most powerful men in the country.

Indeed, to this day Dorzhiev has not been forgotten at Drepung Monastery. When questioning monks there in 2001 about Zanabazar, the First Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia, I described him as “a famous Mongolian lama who had once studied at Drepung.” The monk I was talking to at first thought I was referring to “Ngawang Losang, the Mongolian monk from Russia.” This was of course Dorzhiev. (It turned out he also knew about Zanabazar, and was even aware that the Ninth Bogd Gegeen is now living in India.)

Much of Dorzhiev’s subsequent career lies outside the scope of our narrative. Suffice it to add here that he became the leader of the pro-Russian faction in the Tibetan court, and the British would use his Great Game intrigues with Russia, intended as they were to bring Tibet into the Russian sphere of influence, to justify their 1904 invasion of Tibet by the Younghusband Expedition. The Dalai Lama, accompanied by Dorzhiev, would flee Tibet in advance of the British invasion and eventually turn up in Örgöö, now Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia . . .