Our conversation stopped and we listened to our surroundings.
“Yes. I hear the chanting, let’s go take a look,” we both said.
We packed the camping chairs away, put the Coleman stove in the Land Cruiser, took our cameras and locked the Land Cruiser. The previous evening we had arrived late, after a long day of crossing the border coming from Russia (read here), and driving 150 kilometers – 35 of which were unpaved – to this valley.
On arrival it had started to rain and we had been exhausted. We had left the late-evening prayer session for what it was and went to bed but now, rested and sitting under a blue sky, we couldn’t wait to see what the Amarbayasgalant Monastery was all about.
In the vast, almost empty grasslands of the long valley, the Land Cruiser was just a dot. On the other hand, with its red-brown walls the temple complex stood out against the Burenkhan Mountain at the far end of the valley.
We walked passed the screen wall and stepped across the threshold of the outer wall and into the first open area. It had small buildings on either side. Here we crossed the Temple of Protector Gods. In Korea this is called the Gate of the Heavenly Guards, but the immense sculptures are the same huge, angry looking creatures in the same bright colors and with the typical symbols of the lute, sword, or pagoda in the hand or the demon trampled underfoot.
From the second, large open area, we walked up the stairs and entered the Tsogchin (main) temple. In the entrance we stood still, taking in the atmosphere. Two rows of monks clad in red robes sat opposite each other and at the far end sat the statue of the Rinpoche Gurdava.
Some of the monks were kids and they didn’t do much chanting. They sat staring in front of them or chatted with each other, which gave a somewhat leisurely feel to the chanting session.
What a stroke of luck to have arrived in Mongolia when an annual festival took place. The Amarbayasgalant Khiid (Monastery) is one of Mongolia’s top three Buddhist Monasteries (the others being Erdene Zuu in Kharkhorin and Gandan in Ulaanbaatar).
It was built early 18th century by the Manchu emperor Yongzheng. In the 1930s, many temples were destroyed during the infamous purge by Stalin and most of the temples in Mongolia have been rebuilt only after the 1990s. Thankfully, a large part of the buildings of this monastery survived the onslaught (28 of the 40 temples).
The monastery is on the list to become a UNESCO monument. In its explanation as to why this building complex is worth conserving, UNESCO says (among other things):
“The Amarbayasgalant Monastery is the most authentic of the Buddhist monasteries that have been preserved in Mongolia after the 1930s political upheavals.”
Around the monks sat local people who had brought their camping chairs. Some of them walked around, praying in front of statues, putting their foreheads against whatever they considered sacred and being silent for a moment. Others left offerings on the tables along the side and in front of the altar. They folded the hands before their chest and mumbled short prayers.
What a beautiful temple, so rich in color and designs. The red wooden columns were covered with colorful scarves with intricate designs. The same kind of scarves hung from the ceiling below the second floor, as drapes coming down above the central area where the most important monks sat.
For many hours during the morning, afternoon and evening, the monks chanted. Devotees walked in and out when they wanted. A young man explained that during this annual event the monks chanted to obtain enlightenment.
The walk outside was just as inspiring. We climbed the hill to take a closer look at the golden Buddha that watched over the valley, and to the nearby big white stupa surrounded by prayer wheels.
From here we could see far into the valley and spotted more religious points of interest, stupas and ovoos. The latter are piles of stones in high places that can be distance markers but are also sacred places where passersby offer with blue silk robes, leave food or sprinkle with liquids.
When the festival finished, silence returned to the valley, albeit interrupted by the bleating of sheep that passed by in large herds. We packed the Land Cruiser and hit the unpaved roads again, quickly learning that the distances in Mongolia are huge and need ages to cover. More about that in our next dispatch. Stay tuned!
Throughout the blog post I used quotes from this UNESCO overview.
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