Most Mongolians are Tibetan Buddhists. This seemed strange to me at first. Tibet is pretty far from Mongolia, and most people living in between the two regions don’t practice the same form of Buddhism. I was really curious about how this had happened. The story goes like this. Buddhism was introduced to Mongolia by Tibetans in the 16th century. The Mongols originally believed in shamanism. Though the Buddhist doctrine had been spread across all of Central Asia, it had not been very successful in Mongolia, until one Mongolian leader wanted to use religion to unite his people. He invited a Tibetan Buddhist abbot up to Mongolia to hear what he had to say. He converted to Buddhism, and bestowed the title of Dalai Lama on the abbot who had come. The word “dalai” is actually a Mongolian word.
Erdene Zuu monastery was built shortly after these events. Legend has it that, after his conversion, the Mongolian leader was instructed to build a monastery in a river valley that was also near mountains. Coincidentally (or maybe not,) it’s near the ancient city of Karakorum, which was the capital of Mongolia way back in the 13th and 14th century. Whatever the reason, it’s a stunning setting.
Parts of the temple have been destroyed and rebuilt over the years, then during the Soviet years, most of the temple was destroyed, as were most religious buildings in Mongolia. The Communist leaders wanted to eradicate religion altogether. During purges in the 1930s, over 10,000 monks were murdered, and more were exiled to Siberia. Religious activity, which had been a huge part of Mongolian life, became nonexistent, and would be so for sixty years. The only two exceptions to the assault on religion were Gandan Khiid monastery in Ulaan Baatar and a section of Erdene Zuu, which was allowed to keep operating as a museum only. While many temple buildings were destroyed (there had been dozens,) a few of them did survive, as well as the surrounding wall.
In Tibetan Buddhism, colors are of special significance: I can’t remember which was which, but the five colors white, red, yellow, blue, and green each represent one of of the five elements. Temples are always decorated with these colors, so they’re very bright inside.
Like in Mahayana Buddhist temples I have visited, there were guardian king statues near the doorway of the temple buildings. They’re always fierce-looking, but this was the first time I’ve seen a guardian riding a donkey (?), using a gutted human body as a saddle.
Things have changed a lot since the Soviet days. Religion is thriving, and most other visitors we saw at the temple were Mongolian. It’s a working monastery again, so monks live there, without fear for their lives.
For foreign visitors as well, it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in Mongolia. The country has incredible natural beauty, and there are many opportunities to get outdoors, but due to its nomadic (and recently turbulent) history, there aren’t many places to experience Mongolian culture, or imagine its past as an empire. Erdene Zuu is one of those places. There wasn’t much we could see of the old town of Karakorum, but, at our driver’s insistence, we did take a detour to see one stone tortoise statue near the monastery. Later, I learned that this was one of four stone tortoises that guarded the north, south, east, and west boundaries of the city.
I have to admit that, before going to Mongolia, I was primarily interested in outdoorsy activities and didn’t care about visiting any temples. I only went because my mom wanted to go. But Erdene Zuu was enthralling. Though it’s hard for any attraction to compete with the beautiful scenery, I forgot all about it, just for a little while.