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Religion in Mongolia

RobzQ - donderdag 31 mei 2001 - 00:20


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Buddhist ceremony at Hustai Mountain

BAZQ stuurde een mooi reisverhaal over een Boedistische ceremonie waar hij zelf bij mocht tijdens zijn reis door Mongolie.

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Buddhist ceremony at Hustai Mountain
By: Bas Verschuuren



Religion in Mongolia has a long history that is rooted firmly in the cultural heritage of the countries’ early invaders and ancient conquerors. After the invasion of the Turks from the Middle East and the influence of the Chinese from the southern territories Mongolia broadly adopted Tibetan buddhism.

In the midst’s of all these changes Mongolia’s shamanism kept its position in society. Shamanism was well integrated into most aspects of Mongolian nomadic society. It is a practice that governs people’s livelihoods, society, nature, environment, healthcare, and most of all the spiritual beliefs.

The Shamanistic ethos was well established so it is not surprising that during the gradual introduction of Buddhism many facets of shamanism were adopted. This is itself, in Buddhism, a well-known phenomenon, for example in Indonesia Buddhism intertwines with Hinduism and traditional local nature based religions. Also Buddhism in Thailand has distinguishing traits from Buddhism in Sri Lanka. However one of the most pronounced traits in which shamanism and Buddhism found common ground is the deep respect for natural energies and mans’ environment.



As Buddhism evolved it adopted facets from the pre existing shamanistic culture, for example; healing springs; holy paths and roads and memorial sites made of piles of rocks (ovoos). Also many traditions related to the shamanistic spiritual world that accompany these landmarks have been integrated into current Buddhist practice.

Respect of sacred places and local myths connects the indigenous people to the well-being of the land, and has nurtured many generations.



It is almost midday as we depart for Hustai Nuruu, the place where the ceremony is to be held. The jeep is packed with both people and offerings for the mountain. All are draped across the jeep as we hit the rugged track that wanders into the vast steppes.

The sun is climbing to claim its place in the vast blue sky, home to the spirits of the ancestors. The sky spans over the land as a natural transparent ceiling, an everlasting openness reaching behind the horizon and the sunset.



I do not quite know what to expect but I feel privileged to be a man. Since ‘Hustai Nuruu’, meaning Birch Mountain, is regarded to be a male mountain, no women are allowed on the mountain or in its vicinity. There are, however, female mountains. ‘Nipple Rock’ being the most striking example, named for its obvious resemblance.



As the track swirls into  foothills we are being overtaken by a Russian motorbike that, like Mongolian horseman, have the ability to seemingly appear out of nowhere. The orange motorbike is rushing across the steppes while the driver concentrates on avoiding scattered rocks and frequent marmot holes. His two children on the back hold on tight as they smile and wave at us from the passing motorbike.

Like the Russian jeeps, Russian bikes are highly popular remnants of the communist times, despite of their high maintenance. A driver once explained to me that it is best to always have a second one for spare parts.



As the terrain starts to slope patches of crooked birch trees are complemented with astonishing compositions of granite boulders. The birch trees grow in patches that look like endless galleries of white pillars. Light and shade patterns are constantly changing while the sun peers through the canopy that is moving in the wind. The forest floor is a lush flowering vegetation of herbs and sedges. 

We are now in the place where red deer takes shelter, the steppe eagle builds its nests and wolf raises its cubs.



The jeep stops. We burst out of the overfull jeep and sort out offerings and people in the same categories. After we have unfolded our bodies I realise we are at the foot of Hustai Mountain.

I follow an invisible path through the shrubs and end up at the top. Here a colourful crowd of people and horses are gathering around an immense ovoo placed in the very centre of the site. I can’t help comparing it to the statues of communist leaders I saw in the capitol Ulaan Bataar. Both represent icons of peoples beliefs, but how stunning the difference.



In the 1940’s the Mongolian president and Lenin puppet Choibalsan, with help of Russian death squads, killed 20,000 lamas and destroyed 7000 monasteries. At that time each Mongolian family had a child attending the monastery eager to become a lama. Mongolia was the largest Buddhist country in the world, its monasteries outnumbered those of Tibet.

In the 1920’s Ulaan Bataar had about 20 registered shamans. However they shared the same faith as the monks. Shamanism was officially forbidden and shamans were persecuted throughout Mongolia. Shamanism and Buddhism however were strongly embedded in the Mongolian culture and even in those days many government officials still consulted shamans and lamas for advise on important decisions in secret.



The ovoo, in its peaceful setting, has been covered with gifts for the mountain. At the very top of the oovo, tied to some poles, blue Tibetan flags and scarves with prayers written on them, are waving in the wind. Small pieces of paper with wishes scribbled on them are stuck in the cracks of the poles. Among the gifts are sheep, nicely cooked and displayed with their heads facing the top of the ovoo. Trays with cheese and hard cookies are piled at the base of the oovo, in a way that it is hard to take a piece without toppling them over. There are jars filled with freshly made butter and still warm home made yoghurt, and small silver and golden cups overflowing with the ever plentiful Vodka. Bowls for airag, the national drink derived from mares milk, is simply kept in plastic containers.



Imagine trying to balance a tray brimming with cheese while climbing the mountain on horseback over a rocky, virtually non-existent, path. While looking out across the vast landscape I see more horses appearing out of nowhere, about to start their ascent. As they arrive at the site they abandon their horses to make their offerings and sit with the others. The horses, hobbled or not, maintain their place at the edge of the ceremonial site. They have coloured ribbons plaited through their tales and many have their manes neatly cut short that they stand up straight. Their saddles are decorated with large hand worked silver buttons that guarantee blisters to the unaccustomed rider. . The Mongolians generally ride standing up in their stirrups balancing their body with the inside of their knees.



Around the ovoo a colourful crowd of people has gathered sitting on some scattered rocks exchanging sniff tobacco and the latest news. It is not often that people from all around the area meet. Most of them are bound to their families and their herds, which they move around the land in search of pasture and shelter. Also here are representatives of the local government, park rangers, local lamas and five lamas from Ulaan Bataar. The latter are supposed to lead the ceremony. I encountered them already this morning as they arrived dressed in their orange robes.

From the top the surrounding land seems to fade under the intense light of the sun. The heat causes the hot air to shimmer and makes me willing to believe this appealing view is in fact a ‘Fata Morgana'. The sun bleaches the otherwise so pronounced colours of the forests steppes and ridges. Gazing towards the horizon I see old eroded mountain ranges disappear into nothingness.

The openness and vastness of the land make the people on the top of this mountain seem very small and insignificant; just a tiny speck in a land ruled by the unpredictable forces of nature. The people know this and that’s why they come here, generation after generation, to pay their respects to the mountain. To thank it for the riches it has brought them and for its protection against the evil spirits that bring drought and disaster.



New developments over the past hundred of years, such as the introduction of modern western science, the communist system and the shift towards a global market economy, have contributed to, and help shape present day Mongolia. However, these developments have also added to the decline of the old traditions and beliefs.

Even to the people in the countryside climatical change nowadays forms a plausible reason for the dry summers and extremely cold winters they experienced over the last few years.

Also the death of livestock during the winter is linked to overstocking and overgrazing due to low meat prices at the world market. People simply have to invest in more livestock because there are no other options.

Moreover people do not use religion and folklore as a reason to justify ignorance towards ecological and economical problems. Moreover, it helps them to regain a structure in the way they organise their nomadic lifestyle and use the land. A structure that has proven sustainable for thousands of years which can now play a pivotal role in trying to help reclaim a sustainable way of living.

At the ceremonial site all men are dressed in the traditional dells of green, purple, brown and blue. Some of the dells, long overcoats that fall down to their heels, have extremely long sleeves; Mongolians believe long sleeves will bring them long life. The dells are closed using silver ball-shaped buttons that fit through a small loop.  A yellow or orange scarf is tied tight around the waste; This serves as a kidney belt while riding and also a good place to keep a dagger.



Beautifully needle worked leather boots with pointed, upstanding toes, silver crafted daggers and ornamental ceremonial buttons define the status of the wearer. Of course, the quality and rareness of their sniff tobacco jar, which can be made of Gobi stone, plastic, silver or even coral, is just as important to the men. In their boots they keep a hand carved wooden tool to sweep off the sweat from their horse.



On other occasions long silver smoking pipes would be passed. The pipe would be stuffed with home made tobacco from an accompanying bag and a set of silver pins would be used to clean it after use. At the ceremonial site however smoking is not allowed.

We sit around for what is maybe an hour or two – who can tell. Most people’s faces are lined  and weathered but when they crack a smile their teeth gleam white, well kept and preserved by eating meat.

I start to wonder if this is going to be it. I really have no real sense of time. The complete scene is dazzling and seems to have put me in a hiatus. There is only the vast land, the mumbling of the people and the burning heat of the sun.

Just at this moment there is some activity, a couple of carpets are being rolled out and the lamas from Ulaan Bataar sit down and open their scrolls. They are dressed in their orange yellow robes, as worn by the Tibetans. The oldest of them is heavily wrinkled and even though he is bald I can’t look at him without imagining fluffy grey hair and a long grey beard. Barely  managing to walk he makes his way through the assembled crowd towards the edge of the site. Faces turn to see what is going to happen as he puts aside is robes to relieve himself. People grin at each other and a little later the preparations continue.

An intense bell ringing penetrates the air and seems to reverberate through my spine. The ceremony begins. Officials and elders sit closest to the monks. Around them the people are gathered, sitting alone or in small groups. All listen to the monks reciting mantras. Later I find out that the mantras are all in Tibetan and that Mongolian monks often spend years learning to recite texts that they don’t understand.



I have no idea how much time has passed. The mantras keep buzzing through my head. Around me everybody seems to have leaped out of reality just as the whole event seems to have slipped through a crack in time. I feel like this beautiful moment is been ever so slightly questioned when something lightly hits my head. I look around at all the faces; most are solemn and concentrated except for a couple at the edge of the ceremonial site who seem to be suppressing a smile. As I continue observing them from the corner of my eye I notice that they find it amusing to secretly throw well-aimed stones at each other. This simple humour suits the Mongolians, often I’ve been involved in many kinds of childish games and playing which are always reasons for cheer and laughter. This time though the latter are concealed and hidden by the participants.



The buzzing mantras stop and it takes a while for people to gather their senses. Slightly drunk by the long sit in the burning sun and the intriguing atmosphere, people slowly start moving around.

The offerings are now taken from their place and shared among the participants. Being a respected guest I am offered the largest lump of fat, which is considered a delicacy, fat from a sheep’s tail. Mongolian sheep have a lot of fat; most of it is stored in the sheep’s tail. Their tales are extremely large and can reach the size of a child’s head. Therefore the tail forms the sheep’s most pronounced feature. As a flog starts running their tails hub up and down resulting in a somewhat comical.



We all drink airag, eat cheese, yoghurt and candy. The scene has now changed into a feast were food and vodka are plentiful. The extraordinary change in atmosphere is stunning but after many hours of sitting in the sun the food strengthens me. Each time people take food from the ovoo small parts are left as offerings to the mountain. Little lumps of meat and cheese are taken off as well as spoonfuls of airag and splashes of vodka that are thrown backward over the shoulder. Every now and then the airag lands in some bodies face, not accidentally. Again a suppressed grin shows on somebody’s face. People enjoy the sharing of food and spending this time together. Nobody seems to have a reason for calling the ceremony to an end but it does eventually end.

Everybody gathers in front of the ovoo. The monks go in front and together we walk clockwise around the ovoo three times, to pay our last respects to the mountain before descending. After having walked around the ovoo you are allowed to make a wish. It also assures a safe trip. Horses, men, monks and the left overs all make their way down the mountain. As the horsemen line up at the bottom of the hill they take up their oergas' (the wooden rods with a rope loop at the end the Mongolians used to catch horses and other live stock). They look very impressive and I can’t help to think I’m taking a glance at history, at the days when the Mongolian horsemen conquered Asia, India and the Euro Asiatic plains, ranging up to Hungary and even Poland.



Complete families’ climb onto their motorbikes, the monks get back into the their Russian jeep and a few moments later I find myself in a somewhat similar position, but with a plate of mutton on my lap; leftovers from the ceremony. While the mantras are still buzzing through my head we make our way home, rattling and shaking. At this time the sun sets behind the mountain. I almost fall asleep and just at that moment I realise I have nourished my dreams. Like the Mongolians do when they tell their children about the mountain on a long winter night.

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