Conversations with the dead

It’s been quite a while between blog posts. Travels, Christmas, New Year celebrations and life have all got in the way. To kick things back into action, I thought it would be appropriate to tackle a big topic. Something a little heavy. Something that isn’t appropriate dinner party conversation. Something like… oh… religion. And perhaps, while I’m at it, let’s throw in a little politics.p1060026

I’ll begin by winding the clock right back. Chinggis Khan and his hordes are galloping across the steppes in their highly successful attempt to expand the Mongol Empire. If you’re a modern child and need something to help create a mental image, picture Drogo and the Dothraki on the rampage. While Chinggis Khan and his sons might have been feared warlords, they are also reputed to have been early proponents of freedom of religion. Chinggis’ son Ogedei married a Nestorian Christian woman and built mosques, churches and Buddhist monasteries for his subjects.

Fast forward a good 700 years to the 1930s, where much of the population is Buddhist. Religion being a prohibited opiate, communist purges result in the destruction of religious buildings, including the vast majority of Buddhist monasteries and stupas. During this time, many lamas are arrested, many executed. The number who lost their lives is unclear: some sources suggest around 3,000, while others estimate as many as 18,000 died. It was enough to drive religion underground.


The condemnation of religion under communism can be seen in the art of that period. Recently I helped a friend with a translation of a novel written in the 1970s. It tells the story of a bright young novice monk from a poor Mongolian family. To please his parents the boy studies hard and is rewarded with the opportunity to continue his religious training in Lhasa.  He joins a group of pilgrims to make the journey from Mongolia. It’s a dangerous road, beset by blue-faced bandits, treacherous cliffs and wild rivers. Many of his friends don’t survive the journey.  But what he endures while travelling is nothing compared with the corruption he must deal with when he arrives in Tibet. Still, the boy studies hard and rises through the ranks, trying to do the right thing. For all his efforts he ultimately ends up blind, alone and banished to the Gobi desert, where he survives on spilled drops of camels’ milk that have hardened to cheese in the sun. The book is not a condemnation of Buddhism itself, but it does show religion as a tool to manipulate the poor while those in power grow fat.

Similarly, the Mongolian ballet ‘Skillful Khas’ portrays Buddhist monks as twisted, goblin-like creatures who seize a talented young inventor, Khas, dragging him away from his family and compelling him to build statues for their monastery.[1]

With the end of communism twenty years ago, people are now able to practice religion openly again. The majority of the population are nominally Buddhist. It is an understated kind of Buddhism. There aren’t shrines on every corner. But occasionally you will come across a tree in the countryside wrapped in blue prayer flags, or a little white stupa on the side of a hill.


Although many monasteries have had to be rebuilt, it still possible to visit some original ones. Amarbayasgalant Monastery survived, possible due to its remote location in northern Mongolia. It’s a few hours’ drive from Darkhan, which in turn is a few hours train ride from UB. Time has taken its toll on the buildings, even if the communists didn’t take theirs. Many are crumbling, but those that still stand give a sense of what it might have been like in its heyday. The enormous main hall would once have been filled with chanting monks, and the surrounding buildings bustling with people performing the tasks of day to day living. Once there were many monasteries like this. It is still a working monastery, although the small population of monks are mostly children under 18. When we visit they are busy playing soccer.


Huge crowds turned out to hear the Dalai Lama speak on a recent visit to Ulaanbaatar. A political scuffle with China followed, including temporary closure of the Mongolian/Chinese border and postponement of trade talks. Two points on this—and I’ll leave others to connect the dots and form their own conclusions.

1) Freedom of religion is a constitutional right in Mongolia.

2) The Foreign Minister has stated that the Dalai Lama won’t be visiting again under the current administration (there’s a comments field below, go for broke.)

In the north west of the country you are more likely to encounter the spike of a mosque’s minaret than the smooth white dome of a stupa. Many of the people living in this area are Muslim Kazakhs. Although they may have been born and spent all their lives in Mongolia, perhaps never having visited Kazakhstan, they identify first and foremost as Kazakhs.

Christianity too has found a home here in Mongolia. In Ulaanbaatar there are Christian churches of various denominations, including a Russian orthodox church which conducts services in Russian. Like most monasteries, the churches appear to have been built or rebuilt in the last twenty years.

Arguably the greatest spiritual resurgence, however, is of Mongolian shamanism. It is growing in popularity, particularly among young people. Perhaps there is a link with the enormous popularity of Chinggis Khan himself, a whose name and image appears on everything from public buildings to bottles of vodka, and who has a public holiday in honour of his birthday (5 November, in case you were wondering). Chinggis apparently practiced shamanism. Perhaps it’s also about reforging a national identity after communism.p1060058

Shamans are otherwise ordinary people who are able to connect with the spirit world. They don’t choose to become shamans, they are chosen. The become mediums able to channel the spirits of ancestors, their posture and voices transforming into those of the dead. They provide advice, help those that are ill, assist people who have lost loved ones to handle their grief. A friend tells us there are three types of shaman: white shamans, who dispense good advice and have people’s best interests at heart; black shamans, who are willing to summon bad spirits; and fake shamans, who are just in it for the money.

I am surprised by the number of friends who believe in shamanism. I ask one very down to earth colleague about it whether she visits a shaman. She looks at me in surprise. ‘Of course I do.’ I admit part of me is incredibly curious about what a visit to a shaman would involve. Probably the same part of me that gets nervous and lazy and avoids making important decisions. I’m curious about what my ancestors would tell me. And even if they don’t have sage advice to dispense, it would be nice to sit down for a cup of metaphysical tsuutei tsei and a chat.

[1] As an aside, I’ve also recently learnt that Swan Lake ends differently depending on where in the world you are. Soviet Siegfried kills von Rothbart and he and Soviet Odette live happily ever after. Western Siegfried and Odette don’t fare so well. Sometimes poor Odette ends up ascending to the heavens, sometimes she gets stuck as a swan. Siegfried invariably ends up dead. Which serves him right for hunting swans in the first place.


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