TIBETAN BUDDHISM IN MONGOLIA
Most Mongols practice the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Buddhism was introduced from Tibet to Mongolia in the beginning of the 13th century. In the second half of the 16th century it became the state religion of the Mongol Princes. The Mongols have used Tibetan Buddhism as way of unifying Mongolians and creating a sense of nationalism. It has incorporated many shamanist symbols and rites.
Tibetan Buddhism, which combines elements of the Mahayana and the Tantric schools of Buddhism with traditional Tibetan rituals of curing and exorcism, shares the common Buddhist goal of individual release from suffering and the cycles of rebirth. The religion holds that salvation, in the sense of release from the cycle of rebirth, can be achieved through the intercession of compassionate buddhas (enlightened ones) who have delayed their own entry to the state of selfless bliss (nirvana) to save others. Such buddhas, who are many, are in practice treated more as deities than as enlightened humans and occupy the center of a richly polytheistic universe of subordinate deities, opposing demons, converted and reformed demons, wandering ghosts, and saintly humans that reflects the folk religions of the regions into which Buddhism expanded. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]
Tantrism contributed esoteric techniques of meditation and a repertoire of sacred icons, phrases, and gestures that easily lent themselves to pragmatic (rather than transcendental) and magical interpretation. The religion posits progressive stages of enlightenment and comprehension of the reality underlying the illusions that hamper the understanding and perceptions of those not trained in meditation or Buddhist doctrine, with sacred symbols interpreted in increasingly abstract terms. Thus, a ritual that appears to a common yak herder as a straightforward exorcism of disease demons will be interpreted by a senior monk as a representation of conflicting tendencies in the mind of a meditating ascetic. *
In Tibet Buddhism thus became an amalgam, combining colorful popular ceremonies and curing rituals for the masses with the study of esoteric doctrine for the monastic elite. The Yellow Sect, in contrast to competing sects, stressed monastic discipline and the use of logic and formal debates as aids to enlightenment. The basic Buddhist tenet of reincarnation was combined with the Tantric idea that buddhahood could be achieved within a person's lifetime to produce a category of leaders who were considered to have achieved buddhahood and to be the reincarnations of previous leaders. These leaders, referred to as incarnate or living buddhas, held secular power and supervised a body of ordinary monks, or lamas (from a Tibetan title bla-ma, meaning "the revered one)". The monks were supported by the laity, who thereby gained merit and who received from the monks instructions in the rudiments of the faith and monastic services in healing, divination, and funerals. *
Vajrapani is worshiped as a previous incarnation of Genghis Khan. Begze (“Jamsaran”) is the protector of Mongolia.
Early History of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia
Mongolians believed in shamanism in ancient times. Traditional Mongols worshipped heaven (the "clear blue sky") and their ancestors, and they followed ancient northern Asian practices of shamanism, in which human intermediaries went into trance and spoke to and for some of the numberless infinities of spirits responsible for human luck or misfortune. Buddhism was introduced from Tibet to Mongolia in the beginning of the 13th century, when the red hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism began to find its followers among the Mongolian rulers. In the 16th century, many feudal lords as well as herdsmen shifted to the yellow hat sect of the Dalai Lama. In the second half of the 16th century it became the state religion of the Mongol Princes. The Mongols have used Tibetan Buddhism as way of unifying Mongolians and creating a sense of nationalism. It has incorporated many shamanist symbols and rites.
In 1578, in the midst of campaign, Altan Khan — Mongol military leader with ambitions to unite the Mongols and to emulate the career of Genghis Khan — became fascinated with Tibetan Buddhism and converted to the religion. He became a devout believer and invited the head of the rising Yellow Sect of Tibetan Buddhism to a summit. They formed an alliance that gave Altan legitimacy and religious sanction for his imperial pretensions and that provided the Buddhist sect with protection and patronage.
Altan Khan (also known as Abtai Khan and Abtan Khan) bestowed the title of Dalai Lama for the first time to the spiritual leader of Tibet (the 3rd Dalai Lama). Dalai is the Mongolian word for “ocean.” Dalai Lama means "Ocean of Wisdom". Altan died soon after, but in the next century the Yellow Sect spread throughout Mongolia, aided in part by the efforts of contending Mongol aristocrats to win religious sanction and mass support for their ultimately unsuccessful efforts to unite all Mongols in a single state.
In 1586, Erdenzuu Monastery (near Karakorum ), Mongolia's first major center of Buddhism and oldest monastery, was built under Altan Khan. Tibetan Buddhism became the state religion. More than a century before Kublai Khan himself had been seduced by a Tibetan Buddhist monk named Phagpa perhaps, it is reasoned, because off all the religions welcomed into the Mongol court Tibetan Buddhism was most like traditional Mongol shamanism.
Monasteries were built across Mongolia, often sited at the juncture of trade and migration routes or at summer pastures, where large numbers of herders would congregate for shamanistic rituals and sacrifices. Buddhist monks carried out a protracted struggle with the indigenous shamans and succeeded, to some extent, in taking over their functions and fees as healers and diviners, and in pushing the shamans to the religious and cultural fringes of Mongolian culture. *
Mongol leaders in the late sixteenth century, and later their Manchu overlords, encouraged the spread of Tibetan Buddhism. Its passive religious doctrine gradually diluted the warlike qualities of the Mongols and encouraged between 30 and 50 percent of the male population to escape military service by entering monasteries.
Tibetan Buddhism Catches on in Mongolia
Tibetan Buddhism caught on with ordinary Mongolians. The Dalai Lama became the spiritual leader for Mongolia as he did for Tibet. He ordered that the image of Gonggor be worshiped at home and issued laws forbidding the practice of killing women, slaves and animals as sacrificial funeral offerings in Mongolia. Reincarnated lamas were born and reborn in Mongolia. The Jebtzun Damba became Tibetan Buddhism’s third highest incarnation after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama.
More than 2,000 monasteries were built and as much as 40 percent of male population men was made up of celibate monks. Large monasteries had hundreds of monks and schools for art, astronomy and theater. They regularly hosted religious dramas and festivals and were filled with pilgrims. Buddhist lamas became very powerful. They ran parts of Mongolia as feudal states like the lamas in Tibet did. Some lamas were like princes. They owned huge estates worked by nomadic serfs. In the modern country of Mongolia, but less so in Inner Mongolia, Buddhist monks in wine- colored cloaks still go from door to door blessing homes with a clash of cymbals and perform other Buddhist duties.
According to the Chinese government: “Lamaism was later protected and encouraged by the imperial court of the Qing Dynasty. Different titles, posts and privileges were granted to high-ranking lamas, who gradually formed a ruling feudal stratum existing side by side with the ruling feudal lords. These rulers not only rode roughshod over the people but took possession of numerous herds and large tracts of land. Their influence could be felt in every aspect of Mongolian life. The feudal rulers encouraged young people to become lamas, who neither got married nor took part in physical labor. As a result, the number of lamas increased to as many as one third of the Mongolian population during the Ming and Qing dynasties, seriously impeding the development of production and the growth of the population.” |
Links between Mongolia and Tibet have remained strong. The 4th Dalai Lama was a Mongolian and many Jebtzun Damba, Living Buddhas of the Khalkh Mongols, were born in Tibet. Mongolians traditionally provided the Dalai Lama with military support. They gave him sanctuary in 1903 when Britain invaded Tibet. Even today many Mongolians aspire to make a pilgrimage to Lhasa as Muslims do to Mecca.
Zanabazar and Other Important Mongol Tibetan Buddhist Figures
Zanabazar (1635-1723) is Mongolia’s famous leader from the post-Mongol-empire period. Regarded as the first The Jebtzun Damba, the Living Buddha of Mongolia, he was declared leader of the Buddhists in Mongolia in 1641. He was not only a great political and religious leader he was is also regarded as Mongolia’s most famous artist and sculptor. Trained in Tibet, he created lovely Buddhist paintings and thankas, invented Mongolia’s vertical script, designed great temples, and produced beautiful bronze statues. Some of his loveliest pieces are of goddess Tara. They are said to have been modeled after his teenage lover.
When Zanabazar was three it was deemed he possessed the qualities of a reincarnated saint. At the age of 13 he was sent to Tibet to study under the Dalai Lama. While in Tibet he not only received spiritual guidance he learned the art of bronze casting which launched his career as an artist. He is credited with inventing the Soyombi, Mongolia’s national symbol. He died in 1723 in Beijing. His body was taken to what would be Ulaanbaatar and later was entombed in stupa at Amarbayasgalant Monastery. Images of Zanabazar are seen throughout Mongolia. They are easily recognizable: a monk with a shiny bald head and a thunderbolt in one hand.
One of the most well known lamas was Danzan Ravjaa, also known as the Great and Horrible Saint of the Gobi. Believed to be the 35th incarnation of Yamsang Yidam, a Mongolian deity, he was a skilled artist and was known for producing plays at monasteries and healing the sick from great distances. He lived in the 19th century.
Tibetan Buddhist Monks in Mongolia
Buddhism and the Buddhist monkhood always have played significant political roles in Central and Southeast Asia, and the same was true in Mongolia. Buddhism and Mongolian state supported each other, and the doctrine of reincarnation made it possible for the reincarnations of living buddhas to be discovered conveniently in the families of powerful Mongol nobles. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]
Over the centuries, the monasteries acquired riches and secular dependents; they gradually increased their wealth and power as those of the Mongol nobility declined. Some nobles donated a portion of their dependent families — people, rather than land, were the foundation of wealth and power in old Mongolia — to the monasteries; some herders dedicated themselves and their families to serve the monasteries either from piety or from the desire to escape the arbitrary exactions of the nobility. By the twentieth century, Buddhism had penetrated deeply into Mongolian culture, and the populace willingly supported the lamas and the monasteries. *
Tibetan Buddhism is monastic. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Outer Mongolia had 583 monasteries and temple complexes, which controlled an estimated 20 percent of the country's wealth. Almost all Mongolian cities have grown up on the sites of monasteries. Yihe Huree, as Ulaanbaatar was then known, was the seat of the preeminent living buddha of Mongolia (the Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, also known as the Bogd Gegen and later as Bogd Khan), who ranked third in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. Two monasteries there contained approximately 13,000 and 7,000 monks, and the prerevolutionary Mongol name of the settlement known to outsiders as Urga, Yihe Huree, means big monastery. *
In some areas, the monasteries and their living buddhas (of whom there were a total of 140 in 1924) also were the secular authorities. In the 1920s, there were about 110,000 monks, including children, who made up about one-third of the male population, although many of these lived outside the monasteries and did not observe their vows. About 250,000 people, more than a third of the total population, either lived in territories administered by monasteries and living buddhas or were hereditary dependents of the monasteries. With the end of Chinese rule in 1911, Buddhism and its clergy provided the only political structure available, and the autonomous state thus took the form of a weakly centralized theocracy, headed by the Jebtsundamba khutuktu in Yihe Huree. *
Foreign observers had a uniformly negative opinion of Mongolian monks, condemning them as lazy, ignorant, corrupt, and debauched, but the Mongolian people did not concur. Ordinary Mongolians apparently combined a cynical and realistic anticlericalism, sensitive to the faults and the human fallibility of individual monks or groups of monks, with a deep and unwavering concern for the transcendent values of the church. *
Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia in the Soviet Era
When the Communist revolutionaries — determined to modernize their country and to reform its society — took power, they confronted a massive ecclesiastical structure that enrolled a larger part of the population, monopolized education and medical services, administered justice in a large part of the country, and controlled a great deal of the national wealth. Buddhism, moreover, had no interest in reforming itself or in modernizing the country. The result was a protracted political struggle that absorbed the energies and attention of the party and its Soviet advisers for nearly twenty years. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]
The Communists saw the Buddhist establishment as a threat. In 1921, the Tibetan Buddhist establishment controlled 20 percent of Mongolia’s wealth and a third of the country’s male population (110,000 individuals) were monks. In 1924 when the 8th Jebtzun Damba (Bogd Khan) died the Communists prevented a new Jebtzun Damba from being named. Mongolians believe the 9th Jebtzun Damba was reincarnated later and now lives near the Dalai Lama in Dharmasala, India.
As late as 1934, the party counted 843 major Buddhist centers, about 3,000 temples of various sizes, and nearly 6,000 associated buildings, which usually were the only fixed structures in a world of felt tents. The annual income of the church was 31 million tugriks, while that of the state was 37.5 million tugriks. A party source claimed that, in 1935, monks constituted 48 percent of the adult male population. In a campaign marked by shifts of tactics, alternating between conciliation and persecution, and armed uprisings led by monks and abbots, Buddhism was removed progressively from public administration, was subjected to confiscatory taxes, was forbidden to teach children, and was prohibited from recruiting new monks or replacing living buddhas. *
Repression of Buddhism in the Soviet Era
Buddhism and other religions were brutally suppressed by the Communists. The teaching of Buddhism and both Buddhist and shamanist festivals were forbidden. Land owned by monks was seized and Buddhist shrines cleared away to make way for drab highrises and broad empty boulevards. Buddhism itself was labeled a superstition.
Despite the government's official policy of not overtly persecuting religious beliefs, its antireligious campaign continued slowly but relentlessly. Emphasis was placed on ideological and economic persuasion, which curtailed monastic growth and induced monks of lower rank to return to secular life. Government representatives were attached to monasteries to monitor their activities, construction of new monasteries was forbidden by law, the enrollment of minors was disallowed, and monks became eligible for military service. Many monasteries were destroyed; others were converted to secular use. [Source: Robert L. Worden, Library of Congress, June 1989 *]
In the 1930s a ruthless anti-religion purge was launched by the Mongolian government. All but four of Mongolia’s 700 monasteries were destroyed by Mongolian Communists assisted by the NKVD (precursor of the KGB). The art in them was destroyed. Gold and silver objects were carted off to the Soviet Union and melted down. Methods of suppression became especially bloody in the second half of the 1930s. In 1935 abbots and monks of higher rank were tried publicly; in 1937 and 1938, about 2,000 of them were executed. Thousands of others were arrested and jailed. The financially shattered monasteries gradually were closed in the period 1938 to 1939.
The campaign's timing matched the phases of Josef Stalin's persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1938 — amid official fears that the church and monasteries were likely to cooperate with the Japanese, who were promoting a pan-Mongol puppet state — the remaining monasteries were dissolved, their property was seized, and their monks were secularized. The monastic buildings were taken over to serve as local government offices or schools. Only then was the ruling party, which since 1921 gradually had built a cadre of politically reliable and secularly educated administrators, able to destroy the church and to mobilize the country's wealth and population for its program of modernization and social change. *
Only one lamasery in Mongolia was allowed to stay open. The campaign against the Buddhists was largely successful. Within two decades, the resident monastic population was reduced from about 15,000 to approximately 200 monks. A handful of small monasteries and one large institution were all that were left physically of what had been, at the century's start, the best organized and most intellectual force in Mongolian life. More than 17,000 Buddhist priests and monks “disappeared” and are presumed to have been killed or sent to gulags in Siberia. In 2002, the remains of 600 lamas was found at a monastery. Each was buried with his hands tied behind his back and a bullet hole in his skull.
In 1985, there were only 100 lamas in Mongolia, and they were all at Ganden Monastery, which accepted only 1 in 5 applicants. People kept Buddhism alive at home. Standing beside portraits of Lenin on the family alter were images of Buddha. Some lamas buried religious treasures and told their sons and grandsons to dig them up when it was safe. In one case 62 boxes of objects was buried in the Gobi and were dug up a monk’s grandson when Mongolia became independent in 1990.
Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia in the Late Soviet Era
In the 1970s, one monastery, the Gandan Monastery, with a community of 100 monks, was open in Ulaanbaatar. It was the country's sole functioning monastery. A few of the old monasteries survived as museums, and the Gandan Monastery served as a living museum and a tourist attraction. Its monks included a few young men who had undergone a five-year training period, but whose motives and mode of selection were unknown to Western observers. The party apparently thought that Buddhism no longer posed a challenge to its dominance and that — because Buddhism had played so large a part in the country's history, traditional arts, and culture, total extirpation of knowledge about the religion and its practices would cut modern Mongols off from much of their past, to the detriment of their national identity. A few aged former monks were employed to translate Tibetan-language handbooks on herbs and traditional medicine. Government spokesmen described the monks of the Gandan Monastery as doing useful work. [Source: Library of Congress, June 1989 *]
Buddhism played a role in Mongolia's foreign policy by linking Mongolia with the communist and the noncommunist states of East and Southeast Asia. Ulaanbaatar was the headquarters of the Asian Buddhist Conference for Peace, which held conferences for Buddhists from such countries as Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan; published a journal for international circulation; and maintained contacts with such groups as the Christian Peace Conference, the Afro-Asian People's Solidarity Organization, and the Russian Orthodox Church. It sponsored the visits of the Dalai Lama to Mongolia in 1979 and 1982. The organization, headed by the abbot of the Gandan Monastery, advanced the foreign policy goals of the Mongolian government, in accord with those of the Soviet Union. *
Buddhism survived among the elderly, who prayed and attend services at the Gandan Monastery; in the speech of the people, which is rich in Buddhist expressions and proverbs; and in the common practice of including statues or images of the Buddha on families' special shelves with photographs of relatives and other domestic memorabilia. Mongolian Buddhism, which restricted full participation in the ritual to monks and kept Tibetan as the language of ritual and sacred texts, was more vulnerable to persecution than a religion more widely dispersed among the populace would have been. Studies done among the Buryat Mongols of Siberia by Soviet ethnographers in the 1960s and the 1970s found that elimination of the complex and conceptually sophisticated culture of Tibetan Buddhism had led to a growth of the decentralized and flexible folk practice of shamanism. Similar survival or adaptation of folk religion in Mongolia would be possible, although Mongolians have published no comparable studies of religion at the local level. *
Revival of Tibetan Buddhism in Post-Soviet Mongolia
Tibetan Buddhism has returned with the collapse of communism and the establishment of democracy in Mongolia in the 1990s. Money has been collected to build monasteries. More than 155 Buddhist monasteries were reopened and rebuilt — but most were still just ruins — in the 1990s. The Dalai Lama sent teachers from India to re-establish the Buddhist educational system The few old monks that remained did their best to teach new recruits.
The Dalai Lama visited Mongolia in August 2006. At that he had visited Mongolia five times since the early 1990s. In 2002, he delivered religious discourses to thousands of followers. He also visited Mongolia in the 1980s when it was still a Soviet satellite. When the Dalai Lama has visited Mongolia hundreds of thousands, many traveling long distances across the steppe, have showed up to see him.
Huge crowds showed up at the state museum in Ulaanbaatar to see what were said to be the ashes of Buddha, something which would have been impossible under the atheist Communist regime. People waiting in all day to see them and it is estimated the majority of the people in Ulaanbaatar came to see them. The ashes were carried from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing by plane on a silk pillow placed on the lap of a monk. The monk and the ashes were escorted on to the plane with an armed guard, brass band and red carpet.
Like Tibetans, Mongolians eat a lot of meat despite the fact that Buddhism discourages the killing of animals. A Mongolian monk told the religious scholar Edward Conze: “We Mongol monks always eat meat, because there is nothing else. Yes, we known that by habitually eating meat we act against the ordinance of Lord Buddha. As a result of our sin we may well be re-born in hell. But it is our duty to take the Dharma to the Mongol people, and so we just have to take the consequences as they come.”
Mongolia's Monks Make a Comeback
Monastic life was nearly wiped out in the Soviet ear, mostly during Stalinist purges in the 1930s when an estimated 17,000 lamas were executed, but since the country emerged from decades of Soviet dominance, the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism has made a comeback. In 2006, Reuters reported: “When Gendenjav Choijamts thinks of praying, he thinks of vodka. The 62-year-old monk at Mongolia's oldest Buddhist monastery remembers when his father and his friends had to pretend they were gathering for a drinking session to hide the fact they were gathering in prayer. "My father was a monk but because people were persecuted for that, it wasn't widely known," he said in the lush green grounds of Erdene Zuu, which dates from the 16th century. "He was a herder. He hid his shrine and would chant in secret in the evening," he said. [Source: Reuters, July 19, 2006 ~]
“In 1990, three monasteries were allowed to reopen. The number quickly mushroomed to 170 across the country. Erdene Zuu monastery, in the grasslands on the edge of the ancient capital of Kharkhorin, some 370km southwest of Ulaanbaatar, housed 1,500 lamas before it was destroyed in 1936. But on the vast plains and valleys... traditions survived. "We used to hide the shrine in a big chest. When it was dark we would light the butter lamps," said Baasan-Suren Khandsuren. At 27, he is head lama at the monastery, whose grounds are marked out from the surrounding grasslands by a border of 108 stupas, which managed to survive the purges. When he came to the monastery in 1991, shortly after it reopened, there were just 17 monks. Now there are 65. At the time, Baasan-Suren was 12 years old. ~
“When Baasan-Suren entered the monastery he was following the footsteps of his grandfather, who managed to salvage religious artefacts from the grounds after it was closed."In Mongolia, there are very old monks and very young monks," he said, alluding to the generation raised during the communist era, when gatherings of prayer were replaced by meetings of the state co-operative. "When I visited my grandfather's home, I looked at the Buddhist statues and had a very warm feeling about those items," he said, interrupting an interview to fish into his robes to answer his mobile phone. "It took a lot of courage to keep all those things during communist times." ~
“At 12, Baasan-Suren had to forsake standard education for religious teachings. Now, he has established a religious school to allow the 33 boys currently taught there the privilege of both. As he speaks from his office, housed in a ger, the traditional round tent of herders, little boys run wild around the grounds, playing and pushing and hiking up their maroon robes to show off on a chin-up bar as they wait for the morning chanting to begin. ~
“Among the tourists milling around the grounds are visitors from Ulaanbaatar, some are also devoted Buddhists. "I always have my prayer beads with me," said 50-year-old Tserendulam Tserennad-mid, her sunhat and sweatsuit marking her out as a city-dweller in the country where nearly half the 2.7 million population are nomadic herders. Next to the monastery's main shrine, a monk staffs a small table where adherents come to order chantings. As the sun burns off the night chill, a boy blows a conch shell and the monks begin their morning prayers. Gendenjav Choijamts is glad to be among them. "This is a good change," he said of the renewed traditions. "When you don't have religion, you lose your compassion." ~
Andrea Sachs wrote in the Washington Post: “Dressed in a saffron robe and a beaded prayer bracelet, he spoke eloquently about the urgent need to protect nature and the environment, lessons outlined in the Mongolian Buddhist Eight-Year Conservation Plan. When I asked whether he approved of the scene outside his window, he replied, “It looks good, but I see big changes.” He then performed a short pantomime of an American action movie, including car chase.” [Source: Andrea Sachs, Washington Post, May 13, 2011]
Funerals in Mongolia
After the introduction of Tibetan Buddhism, ground burials were replaced by “sky burials”—in which the deceased were left in the steppe or desert to be consumed by wild animals. According to the Tibet funeral custom of “Tianzang”, corpses are left on the grasslands for the wolves and vultures to eat.
According to the “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,”Depending on local custom, the Mongols practice cremation, burial in the ground, or hold a funeral in the wilderness. In the western region (where herders travel in search of pasture), the last form of burial is the most common. The body of the dead is placed in an open, horse-drawn cart and carried over rough terrain until the corpse falls off the cart due to the bumps. Then the body is laid in the wild. It is believed that when it is eaten by wolves or vultures, the soul of the dead rises to heaven. If the body is still there after a week, it is regarded as unlucky: the soul was not accepted in heaven. A lama (priest) is then invited to recite the scriptures and pray for the dead. [Source: C. Le Blanc, “Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life,” Cengage Learning, 2009]
William Jankowiak and John Beierle wrote: Mongolians regard death as a process, not an extinction. Mongols employed a variety of burial practices that ranged from earthen burial to “sky burial" or open-air sacrificial burial to embalmment and to cremation. In the case of sky burial, herders left the body on the steppes to be eaten by wild animals. [Source: William Jankowiak and John Beierle, e Human Relations Area Files (eHRAF) World Cultures, Yale University]
Since the 1960's, “sky burial" is no longer practiced. Embalming was the preferred funerary mode for high ranking Church officials, who were known as the “reincarnations of Buddha." These officials were embalmed and then buried in a sitting position as if in prayer. Sometimes a lama was cremated to allow their soul to go immediately to heaven. Nobles were buried in coffins with weapons, horses, food, and anything else deemed important for life in the next world. The location of their tomb was a secret. When people died from infectious diseases, they were cremated to reduce the possibility that the infection would spread. Mongols borrowed from Russian and Chinese culture the use of coffins and items thought to be useful to the individual in the next world (e.g., salt, tea, paper money, knife, cooking pot, and so forth.)
Because herders believed that in the next world everything is reversed, a male corpse would be placed on the right side, or woman's side, of the yurt, while a female was placed on the left side, or men's side. In addition, Mongols adopted the Chinese custom of numerology whereby certain days (e.g., 7th, 14th, 21st and 49th day) following the funeral are considered more auspicious than others.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated October 2022