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Origin and symbolism of Buryatian Buddhist architecture by Dr. Tsybikdorzhiev Dorzhi Vladimirovich

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The earliest findings of Buddhist archeological objects on the territory of Buryatia dated Time Joujuan Khanate (V-VI a.d.). However, these findings are rare and do not confidently provide assurance that they belong to the local population. In addition, all the finds, dating from the Time prior to the heyday Khitan empire, can not be used as evidence of the Khitan Buddhist cultural influence to traditions of the pre-buryat tribes.


2. In the 10-11 centuries AD the Khitan Liao Empire gradual advanced their positions in the regions of South and South-Eastern Siberia. Khitans - Mongolian speaking societies, which inhabited on the territory of Manchuria. The Buddhism was very widespreaded among khitans during the 10-11 centuries. During their advance to the steppes of modern Mongolia Khitans built fortresses, towns, and they erected the Buddhist objects of worship, including - Stupas and pagodas. In particular, we mention the Pagoda in Bars-Hoto on the Kerulen River. In total at least the ruins of four pagodas were been discovered in different cities of the Khitans.


3. Influence of Khitan on tribes living around the lake Baikal could be traced to the fact that some of the Buryat groups still early 20th centery have assumed that residues of irrigation on the Angara River were built by Khitans. During the Khitan Time, on the western part of Buryatia (west of Lake Baikal), archaeologists discovered the different types of constructions. For example: the fortified camps and a small worship grounds, surrounded by moats, ramparts, and sometimes - on the shore of Lake Baikal - with stone walls. the stone pillars have been discovered next to these objects. They look like low towers of just over 2-3 meters high and in about 2-2.5 meters diameter. Until now it was Thought that this is an observation points for sentry, as well as construction for kindling alarm (ie something like a small lighthouse).

4. In 2002 I have found and examine the similar object with the assistance of local residents in expedition to western Buryatia, the Irkutsk region Kachug area. According to the residents it had been used until 1950s. Such structures are called “sheree” in Buryat. It turned out that “sheree” were used as Altar in pagan Rituals of Buryat clans. These “sheree” are object actually the same type as that referred medieval "tower" on the coast of lake Baikal. These tower-shaped altars still were used by Western Buryats 60 years ago. This is an Interesting tradition, which has no known analogy in other Mongolian groups. Not reliably established whether there is a same tradition among other Mongols. Even in Western Buryatia of the groups living on the left bank of the Angara River, the word “sheree” indicates a very different structure made of trunks and had different purpose. Not every Right-bank clans used the tower-shaped altars. Qori and ehirits can be noted among clans which were using sheree. Qori are ancient inhabitants of the region, and ehirits were migranted from the Kerulen River in the 13th century.

5. The origin of the tradition of "Tower of altars," nobody has investigated. In my opinion the idea of worship constructions in the Form of a stone tower was borrowed from the Khitans, who built the pagodas as a structure. One of the Khitan pagodas is located exactly on the Kerulen River in Mongolia. This is the former homeland of some of the Buryat clans, who had the traditions of using stone altars. We can also assume the influence of culture of Naiman people who emerged as a result of relocation of the Khitans to the north-west. Naiman's ruler Dayan Khan seemingly served as one of the prototypes to the popular with shamans and Buddhists worship Dayan derhi in the adjacent areas of Buryatia and Mongolia.


6. Of course, the realization of the idea of a Buddhist Pagoda in Pagan region gradually, as the impact of the fall of Khitan and decline of Buddhism led to the transformation of its functions. High tower has became a pagan Altar. In general, it was an Interesting ("barbarian") experience of borrowing and interpretation of ideas from a new type of worship. On the other hand, long existence of this tradition indicates that the first contact with Buddhist Architecture produced a strong impression to the Baikal area pagans.

Part II

1. The next stage of acquaintance with Buddhism pre-Baikal Mongols experienced during the era of Genghis Khan's empire, especially during the reign of his son Ugadei and grandson - Kublai Khan. Mongols built a grand Buddhist temple iIn the capital of the empire, the city of Karakorum. This temple was so majestic that scholar scientists assumed it as the Emperor palace.

2. Cities of Hirhira and Kondui were built on the territory of ethnic Buryatia. In both settlements, the ruins of the palace type structure have been discovered. Palace in Condui strongly resembled as a large Buddhist temple in Karakorum, but was more beautiful with heatings. The Western Buryats started to worship Buddhism only in the 20th century, but their dialects already marked the word Sume (Buddhist temple) meaning the palace much earlier. This word was used in the Western Buryats pagan folklore to denote luxury homes of their epic heroes.

3. During the reign of Kublai Khan, Buddhism was a dominating Religion for the imperial court and some part of the Mongol aristocracy. Pagba Lama, the hierarch of the Sakya school, becomes a mentor of the emperor.

Drdorzhi 19.jpg

4. During the civil War between supporters of Kublai Khan and Arik Buga much of the Buryat tribe Qori-Tumat (Hori) moved to the Far East. In Manchuria, next to the Korea, ancestors of the Buryats become more familiar with Buddhism. Later, in 1594-1613th large groups of Qori will be back to Lake Baikal and bring Knowledge of Buddhism with them.

5. The oldest Buryat written script tells that Qori took part in an unsuccessful voyage through the great ocean to conquer a country located on the islands. Presumably, they are talking about the campaigns initiated by Khubilai against Japan. Buryat chronicles say that before this tragic swimming Buryat warriors met Lama Huuhen Gegen and asked him for protective talismans. In those years, the Buryats did not understand the essence of Buddhist teachings, and tried to use it just for magical purposes. They have broken talismans Lama on many pieces, so that each soldier received a piece of the talisman. After the tragic catastrophe, which destroyed half of the fleet, Qori warriors were filled with Faith in the Power Huuhen Gegen. Since then, as tell the chronicles, Hori continued to believe a line of incarnations (Tulku) Huuhen Gegen

6. In the 19th century Huhen Gegen Monastery (Rinchen-tegchin-lin) was located in the eastern Khalkha-Mongloia in Tsetsen Khan aimag. There were thousands of Monks in the Monastery in during 1890s according to the Russian scientist Alexander Pozdneev research. A. Pozdneev has also visited the Duluth-Sume temple which was located near the Monastery. He saw some pictures of previous incarnations of Huuhen Gegen, but many of them were missing. Unfortunately, I did not find any Information about the features of construction of the Monastery and temple, as well as details about the Time of the appearance of Tulku lines in this area. In the 17th century, during the Russian invasion of Eastern Buryatia, much of Qori Buryats took Refuge there for 30 years. There is no conclusive evidence linking migration of Hori and the appearance of Huhen Gegen lines in Tsetsen Khan aimag, but same Time it can’t be excluded. According to legend, a Tibetan Lama-Yondon dzhamso was the first of this line, who visited the Mongol lands to the south of Khalkha land. Maybe it was in Manchuria, where Qori have been living before 1594-1613. Representatives of the most numerous Buryat tribe called Huuhen Gegen as their ancestral Teacher or first Teacher.

7. In the 19th century Huhen Gegen continued to wear long flowing Hair, sacrifice and honor Padmasambhava. A. Pozdneev confidently believed that the line Huhen Gegen comes from The Nyingma Tradition.

Part III

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During the mid-18th century Buryats begin to convert the yurt (felt) temples to stationary. Among first of them were Tsongol (1753) and Gusinoozersk datsans (1758). The main temple of the Tsongol Monastery was designed by the first head of the Buryatian Buddhists Pandito Hambo-Lama Damba-Darzha Zayaev. In turn, the Buryat tradition holds that the overall design of the building was suggested to Zayaev by the Dalai Lama. In the main temples of both Monasteries is traced in common - a cruciform plan. This trait has led to other notable features - "many-headed," ie, several towering superstructures with tent-Form roofs.

The principle of an equilateral cross in the building 's perimeter of a Buddhist temple in Buryatia persisted for nearly a hundred years. Later the main temple of Ana-Datsan, Barguzinsky Datsan, Gegetuysky and Atsaysky datsans and some other were also constructed with this design. Except Barguzinsky they also have turret-shaped superstructure, but with different types of roofs.

In the mid-19th century, Buryats have forgotten the reasons their temples having such design. They began to think that cross at the base is an idea borrowed from the Russian Orthodox Church. In addition, these buildings have not been comfortable exploited in the Siberian winters. Since 1850s, the Buryat datsans mostly refuse to cross in perimeter of buildings. The Buryat architects started to build only rectangular in plan temples, and the buildings of temples lose turret-shaped superstructures. Old temples were reconstructed, as a rule, with waiver of such add-on second floor.

Only Tsongol Datsan preserved turrets on the second floor. This Datsan built a new main temple, which was already the square at the base, but the same equilateral cross appeared in the superstructure on the second floor. At the ends of the cross were placed four towers surrounding the main volume. To this day, among the researchers there is a Perception that "many-headed" (ie, turrets) Buryat temples caused by the influence of Russian church architecture. Also, there is a Perception that the high tower of the Buryat first stone temple - Ana Datsan - is a variation on the theme of Russian belfry.

The Soviet historian of architecture, LK Minert showed that an equilateral cross in the layout of the Buryat temples has nothing to do with the Russian church. The Buryats have implemented their own idea, imprinted in the images of the Khoto-Mandala. The Russian church is in the planning of the crucifix - a cross with unequal sides. Buryats focused not on the Russian churches, but on rare type of ancient Buddhist temple. Where the tradition of the turrets superstructures originated from? This is not a simple matter, because the Tibetan and Mongolian samples don't have such design. Certanly there is Tibetan influence which we can see in large tower of Ana Datsan. This tower is called gonhon in Buryat that proves adherence to the traditions of Tibetan gonkan. In addition, such high towers were common in the fortification architecture of Tibet and Bhutan. I believe that the small towers on the second floor of the Buryat temple is also related to descent from the fortification. The first Buryatian architect and Pandit-Hambo Lama Zayaev studied In Tibet during 1725 - 1732. In adjunct, he traveled a lot and probably visited Bhutan. During that Time Bhutan was covered with a network of Dzongs, performed as protective and religious functions. Bhutanese dzongs are in fact representes a unique type of castle. Many dzongs were "many-headed" appearance, which they obtained from the roofs of the defensive towers.


I think that's kind of Dzong inspired Zayaev to build small towers on the second floor of the early Buryat temple. Although the location of these add-ons other than on the Dzong, but they produce the similar overall impression. Zayaev seemingly aspired to this impression. In general, it has become fashionable in the Buryat architecture in 18th - first half of the 19th century. The main sponsors of the Buryat temple architecture were noyons, aristocrats. The idea of resemblance to the feudal castle of Buddhist kingdoms impressed them.

What has been said about Tsongols Datsan, which became the model for many of Buryat temples? It can be extended by history of tsongol clan. This clan was formed of the warriors north of the Mongolian (Khalkha) Prince Tsogt tayiji, which led them to Tibet. The purpose of Tsogt tayiji War campain was restoration the Power of the "Red hat" movement of Buddhists. Tsogt tayiji fought the Gelug school's forces and Gushi Khan (southern Mongolian prince) and he was defeated by them. After much wandering and confrontation to Manchus group of his soldiers they arrived in Buryatia, where they founded the tsongol clan.

Part IV


In 1930 the Bolsheviks began an all-out fight against Religion. In the course of this fights thousands of Buryat Monks were killed. All the Buddhist Monasteries were closed and looted. Buddhism was the only World Religion that was completely destroyed in the USSR. The Fate of the Buryat Buddhist Architecture was sad. In Buryatia at the end of 1920s there were more than 300 Buddhist temples, buildings and other worship constructions, thousands of small objects of worship (Stupas, steles, etc.). It was a unique Buddhist civilization in Siberia. The founders of the national state dreamed of the Buryat cities will derived from the basis of the Buddist Monasteries. This Dream never came true. Most of the buildings were been destroyed.

The current trend of revival of religious architecture in Buryatia, usually focused on one type of temple that was popular in the late 19th centuries. Seldom there have been other attempts. The temple in Chinese style was built in Ivolginsk Monastery, residence of Pandito Hambo Lama. In a few cases in modern buildings apply the principle of the Mandala, but only on the second floor. While there are no examples of return to the idea of "many-headed" temple (ie, small towers on the second floor). A high tower of Ana Datsan temple generally remained isolated experiences in the Buryat architecture, nowhere did not try to repeat it. However, although the size and decor of modern Buryat temples are much more modest than those temples that have been lost, Buryat religious architecture develops in several trends. Search of own Path of development is in full swing.


Author: Dr. Tsybikdorzhiev Dorzhi Vladimirovich