Manzushir Monastery and the legacy of religious persecution in Mongolia

Manzushir Monastery

The last stop on our Tsagaan Sar trip was close to Ulaanbaatar, so we spent the night at home. Unfortunately, it was a reeaaally cold day, so I decided that this would be more of a reconnaissance trip for a later visit when the weather warms up a bit. I’d also really like to see this place when it is green again. It’s an easy day trip for us; I’ll just have to remember to do it before we leave for Japan in June.

Our destination was Manzushir Monastery (called “Mandshir” by Lonely Planet, but the Mongolian spelling doesn’t have a “d;” it’s Манзуширын хийд). The monastery is dedicated to Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. It was founded in 1733, and it was destroyed in 1937 by the order of Khorloogiin Choibalsan, Marshal of the Mongolian army and Communist leader of the People’s Republic of Mongolia. Choibalsan zealously followed Stalin’s orders to crush Mongolian Buddhism and shamanism; he was responsible for the destruction of over 700 temples and the deaths of tens of thousands of lamas and shamans in Mongolia during the 1930s. I had just finished reading Oyungerel Tsedevdamba’s excellent historical novel The Green-Eyed Lama, which was about the purges. The book described the destruction of Manzushir in detail, so I was interested in seeing it in person.

It was a murky day in Ulaanbaatar, so we were happy to be heading out of town again. The drive to Manzushir would take us to the opposite side of Bogd Khan Uul, the mountain/national park on the south side of Ulaanbaatar that we see from our apartment every day. We have seen the mountain disappear and reappear in the smog all winter long, and we were really looking forward to seeing it from the other side. The road curves around the protected, so we were going to get to drive around the western side to the town of Zuunmod, and then up to the monastery itself. Afterwards, we’d have lunch with one of Boogii’s relatives in the town before heading back home.

Our trip to Manzushir monastery began with a fortunate coincidence. While we were driving through Zuunmod, we passed the main temple, which Boogii noticed was open. We stopped and had a chance to go inside and see the monks setting up for services. Because it was Tsagaan Sar, there were tables of food and drink along the back wall. One of the monks told us it was OK to take photos. The monastery had been established in the 17th century, but it has also been destroyed, and the current building dated from the 1990s. We walked around the interior, and the stepped outside to look at the prayer wheels along the wall, as well as a small building where people lit candles for funerary ceremonies. Seeing this working temple being set up for worship on the holiday was also a good reminder of what had been destroyed in the Stalinist purges of the 1930s. We got back in the van and continued towards the mountain.

Bogd Khan Uul is arguably the oldest national park in the world. According to the UNESCO website, which lists it as a Biosphere Reserve, it was originally protected as early as the 12th and 13th century, when the Toorl Khan of the region claimed it as a holy mountain and prohibited hunting and logging. This status as a holy place persisted and was reinforced in the 17th century by Zanabazar, who was said to have meditated under a tree there. A Russian visitor in 1681 noted that Zanabazar had forbidden hunting in the forests on the mountain. The local government sought official sacred status for the mountain from the Qianlong Emperor in 1778, and it became officially designated by the Qing dynasty that same year.

Our balcony view of Bogd Khan Uul, in August 2018

The Manzushir monastery was founded by the lama
Luvsanjambaldanzan in 1733. From 1750, it was personally administered by the Bogd Gegeen, the spiritual leader of Mongolia, who was also the Jebtsundamba Khutukhtu or leader of the Gelugpa line of Tibetan Buddhism. Eventually there were 20 temples on the site and over 300 monks. It was an important religious center until the communist government of Mongolia began to target it for persecution after the Mongolian Revolution of 1921, which brought the Mongolian People’s Republic into power with the help of the Soviet Red Army. The monastery was ultimately destroyed in 1937, and the 53 lamas that remained were arrested; many of them were killed in custody. According to the account in The Green-Eyed Lama, the local people living on the mountain tried to protect the monastery and put out the fires destroying the temples, but they were no match for the well-armed Soviet-sponsored government troops. The book also describes the destruction of hundreds of Buddhist manuscripts and other religious objects at the hands of the Mongolian and Soviet soldiers.

The view up towards the monastery grounds from the parking lot

Today when you visit the monastery, only the main temple has been fully restored, and it operates as a museum. There is also a museum with taxidermy specimens of local animals that was closed that day. You can see the ruins of other temples all around, including the foundations and much of the first story of the Togchin temple close to the restored temple. Even though the ruins look timeless, I put them in context for myself by reminding myself that my father would have been five years old and my mother fourteen when the temples were destroyed. Several caves dot the hillside beyond the restored temple, which we didn’t visit because of the cold, but we hope to go back when it’s warmer. As we walked up to the monastery and turned to behold the stunning view, there was ample time to reflect on religious intolerance and the destruction of so many lives and so much beauty that has forever marked Mongolian history.

We had arrived early, so we were the only ones there, and the caretaker had to come over and open up the temple museum for us. Inside, there were photographs showing the monastery complex as it was before it was destroyed, as well as artifacts and objects of worship preserved from the monastery. You could go upstairs to the second floor and see some amazing pieces of art, including masks from the tsam dances that used to be held there. In one display case, there is a cup made from a human skull; Boogii explained that they often made cups from the skulls of particularly revered lamas after they died, in the hopes that the lama’s wisdom would pass on to those who drank from it. There was also a horn made from a young woman’s thigh bone, which was used to drive out demons. These horns were believed to make a particularly pure note, and sometimes 18-year-old women were killed in order to make them. Buddhism doesn’t come without its own share of brutality.

We didn’t explore as much as I would have liked to because of the cold. After our visit to Manzushir, we had one more stop to make, at the house of one of Boogii’s relatives in Zuunmod. She lived near the top of the town, in a ger situated in a walled-in enclosure, which people tend to have in towns and in residential areas of Ulaanbaatar. She invited us in and served us lunch; she and her granddaughter and Boogii even made vegetarian buuz for us so we got to see the process of making these characteristic steamed dumplings. Emma noticed a plate that said “South Sudan” on it, and we got the story that one of her relatives had served in a military deployment to South Sudan and brought that back as a gift. There was also a decorative plate from a Mongolian sumo wrestler, a relative of Boogii’s who had also grown up in Erdenesant and gone on to become a record-winning sumo wrestler in Japan, until the Japanese sumo authorities got weary of his record-setting and accused him of violating the rules.

As we were leaving her ger, I noticed some small chunks of ice on the roof above the door. Boogii had explained to us at one point that people did this as part of their Tsagaan Sar observance. If the ice melted within a certain period of time, it meant well for the new year. With our tummies very full of vegetarian buuz (and in my case Mongolian vodka and airag), we headed back into the smog and traffic of Ulaanbaatar, our final day of Tsagaan Sar drawing to a close, as we reflected on the persistence of tradition in the face of repression and persecution.

5 thoughts on “Manzushir Monastery and the legacy of religious persecution in Mongolia

  1. Interesting! Such a loss, all the temples, lamas and shamans. As you say, impressive persistence that the remaining temples are cared for and active.

    I didn’t know you were headed for Japan in June. What’s inspiring that?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, Buddhism and shamanism have both experienced a revival since the 1990s restoration of religious freedom. It’s good that some of the old temples survived!

      Japan is part of the deal I made with Emma. Her initial response when I asked her about going to Mongolia was, “Yes! If we can go to Japan on the way.” We didn’t have time on the way, but we do on the way back, so we are going to Tokyo, some towns in the Japanese Alps, and then up to Asahikawa in Hokkaido to see where I used to live and visit my friend and former student there. Emma is an anime and manga fan, and she has been wanting to go to Japan for a long time now.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I do remember that now. Your plane will have a stopover in that direction? Japanese Alps sounds fantastic. I feel like I’ve had a dream there. At UCSD, for a cultural anthro course, we read Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan. There was a part on sacred mountain pilgrimages and I’ve wanted to go experience that side of Japanese culture.


    1. It’s crazy, but it was actually cheaper for me to get a round ticket from here to Tokyo plus a round trip ticket from San Diego to Ulaanbaatar than to buy a round trip ticket from San Diego to Ulaanbaatar that included Tokyo. It’s just not on the normal route. Our stopover on the way back to CA is Beijing, though this time it will only be a few hours. So we are doing a LOT of flying, but I bought carbon offsets for all of the flights, at least. And we get to leave our big suitcases in Ulaanbaatar while we travel light in Japan. That book sounds cool. I’ll have to look it up!


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