“Thirty Minutes, Three Temples!” A visit to the Choijin Lama Temple Museum in Ulaanbaatar

This post is mostly going to be photos. I finally made it to the Choijin Lama Temple Museum yesterday. Emma and I had tried to go together last spring, but it was closed, and then we ran out of time. So it was near the top of my list for this quick trip back to Mongolia. Emma and I jokingly call it the “Trojan Llama Museum” because that’s what she thought I was saying when I first talked about it.

The Choijin Lama Temple was built between 1904 and 1908, and remained open until the Communist crackdown on Buddhism and other religions in 1937. It was reopened as a museum in 1938, which is one of the reasons it survived the Stalinist inspired purge, which saw the destruction of most of Mongolia’s religious buildings, art, and artefacts, as well as the death or imprisonment of tens of thousands of religious practitioners.

The amazing thing about the temple is that it’s in the heart of downtown Ulaanbaatar, surrounded by some of the city’s most modern buildings. This makes for amazing contrast. I tried to capture some of it in my photographs. I walked there from MIU; it took about an hour, because I was noodling around taking pictures with my phone along the way. I cut through the Blue Sky tower to get there from Peace Avenue; it’s pretty much just behind there and across the street, though you have to walk down one side of the compound wall to get to the entrance gate.

I bought a ticket and paid the extra 50,000 MNT for a photography pass. It said 30 minutes, but there was no time on the pass I hung around my neck, so I wondered about that. Turns out they really don’t want you to spend a lot of time taking pictures there, but it wasn’t obvious how they would keep track at first. So I took my time walking through the two gates to the main temple, taking pictures and enjoying the sunny afternoon. As I approached the main temple, though, and was photographing its outside, a woman appeared. “Inside. Photographs. 30 minutes. Then outside OK.” So I had 30 minutes to photograph the inside of the temple, but I could take as much time as I wanted outside.

I stepped inside the main temple at exactly 2:00. I really didn’t want to rush through, because it was obvious from the start that there was much to see. The temple was the usual colorful assemblage of tapestries, paintings, and statues, and also had a large collection of Tsam masks and costumes from the traditional Buddhist dance ceremony. I started working my way around in a clockwise direction, thinking that I could take photos first and then spend more time looking things over.

Emma and I have often talked about how much more interesting Tibetan Buddhist imagery is than, say Christian imagery. There is plenty of gore in some parts of the Christian tradition, especially with the grisly deaths of so many of the saints, and the Spanish Inquisition and all. But the figures are mainly human, and nowhere near as interesting as the Buddhist pantheon. The art in the Choijin Lama Temple alternated between glorious and macabre, with golden statues of Buddhas and depictions of severed human limbs and heads, alternating with intricate Tsam masks and richly painted pillars, walls, and ceiling. The world would seem so much more complex and mysterious if you grew up in this tradition, it seems to me.

As I was walking around, a group of three women walked past me and started praying in front of a small statue of the Green Tara, the female bodhisattva of compassion and action as she is often described. I didn’t want to disturb them, so I slowed down a bit to look at some of the art in more detail. When they moved on, I continued around and went into the Zankhang temple, a smaller square coming off the back of the main temple. That was even more vividly decorated, with paintings of tortured human figures on the ceiling, and a square of what looked like flayed human skins hanging from the ceiling in center. The timekeeper came up to me to let me know I was taking too long: “Thirty minutes, three temples! No flash!” I showed her my camera to show her that the flash was off. “Three temples!” she repeated, holding up three fingers.

By my watch, I had ten minutes left, so I went back out and continued around the rest of the main temple. Then I went outside and saw what she meant: the smaller temples on either side also had their doors open, so I headed for one of them, the Zuu Temple, which had statues of the arhats (disciples of Buddha) around the perimeter in a blue and white papier mache cave setting. The temple was empty when I entered, and then a man came in, and I assumed he was going to tell me “No more pictures!” because my 30 minutes were up, but he sat quietly reading while I finished looking around.

Then I went to the other temple, an eight-sided structure with a golden statue of Buddha surrounded by intricate carvings of dragons and vines as a focal point. Again, a man came in, and at first he told me, “No pictures!” but then he saw the permit hanging around my neck and said, “Pictures OK for you.” At that point, I was 20 minutes past my 30-minute time limit, but he didn’t seem to know or care. At that point, I was mainly just interested in looking at everything, anyway.

I definitely recommend a visit to the Choijin Lama Temple Museum if you’re in Ulaanbaatar. Every religious and historic site I’ve seen here has been fascinating, but this one has such an amazing collection of art that it really stands out. And don’t be daunted by the photography police; they are not as coordinated as they appear.

4 thoughts on ““Thirty Minutes, Three Temples!” A visit to the Choijin Lama Temple Museum in Ulaanbaatar

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