A Brief History of the Kalmyk Mongols in Xinjiang
There are approximately 140,000 Kalmyk Mongols in Xinjiang 新疆, or East Turkistan, about the same number as in Kalmykia, Russia. 5,000 of them live in Ürümqi 乌鲁木齐, the capital. Often referred to as the East Turkistan Oirats, they call themselves the Xinjiang Kalmyks and live around the rim of the Dzungarian Basin in the northern half of the province. They divide themselves into two groups, the northern and the southern Xinjiang Kalmyks. Those in the south, living in the Tianshan Mountains 天山, form the majority.
Unlike the Inner Mongolians, whose land has been so flooded with Chinese settlers for several centuries that they have mostly lost their culture and language, the Xinjiang Kalmyks have managed to keep their traditions more intact. This is perhaps because they themselves were immigrants into East Turkistan when they returned from central Russia 220 years ago, and therefore have always been a tiny minority.
Furthermore, the Xinjiang Kalmyks seem to have retained more of their culture and language than their Russian brothers and sisters. Unlike in the former USSR, which forced all minorities to become Soviets (not specifically Russians) and to adopt the Cyrillic alphabet, the Chinese have allowed their minorities to keep their cultures and written scripts. Thus, Xinjiang is the only place left where the Kalmyk script, a variant of the Mongol alphabet, is still used.
Buddhism and the Xinjiang Kalmyks
The Xinjiang Kalmyks built more than 50 Gelug monasteries after their return from Russia. Originally, these Kalmyk monasteries of East Turkistan were associated with Sera Je Monastery and used the Jetsunpa textbooks for debate, but now, two young monks from this region have gone to Drepung Gomang Monastery to study but have not yet returned.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Buddhism spread from the Kalmyk monasteries that were in the very north of East Turkistan to the Altai mountain region across the border in Siberia. Buddhism combined there with shamanism and a local cult to form an amalgam known as Burkhanism. Burkhan is the Mongolian word for “Buddha.” In East Turkistan, however, Kalmyk Buddhism remained more pure. Unlike the Outer Mongolians and Buryats, the Kalmyks and Inner Mongolians never began a tradition of married monks.
The Present Situation
Most of the Xinjiang Kalmyk monasteries were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. So far, the Kalmyks have rebuilt about 35 of them, with, at present, about 400 monks. They have started three main monastic schools, one for the northern Xinjiang Kalmyks at Hoboksar 和布克赛尔, near the border with Siberia, and two for the southern Xinjiang Kalmyks at Balkhunta and Khoshut (Heshuo 和硕), south of the Tianshan Mountains to the southeast of Ürümqi. There are government restrictions on becoming monks, but, as in Tibet, these are mostly ignored. No one older than a young teenager, however, enters the monasteries, since the Kalmyks think it is a Buddhist custom that adults cannot join. Also, middle-aged Kalmyks have been too much influenced by communist propaganda to be interested. As in Tibet, there are now no restrictions on rebuilding monasteries.
In Hoboksar, there is the monastic school at Arabten Chobel (Tib.: Rab-brtan chos-’phel) Monastery. There had originally been five Kalmyk monasteries in the area with 2,000 monks. This is the only one left, and only two small mud and stone buildings are standing. It has about 80 monks, all of whom are old. Previously, it had had 550 monks. A few small monasteries have been rebuilt in the area, including Rashi Chokorling (Tib.: bKra-shis chos-’khor gling), the home monastery of Shelway Gegen (Tib.: Zha-lu-ba Rinpoche), the Head Lama of Xinjiang who lives in Ürümqi.
The monastic school in Hoboksar was started in 1984 with 40 young students. It lasted for only three months. Only five completed the three months study. The others left, because either they were not interested or they found it too difficult to learn to read Tibetan and classical Mongolian, necessary for being able to chant the rituals. The five have stayed on as pre-getsuls, and are studying informally with Baldan Lama. The biggest problem is that they lack skillful teachers who would attract students.
The main monastic school is at Balkhunta, at Shar Sum (Tib.: Ser dGon-pa). Apparently, several of the Xinjiang Kalmyk monasteries had this name, but this was the main one. Prior to 1969, Shar Sum had 2,000 monks studying in four Datsang divisions: Tsen-nyi for debate, Gyu-pa for tantra, Menba for medicine and Du-khor for Kalachakra and astrology. It now has thirteen older monks and 20–25 new young novices. There is one three-year-old Tulku, Kunmin Gegen. Two older Kalmyk monks, who had studied respectively at Gomang and Tashilhunpo, are teaching Tibetan, tantric rituals and a little bit of debate. There are three classes.
At Khoshut, about 100 km from Balkhunta, there are seventeen older monks and 20 young ones. Previously this monastery had two Datsang divisions: Tsen-nyi for debate and Menba for medicine. At present, there are four classes in which the young novices study medicine, Tibetan and some debate. An old Kalmyk doctor teaches traditional Tibeto-Mongolian medicine.