Tibetan Buddhism in Kalmykia 1990


Kalmykia is situated in the lower Volga-Don river basin, to the northwest of the Caspian Sea. There are 170,000 Kalmyks, and they constitute approximately half of the population of both the capital, Elista, which has a total population of 90,000, as well as the surrounding rural areas. The former (1920–1928) capital, Astrakhan, which is no longer in Kalmykia proper, still has about 20,000 Kalmyks. There are also Kalmyk communities in New Jersey, USA and around Munich, Germany. In East Turkistan (present day Xinjiang Province in China) there are about half a million Oirats, who are related to the Kalmyks.

The Destruction of Buddhism in Kalmykia

During the 1930s, Stalin destroyed all the khuruls in Kalmykia. The only one left partially standing is Khushud Khurul. During the Second World War, the territory of Kalmykia was occupied by German troops. Germans allowed some Orthodox churches and the Buddhist khurul to reopen. This was appreciated and some people fled with the Germans when the Soviet army returned. As a result, Stalin severely punished the Kalmyks in December 1943, by deporting them all to Siberia with only five minutes notice. They were only allowed to return in 1957, but then not to the entire Kalmykia, only to a smaller portion of it to the west of the Volga River. Elista is now the center, not Astrakhan.

Also after World War II, for five years there were many Kalmyks in refugee camps in Munich. It is unclear whether they were in Germany before this or not, but there is a Kalmyk Temple now in Munich. Through the efforts of the Church World Service and the Tolstoy Fund, about 700 were able to settle in Freewood Acres, New Jersey, USA, in 1951. They were led by Mongolian Dilowa Khutugtu and then the Kalmyk Geshe Wangyal. This was the first group of Tibetan Buddhists in the USA, and many American scholars, such as Robert Thurman, Jeffrey Hopkins and myself, became acquainted with Tibetan Buddhism through Geshe Wangyal. The Kalmyks now have four temples in New Jersey.

From the 1920s to the 1950s, there was no contact between the Soviet Kalmyks and their relatives, the East Turkistan Oirats. Contact was established again after the Kalmyks returned from their Siberian exile in 1957. It was cut again during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, but since the early 1980’s, it has been slowly opening once more. These contacts have been mostly in the non-religious sphere, dealing with the scholarly investigation of the Dzungar Epic, exchange of writers and personal contacts.

Present Situation in 1990

Due to the total dislocation of the Kalmyk people to Siberia, the material part of their Buddhist culture was entirely lost. People do not keep altars in their homes, there don’t appear to be any old former monks, and many Kalmyks do not even know their own language. Thus, they are far more Russified than either the Buryats or the Tuvans. About half of the Kalmyks have adopted Russian names, and although some have even recently converted to Orthodox Christianity, on the whole however, most people do have deep faith in Buddhism and though they know very little about it, want very much to restart their old traditions.

At present, only the Buddhist group in Elista has formally registered under the Buddhist Board in Moscow, and that was in 1988. Out of the 20,000 Kalmyks still in Astrakhan, a group of 1,000 are applying to register. They would like to restore the Khushud Khurul as a historical monument and museum, but not as a temple. Some older people, however, would like it to become a temple again, primarily as a place for pilgrimage. The village, Rechnoye that it is in has mostly Russians living there and only the main building stands, in very poor condition. The colonnade of columns and other buildings were all destroyed. As Kalmykia was diminished in size after World War II, both Astrakhan and the Khushud Khurul are outside Kalmykia. The Kalmyks would like to restore Kalmykia to its former size.

The Elista group has bought a house and made it into a temporary temple. Lamas came from Ivolginsky in Buryatia for two months at a time to do rituals. Then Tuwang Dorji, a Buryat from Ivolginsky educated in Ulan Bator, was asked to stay as abbot. He has since been elected as a deputy to the Soviet of the Kalmyk Autonomous Republic. There are two other Buryat lamas who help. There are seven young Kalmyks being trained in Ulan Bator to be lamas. A European Russian from Leningrad, trained as a Tibetologist, but not a scholar and with no Buddhist education, who wears robes but is not a monk, called Rinchen Dorje (or Volodya) is also there. He participates in the pujas and sometimes helps with organizational matters. Each day they do the 21 Taras and Palden Lhamo, and a group of mostly very old women sit and listen.

In 1989, Bakula Rinpoche became the first Lama to visit in more than fifty years. He gave a Long-Life Initiation and transmission of the Tsongkhapa prayer Migtsema and spoke about karma. They have obtained a piece of land just outside Elista, which Bakula Rinpoche chose. They plan to start building a new khurul complex, starting after the Dzungar festival in August. They are inviting Kalmyks from all over the world and hope to be able to raise funds. First, they will build a small gonkhang for protector practices, then a tsogchen (assembly hall) and a temple for their Maitreya practice, which is extremely emphasized among the Kalmyks. Then they want to build a library, a museum, dwellings, and hotels for Lamas and for lay people. They estimate this will take up to 20 years. The architecture is in a very mixed style, in keeping with the Kalmyk tradition. Kalmyk temples do not look like either Tibetan or Mongolian ones.

The Kalmyks are extremely interested in Buddhism and more starved for information about their own culture and the outside world than even the Buryats or Russians. The Kalmyk Institute of Social Studies of the USSR Academy of Sciences, the director of which is Dr. Petr Bitkeev, and the Abbot Tuwang Dorji are the official contacts for organizing anything formal with the Kalmyks. He is very enthusiastic about re-establishing the old traditions, and there appears to be closer co-operation between the scientific scholars of the academies and the Buddhists than in Buryatia. This is undoubtedly because the Buddhists are not established at all and have no tradition left.