Tibetan Buddhism in Tuva 1990

Introduction to Tuva

From the sixteenth to the nineteenth of April 1990, together with Russian Buddhist scholar Andrey Terentyev, I visited the Tuva Autonomous Republic. Tuva is north of Western Mongolia, bordering the western Altai Region. It is at the southernmost reaches of the Yenisei River. Tuva, known in Tibetan as Thangnu, has a population of 310,000, out of which 60% are Tuvans. The capital city, Kyzyl, which is situated on the Yenisei River, has 86,000 people, of which 30% are Tuvan. About 35,000 Tuvans also live in five places in Mongolia, and more than 12,000 live in five districts of the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in China. Thus, there are roughly 186,000 Tuvans in total, about the same as the Kalmyks and about three-fifths the number of Buryats. The Tuvan language is a Turkic language with about 20% to 30% of its vocabulary derived from Mongolian loan words. The Tuvans are not a Mongolic people, but are Turkic, and are therefore related to the Altaians, Uighurs and Kazakhs.

Tuva, like Mongolia, was under the control of Manchu Qing Dynasty of China. They were primarily Gelug, with their Buddhist traditions coming directly from Mongolia. Its monasteries were called “khure” (Mong. küriyen / küriye, Tib. gling), with the main ones being Verkhniy (Upper) and Nizhnyi (Lower) Chadansky Khure, near modern Chadan. 

Tannu Tuva and Soviet Tuva

In 1914 Tuva was annexed by Russia. Between 1921 and 1944, there was an independent country called Tannu Tuva. From 1932 onwards, it was ruled by the dictator Solchak Toka, who followed Stalin’s policies of suppressing Buddhism destroying the monasteries and sending the lama monks to concentration camps.

In 1944, Tannu Tuva was annexed into the Soviet Union. After World War II, there was one travelling kibitka-type khure, the head of which was Ganden Tseren, a disciple of the last Khamby Lama, Lobsan Chandze of Lower Chadansky. Lobsan Chandze, while studying in Tibet, took a private interest in Nyingma Dzogchen and he taught this privately to Gandan Tseren, even though he remained outwardly and officially Gelug. In the early 1960s, this kibitka monastery was disbanded, its texts put in a local museum in Kyzyl, and Ganden Tseren went to live at Ivolginsky. This is why there are so many ritual texts on Guru Rinpoche in the Tibetan collection of the local museum in Kyzyl, it is not that the Nyingma lineage was practiced in the Tuvan khure. In 1985, Ganden Tseren was shot and killed at Ivolginsky by a madman.

Upper and Lower Chadansky

At present, Lower Chadansky, which is actually in the town of Chadan, is totally destroyed and part of the town has been built over it. Upper Chadansky, about 4km outside of town, has one wall left standing. These are the only remains of the previous flourishing of Buddhism in Tuva.

I visited the tiny village of Gegenbarak, near Chadan, to meet the last Tuvan monk, Shinbayol, who is 93 and from Upper Chadansky. There is another 84 -year-old monk alive, but he is bed-ridden and deaf. I couldn’t reach the ruins of Upper Chadansky myself because of flooded streams and mud. Shinbayol had heard of a khure in the Altai district, but had never gone himself. This must be researched at the Altaic Research Institute and Research Museum in Gorno-Altaisk, the capital of the Altai Republic of Siberia. He had never heard of any non-Gelug tradition in Tuva. He chanted some prayers for me in Tibetan, and his pronunciation was closer to Tibetan than what I had heard in Mongolia, Buryatia or Kalmykia.

Shinbayol said that although there was much shamanism in Tuva, and common people had gone to both shamans and lamas for ceremonies, nevertheless there was no shamanism practiced in the monasteries. The old monk also assured me that shamanist medicine was not mixed in with the practice of Tibeto-Mongolian medicine from the Manba Khure, although they did follow the Mongolian variants of plant substitutes and the inclusion of Mongolian massage. I met Mr. Mongush Kenin-Lobsan, an old research worker at the Local Museum of the Tuvan Autonomous Republic Named After the 60 Heroes. He is a shamanist, and his father was a shamanist doctor. 

The Present Situation in 1990

In February 1990, the Buddhist Society of Kyzyl was officially registered. Although there are only 25 active members, they feel that the majority of Tuvans in Kyzyl will support them. One can only become a member if one lives in Kyzyl, and each outlying area and city will have their own separate society. As in Kalmykia, the people have virtually no knowledge of Buddhism, but have strong faith in it as their tradition and part of their national identity.

Tuva is in many ways still years behind the rest of the Soviet Union, as glasnost and perestroika are just beginning to reach them. Tuva is the only place where Terentyev and I had our visit arranged and were constantly accompanied by the representative of the KGB controlled Council for Religious Affairs, Damdyn Sanchaevich Kuular, a Tuvan himself.

Kuular was actually quite cooperative and helpful. When we visited Shinbayol near Chadan, we were greeted, accompanied and given lunch by the leaders of the village Communist Party Committee. In the presence of Kuular, everyone insisted they were atheists, but it was in fact Kuular himself who requested the monk to recite some prayers. Afterwards, people told Terentyev on the side that they would all support the re-establishment of Buddhism and the Chadansky Khure in the area. The village customs were very similar to Tibetan ones. We were met at the mountain pass to the village with bowls of curd and accompanied back to the pass when we left. They drank butter tea which, like Mongolian, Amdo and Khampa tea, does not have as much butter as the Central Tibetan variety and is not made with a churn. The food was also Tibetan style, with mo-mos and large pieces of meat just eaten with knives.

I met with the Buddhist Society, together with Kuular and a representative of the State Soviet of Tuva. It was a real experience of glasnost and there was a lot of questioning and open criticism of the government policies. Basically, the Buddhists have no idea what they can really do or how to organize. They were not allowed by the local newspaper to publicize their society, and so few Tuvans even know about it. The government representative said this would be changed. They need help from the very beginning level. Their first objective is to send ten men to Ulaan Baatar for lama training, although about 20 Mongolian-speaking Tuvans have expressed interest to go. Erdem Lama and the KGB-controlled Religious Council had said they would help, but of course nothing happened.

Secondly, if the City Council will give them an apartment, they would invite Buryat Lamas immediately from Ivolginsky to start doing rituals until their own lamas have been trained, as they have done in Elista. Currently, however, the City Council has nothing available, and the Buddhists have no money. One of their legal rights from being registered is that they are entitled to receive land from the government to build on, but so far they have been given nothing. Eventually, the site would be on the other side of the Yenisei River from Kyzyl, but they have to ask a great lama to choose the place, as Bakula Rinpoche did in Elista. First, they would build a temporary structure and then a more permanent khure. I suggested they could put up a yurt for their temporary structure, as they are doing in Mongolia, but I doubt they will do that. Unlike Mongolia, where most of the people still live in yurts, they are quite rare in Tuva, even in the villages. In Kalmykia and Transbaikalia, there are almost none.

The Tuvans plan to have four formal khure in Tuva, all in traditional style, and the architectural blueprints have already been drawn up. These would be, in addition to Kyzyl, to reconstruct Upper Chadansky, and then to build new ones in the Hayirakan village of the Ulug-Khem District near Shagonar, to the west of Kyzyl, halfway to Chadan, and at Samgaltai to the south of Kyzyl near the Mongolian border. There will also be a group in Baitaiga, in the westernmost part of Tuva, but not a formal khure. None of these other groups have registered yet, and are waiting to see the changes in the religious laws of the USSR that should be coming soon.

I met an architect from Moscow, Dr Haslavskaiya, who had drawn up the plans for the reconstruction of Upper Chadansky. This was sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, but their support seems to have fallen. She said the local people were still too afraid to talk about reconstructing the khure. She also mentioned that there are ruins of a similar khure in Kirghizia near the city of Przhevalsk in the Tian Shan mountains on the border of central East Turkistan.

This would be interesting to investigate, since I have come across no other mention of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries existing in this area. It might have been built by the Oirats, since this would be in the southernmost area of Dzungaria.

I lectured at the Tuva Research Institute of Language, Literature and History, to a group of about 40 people, on the history and basic principles of Buddhism. No Buddhist teacher or lama had visited before in modern times. The people were extremely enthusiastic.