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 traditional 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.
A Brief History of the Oirat People and Dzungaria
The Oirats are the westernmost group of Mongols. They were ruled under the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) but after its decline they became more independent. Their area, known as Dzungaria, included the Dzungaria region of northern East Turkistan, as well as the Soviet and Mongol Altai Mountain areas to the east and north of East Turkistan and East Kazakhstan, as well as the Lake Balkhash area of Alma Ata to the west of northern East Turkistan. At times, it extended as far as Urumqi and Turfan. By the end of the fifteenth century, they had taken over the rest of Mongolia but eventually their state broke up and, at a council, it was agreed that they would no longer interfere with the other Mongols and would move westwards. Thus in 1609, the first Oirats went through the Altai region to the Southwest Siberian steppes. Those that migrated to Russia became known as the Kalmyks.
Before the Oirats started to migrate to Russia, they had already accepted the Gelug form of Tibetan Buddhism from its spread in Mongolia, and built one stationary monastery, known in Oirat as a khurul. Nevertheless, they mostly had mobile khuruls called kibitka, which is a yurt tent on a cart that serves as a temple while travelling, and that can be put on the ground if staying in one place for a longer period of time.
Only 250,000 Oirats, or about a fifth of the total population, left westwards. The rest, numbering about one million, remained in Dzungaria, and these people later built about fifteen monasteries in East Kazakhstan and East Turkistan, including one in Urumqi that was sacked during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976). The Oirats in East Turkistan call themselves the Xinjiang Kalmyks.
The migration across the Russian steppes lasted from 1609 until 1632. They settled between the Volga and Don Rivers and made Astrakhan, at the mouth of the Volga on the Caspian Sea, their capital. They were fairly independent and had good relations with Russia. They built khuruls as early as 1616, and the main source of their lineage was Zaya Pandita (1599–1662), an Oirat Buddhist scholar and priest educated in Tibet.
In 1771, due to Russian expansion and pressure to convert to Orthodox Christianity, about 200,000 Kalmyks fled back to Dzungaria, while 50,000 stayed behind. The modern Kalmyks descend from those 50,000. The Russians managed to get the Kazakhs to try to stop the Kalmyks who were fleeing, and half were killed before reaching Dzungaria. Meanwhile, before the Kalmyks arrived back, the million Oirats who had remained in Dzungaria had been decimated by the Manchus, who slaughtered them in the 1740s for revolting against Manchu rule, leaving only 100,000 remaining. The 100,000 Kalmyks who made it back intermarried with them, and the 500,000 Oirats living in East Turkistan today are their descendants.
The Kalmyks and Buddhism
The Kalmyks brought their Buddhism with them with kibitka mobile monasteries, and just as they had built stationary khuruls in Kalmykia, they built new ones in Dzungaria. This combination of kibitka and stationary khuruls has survived among the Oirats even today. But with the massive Chinese population transfer into East Turkestan as well, the Oirats are being forced to move into the more desolate mountain areas, and they are taking their kibitka khuruls with them.
In 1917, there were 5270 monks in 105 khuruls in Kalmykia itself, but many of these were smaller than the Buryat datsangs. The main monastery was Khushud Khurul, about 70 km north of Astrakhan. Its Abbot was called the Lama of the Kalmyks and was both the administrative and spiritual head of the Kalmyks. As with the Bandido Khambo Lama of the Buryats, he was appointed by the Czar. But unlike with the Buryats, Tuvans or Mongolians, no one else was called “Lama.” There were only a few tsen-nyi (debate) datsangs, with more emphasis being placed on rituals. The yig-cha (textbook) followed seems to have been that of Kunkyen Jamyang Zhepa (Kun-mkhyen ’Jam-dbyangs bzhad-pa). Kalacakra was practiced only in a few places, and this might not have been until the early 20th century. There was a single manba (medical) datsang that had branches in all the monasteries. The monks wore Tibetan-style robes in the monasteries, but with long sleeves. Outside, they wore the Kalmyk-style chuba, called beshmet, and pants.
In Kalmykia, the contact with Buddhism was always directly with Tibet, and not through Mongolia. It was only in the early 20th century that contact was made with the Bogdo Gegen Jabtzun-dampa Hutukhtu of Urga, and this was because of their contact with the Buryats. There was no specific datsang in Lhasa that they went to, but they did study for their Geshe degree in Lhasa. When Kalmyk pilgrims went to Tibet, however, they tried to pick up and learn anything and everything they could, since they were so far away from both Tibet and Mongolia. When they returned home, they would just mix it all together. In fact, in the nineteenth century, the Kalmyks often called themselves “Those of the Yellow-Red Faith,” and thus it seems that they mixed Sakya and Kagyu teachings with their basic Gelug tradition.
This is quite different from the situation in Buryatia, Tuva and Mongolia. According to the Buryat Khambo Lama Erdyneev, there were some groups of Sakyas and Kagyus in Buryatia at the beginning of the twentieth century, and they even established small temples, but the mainstream Gelugs never imported these rituals, nor mixed them with their own. The exception was the Balagat movement of Dandaron. In Mongolia as well, although the vast majority was Gelug, there were occasional small temples of the Sakya, Kagyu and Nyingma traditions, but again there was no mixing.
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, many, although not all Kalmyks fought on the side of Hitler against Stalin. 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 a smaller portion of it to the west of the Volga. Elista is now the center, not Astrakhan.
Also after World War II, there were many Kalmyks in refugee camps in Munich for five years. 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 Dilowa Hutukhtu 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 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.
Due to the total dislocation of the Kalmyk people to Siberia, 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 now 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.