The Pre-Soviet History of Buddhism in Kalmykia and among the Oirats

A Brief History of the Oirat People and Dzungaria

The Oirats were 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 (present-day Xinjiang Province of China), as well as the Russian 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, the Oirats 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 had 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 which 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. 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. 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 monk scholar 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 Qing 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 brought their Buddhism with them back to Dzungaria 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.

The Kalmyks and Buddhism

In 1917, there were 5270 monks in 105 khuruls in Kalmykia itself, but all 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 Shadjin Lama 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.”

The first tsen-nyi (debate) khurul was organized only in the 19th century, more emphasis being placed on rituals. The yig-cha (textbook) followed seems to have been that of Kunkyen Jamyang Zhepa. Kalachakra 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.

Kalmykia and Tibet

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 Jebtsundampa Khutugtu 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 19th 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 20th century, and they even established small temples, but the mainstream Gelugpas never imported these rituals, nor mixed them with their own. The exception was the Balagat movement of Lubsan Sandan Tsydenov. 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.