The Pre-Soviet History of Buddhism in Tuva

Introduction to Tuva

Tuva (Mong. Uriankhai, Tib. thang-nu) is an autonomous republic in Siberia, Russia. It lies north of Western Mongolia, bordering the western Altai Region. It is at the southernmost reaches of the Yenisei River. The Tuvans are not a Mongolic people, but are Turkic, and are therefore related to the Altaians, Uighurs and Kazakhs. Thus, the Tuvan language is a Turkic language but with about 20% to 30% of its vocabulary derived from Mongolian loan words.

A Brief History of Buddhism in Tuva

The first permanent monasteries in Tuva, called “khure” (Mong. küriyen / küriye, Tib. gling) were built in the 1770s and were modeled on those in Mongolia. This was during the period (1758 to 1911) when Tuva, like Mongolia, was under the control of the Manchu Qing Dynasty of China. These monasteries were primarily Gelug, with their Tibetan Buddhist traditions coming directly from Mongolia. It is possible, however, that Buddhism was first introduced into Tuva prior to this, when Tuva was part of the Dzungarian Khanate (1634-1755) of the Oirat Mongols. The Oirats also primarily followed the Tibetan Gelug tradition.

The main khure in Tuva were Verkhniy (Upper) and Nizhnyi (Lower) Chadansky Khure, near modern Chadan. Its abbot was the most respected Lama in Tuva and, spiritually, was directly subordinate to the Bogdo Gegen Jebtsundampa Khutugtus in Urga, Mongolia. This was quite different from the positions of the Bandido Khambo Lamas of the Buryats and the head lama of the Kalmyks, both of whom were elected by the local people but officially recognized by the Czarist government of Russia and had no relation with the Bogdo Gegens.

In 1914, when Tuva was annexed by Russia, there were 28 khure, and if smaller ones are counted, then 44 in total, with about 4,000 lamas and khuvaraks (Uighur and Mong. quvaraγ, pupils living in the khure and wearing robes). About half of the khuvaraks were not monks but merely laypeople living in the villages, who would join the monks in the khure for rituals and on festival days. All the khure were Gelug. The monks wore Tibetan robes during the pujas and Mongolian style monks’ deel while outside. Many genyen (laymen), getsul (novice monks) and gelongs (full monks) were married, with some getting married even after having become gelongs.

There were well-educated monks in only the two Chadansky Khure, the best of whom went on to Mongolia and Tibet for further training. There was a Tsannyi Datsang for debate, as well as a Manba one for medicine and even a Kalachakra one at Upper Chadansky. The Kalachakra lineage came from Mongolia, from where it had derived from the Namgyal Datsang at the Potala in Lhasa. Highly educated lamas also came directly from Tibet to help establish the Kalachakra Khure. Astrology was also studied. The yigcha (monastic textbook) followed was that of Kunkhyen Jamyang Shepa as in Gomang, Labrang Tashikyil, Kalmykia and a good part of Mongolia and Buryatia. Texts were printed at both the Upper and Lower Chadansky Khures, and the page numbers were often in Chinese, indicating that they probably copied woodblocks printed in Mongolia or China. As in Mongolia, Transbaikalia and Kalmykia, in Tuva there was no tradition of nuns.

The Collapse of the Qing Dynasty and the Founding of Tannu Tuva

After the collapse of the Manchu Qing Dynasty in 1911, Russian annexation of Tuva in 1914 and several years of conflict after the Russian Revolution, Tuva became an independent country called Tannu Tuva between 1921 and 1944. It was ruled by a Stalin-like dictator named Solchak Toka from 1932 to 1944. In reality, Tannu Tuva was mostly under the control of Russia and Stalin, as was Mongolia.

During this period of independence, Buddhism was utterly destroyed by rival factions within Tuvan society itself. In 1938, the monasteries were smashed, one by one, and almost all of the lamas were sent to concentration camps in Siberia. Since then, the people lived in great fear, and many Buddhist texts were hidden in the mountains. In 1944, Tuva was annexed into the Soviet Union.