Although separated territorially from the rest of the Mongolian world, contemporary Kalmyks continue to practise customs common among other Mongolian groups. Many Kalmyks honour their tradition and perform various rituals that preserve and perpetuate kinship links. The main aim of clan rituals is to preserve and consolidate kinship groups not only by worshipping the clan or local deities, remembering ancestors, and cleansing native land but also by engaging all clan or family members in the ritual. Clan rituals are often performed by inviting a Buddhist monk or a folk healer who reads mantras, prayers, and gives advice.
Aisa Bryugidikova, About Gal Tyalgn and Clan Rituals
Anna says that gal tyalgn, or worship to fire, is a special ritual where a sheep is sacrificed. The following parts of a sheep are used at this ritual: a sheep’s head covered with semzh fat (a fat layer that covers internal organs), its neck, the right front leg, the liver, and kidneys. All these parts should be cooked before offering them to fire. The rest of the meat is then offered to kinsfolk who are participating in the ritual. During the ritual, guests utter well-wishes, all of which are believed to be heard by ancestors. The ritual of gal tyalgn is very complex and not every person can perform it. Anna herself performs gal tyalgn in the courtyard of her house. In the past she performed this ritual in Lagan’ as well, where her husband is originally from. On that occasion Anna was accompanied by a knowledgeable woman who organized and directed the whole ritual.
Anna also talks about how she came to believe in the efficiency of this ritual, how she taught herself to count beads (a Buddhist practice) and read mantras.
Anna Sangadzhi-Goryaeva, Gal Tyalgn
This ritual is usually performed in the spring during Ur Sar, a time when grass appears and livestock breeds. Its purpose is to bring rain and success. This ritual is performed in sacred or holy locations. Chapchachi in the village of Chilgir is one of these places. This place is also known as the burial place of Burkhan bagshi, one of the elders of the Zyungar clan whose body, it is said, was exhumed before World War Two and transported to an unknown location for study. In the past in the exact place of his burial stood a prayer house. People took soil from there for medicinal purposes. This activity continues to this day.
Anna Sangadzhi-Goryaeva, Worship of the Land
This video begins with the abbot of the Orgakin Temple, Batyr Elistaev, reading prayers inside his temple. Afterwards, Batyr tells the laity about the ‘month of gal tyalgn’ when these kind of rituals are performed. Gal tyalgn are rituals to worship Tsagan Aav and clan ancestors.
In this video Batyr first invites the deity Ochirvani, who is the keeper of the teachings of Buddha and protector of all Mongol groups. Ochirvani is also regarded as protector of the Orgakin Temple. Then Batyr invites Tsagan Aav which is an important shamanic deity. Afterwards, everyone goes outside for the next part of the ritual. The people make a fire with dried dung and wood and light candles. When Batyr reads mantras, the laity sits around the fire and throws offerings, including incenses, dairy products and sheep’s fat, into the flames. Then all participants stand up, hold each other by their hands, utter khuree and jump up with their hands stretched upwards. Then all move around the fire three times clockwise, reading the mantra om mani padme khum. The ritual concludes with a short prayer read by Batyr inside the temple.
Gal Tyalgn at the Orgakin Temple
In this video the ritual of gal tyalgn is performed by the members of the Taltakhn clan in the village of Tsagan Nur, Kalmykia. A Buddhist monk is in charge of the whole ritual. Before the ritual, the participants bring into the house a sacrificial sheep. The back and all four legs of the sheep are sprinkled with milk. Then the sheep is given milk to drink. This is done to secure a successful rebirth for the sheep. Meanwhile women make meter-long ropes out of wool. Then the sheep is killed. The women pour blood into the sheep’s stomach and cook it. The intestines are filled with fat to make sausages. The fattier the sausages are, the more luck they are supposed to bring to those who eat them. The men fry the sheep’s head.
Afterwards, everyone gathers in the main hall of the house where the altar is. The monk tells the participants about the meaning of the ritual of gal tyalgn. According to him, it is a shamanic ritual accompanied by Buddhist prayers chanted both in Kalmyk and Tibetan. The ritual of gal tyalgn consists of the following parts: a ritual to prolong one’s life, a ritual to cut evil tongues, a ritual to provide a white road (i.e. open the door for luck and eliminate obstacles), a prayer read for daughter-in-laws and a prayer read for boys.
After the short introduction, the monk begins the ritual by chanting a prayer for a successful rebirth to the killed sheep. Then he asks all clan protectors and ancestors for forgiveness that he is performing this ritual. The monk then explains to all in the room that he is a keeper of the traditional knowledge of how to perform gal tyalgn. The monk again chants prayers while the members of the Taltakhn clan offer food to the furious deities so that they would forgive the present people for their wrong deeds and thoughts. Then the monk asks a man to hold a bowl with cooked mutton in front of the altar. The man goes to the kitchen to offer the mutton to the hearth of the house while reading out the names of the members of the clan. The bowl with the mutton is then brought back to the main hall and the monk resumes reading out the names of the members of the Taltakhn clan. When the man with the bowl turns three times clockwise in front of the altar the people in the hall utter khuree. The man with the bowl bows before the altar. All the men and boys in the room also bow three times to the altar. The women and girls do the same. After that, the monk reads mantras to eliminate and disarm curses that may have been sent to the clan. Everyone in the room chants om mani padme khum. The forehead of the sheep is smeared with butter and its eye cavities are filled with semzh (a fat layer taken from the sheep’s intestines). Then people put incenses and white coins into the bowl with mutton. The man who holds the bowl receives items (including white and blue ribbons, semzh, incenses, a piece of mutton and a woolen rope that symbolize male and female energies) that are placed on his arms. Then the man turns towards the audience while the monk resumes reading the names of the members of the clan. Then the man goes up to the others who put white coins into the bowl. The monk wraps up the offerings in semzh and ties it with ribbons.
Three candles made from dough are put in front of the altar. A woman bows three times before the altar, kneels with both legs while holding an uncooked blade bone and a leg of the slaughtered sheep. The man holding the bowl with mutton sits beside her only with one knee touching the floor. The monk again reads out names and everyone in the hall utters khuree. Single men and boys are asked to bite the cooked heart of the sheep three times. After another round of prayers, all the married men who do not have sons do the same – bite the heart of the sheep. It is followed by prayers read by the monk and the people again utter khuree. After that, the men who want to have sons bite the heart. The man who holds the bowl with mutton also takes a bite. The monk again reads prayers while the man who has been tasked with holding the bowl with mutton and the woman sitting next to him resume their positions.
The cooked neck of the sheep and half of the white coins are put on a separate plate for all the daughters-in-law to bite three times and take a coin each. The coins are meant to be sewn into a white piece of cloth and kept on the altars of those who took the coins.
After that, everyone goes outside to make further offerings (consisting of biscuits, sweets, incenses and milk) to a fire. A man sprinkles milk over the fire while the rest shout khuree. Then the remaining milk is sprinkled in all four corners of the yard, as well as in all four corners inside and outside the house. After the monk finishes prayers, all move around the fire three times while chanting om mani padme khum.
The ritual concludes inside the house. The monk says that the uncooked blade bone and the leg should be cooked and eaten inside the house. The rest of the meat should also be cut into small pieces and added into soup and then offered to all the people. Those who eat this soup should say well-wishes and give money to the hosts for organizing the ritual. The sheep bones should be collected and burnt on a fire. All ashes remaining from the ritual should be collected and kept inside the home until the leg of the sheep is eaten up. Then the bones left from the sheep’s leg should be burnt and the ashes collected. All ashes produced during the ritual and later from the sheep’s leg should be put into a white cloth and buried in a clean place far away from human habitat. The sweets should be given to children. The meat can also be given to those members of the clan who did not or could not participate in the ritual. What remains from the dough candles should be destroyed on a fire.
Gal Tyalgn, The Ritual of Offering to Protecting Spirits
Larisa talks about the ritual of gal tyalgn that was performed on a hill called Ova Kermen in the village of Orgakin in Iki-Burul'skiy rayon of Kalmykia. The hill was named after a girl called Kermen who was buried there. The ritual was carried out in the autumn with the participation of all clans that live in the village. The kind of food offered to deities during the ritual included dairy products, candies, vodka and Kalmyk biscuits. It was only men who went to the top of the hill to lay out stones, read prayers and utter well-wishes. Women stayed at the bottom of the hill. The ritual was completed by all the participants, both men and women, who formed a circle and held each other's hands uttering khuree. Afterwards the participants threw wheat and rice grains on the ground symbolising an increase in the number of livestock and wellbeing for all the clans involved. Larisa contends that clan rituals not only unite people but are also effective.
Larisa Shoglyaeva, About Clan Rituals and the Hill of Kermen Tolga
This particular ritual is performed in Dzhidzhatn, a holy place where a famous monk was buried. Many people go there to leave hii mor' flags and ribbons with the colours of their clans, to worship and offer omskul (white, red and yellow cloth). People also take soil from this place to purify their houses or keep as a protective substance.
Rain-making rituals are perfomed to make grass grow, keep water sources abundant, as well as for the health and wellbeing of people. The performers prostrate on the ground, circle the place three times clockwise, make offerings and light candles. Lamas and those who know how to do it, read prayers. According to Larisa, during rain-making rituals birds fly above the place.
This place is where people also perform various clan rituals. Druring such rituals young people get to know each other, plant trees and clean up rubbish. Rituals performed at this place are believed to be effective.
Larisa Shoglyaeva, About Rain-Making Rituals and Other Rites Performed in Jejyatn
This ritual is carried out near water sources early in the morning during Ur Sar. Its purpose is to bring rain, success and luck. Offerings to deities include the milk of a white goat, a bouquet of flowers, candles, incense, candies, Kalmyk tea and other items. After prayers have been read, the food offerings are put by a man (not a woman) on a piece of wood and floated on the water. According to Larisa, during this particular ritual the weather often changes, rains alternating with rainbows.
Larisa Shoglyaeva, About the Ritual of Worshipping the Masters of Water
Traditional customs that regulate everyday life and religious practices have had an important place in the spiritual culture of the Kalmyks. Among such customs are pre-Buddhist beliefs and sacrificial offerings to the deities of land and water which have survived to this day. The ritual of offering to the deities of water is one such example, which is usually performed in spring, in early summer, or during one's first visit to a place with water. The aim of this ritual is to appease the masters of water and to call in luck and prosperity. The video footage presented here shows this ritual performed during the lotus flowering period at the Caspian sea. The ritual, accompanied by Buddhist prayers, was performed at dawn by fishermen and lay men. Offerings to the deities consisted of 'white food' (dairy products), fruit, sweets, scents and two candles. The two candles are believed to symbolise a synthesis or mixture of pre-Buddhist and Buddhist elements, for they are offered not to one but to a number of deities. In the past domestic animals were used for sacrifice, but with the revival of Buddhism in today's Kalmykia the sacrificial animal has been replaced by food products.
Ritual of Offering to the Deities of Water
Sangadzhi says that gal tyalgn is the most widespread ritual in Kalmykia performed during important events in the lives of the Kalmyks. It is performed during weddings when a bride leaves her paternal house for that of her husband, when people build new houses and at funerals. During gal tyalgn food offerings are made to ancestors and local spirits in order to remove obstacles, to secure the continuation of clans, etc. Sometimes offerings include sheep. Sangadzhi talks about how to prepare a sheep for this ritual, which parts of the sheep to offer and explains the symbolism behind it.
Sangadzhi Kononov, About Gal Tyalgn
This ritual is usually performed during Ur Sar with the purpose of preventing the death of livestock, to bring rain, as well as for the wellbeing of livestock. Sangadzhi describes the ritual briefly. It is usually performed in an ancestral place. First, a piece of white cloth is spread on the ground, which symbolizes purity. Offerings put on this cloth include meat, the head of a sheep, tea, vodka, seven kinds of sweets, dairy products and incenses. In front of the cloth with the offerings, are placed seven candles made of dough and a stick is erected which has colourful ribbons tied to it. The colours of the ribbons should correspond to those of the clan(s) that perform the ritual. Each clan in Kalmykia has a different colour representing them. The ends of the ribons should have white and yellow coins tied to them. The candles should be lit up accompanied by prayers. Prior to this, a fire is prepared. When the candles go out, men offer tea to Tsagan Aav, vodka to Okn Tengri and milk to ancestors by sprinkling these substances to the sky. Afterwards food offerings are put on the fire. Finally, in order to purify themselves men circle the fire three times. Women do the same after the men have finished. Milk is poured around the fire which symbolizes a white milky road without obstacles for all the participants. Sometimes, people use a goat as a sacrificial animal, especially when there has been a long drought, for its is believed that the goat fends off evil spirits. For the same reason Kalmyks keep goats among their livestock. This particular ritual is performed slightly differently in different places for different purposes. For example, it can also be performed in order to counter and deal with curses. According to Kalmyk belief, the toughest and the most difficult to deal with curses are made by pregnant women, for their curse is believed to have a double effect. In order not to anger them, Kalmyks show special respect to pregnant women.
Sangadzhi Kononov, About the Worship of the Masters of Land and Water
The traditional dwelling of the Kalmyks is the nomadic, round shaped yurt which does not have corners. It is believed that evil spirits (shulmus) hide in the corners. The ritual of cleansing one's home is performed after funerals or when people fall ill. A Buddhist monk or a folk healer is invited to carry out this ritual. A white cloth is spread out on a table. The head of a sheep, tea, vodka, milk and sweets are laid on the cloth. Five candles – one on the table and four on each corner of the house – are lit up and prayers are read by the performer. All members of the family need to be present. After the candles go out, everyone goes outside and sets up a fire. Offerings that are put on the fire include what remains from the candles, half of the sweets, and the head of a sheep that has to be placed so that its muzzle faces towards the house. The fire has also to be sprinkled with vodka and milk. Then all the participants move clockwise around the fire. Afterwards, rice is thrown where the candles stood. The grains of rice should not be removed for three days. During this period it is also forbidden to take anything out of the house. People can perform this ritual annually thus strengthening their ties with their ancestors while cleansing themselves.
Sangadzhi Kononov, Cleansing One's House
Sangadzhi says that some Kalmyk rituals involve rites that are similar to exorcism performed in Christianity. There are also secret rituals that should not be even talked about or mentioned. For example, it is forbidden to video or photo-record the ritual of amnya dolig (substitution rituals). Only knowledgeable people can perform these rituals. If such rituals are performed in the wrong way, the repercussions for the performers could be very harsh.
Sangadzhi Kononov, Why Should Some Rituals Be Kept Secret?
Telo Tulku: Due to misunderstanding, people sacrifice animals. This is not what Buddhism is about. This is totally against Buddhist principles when people say that during gal tyalgn (fire rituals) they need to kill a sheep as an offering. I think in Mongolia people do similar rituals as well. Buddha taught non-violence, the sacredness of life, and prohibited killing any living being. When we say that by killing a sacrificial sheep we carry out purification, this is a complete contradiction to and misunderstanding of Buddhism. Sacrificing animals is a shamanistic tradition, not Buddhist tradition at all. In Kalmykia people sacrifice sheep less than they do in Mongolia. The number of sacrificial animals has declined in Kalmykia, because of our continuous explanations and criticising people who are doing these rituals. The situation is improving and people are starting to understand.
Baasanjav: Is it OK to substitute a real sheep with a statue of a sheep, for example? That is what some people do in Kalmykia.
TT: I think that would be good enough.
B: Do you think this mind-set is acceptable, given there is still this intention to sacrifice an animal?
TT: We need to erase this intention. We have to get rid of it. We need to change this mind-set. There is nowhere in the Buddhist canons, scriptures or texts that says ‘you must sacrifice certain life for this ritual or for that prayer’.
B: There are rituals called gazr usn tyaklgn. It is different from gal tyalgn.
TT: Gazr tyaklgn is a ritual of the purification of land. For example, when you build a stupa you must purify the land, the earth. And that is when it is performed. Gazr tyalgn is more about offering incenses (Jupiter), flower, milk, honey, sugar, and various other substances. In some cases, people include pieces of meat in their offerings.
B: Is it OK to include meat or fat?
TT: People use fat.I don’t like it, because of what it symbolises.
B: Is it OK to put butter?
TT: Yes… You know about this offering of a sheep. For us, nomads, the sheep has been the most important animal for our survival. When you make offerings you give something that you value most in your life. And the sheep is something that we value as nomads. Therefore, we have this attitude ‘I am going to make this offering with a sheep’. That is how it all began. But in reality, this truly contradicts the principles of Buddhism and the teachings of Buddha when one takes the life of an animal and offers it as a sacrifice.
B: Some people in Kalmykia call these rituals ‘clan rituals’. The idea is that it is family members who participate in these rituals and they are performed for the wellbeing of clans and not outsiders.
TT: There are no such things as clan rituals. I do not believe in clan rituals. These are generic rituals.
B: Should be for all people?
TT: Yes. It is for all people.