Pre-Buddhist Beliefs

The ancestors of the Kalmyks, several Oirat tribes, are known to have set out on a westward journey from Dzungaria (today the northern half of China's Xinjiang province, western Mongolia, and eastern Kazakhstan) at the beginning of the 17th century. By 1630 they had reached the territory of today's Kalmykia to establish the Kalmyk Khanate (1630-1771). Although they adhered to both Buddhism and shamanism, the latter was officially banned among the Kalmyks following the historic 1640 meeting of Mongol and Oirat lords at which Buddhism was declared as the state religion. According to the new law, not only shamans but also those who sought their services were subject to severe punishment. Following the official ban, shamans, however, did not disappear overnight. In Kalmykia in the 18th century there existed several types of specialist who practised various aspects of shamanism, including medlegchi, bo, udugun, and ubasantsa. But under pressure from the Buddhist establishment and later the Orthodox Christian Church, by the 19th century, as foreign travellers observed, bo and udugun had already been shamanising without traditional shamanic implements, such as mirrors, drums and other 'musical' instruments. In this way, they looked less 'shamanic' and acted more like healers and bone-setters. Today shamanic elements have survived mainly in traditional medicine, especially in the healing rituals and practices of Kalmyk folk healers known as medlegchis (lit. 'those who know').

The healing repertoire of medlegchis is wide-ranging, encompassing many aspects of the lives of Kalmyks. People struck by bad luck, suffering from all sorts of ailments, loss, addiction, phobias, infertility, sleepwalking, and those who are haunted by malevolent ancestral and other spirits, all visit medlegchis. These folk healers purport to derive their healing powers from deities or spirits whom they accept as their guardian patrons during special initiation rituals. There are several kinds of deities that offer patronage and guardianship, the most popular being the Tsagan Aav (the White Old Man, a shamanic deity later included in the Buddhist pantheon) and Okn Tengr (the Maiden Sky, is a female deity who has a dual nature. Sometimes she is regarded as a shamanic goddess of fire, especially during clan rituals involving fire sacrifices, and sometimes she is seen as the Buddhist deity Palden Lhamo). Other guardians are Buddhist deities that are responsible for health, longevity, wisdom, music, and fortune.

Bembya Mitruev, About Local Deities in Kalmykia


Gerel Shakeeva, About Medlegchi


Sangadzhi Kononov, About Shulmus (Evil Spirits)


Sangadzhi Kononov, About Shamanism


Sangadzhi Kononov, About the Spiritual Masters of Localities and Deities-Protectors


Telo Tulku Rinpoche, About the Tsagan Aav