Buddhist Rituals, Holidays and Pilgrimage
In Kalmykia all national holidays, including the Tsagan Sar, Ur Sar, and Zul, are celebrated both as national and religious holidays. On these days people hold celebrations at home and go to a temple. The ritual of calling in the Buddha Maitreya is another Buddhist holiday performed annually in the temples across Kalmykia. The Kalmyks also carry out various seasonal rituals, including gal tyalgn dedicated to ancestors, rituals to purify land, and others. Mandala offerings and tsam, both performed by visiting Tibetan monks, stand out among Buddhist rituals in terms of elaboration and grandeur. Tsam, which is a theatralized ritual involving deities from the Buddhist pantheon, has been performed only twice in Kalmykia. When it was staged the second time in September 2015 in Elista, the project team videotaped this rare and mysterious celebration, which we host in this video collection. Here you can also see videos of pilgrimages to sacred sites, including the Bogdo Mountain, the historical Khosheutovsky temple, and others.
A Press Conference with the Dalai Lama, Riga 2017
Bogdo Uul is situated near lake Baskunchak in Akhtubinsky rayon of Astrakhan’ oblast. There are several versions of the legend about the mountain. A version that Badma recounts is what he heard from the Kalmyk writer Sandzhi Kalyaev.
Once upon a time a hero called Geser came to the Kalmyk steppes and stopped at the bottom of Bogdo Uul Mountain. It was forbidden for people to look at the mountain, for those who did so died. By conjuring up fog, Geser covered the mountain with it and safely climbed up to the top from where he could clearly see the palace of an enemy khan. With a huge arrow shot from his bow Geser slashed the palace in two. The destroyed palace turned into the snowy mountain of Elbrus that has two peaks.
Badma Narmaev, A Legend About the Bogdo Uul Mountain
Lama Batyr explains that solka is a practice of the defenders of Dharma aimed at defending the teachings of Buddha so that evil does not influence the hearts of the pious. During this ritual, which is performed at sunset, the deities are offered prayers and food called torma made from dough. The defenders of the Orgakin Temple, of which Batyr is the abbot, are Vajrapani (Ochirvani), Mahakala, Okn Tengr (Palden Lhamo) and others.
Batyr says that Vajrapani, who is a bodhisattva of secret powers and who was one of Buddha’s disciples, is considered to be the defender of all Mongol groups. Avalokiteśvara, another disciple of Buddha who is a bodhisattva of compassion himself, is seen as the defender of Tibet. The Buddha’s third disciple, Manjushri who is a bodhisattva of wisdom, is the defender of China.
In 2005 the Orgakin Temple received a statue of Vajrapani from Nepal.
At the end, Batyr reads a prayer to Mahakala. Usually, he explains, this prayer is read every morning in order to remove obstacles in life.
Batyr Elistaev, A Daily Prayer to Deity Protectors
Lama Batyr explains that a morning practice called sang is connected with the worship of the lineage of Buddhist teachers. It is performed early in the morning and has two aims – to cleanse oneself and offer scents to gods.
In the video Batyr performs a sang ritual. His scent offerings include incenses, consecrated pills, sandalwood resin, and seeds of white mustard that are then set alight. Another ingredient included in the offering is vodka. A more elaborate sang offering, Batyr says, can be done by setting a fire and putting on it the following ingredients: several kinds of seeds, liquid butter, sweets, incenses, and dried cow dung. The recipients of this offering are spiritual protectors. The ritual is accompanied by drums and tsang instruments.
Batyr Elistaev, A Morning Prayer
Lama Batyr says that the ritual of gal tyalgn (fire offering) is performed in spring during the month of the mouse, according to the lunar calendar. During this time, the spirits of ancestors wait for food offerings from the living. During this somber month the Kalmyks do not have weddings or other public celebrations. Representatives of various clans gather together to make a fire offering. Today sacrificial animals are substituted by statues made from dough as well as liquid butter.
Other Buddhist holidays celebrated at the Orgakin Temple are as follows:
Ur Sar (performed in May or June) is a celebration of the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha Shakyamuni.
Circumvention of Maitreya (in Kalmyk ‘Myadrin Ergts’) is a holiday dedicated to Maitreya, Buddha of the Future. On this day the statue of a green horse and that of Maitreya are taken out of the temple and the pious go around the temple carrying these statues. Batyr says that in Kalmykia this holiday has been revived with the help of the Head Lama of Buryatia, Ayusheev.
Tsagan Sar is a holiday to celebrate Buddha showing his miracles.
Zul is connected with the lama Tsongkapa, founder of the Gelug school of Buddhism. On this day 1,000 candles are lit and put outside symbolizing the 1,000 Buddhas that would have ever come to earth.
Batyr Elistaev, About Buddhist Holidays
Lama Batyr talks about mandala offerings to Green Tara, a deity that symbolizes emptiness. He says that the mandala (a Buddhist pattern) represents the universe and that Meru Mount is the axis of the world. The borders of the mandala symbolize a chain of iron mountains. There are also an ocean and four continents on this pattern (humans live on the south continent). Offerings to Green Tara is made with rice that symbolizes precious stones. There are two levels of offerings – the inner and outer ones. Afterwards, Batyr reads a mantra.
If an offering is performed correctly, it helps to cleanse negative karma accrued by people from their previous lives and to obtain more merit. Such offerings, Batyr contends, should be performed every morning.
Batyr Elistaev, A Mandala Offering
In this video a group of pilgrims in Elista sets off to Bogdo Uul Mountain late at night. The next morning the minibus with the pilgrims arrives at the mountain which is situated in Akhtubinskiy rayon of Astrakhan oblast’. Upon their arrival, the pilgrims gather at the foot of the sacred mountain, set a fire and light candles. The lama, who arrived with the pilgrims on the same minibus, reads mantras, while the pilgrims sit around the fire and put offerings – including biscuits, incenses, milk, vodka, rice, sweets, butter, and candies – on the fire. At the end, all the pilgrims stand in a half circle around the fire, raise their right hands and sprinkle rice while uttering 'o-o-o'. Afterwards they leave, then return to the fire and finally go up to the top of the mountain.
Near the mountain is a lake called Baskunchak. According to a legend, once upon a time a cart carrying utensils and children was crossing the lake. A dog was running alongside the cart. Thirsty, the dog drank the salty water and dropped dead on the spot. Afterwards, the dog's head would re-surface in the lake from time to time, each time sending by-passers into terror. Pointing their hands at the head, they would cry out, 'Baskuncha! Baskuncha!' which means 'a dog's head!'
Pilgrimage to Bogdo Uul Mountain, 2016
In this video, a group of Kalmyk pilgrims (both men and women of all ages) sets off on a pilgrimage from Elista to the Khosheutovskiy Temple in the village of Rechnoe, Astrakhan oblast’. The group gets on a minibus at night and the next morning the vehicle arrives at Volga to be transported to the other side of the river by a barge. When the pilgrims arrive at the temple, it is closed. A Kalmyk lama starts to perform a ritual at the entrance to the temple. The pilgrims light candles and give offerings, including water, sweets and incenses. The lama reads prayers to request blessing from Buddhas and ancestors for the sake of the revival of Buddhism. The prayers include the Little Treasure of Guru Rinpoche, a praise to the Buddha Shakyamuni, Green Tara, and Prajnaparamita, a prayer to remove obstacles, and a prayer of longevity. The lama also asks all the pilgrims to pray for all living beings as well as for their close relatives and themselves. After the prayers the pilgrims roll out Buddhist ki morn flags. The lama reads prayers to the spiritual masters of land and water and consecrates the ki morn flags. Then the lama says that the pilgrims can make wishes. The participants tie up their ki morn flags together and then hang them on the walls of the temple. Some flags are also tied to the nearby trees. Then the lama bestows blessings on the pilgrims who then go around the temple. After the ritual, Sanal Molotkov, a guide, tells the pilgrims about the history of the temple. According to him, in 1812 the Kalmyk prince Serebjab Tyumen was invited to St Petersburg to celebrate the victory of Russia in the Napoleonic War. In Russia’s capital the Kalmyk prince was awarded a golden sword and the Order of St George. There the prince saw the Kazan Cathedral and decided to build a similar temple in his native land with columns and a dome. Batur Ubashi Tyumen, the prince’s cousin, helped him to build the Khosheutovskiy Temple. The construction started in 1814 and finished in 1818.
Pilgrimage to the Khosheutovskiy Temple
This video is shot at a single poplar tree that grows near the village of Khar-Buluk. This place is considered to be sacred and has eight stupas erected around the tree. In the beginning of the video, the lamas prepare a table with offerings, while the lay people go around the tree and the stupas. When Kundeling Tatsak Rinpoche, a guest lama, arrives, all welcome him with white hadag scarfs. The lamas begin to read prayers. After the prayers, the lamas consecrate a spot for a future stupa by sprinkling rice and pouring water. Men and boys dig the earth with a blade one by one. Then both the lamas and the lay people go around the designated spot three times clock-wise while tossing coins into the hole. Afterwards the procession goes around the sacred tree.
A Ritual to Purify Land for the Construction of a Stupa
Telo Tulku: After achieving enlightenment, the Buddha turned the wheel of Dharma and gave his first teaching about four noble truths. This holiday is celebrated on the fourth day of the sixth month, according to the lunar calendar. This is one of the holidays. Another holiday is the day when the Buddha returned to earth from the Raya Tushita to preach. Kalmyk holidays are all related to the religion of Buddhism. We always ask the believers to do positive deeds, to refrain from negative actions such as drinking alcohol. When people hear the word holiday, the first thing that comes to their mind is ‘Let’s celebrate by drinking!’ I always explain to people that this is not a secular holiday, but a spiritual one. Therefore, we must engage in religious or spiritual acts, visit temples, make prostrations, make offerings, recite prayers and scriptures. There are many positive deeds that can be done. So, we encourage this. We have succeeded in decreasing alcoholism in Kalmykia if we compare today to how things were 10 to 15 years ago. We won’t be able to eliminate alcoholism completely, but we will succeed in making religious holidays in which the majority of the population will abstain from drinking.
Baasanjav: Is it OK to use vodka as deezh (libation to gods and ancestors)?
TT: No. I do not recommend this. There are many other things that can be offered, such as juice and food.
B: You mentioned two holidays, ‘Turning the Dharma Wheel’ and the day when Buddha returned to earth. Have these holidays been celebrated traditionally in Kalmykia?
TT: Of course, before the deportation and the revolution, all Buddhist holidays were observed. Among them Zul, Tsagan Sar and Ur Sar were the most popular holidays. These are national holidays.
B: Are the two that you have mentioned (i.e. The turning of the wheel of Dharma and the return of Buddha to earth) considered to be national holidays?
TT: No, they are not, but they are recognised as such.
People say that Zul candles should be made from potatoes or dough. Why should candles be made from potatoes or dough? There is nowhere in the scriptures saying that you have to make the candles from potatoes or dough. In the past, since ordinary people did not have metal containers to make butter candles, they used potatoes as an alternative. They also used dough as an alternative, which almost became a part of the tradition of celebrating Zul. People say to me ‘We have to use potatoes or dough to make candles’. I ask them ‘Why are you making them from potatoes? Explain this to me’, to which they reply ‘Oh, because we do so, it is our tradition’.
We do not have to do things simply because it is a ‘tradition’. There always must be explanations for what we do. If it is simply because of a ‘tradition’, I cannot accept that. In my investigation, my research and my personal analytical observation, it (i.e. making candles from potatoes or dough during Zul celebration) was done in the past because there were no other alternatives. Therefore, people used potatoes and dough.
Today some people say that we have to make offerings with things that look like a sheep. I do not have a proper answer to this. Why? Because I have not come across any Buddhist scriptures that say we have to offer a sacrificial sheep during holidays or that offerings should look like this or that in form.
Telo Tulku Rinpoche, About Buddhist Holidays
Telo Tulku: The Dalai Lama is not able to visit Russia for many reasons and due to many factors. He visited Russia in the past though. Under the current circumstances we are not able to host His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Many people do not understand the reasons, and because of that they tend to be emotional and frustrated without knowing these political matters as to why he is not able to freely visit Russia. We as a Buddhist organisation are listening to people’s emotions, concerns and are also responsible for balancing that situation, balancing that frustration. We have decided to organise teachings for Russian Buddhists in India. This gives them many benefits. They get to see the Dalai Lama, receive his blessings and teachings. Secondly, all the Buddhist holy sites are in India. It gives them an opportunity to go on a pilgrimage while they are in India. I encourage everybody to take this trip and at least once in a lifetime visit these holy sites. Therefore, they should go on a pilgrimage. Thirdly, it is a cultural experience for them: new places, a new country, language and people.
We people in Russia think that we live all poorly and that we are materially backward. Those people who go to India see the material and spiritual situation in India. They come back and change for better, for they realise that they are materially comfortable. But one thing is missing – it is spirituality. India may be a third world country, but people are smiling, laughing. Many children do not have proper clothes, there is no running water, no heating, there are so many things that are missing. Nevertheless, they are happy, they are enjoying life. Despite all these difficulties, pilgrims come back as new people, with a completely different outlook on life in general.
The Khurul (Central Temple in Elista) has been organising teachings and pilgrimages for the past seven years now. In 2009 when we first organised teachings in India there were about 800 people from Russia that came. Over the years the number grew steadily. The last teaching was in December 2016. There was an attendance of 1,100 people, although we were anticipating about 800 people would take this trip.
We provide this service as a charitable, community service. We do everything free of charge. We assist pilgrims in getting their visas and booking air tickets. We assist in all logistics such as transportation, hotels and food arrangements without extra cost. This is our contribution to people.
Baasanjav: Who are the pilgrims? Are they from Kalmykia only?
TT: Not only from Kalmykia, but also from Tuva, Buryatia. There are a lot of people from Russian regions. Initially we mainly targeted traditional Buddhist republics. That was our main goal. But when teachings started, surprisingly, non-traditional Buddhist regions had a higher attendance than Kalmykia, Tuva and Buryatia combined. That was very interesting for us. That is how it has been. This is a clear sign that interest towards Buddhism is growing in Russia. I do not believe that it is a strictly religious interest. But I think they are interested in Buddhist philosophy or simply the Buddhist way of life, Buddhist science and psychology. I do not consider everyone as Buddhist.
B: When you organise these tours, do pilgrims have an opportunity to meet the Dalai Lama?
TT: Of course, during the teachings they are all sitting right in front of the Dalai Lama. These teachings are exclusively for people who come from Russia. After the last session the Dalai Lama likes to take group photos. That has been very popular among the pilgrims. So, a lot of pilgrims get to meet the Dalai Lama.
B: On average how much does it cost to go to Dharamsala? Does it depend on where you are flying from?
TT: Yes, it does depend on where people are flying from. For people from Buryatia the travel distance is much longer. From Tuva it is long too. For people from Kalmykia, Moscow or Saint Petersburg, it is much easier. Sometimes flying from Ulan-Ude (capital of Buryatia) to Moscow can be more expensive that flying Moscow-Deli-Moscow. It all varies. I cannot tell you the average cost.
B: As a rule, are you taking your pilgrims to Moscow first and from Moscow you all fly to India?
TT: Yes. There are a lot of people who travel independently. We provide assistance to people who need it. There are many people who do not need help. We handle about 400-500 people – that is full service. As for the rest of people, we handle their teachings, hotel arrangements. These are issues we deal with.
B: Where are the holy sites? In which parts of India?
TT: Dharamsala is the residence of the Dalai Lama. It is where he resides, in northern India. Our teachings took place in Dharamsala in 2009, 2010, 2011 – three consecutive years. After that we shifted teachings to Deli. From 2012 our teachings take place in Deli. In India the pilgrimage sites are in Bodh Gaya, it is in the state of Bihar. In Bodh Gaya, there are many Buddhist sites. They are also in Varanasi: the Ganges River and the Dalai Lama Stupa. There are some other sites in Varanasi. Some people cross into Nepal, where the birthplace of the Buddha – Lumbini is.
B: Do Russians need a visa to go to Nepal?
TT: Yes, but not necessarily in advance. One can get a visa on arrival, on the border. It is simple.
B: In Kalmykia there are places of pilgrimage too, for example Khosheutovskiy Khurul and Bogdo Uul mountain.
TT: Surprisingly, in 25 years that I have been in Kalmykia I have not been to Bogdo Uul. I only heard of it. I asked many people. They say it is a sacred mountain. I want to know what makes it sacred. To my question nobody has given me a valid explanation. In my understanding, it is sacred because of its colour: it is reddish in colour and there is no such hill or mountain around that area. That is the only explanation that people have given me. That has not convinced me yet to pay a visit to Bogdo Uul mountain.
Khosheutovskiy Khurul was one of the biggest monastic institutions. It once flourished, later it was destroyed, but not completely. It is the only monastery that has its structure remaining. Of course, it is a place of great reverence and a holy place for all of us. It is our heritage, part of our culture, identity and history. That is a place of importance. I have been there few times.
B: Are there other holy places in Kalmykia? I know that there is Odinokiy Topol (A Single Poplar Tree) where people go.
TT: Yes, people go there. I think that now, anywhere where there is a stupa or a temple, I consider it as a holy place, a place of pilgrimage.
Telo Tulku Rinpoche, About Pilgrimage to Holy Places
The tsam dance in this video was performed in celebration of the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the Central Temple in Elista. Since 1917 tsam was performed only twice in Kalmykia, and this video captures one such rare occasion. The tsam dancers are Tibetan monks from the Dzongkar Choede Monastery in India. The ceremony is opened by the Head Lama of Kalmykia, Telo Tulku Rinpoche. The head of the Republic of Kalmykia, Alexey Orlov, a Kalmyk MP in Russian Duma, Marina Mukabenova, and the abbot of the Dzongkar Choede Monastery, Tubden Tsering, also gave celebratory speeches.
Telo Tulku Rinpoche: On the invitation of the Central Temple 28 monks from the Dzongkar Choede Monastery arrived in Kalmykia to perform this ceremony. This ritual is not a mere theatrical performance but a religious ritual. Today many people have gathered here, and I wish you all to live in peace and understanding. We have guests here today who are scholars in Buddhism. We are celebrating this anniversary with pride. Today the Central Temple is the biggest temple in Europe. We know that thanks to the Temple we can improve our knowledge of Buddhism. Our Temple carries out educational work among the laity. Today among our guests are people from other Buddhist republics, such as Buryatia and Tuva. We can be beneficial to each other and exchange our experiences. Today I would like to thank all people of Kalmykia from the bottom of my heart for your faith and support. Thank you very much. I want again to thank the head of Kalmykia, Alexey Orlov, as well as the previous head of Kalmykia, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. My gratitude also goes towards our sponsors and volunteers who help the Central Temple. I wish all happiness, health, peace, and prosperity. I will always pray for all of you.
Alexey Orlov: I would like to congratulate all the guests and people who are present here for the anniversary of the Central Temple. 11 years ago the Dalai Lama consecrated this land for the construction of a temple.The Temple was built within a year. The Temple has become a scientific center and a center for the unity of religions. In this building people can learn about Buddhism. Our people have suffered a lot. Our people managed to keep their ethnic identity, which is what our Buddhist teachers teach us. The ceremony of tsam reflects the historical uniqueness of the Kalmyk people. I hope that this celebration will serve as an incarnation of unity, and cultural and religious values.
Marina Mukabenova: I congratulate you on the anniversary. The Central Temple organizes free Kalmyk language courses. Thanks to our Rinpoche our pilgrims go to India for the Dalai Lama's teachings. The Temple also carries out work to strengthen inter-religious harmony. We are proud that our Head Lama has been appointed permanent representative of the Dalai Lama XIV in Russia and in the countries of CIS. Rinpoche and the workers of the Temple, please accept the words of my deep gratitude for your work and for your wish to help all living beings.
Tubden Tsering: On behalf of all the monks of the Dzongkar Choede Monastery I would like to greet all the people present here, the head of Kalmykia and all the guests. I would like to briefly tell you about the history of our monastery and the ceremony of tsam. The monastery initially belonged to the Sakya school of Buddhism. It was built in 1277. In 1651 the Dalai Lama V, seeing a great demand, changed the monastery from the tradition of Sakya to that of Gelug. (Following China’s annexation of Tibet) representative of the monastery fled to Nepal, and from there the monastery was re-built in the south of India in 1972. Traditionally, the monastery performed tantric rituals and practices. On the instructions of the Dalai Lama XIV, the monastery began to teach higher philosophy of Buddhism to its monks.
Now about the origin of the tradition of ritual dances. In 1490 a great yoga practitioner Chopel Sangpo saw the face of deity Yamantaka. In accordance with this vision, the yoga practitioner established a tradition of religious dances called tsam. At that time our monastery was situated in a borderland between India and Nepal. This region was rife with conflicts. In order to eradicate these border conflicts, as well as hunger, draught, illnesses and other obstacles, tsam dances came to be performed on the 29th day of the 12th month according to the lunar calendar. This dance ceremony is performed together with a ritual to ‘erect the iron palace of Torgyak’. Today the monks will perform this dance to remove obstacles and for peace in the world and for prosperity in Kalmykia. I would like to remind you all that this is not a show but a religious ceremony. It would be good if all people here create a good motivation together with us. On behalf of the monastery I would like to offer hadag scarfs to the Head of Kalmykia and the Head Lama of Kalmykia as well. I would also like to wish prosperity in Russia and health to both Kalmyk and Tibetan peoples.
The ritual shown in this video was performed in a sacred place with a single poplar tree which is situated near the village of Khar-Buluk. In the beginning of the video, the Head Lama of Kalmykia, Telo Tulku Rinpoche, welcomes all who are present. He tells the people the following:
'A ritual of gazr tyaklgn (worship of land) has already been performed twice in this sacred place. The single poplar tree here is more than a hundred years old. There is also a spring nearby which has medicinal water. For many years people have been praying and performing rituals near this tree. There are eight stupas erected in this place. In this special place, we decided to perform the ritual of gal tyaklgn during the month of Ur Sar in May. This ritual consists of offering scents to all deities and defenders of Buddhism. Prayers that will be read include a prayer of refuge and calling of all deities to this place. During these prayers it is important that all visualize that deities are indeed present here among us and ask these deities for blessings. Mentally, all can ask these deities that they bless this land as well. All people present here should think that they came here to accumulate merit. The ritual will be followed by a concert and Kalmyk food (including milk tea and biscuits). This year the Central Temple in Elista has done a lot of activities, including competitions in Kalmyk language and Buddhist philosophy, a campaign called Tsagan Sedkl (White Soul) that helped 55 families in financial difficulty. During Ur Sar, many people take a vow to abstain from alcohol. The taking of such vows started four years ago. In the first year 40 people took this vow. The number of people taking this vow has been growing from year to year and this year it stands at 120. We need to pray for our future and thank our older generation. Before the start of the ritual, people should create inside themselves the right motivation and pure thoughts. All know the mantra 'Om mani padme khum'. Please read this mantra as often as you can and visualize Buddhas and bodhisattvas'.
Afterwards the head of the Tselinnyi rayon and that of the village of Khar-Buluk congratulate the people on the ritual. The lamas chant prayers. Then a fire is set alight and food offerings are put on it. All people utter well wishes. After the ritual, a concert begins where people sing, dance and enjoy Kalmyk tea and biscuits.