After decades of bans and prosecutions in the Soviet period, in Kalmykia a Buddhist revival began during Gorbachev's perestroika years. The pivotal point of the revival was the establishment of the first Buddhist community in Elista in 1988 which was followed by the opening of the first prayer house. In 1990 a cohort of Kalmyks was sent to study Buddhism in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and soon afterwards another group was sent to the Ivolginsky monastery in Buryatia. The first lamas to come to Kalmykia to revive the teachings of the Buddha were from Buryatia. It was not a coincidence that the first Shajin Lama, or Spiritual Leader of the Buddhist establishment of post-Soviet Kalmykia, was elected a Buryat monk called Tuvan Dorj. The first high-ranking lama from outside Russia to arrive in Kalmykia was the 19th Kushok Bakula Rinpoche from India who during his visit in 1989 consecrated a place for the building of a temple on the outskirts of Elista.
The Dalai Lama paid three visits to Kalmykia, in 1991, 1992, and 2004 respectively. Following his Holiness' visit, in 1992 his disciple Telo Tulku Rinpoche, an American Kalmyk monk educated in a Tibetan monastery in India, was invited by the Kalmyk Buddhist community to become their next Shajin Lama, a post he holds to this day. In 2014 he was also appointed the Honorary Representative of the Dalai Lama in Moscow. During his years of spiritual leadership, Telo Tulku Rinpoche not only consecrated and oversaw the building of many temples, prayer houses, and stupas in Kalmykia but also helped spread Buddhist teachings and philosophy, especially that of the Tibetan monastic tradition. He invited Tibetan monks to Kalmykia and sent Kalmyk youths to study at Tibetan monasteries in India. Today the Buddhist sangha of Kalmykia can be roughly divided into two groups – those who strictly adhere to the monastic version of Tibetan Buddhism and those who practice or look favourably at folk Buddhism. Since in Buddhism knowledge is traditionally transferred from teacher to disciple, monks educated in different places follow and practice different traditions. Consequently, in Kalmykia the first group consists mainly of those lamas who were either educated in Tibetan monasteries in India or have been influenced by the monastic version of Buddhism propagated by the Shajin Lama Telo Tulku Rinpoche. The second group consists of those lamas who were predominantly educated in Buryatia and Mongolia and who support local Kalmyk traditions and rituals. In fact, lamas from the second group sometimes perform rituals, including animal sacrifice during clan rituals, that the monastic interpretation of Buddhism does not necessarily approve of.
In these five collections, you can listen to stories and see videos about schools of Buddhism, religious buildings, objects, knowledge, as well as practices and rituals performed by monks, religious practitioners, and lay people alike.
Click here to read the article "A note on the Kalmyk Tsagan Aav, the ‘White Grandfather’: Ritual and iconography” by Professor Caroline Humphrey.