The Watch

Choijin Lama Temple

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

In 1911, at the time of the collapse of the Qing Empire the independence of Mongolia was proclaimed with the spiritual leader of Mongolian Buddhism, the eighth Javzandamba Khutagt at its head as the Bogd Khan. The younger brother of the future ruler had been given the role of protector of the Buddhist teaching in Mongolia as the Choijin Lama. Occupying a dedicated temple built for him in 1904-08, the Choijin Lama served as the official state oracle of Mongolia until his death in 1918. The temple of the Choijin Lama was an example of Chinese-style religious architecture, with buildings constructed out of blue brick, with timber roofs supported on wooden posts and decorated with green tiles. The complex contained five temples dedicated to different deities, including the Makhranz, or Maharajas—“great king” guardians of the four directions, the Shakyamuni Buddha, and the tantric deities worshipped by the Choijin Lama. In the main temple the Choijin Lama would go into trance and make oracular pronouncements that were interpreted by an attendant lama, or monk.

In the 1920s Communist revolutionaries took over the Mongolian government with the support of the Soviet Union and sought to suppress traditional religion. Violent purges took place in 1937-38, when thousands of lamas were arrested and executed. All monasteries in Mongolia—more than 1,000—were shuttered and most of them were completely destroyed, including their contents of holy books and other religious objects. A few surviving buildings were nationalized and used for non-religious purposes—among them, the Green Palace or Winter Residence of the Bogd Khan, which had been transformed into a museum, and the Choijin Lama Temple, which also survived intact. The site was converted into a Museum of Religious History in 1942, exhibiting artifacts from destroyed monasteries, including a rich collection of masks and robes associated with Tsam dance, a religious dance that was performed there and in other monasteries. But even though the violence of 1937-38 would not be repeated, religious worship and ceremonies remained prohibited in Mongolia until 1990.

Since then Mongolian Buddhism has experienced a steady revival, linked to an effort to strengthen Mongolian national identity. As laypeople seek to learn more about the tradition of Mongolian Buddhism the collection and buildings of the Choijin Lama Temple constitute a unique resource and one of few surviving links with the past. Experts with experience working internationally are currently helping the Arts Council of Mongolia design a master plan for the conservation of the site. The 2020 World Monuments Watch seeks to lend support and visibility to these efforts.

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