The Life of Zanabazar — The First Bogd Gegen of Mongolia

Don Croner, Explorer at Large
Author of Travels In Northern Mongolia
(Unedited: Work in Progress. Last Updated April 10, 2005)

Chapter 3 - The Early Life of Zanabazar

Temple Marking the spot where Zanabazar was born.

In early 1635, forty-eight years after Avtai Khan's death, his grandson Gombodorj, now the ruler of the Tüsheet Khanate, was traveling by Yesön Zuul when he noticed a handsome lama sitting nearby the ovoo built by his grandfather. When asked what he was doing there the lama replied, "I am honoring this place with sacrifices." Suddenly the lama disappeared and the sky was filled with rainbows. Shortly thereafter both Gombodorj and his wife Khandujamtso started having wonderful dreams filled with all kinds of good omens and portents. The couple did not spend all their time dreaming and soon Khandujamtso found herself pregnant.

Gegen-Setsen Khan, who ruled the Setsen Khanate centered around the valley of the Kherlen River to the east of the Tüsheet Khanate, heard that Khandujamtso was with child and wrote a letter to her husband Gombodorj. "Since the thought continually comes to me that through the power of the former good prayers of the kings, princes and dignitaries of the Khalka there will be born to you a fine boy of the golden family of Chinggis Khan, who has the majesty of heaven, and that this boy will be our leader," the letter said in part. He also suggested that he and his entourage visit Gombodorj and conduct seven days of games, probably the traditional Mongolian contests of horse racing, wrestling, and archery. It was a wonderful time that year in central Mongolia. Rainfall was plentiful and the grass and forests were green and luxurious; birds were everywhere and their melodious songs filled the air; there were was no plague or other sickness and people enjoyed fine health; all sorts of good omens and auguries appeared and the sky was filled with rainbows. (Indeed, the atmospheric conditions which prevail on the steppe between Erdene Zuu and Yesön Zuil are conducive to rainbows; I myself have seen as many as twelve in the sky at once in this area.) Now the dreams of Gombodorj and Khandujamtso were filled with images of Buddhas and the sound of Buddhist scriptures being read. Thus passed the summer of 1635.

Late that year Gombodorj was out riding near Yesön Zuil when he noticed place where a white dog had given birth to a litter of puppies. Sensing that this was an auspicious sign he had his winter camp set up here. According to legend, a white flower appeared out of the ground in the middle of the space where he had set up his ger and promptly bloomed, even though the nearby ground was covered with snow and the rivers already frozen.

On the morning of the twenty-five day of the ninth month of the year 1635 Khandujamtso felt birth pangs. At the same time milk started exuding from the breasts of a sixteen year-old serving girl who was attending Khandujamtso. The girl was deeply ashamed, but Khandujamtso explained to her that that when a woman of noble family gave birth it was common for her female servants to produce milk. Later that morning Khandujamtso gave birth to a boy. As Khandujamtso's own breasts were dry, a council was held and it was decided to wash the servant girl's breasts with holy water blessed by lamas and let her suckle the little nursling. The Gegen Setsen Khan, in anticipation of the birth, had sent the family a fine cradle decorated with jewels. The baby was placed in this cradle and servants watched over him day and night.

The little boy was given the name Zanabazar, a combination of the word zana, which is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning "knowledge" or "wisdom", and the word bazar, meaning "thunderbolt". Thus in English his name might be rendered "thunderbolt of wisdom".

That spring Gegen Setsen Khan came to visit Gomdorj and his wife and new son. As he was dandling the little boy on his knee of vision of three acaryas-holy men from India-appeared in front of him. The tiny boy reached out his arms to these beings and started babbling as if trying to talk to them. The Gegen Setsen Khan, who could just barely manage to hold the animated little dandling on his knee, was utterly amazed by these events. Convinced that the little boy would someday became a great lama, Gegen Setsen Khan decided to give him his own honorary title-Gegen, (usually translated as "Supreme Holiness" )-and henceforth go only by the name Setsen Khan.

Setsen Khan returned to his home in the valley of the Kherlen but could not get the boy out of his mind. He soon dispatched an "expert on portents" to examine the child further. This individual returned with the verdict that "'the newborn son of Tüsheet Khan is in truth a darling child: the oblong quality of the corners of his eyes and the unusual regularity in the texture of the pupil and the white of his eyes attest to the fact that he is able to contemplate all the ten lands of the earth; as for his body, there are combined in it all the signs of the Buddha, and that is why one may consider beyond any doubt that he is a real Buddha."

The boy began speaking at the age of three. According to legend his first words were the Buddhist invocation Ala-la-ma duy-sun-san-jiy-di choy-ji-kor-lo-bardu-la-na-med. Soon he was reading and reciting prayers for most of the day, without any instruction or coaxing. When he wasn't praying or making offers he spent his time building small replicas of temples, fashioning small statues of Buddhas, and drawing portraits of great lamas. Although by tradition the son of a khan was supposed to be surrounded by playmates from other noble families the little boy chose to ignore them completely and instead focused all his energies to his devotional practices. Before the end of his third year, in early 1638, his father, by then convinced that the boy was destined for a religious life, arranged for a lama named Jambaling to give the him his first monastic vows. With these came a new monastic name, Jnanavajra.

Yesön Zuil, where Avtai met the mendicant who was thought, at least by some, to be the Third Lama Dalai in one form or another, and where Zanabazar was born, is located in what is now Övörkhangai Aimag, about twenty-seven miles south of a village of the same name. The geographical center of the current country of Mongolia is about thirty miles north of here, near the town of B ürd. At Yesön Zuil-Zanabazar's birthplace, and not the village-were nine springs which never froze over in winter (according to locals these springs have since gone dry), and it is these which give the place its name yesön = nine; zuil = types, or kinds). Eventually a temple was built on the site where legend maintains that Avtai built the ovoo to commemorate his meeting with mendicant-lama he believed to be the Dalai Lama. Because it was surrounded by eight large stupas it became known as the Eight Stupas Temple. It was destroyed in the 1930s by the communists, who were particularly keen on erasing any memories of Zanabazar, the first of the Bogd Gegens, the figureheads of Buddhism in Mongolia. Local people and pilgrims later heaped up rubble from the ruins into a large ovoo which stood as a replacement for Avtai's original monument and the Eight Stupa Temple. When I first visited here in 1997 the stone bases of two of the stupas were still visible.

Some locals claimed that Zanabazar was born on this spot, while others maintain he was born just behind a small pond about a mile and half to the northeast-there is no actual marker to show the place-and that his umbilical cord was buried here at the ovoo. Locals also say that about a mile to the southeast is a spot where Zanabazar's baby clothes were burned, as was the tradition, after he no longer needed them. When I returned to Yesön Zuil in 2003 I discovered that the year before a small white temple had been built about a hundred yards away from the ovoo. This temple now commemorates the birthplace of Zanabazar.

A little over a mile away, on higher ground, Dashgungaa Dejid Monastery had also been established to honor Zanabazar. It too was destroyed during the anti-religious campaigns of the 1930s. In 1997 the ruined walls of some of the buildings of this monastery still stood, but by 2003 they had been torn down for building materials. In the early 1990s a small temple and a white stupa were constructed next to the ruins. In 1995 a painting and a near-life-sized statue of Zanabazar were placed in the otherwise sparsely appointed temple to commemorate the 380th anniversary of Zanabazar's birth.

In 1997 an old monk who had witnessed the destruction of both the Eight-Stupas Temple and Dashgungaa Dejid Monastery still lived in a ger near the ruins, but he was ill and too weak to talk about those unfortunate times. It would appear that despite the deprecations of the past, however, once again Zanabazar is being remembered here.

It did not take long for stories of Gombodorj Khan's remarkable little boy to spread throughout Khalkha Mongolia. Setsen's Khan's prophecy, allegedly made before the boy was born; the signs and portents surrounding his birth; the findings of soothsayer Setsen Khan had sent to examine the boy; the boy's amazing utterances and extraordinary behavior; his taking of his first monastic vows at the age of three, all would have been commented on and elaborated upon at great length in a country where people thought nothing of traveling hundreds of miles by horse simply to visit acquaintances and hear some interesting tidbit of news. By the time he was four years old not only the Buddhist hierarchy of Mongolia but even the ruling khans and princes realized that he was destined to play a unique role in the history of their country. Thus in 1639 a great convocation was held to enthrone him as head of the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism in all of Khalkha Mongolia and establish for him his own monastery.

From as far away as Buir Nuur to the east and the shores of huge salt lakes in the Great Depression in the west, and from the edge of the Siberian taiga in the north and the depths of the Gobi Desert in the south, the khans and their entourages of the khanates of Khalkha Mongolia converged on the territory of the Zanabazar's father the Tüsheet Khan Gombodorj. They all met about forty-eight miles north of Yesön Zuil, at a small lake surrounded on three sides by hills covered with the sand dunes of the so-called Mongol Els-a belt of dunes up to five miles wide and trending north-south for over fifty miles. On the fourth side loomed, like a backdrop of the huge natural amphitheater, the 5477 foot-high massif of Ikh Mongol Uul. This spot, thought to be very near the geographic center of ancient Khalka Mongolia, and just eighteen miles northeast of the geographical center of the current country of Mongolia, was known as the khüis-"navel"-of the Mongol realm. It eventually became known as Shireet Tsagaan Nuur (White Throne Lake). 

Details of the composition of the convocation at Shireet Tsagaan Nuur are lacking but since all representatives of all four khanates and their no-doubt sizable entourages were present it is possible that several thousand people were in attendance. Before this assembled throng Zanabazar was officially given the title of Gegen which has been informally bestowed upon him by Setsen Khan shortly after his birth. He also received ordination into the first monastic degree, known as Rabjun, from the presiding lama, a Sakya monk named B ürilegüü. Then he was given another title, Sumati-Sakya-Dodza-"one who holds the Sakya banner of the great mind"-and, according to traditional account, a new name, Lobsang Dambi Jantsen ("religious flag of good omen"). Since it had been decided to make him the superior of his own monastery, Zanabazar was taught the Khamboin-jinan, or "the superior's instructions and ordination". At some point he also received a Malakala initiation..

On a high grass-covered knoll between the shore of the lake and base of Ikh Mongol Uul a ger, the traditional felt tent of the nomads, had been erected. Because the ger was draped outside with yellow cloth it became known as the Shar Bösiyn Ord, or "Yellow Sash Palace". Lama B ürilegüü carried the little boy up the hill and placed on a throne in the ger, thus signifying that the boy was now the head of the Buddhist faith in Mongolia. The ger itself was sanctified as the first temple of what eventually became Zanabazar's own monastery. The assembled Mongols then appeared before Zanabazar, offering obeisance and making offerings. He received several dozen gers from each of the Mongol khans, the basis of what became his shabinar, or personal estate. Then began the games, feasts, and celebrations.

Shireet Tsagaan Nuur is located 148 miles west-southwest of Ulaan Baatar in what is now Övörkhangai Aimag. I first visited here in 1997, as described in my book Travels in Northern Mongolia. At that time it appeared to be visited by only a few die-hard Mongolian pilgrims. No one I talked to back in Ulaan Baatar could tell me its exact location, and even local people along the main highway from Ulaan Baatar to Kharkhorin, which passes ten miles north of Shireet Tsagaan Nuur, could give only the sketchiest directions. Even though we got more detailed instructions from herdsmen in the valley of the Jargalant River, just to the south of Shireet Tsagaan Nuur, we found the extremely faint jeep track which led across the sand dunes of the Mongol Els to the old lake depression only by accident.

I returned to Shireet Tsagaan Nuur in the summer of 2002. Since my first visit a tourist map of the area had been published which showed the location of Shireet Tsagaan Nuur and other local landmarks. Still, we stopped at a herdsman's ger in the valley of the Jargalant to get precise directions to the jeep track across the sand dunes. The young herdsman, after plying us airag (fermented mare's milk), agreed to come along for the ride and show us the way, although now this would not have been necessarily, as the jeep track appeared to be much more heavily used than before and was not at all hard to find. The herdsman said that now many Mongolians come here on outings and in the last couple of years even a few foreign tourist groups have started to show up.

Zanabazar's original ger temple was supposedly located on a high hill overlooking the old lake bed- the lake which existed here in Zanabazar's day has almost completely dried up-of Shireet Tsagaan Nuur, with Ikh Mongol Uul looming up just behind.. The site is surrounding on the other three sides by sand-dune covered hills. The site of the ger temple-the Shar Bösiyn Ord (the Yellow Sash Palace)-is marked by a ten-foot high white stupa. It was here that the four-year old boy was named as the first of Mongolia's eight Bogd Gegens.

This ger temple was the original core of Zanabazar's traveling monastery, which eventually became known as Örgöö, meaning "palace" or "camp of an important person." Örgöö would continually change places and transform itself many times until it finally settled at the confluence of the Tuul and Selbi rivers, in the large basin surrounded by the four holy mountains of Chingeltei Uul, Bayanzurkh Uul, Songino Uul , and Bogd Khan Uul, and became the foundation of the city of Ulaan Baatar. Thus Shireet Tsagaan Nuur is recognized as the original site of what is now Mongolia's capital.

Since my first visit here the mayor's office of the city of Ulaan Baatar has erected an eight-foot high stone slab at the base of the hill, at the edge of the old lake, commemorating the 360th anniversary of the founding here of what has become Ulaan Baatar. On the front, facing the stupa is a carved Mongolian inscription in Cyrillic alphabet with the date the monument was dedicated-October 29, 1999-and on the back is a much longer inscription in Old Mongolian vertical script. Above this inscription is the famous Soyombo symbol, which as we shall see was invented by Zanabazar, and which is now also found on the Mongolian flag, on Mongolian paper money, and many, many other places. Thus the city of Ulaan Baatar has given its imprimatur to Shireet Tsagaan Nuur as the original location of its founding.

Little is known about Zanabazar's life in the immediate years after his enthronement in 1639. As the Russsian ethnographer Pozdneev noted:

Judging by the complete silent of the chronicles and legends concerning the first years of his life, it must be supposed that the childhood and adolescence of the Gegen equally did not have anything conspicious about them: the child probably lived under good circumstances and in esteem, studied with his best and oldest lamas, and also left the monastery at times to stay with his parents.

The next news we have of him is in 1647 (Fire Pig Year of the 11th sixty-year cycle) when at the age of twelve or thirteen he founded a new monastery on the Shariyn Gol about 12 miles southeast of Erdene Zuu and the current town of Kharkhorin. He took part in the consecration of this new monastery and gave it the name Braibun-gaji-gandan-shat-dublin, according to Pozdneev. Here Zanabazar lived and studied as a young man.

The monastery became more commonly known as Baruun Khuree (West Monastery) and later as Ondür Gegen's Old Lamasery. (Ondür Gegen was another name for Zanabazer, ondür meaning "high", or "big"). Apparently begun as a tent camp, the monastery changed locations several times before settling at its current site on slightly higher ground a mile or so from the river in 1787, during the reign of the Fourth Bodg Gegen. At its new location the monastery took on yet another name, Shankh Monastery, although the other names continued to be used. According to monks now living at the monastery, the word shankh refers to a mountain or group of high hills located about halfway between the current site of the monastery and Erdene Zuu. The exact meaning of the word shankh is unclear, but one monk opines that it refers to "a group of objects arranged in a particular order." The monks there also relate a legend about the why this particular site was chosen. They say that a man riding by here accidentally spilled a pail of milk. Upon seeing the milk splattered on the ground a lama declared that this was sign that the ten white virtues would flourish on this spot.

Several large stone and brick temples were eventually constructed on the site but the monastery retained its roots as a traveling tent camp at least up until the late nineteenth-century. When Pozdneev visited here in 1892 he found five huge gers each holding from 150 to 200 people which were still being used as temples. These white felt gers were "decorated very beautifully on the outside," according to Pozdneev, and he noted that the number of monks here was greater than at the more well-known Erdene Zuu monastery nearby.

The ger temples are long gone, and now only the main temple and a smaller side temple which also serves as a museum remain. The famous statue, known as the Ochirpani, which had been given to Avtai Khan by the Third Dalai Lama could be found here until recent times, but monks now say that it has dissappeared, although no one can how or exactly when. The robes worn by the Zanabazar when he was a young student here are still in the possession of the monastery, but usually not out on public display

Monks also tell legend about a seven-foot long horn which Zanabazar made while living at this monastery. They say that monks from a monastery at what is now Ulaan Baatar came and asked Zanabazar for the horn, but he refused to part with it, telling them, "If you want to take the horn you will have to also have to move the entire monastery." Zanabazar became ill after this, which he believed was a result of refusing the monks' request. Still, when they came to ask for the horn again he again refused. They came a third time and he finally agreed to give them the horn. But when they tied the horn onto a camel to carry it to their monastery it suddenly began sounding by itself a low, plaintive note, as if saddened to be leaving Zanabazar's monastery. Shaken by this occurrence, the monks unloaded the horn and left it where they had found it. Although this story may be apochryphal, the horn can still be found at Shankh and is brought out one day a year for public display.

In addition, the main temple at Shankh contains seven very rare, if not unique, free-hanging thangkas showing the 722 dieties of the Kalachakra Tantra. (It will be remembered that the appearance of the Bogd Gegens, of whom Zanabazar was the first, had, according to the Rosary of White Lotuses, been predicted in the Kalachakra Tantra.) These are the same depictions shown on the wall paintings of the famous Kalachakra Temple, part of the Namgyal Monastery at the current Dalai Lama's residence in Dharamsala, India. One monk at Shankh claims that in the early 1990s a Tibetan artist from Dharamsala came here to Shankh to study these thangkas, and since construction of the Kalachakra Temple at Dharamsala began in 1992 and was not finished until 1994 it is possible that the wall paintiings there were modelled at least in part on the Shankh thangkas, although of course purely Tibetan prototypes also exist. These valuable thangkas were hidden away by monks during the communist era, when they probably would have been destroyed, and were only once again put on display in the late 1980s. Along with the Kalachakra thangkas is a rare thangka depicting the legendary kingdom of Shambhala, where the Kalachakra Tantra was taught before being introducted into India in late tenth century.

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