Preserving the legacy of Danzanravjaa, Lord of the Gobi

A story of determination and discovery

The author, Pete Morrow, CEO, Khan Bank of Mongolia, has given his permission to publish the story online. This article was previous published in the Tibet Foundation Newsletter.

Altangerel unearthing items that belonged to Danzanravjaa

The nineteenth century Lama Danzanravjaa was one of the most creative, colorful and enigmatic characters in Mongolian history. He was an accomplished artist, poet, scholar, playwright, songwriter, linguist, collector, traveler, martial artist, and herbal medic as well as Buddhist leader in the Gobi. He spent months at a time in prayer and creative solitude in caves or in his special ger, which, to avoid interruption, he had built without a door. At other times he was a hot-tempered, drunken party animal, organizing and participating in wild orgies at his temple. In his lifetime he was considered a living god and at his death a martyr. Today Mongolians are just discovering his full dimensions.

After his death in 1856 Danzanravjaa’s legend and surviving works went underground for 135 years. The story reemerged in 1991 in Sainshand, the dusty and remote capital of Dornogov aimag. An overnight train ride from Ulaanbaatar on the Trans Siberian Railway to Beijing, Sainshand gets virtually no visitors as there is little business activity and it lacks a travel infrastructure suitable for foreigners. Thus few Mongolians outside the Gobi, and fewer foreigners, have experienced Danzanravjaa’s Khamaryn Monastery site or seen his extraordinary surviving works in Sainshand’s Danzanravjaa Museum.

It is a miracle that he is known to us at all. One family has preserved his legacy in secret for eight generations in a tradition called Takhilch that continues today and is as bizarre and interesting as Danzanravjaa himself.

Danzanravjaa, monk artist, songwriter and poet
Danzanravjaa was born in 1803 deep in the East Gobi and soon was recognized as a prodigy, writing and performing his own music at age four. In 1808 local Red Hat (Nyingma) Buddhists proclaimed the five-year-old the reincarnated “Fifth Ferocious Saint Lord of Gobi,” their spiritual leader. The ruling Manchus of the Qing Dynasty had killed the fourth Lord and forbade successors, believing their control in the Gobi threatened by powerful local lamas. Only through the intervention of the tenth Dalai Lama, then the Manchu’s spiritual leader, was the new Lord Danzanravjaa allowed to live.

In 1821, after completing his monastic education, he founded the Khamaryn Monastery in the East Gobi that would be his headquarters for the rest of his life. In search of the right place he had wandered hundreds of kilometers to find this extraordinary site where, reportedly, he found the poor herder Balshinchoijoo asleep in the lower meadow and took that as a sign from God that this was the place. Balshinchoijoo would help build the monastery and serve as his assistant and guardian all his life, and his descendants still guard Danzanravjaa’s legend and works.

Khamaryn Monastery lies an hour south of Sainshand, administrative centre of the East Gobi. Out of the middle of the sere desert, a series of rippled lava hills rises to form several tiered broad meadows, cut through with steep ravines and hidden caves. A river once lined with verdant cottonwood trees flows through the centre, and from the summit you can see the towering Black Mountain to the north and the limitless Gobi desert in all other directions. It is a beautiful and mystical place.

All of the original buildings were destroyed in the purges of the 1930s, and the only buildings today are two small temples rebuilt by locals in 1990 and operated by a monk, Baatar, and ten other lamas.

In these protected meadows Danzanravjaa eventually built some eighty temples and outbuildings and outfitted them with exquisite decoration, thankas, sacred texts, statues, altars, wheels, many rare objects appropriate to a Lord of the Gobi. Here he admitted and educated lamas, ran an art school, produced plays, created extraordinary works of art, administered the details of his sovereignty and received important foreign visitors. He also reciprocated, visiting many other Eastern and Central Asian lands, and from these foreign travels, for which he learned several other languages, he further endowed his temples with beautiful objects. He clearly was an elegant, educated man of the world, but he also was much more.

A few hundred meters north of the temples, in a three-sided valley just below the summit, he built in 1830 Mongolia’s first theatre, a “theatre-in-the-square” with a roof and sets but open on all four sides. Its foundations are still visible and measure about thirty meters on a side. He maintained a large acting troupe to perform his expansive musical dramas and, complete with a camel-drawn mobile theatre on wheels, sent them touring through the Gobi and took them along on his foreign travels. He designed elaborate sets and costumes and had them made in his art school. At Khamaryn, Danzanravjaa would sit just below the front of the stage, with his back to the river and cottonwoods, and personally direct the singing and acting.

These were major productions: his most famous surviving play, “True Story of the Moon Cookoo,” required several weeks and over 120 actors to perform in elaborate gilded costume. Two other plays survive in part, including “Story of Chingiss.” There has been no serious contemporary effort yet to reproduce these elaborate musicals.

Next to the theatre he built Mongolia’s first secular art school and trained several dozen students at a time in both religious and secular art. Danzanravjaa himself produced a prodigious volume of paintings, tapestries, and drawings, a large number of which survive and are on display in the Danzanravjaa Museum in Sainshand

Just to the east of the theatre is a maze of steep cliffs and ravines cut out of the lava rock and full of caves and craggy overhangs. Here Danzanravjaa would retreat for months at a time to fast and meditate alone, and to write and paint. At one such site, he worked in a spacious cave and could step immediately outside onto a promontory overlooking a huge valley with a clear view of both the sunrise and the sunset. Here he created an enormous body of work on many subjects: history, theology, social commentary, poetry, drama, fiction and, improbably, a treatise on tantric sexual practices illustrated in his hand with 108 finely detailed drawings. Many of these works, including the 108 drawings, also are in the Sainshand Museum.

Danzanravjaa is known to most Mongolians as a songwriter. Even in the Communist era when officially he hardly existed, his songs and lullabies were popular as children’s songs. Even today many Mongolian recall that his songs were sung to them at bedtime.

At other times Khamaryn was the scene of wild partying and drunken orgies led by Danzanravjaa. Not all Red Hat Buddhist monks are celibate — a significant difference from the Yellow Hats (Gelugpa) monks — and Danzanravjaa included woman at the temple and interwove sexuality among his life, his art, and his theological teachings. He created a seeming cult of women in many forms. He featured women in his plays. His poetry and drawings honor the beauty of women. Some believe Danzanravjaa was mentally unbalanced, or at least went through periods of madness that transcended his brilliance.

A bit further north on the flat summit Danzanravjaa laid out the “Path to Heaven.” From a starting gate of piled rocks a path leads to a very large ovoo at the other end, which is topped by a head-shaped rock. Known as the “brain ovoo,” it seems to represent Danzanravjaa’s notion that the intellect is an essential part of the spirit. Halfway down the path are three rings of stones symmetric and perpendicular to the main path, like Orion’s belt. After circling the ovoo a ritual three times counterclockwise, on the return one stops at the circles and makes an offering to the Black Mountains by tossing a cup of vodka in their direction. If one makes a wish during the offering and keeps it secret, upon return through the gate the wish will be granted. Mine was.

There are hundreds of stories about Danzanravjaa, legends and tall-tales and superstitions suggesting divine powers that doubtless have been embellished over the years. This mythic, bigger-than-life image has kept a strong hold on people in this Gobi region.

Danzanravjaa was murdered in 1856 with poison in his cup of vodka. He had an edgy relationship with the Manchu authorities, often including anti-Manchu elements in his art, drama and teachings, and they in turn regularly harassed him and interrupted activities at Khamaryn. It seems likely the Manchu rulers had enough of his anti-Manchu sentiments and his charismatic hold on the Gobi and arranged to do him in.

At his death, the Manchus ordered the theatre and art school closed and forbade any activity at Khamaryn other than normal lamasery functions of prayer and teaching. They regularly sent troops to enforce this ban. For their better protection, his assistant Balshinchoijoo packed the contents of the temples — Danzanravjaa’s artworks, books, compositions, sets, costumes, gifts from abroad and all the religious items and his other personal possessions — into 1500 crates and secured them in two temples along with Danzanravjaa’s body which he had mummified.

Guarding the collections: the tradition of the ‘Takhilch’ 
Balshinchoijoo remained at Khamaryn the rest of his life to guard the temples and the crated valuables and legends of Danzanravjaa. He also began an extraordinary tradition known as ‘Takhilch’ to ensure that responsibility for their heritage would be maintained through the generations.

He selected his son Ganocher as the next guardian of Khamaryn and devised a strict physical and mental training regimen for him that began when he was a young boy. He studied languages, history, religion, and the legends of Danzanravjaa. He learned all about Khamaryn and the objects he would be responsible for. Balshinchoijoo prepared an oath written on silk cloth by which each successive Takhilch would affirm that 1) the items at the Temple were not personal property, but they belong to all Mongolians; 2) they must never leave the country; and 3) if the items are endangered the Takhilch is responsible for their protection and preservation.

Ganocher took the oath at age twenty-five, after two full twelve-year cycles of lunar years (Mongolians are one year old at birth by their way of counting). A ritual snuff bottle from Danzanravjaa’s collection was passed to him by Balshinchoijoo to mark his takeover as Takhilch for Khamaryn and protector of its assets. At that point the father was available as an elder or advisor, but the son had assumed sole responsibility.

Ganocher anointed his son Narya, and Narya his son Ongoi, and Ongoi his son Gambyn, and Gambyn his son Tudev, and all received similar intense early training and took Balshinchoijoo’s oath and the snuff bottle as Takhilch at age twenty-five. Prior to Tudev taking the role in 1938 little is known of these early Takhilch.

Tudev, the Takhilch in the late 1930’s
When the communist government took power in Mongolia in the 1920’s there were at least 700 monasteries in Mongolia and an estimated 110,000 lamas. The Buddhists were organized, wealthy and powerful, and their elimination as a political counterforce was thought necessary for the building of a socialist society. The Soviet directed purges began in the 1930s and culminated in 1938 with the Mongolian and Soviet armies ransacking and destroying nearly all temples and killing or exiling all lamas. Only three monasteries in the country survived this holocaust.

Tudev, the great great great grandson of the first Takhilch , had just taken over the post when the Soviet and Mongolian troops opened a camp very near Khamaryn. Tudev responded according to his oath: he undertook the laborious and dangerous process of re-boxing and hauling the temple treasures and Danzanravjaa’s works to a hiding place in the dry bed of the Enginy River ten kilometres away.

Hiding the treasures as the Communists closed in
Every night for sixty-four nights he carried one large box at a time to the hiding place. He buried them in the soft gravel of the riverbed and covered them with large stones. He was unable to move Danzanravjaa’s mummified body so he cremated it and buried the ashes with the other valuables.

On the sixty-fifth night the troops came to the monastery and destroyed or hauled away all the remaining crates. The temples, theatre, and other buildings were levelled, and they even cut down the cottonwood trees by the river, because they believed Danzanravjaa’s hold on local people was so strong that they had to obliterate every vestige of his presence. They arrested 300 monks, who were never seen again, and others dispersed into the countryside.

Tudev continued to keep watch over Khamaryn Monastery and each spring checked the sixty-four crates of valuables that only he knew existed. He had one daughter and an adopted son, but he said nothing to either of them about his secret, nor to anyone else. He always assumed that the threat from his government would pass and he would be able to return the valuables to Khamaryn. When it did not, he grew concerned that he lacked an heir who he could train as Takhilch to succeed him.

The present Takhilch, Altangerel
In 1960 Tudev’s daughter in Ulaanbaatar gave birth to Altangerel, the third of their ten children. They noticed a birthmark in the shape of a backward ‘D’, which Tudev had as well. They had no idea of Tudev’s secret or of the meaning of his birthmark, but they knew it was important. They called Sainshand and got word to Tudev that their son had been born with his birthmark. Tudev left his animals and took the train to Ulaanbaatar. When he got there, he went straight to see the baby Altangerel.

Without greeting the parents he said, “Show me the mark.” After inspecting it he said, “You have other children, this boy will be mine.” He returned to Sainshand with the infant Altangerel and raised him according to the first Takhilch’s prescriptions, preparing him for his responsibilities.

A harsh training 
The boy Altangerel was groomed by his grandfather, Tudev, with the classical Buddhist education and strict personal regimen. He taught him Mongolian, Manchurian and Tibetan, and made him memorize large portions of Danzanravjaa’s works. He studied Buddhist philosophy, theology, poetry, and history. He practiced yoga and meditation and was required to write long poems in various styles. All this, Altangerel quotes Tudev, to prepare him intellectually and morally for the challenges he would face as sole guardian of the heritage of Danzanravjaa. He also drilled him on the history of Khamaryn and all that happened there.

Altangerel remembers Tudev as a harsh and domineering man. The young boy was required to rise each day before dawn for prayers and mantras and then to make the fire and boil tea. Altangerel says he was always hungry. After age seven he spent winters at school in Sainshand and learned how normal Mongolian kids lived, but had to return to Tudev’s ger and the strict regimen each summer.

Tudev often beat Altangerel for minor violations. He was forced to carry sacks of sharp stones on his bare back for several kilometres as a punishment. Tudev took Altangerel to a cemetery — a taboo place for Buddhists — and made him to spend the night sleeping there in the cold. The latter was to teach him to handle adversity, Altangerel was told. He often wondered why he was the only kid he knew who had to live this way.

Altangerel learns about the hidden treasure
And, inevitably, he introduced Altangerel to the secret of the buried crates. When he was seven, Tudev took him to the riverbed and showed him the seventeen sites that contained the sixty-four crates. He drilled him to memorize the locations, as writing down the coordinates would be too risky. In case he forgot, he taught him a second way to find the sites based on the full moon rays on the fifteenth day of the middle month of the lunar year.

For seventeen years they returned every few months to the riverbed and dug up the crates one at a time. Tudev would open a crate and carefully remove each object one by one, explaining to Altangerel what it was, when it was used and its importance, which he memorized. Then Altangerel replaced each item back into the crate in the proper position while reciting all the relevant information about it.

Tudev instructed Altangerel to assume that the crates would have to stay hidden for one hundred years. Textiles were folded carefully and metal items were covered with horse fat to prevent corrosion. The crates were broken down and each wooden slat was boiled using horse fat to preserve it. A sack of dung ashes was placed on the bottom to absorb moisture. The crate was secured in a sealed leather sack. The leather was sewn and then the hems were sealed with a mixture of tree resin and ashes. Just before sealing, a small fire was lit in a dish and placed in the sack to displace the oxygen. Then a new hole was dug for the crate. Another sack of dung ash was placed on top and a triangle of wooden poles with an overturned metal pot was fashioned as a sort of teepee to deflect moisture. Then the hole was filled in with earth and disguised again with rocks.

The process of opening, treating and closing up the three or four crates in each site took seven to ten days. Eventually eight of the crates were hand carried back to Tudev’s ger so the items could be used in Altangerel’s training. They only worked at night to minimize the risk of detection. Tudev had told the herders in the area that he was training Altangerel to be a lama so they would not think anything unusual of their activity, but both were aware of the risk the authorities would discover them which would lead to certain destruction of the crates and imprisonment for them. .

Altangerel becomes the new Takhilch
In 1980 Altangerel began his compulsory army service. He arranged to be stationed in Sainshand as a driver so he could continue his Takhilch training, and the car was useful for working with the crates.

One day in 1984 Tudev summoned him to his ger and they rode two of his horses to nearby Black Mountain. There the twenty-five-year-old Altangerel took the Takhilch oath and was given the snuff bottle. Tudev told him, “Now you are Takhilch. I have taught you and now you have full responsibility. During my times I was threatened by rifles and guns. If I had been caught with the sixty-four crates I would have been killed. In these times you will be threatened by money”. Then he knelt down and said to Altangerel, “Your Grandfather wants to apologize to you. I had a father’s love for you, but our relationship had to be more than that. For all the Mongolian people I pushed you, beat you, and made you sleep in the cemetery to prepare you for the times and difficulties that will come.”

Tudev continued, “It will be even more difficult for you to train your successor. If in your time the good times come again, dig up the crates and give them to the Mongolian people. If not, train and pass on the knowledge to your son as the next Takhilch”. Tudev also told him that to meet his responsibilities in the modern world, Altangerel would need a modern education and he should go to University.

Hope at last — revealing the secrets of Dazanravjaa
After Altangerel resigned from the army he enrolled in the Pedagogical Institute in Ulaanbaatar. In1988 he read a newspaper article that local Gobi people were rebuilding two temples at Khamaryn. The article quoted Tudev that Danzanravjaa’s valuables had been preserved until this time, and that Altangerel was responsible for them. Altangerel lived in fear that this information was now public, and on his next vacation went to Sainshand and asked his grandfather why he made public comments. Tudev replied, “Times have changed. Each time has its own character, like a wind that goes around the world. You should hold no grudge against individuals for what they did in another time. You should be listening to your heart and deciding what to do now.”

Altangerel finished his degree and returned to Sainshand in 1989 to work as a schoolteacher. When the communist government fell in 1990, he decided it was time to reveal some of the secrets of Danzanravjaa. The two restored temples at Khamaryn were finished and in 1991 he dug up eight crates of religious objects for them. Also in 1991 local officials gave him a building in Sainshand for the Danzanravjaa Museum, which he filled with object from another twenty-four of the crates including the best drawings, paintings, costumes and other beautiful objects. Since then he has continued his Takhilch responsibilities as Museum Director. Tudev died on December 9, 1990, without seeing the new temples or the museum.

Thus thirty-two crates of Danzanravjaa’s legacy, half of those secreted by Tudev, are now available to the Mongolian people. In the 1980s Altangerel’s mother gave the eight crates that had been stored near Tudev’s ger to ‘museum authorities’ from Ulaanbaatar and they have never been seen again. Two others were stolen.

The remaining twenty-two crates are still hidden where Tudev and Altangerel repacked and buried them, and only Altangerel knows where that is. He will dig them up when he has the space and money to care for them properly, but until then he believes they are safest where they are.

If Danzanravjaa is a Mongolian national treasure so is Altangerel, both in his own right and as the current representative of a family that has guarded the great Lama’s legacy for now 181 years. He has said, ‘I have two sons. One has the birthmark, and I am preparing him as the next Takhilch’.

Copyright © 2002 by J. P. Morrow, CEO, Khan Bank of Mongolia

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