At the Center of Russian Buddhism, a Festival Reveals an Undead Lama - Atlas Obscura
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At the Center of Russian Buddhism, a Festival Reveals an Undead Lama

article-imageall photographs by the author unless indicated

There is a place in Siberia, cradled in the spurs of the rolling Khamar-Daban Mountains, that holds tenuously to the Tibetan calendar. It is Ivolginsky Datsan, a monastery that is the epicenter of Buddhism in Russia. The day I visit is the drukpa tse shi, the fourth day of the sixth month of the Tibetan lunar calendar, and thousands throng this place because it marks the Choekhor Duechen holiday. Few are here strictly to honor the Buddha Shakyamuni and the occasion of his first teachings, however. Most of the crowd, a mix of Buryats and ethnic Russians, are here to see the 12th Pandido Khambo Lama, a man who announced his passing in 1927, mediated into death, and has not decomposed since. His successor, the 24th Pandido Khambo Lama, decreed that his body would be displayed on major holidays, adding to a modern revival of religious interest.

The Ivolginsky Datsan sprawls out in a walled assemblage of rough huts, cabins, and yurts, all low and presided over by a constellation of ornate, multi-story Tibetan-style temples ringed with whitewashed stupas and banks of multifarious prayer wheels emitting a constant rattle and squeak. This curious mix of the vernacular and the high is staked on a wide plain of grassland and low scrub 30 kilometers (18.64 miles) west of Ulan Ude, the regional capital. We are here because of an invitation from Olga, clothes smuggler extraordinaire. She and her husband helped us cross the Mongolian/Russian border, and insisted we postpone our travel plans and visit the Khambo Lama on this one holy day.

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The story of the undead Lama and his home at Ivolginsky begins, as with many stories in Asia, with a decree of Genghis Khan. The Mongolian empire under the Great Khan was highly tolerant of various religions, and relays of Muslims, Tengrist shamans, Buddhists, Nestorian and Catholic Christians, and Manichaeists, all sought to convert the royal family to their particular brand. The royal court in the early 13th century was thus a remarkable scene of religious debate, likely unheard of until the modern era. Catholic monks were given safe passage to cross the domains of the Khan, and sat in Karakorum with Islamic scholars and Buddhist lamas as they argued for the merits of their beliefs. Genghis remained an animist until his death, but his sons, family, and followers each gravitated to different religions. Indeed, when the Mongol hordes, heralded as the otherworldly spawn of Hell, eventually reached Europe and came into contact with Christendom, some part of the army was already Christian.

Genghis Khan’s grandson, Prince Godan, had invaded Tibet in 1240 and learned of the particular brand of Buddhism practiced there. He invited the lamas to court, and eventually converted himself. The Yuan Dynasty that followed under Kublai continued a focus on Tibetan Buddhism, and long after the expulsion of the Mongols from China, the Yuan remnants to the north maintained a connection to Tibet. Altan Khan, one of the last Yuan-associated tribal chiefs, invited Tibetan Buddhists of the Gelup (“Yellow-Hat”) branch to Mongolia, eventually naming one of the envoys “Dalai Lama” and securing the connection between the two lands. By the end of the 17th century, nearly all Mongolians had converted, and the steppe and mountains were dotted with active monasteries, or datsans, filled with lamas teaching, preaching, and studying.

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Hence, Mongolia today is largely Tibetan Buddhist. But, we were not in Mongolia; we were in Russia, land of Orthodoxy. In the West, our view of Russia is often of an ethnic and religious monolith, but in reality, the land of Rus has been multiethnic and multicultural from its beginning, when Viking traders began to rule the Slavic tribes north and west of the Black Sea. Today, a mosaic dominates in some regions, and in southern Siberia, a string of semi-autonomous federal subjects lines the Central and East Asian borders. Ivolginsky and the mummy are in Buryatia, the remote republic that encompasses the land between Lake Baikal and the Mongolia frontier, and in the 16th century, Buryatia was under the control of Altan Khan and the northern Yuan Dynasty. Tibetan Buddhism spread here just as it did farther south. The Buryats were originally conquered by Genghis Khan’s son Jochi in 1206, but are close ethnic kin to the Mongolians south of the border. Olga, our erstwhile transporter, is Buryat, but lives in Mongolia with her Mongolian husband.

The Mongols were a steppe people, but the Mongol Buryats lived on the frontier of two of our planet’s great eco-regions — the steppe grasslands of Central Asia and the taiga forest of Siberia. These continent-sized biotic bands find their border here in the Khamar-Daban Mountains, just behind the Datsan, where open land gives way to larch-clad slopes. We stop in a yurt near the gate to make the expected small donation, buy imitation silk scarves, and convert some roubles into kopecks, the nearly worthless coins with which we will leave offerings. Inside the gate, paving stones lead to hammered paths and duckboards, and we join the procession in circumambulating the compound. Stands of prayer wheels are interspersed with grand temples, but as we move away from the gate, rough-cut new cabins and brightly painted huts abound. Yurts dot the melange, and saffron-robed khuvaraks — novices — walk together in faint amusement at the besieging pilgrims.

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Firewood shrouds the lesser buildings. This is still Siberia, and with rich forests and Arctic winters, fuel is stockpiled for months in anticipation. We round one pile and slink along the side of the library, often the center of attention for the accredited onsite Buddhist university, but today staffed by two young boys and statues of protective demons. Printed on silk in the uchen Tibetan script, the rolls tell of pharmacology, theology, medicine, iconography, tantric devotion, and a hundred other topics. Red-trimmed glass cabinets cloud the eight-sided building. Another temple, grander than the last, holds monks in careful application of colored sand, building a tabletop mandala while people wash in one door and out the other. Outside, an oddity presents itself: a stucco and glass cube filled with vegetation. We are told, in proud declaration, that this northern outlier was grown from a cutting of the Bodhi Tree in India, and is housed in this stolid greenhouse to protect it during winter’s nine month hold.

A clash of cymbals and horn blows announce the beginning of the procession. Outside the low stick walls, monks and visitors gather and begin streaming around the compound amid bushes tied with strips of fabric and wandering animals. Brilliant sun lights the colors of the palanquin in which the 12th Pandido Khambo Lama is carried, on his way from his home in the palace temple Itigel Khambyn ordon, to the central Dzogchen Dugan.

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This man was born in 1852 as Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov, and began his studies at Annisky Datsan, eventually becoming a noted scholar and author. The Dalai Lama is chosen, but in Buryatia, the Khambo Lama is voted into his position, and in 1911, Itigilov was selected by the monks as the 12th Pandido Khambo Lama. He was suspected of being the reincarnation of the Lama Damba Dorja Zayayev, in part because Zayayev was born in 1702, lived for seventy-five years, and seventy-five years after that, Itigilov was born, also living to for seventy-five years.

article-imagePandido Khambo Lama in life (via Wikimedia)

The 12th Pandido Khambo Lama lived in tumultuous times. Czar Nicholas II invited him to the 300-year anniversary celebration of the Romanov Dynasty, and allowed him to build the first Buddhist temple in Europe. Empress Elizabeth had recognized the “lamaists” of her realm in the 18th century, but under Itigilov, the Buryat religion gained stature as one of the faiths of the empire. At home, as leader of Russia’s Buddhists, he presided over a revival in interest and participation among Buryats before retiring at the close of Russia’s involvement in World War I in 1917. In 1927, he warned his fellow monks that the “Red Teaching” was coming and urged them to escape to Tibet while they still could. Few listened. Itigilov then asked them to chant the Prayer of Death over him as he meditated, but they refused. He left instructions that he should be buried immediately and in position, and then began chanting the prayer himself. He died shortly thereafter.

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The monks buried him in a larch box in an unmarked grave, and he was nearly forgotten. His successors tried to head off the coming the destruction of the Bolsheviks by voluntarily converting some monasteries to collective farms, but it was no use. By the late 1930s, the Communist government had razed all 48 datsans in Buryatia, and disempowered the lamas before imprisoning or executing hundreds of them. Stalin, oddly, was a benefactor of Tibetan Buddhism in Buryatia in addition to being one of its great persecutors. During World War II, Buryat soldiers in the Red Army won more Hero of the Soviet Union medals than any other minority ethnic group, and in return, some say, Stalin allowed them to build a new datsan at Ivolginsky in 1946. The 14th Dalai Lama is quoted as saying:

“It was built when Stalin was at the height of his powers. I do not understand how this could happen, but this fact has helped me to realize that spirituality is so deeply rooted in the human mind, that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to uproot it.”

Despite the official sanction, life for Buddhists in the Buryat Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic was exceedingly difficult. Religion was all but banned, and the government in Moscow worked tirelessly to Russify the minorities on the periphery. Twice during the Communist era, Itigilov was exhumed as per his instructions, and in both cases the lamas were astonished to find him still in the lotus position and untouched by the corruption of death. He was reburied each time, and the few monks who knew where he was kept it a secret for fear that the undead lama would be destroyed like so many other symbols of the Buryat culture and religion.

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Now at Ivolginsky Datsan, beyond the miniature Bodhi tree, the path winds back to the central plaza. The palaquin has entered the Dzogchen Dugan, or temple, and the masses are gathering for the viewing. Police in starched uniforms wander through the crowd, posing for a photo here and there, and rotating through the line that stands at attention on the carved and painted veranda of the temple, regulating the now-released flow. The crushing mass of supplicants wait patiently in their finest clothes, but the crowd is too numerous, and the barriers buckle from time to time. The fervor incites frustration, but in the moments after a tussle, all is smiles and compassion.

It is a religion in noticeable layers. The Paleosiberian and Mongolian belief structure in Buryatia was animist and based on a world of good and bad shamans serving as intermediaries with the spirit world. Buddhism came to Tibet and built a syncretic culture with the pre-existing Bon religion, and then came north to mix again with the nomadic beliefs of Buryatia. Finally, Russians arrived and exerted its own influence. On the bases of prayer wheels and the crimson sills below statues of the Buddha, gifts are scatters and piled in offering. Rice, Russian coins, tetrapacks of milk and yogurt, cardboard cartons of chocolate pastries from Ukraine, small knotted bits of wool or silk, and a handful of candies populate the shrines, telling of the people, Buryat and ethnic Russian, coming here today.

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In 2002, on the 11th of September, Itigilov was exhumed for the last time. He had told his followers he would return seventy-five years after his death, and so he did. Amgalan Dabayev, an 88-year old Buddhist, still remembered the way to the gravesite. The 12th Pandido Khambo Lama’s body was, supposedly, still in the lotus position and still warm. His joints were flexible, and ski soft and supple. The monks from Ivolginsky dressed him in robes, and brought him back to the datsan, where he is today. Despite careful examination, he shows no trace of embalming. Victor Zvyagin, a Professor at the Federal Center of Forensic Medicine, claims he is like someone who died 36 hours ago.

The current Pandido Khambo Lama, Damba Ayusheyev, declared that his predecessor be displayed to help revitalize Buddhism among Buryats, and so, a few days a year on major holidays, he is carried to the main temple and receives the faithful. Itigilov’s grand-niece Vasilyeva told reporters: “There is a great moral crisis in Russia today. Itigilov’s return presents a great opportunity to help people believe.”

He wears a scarf around his neck that trails down over his saffron robes and out under the glass so the people streaming past can touch the fabric and seek his blessing. The columns around him are carved two stories up to the ceiling, dragons and demons dancing in bright colors. All around, silent Buddhas look out in ranks of different incarnations. We are told outside that the Dalai Lama claims he is still alive, meditating and waiting for the right moment to return. When Putin visited the datsan, he viewed the 12th Khambo Lama with the monks, but at the end of his visit, ducked in alone to have a few more words with him, skipping a photo event in the plaza.

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Outside on the day of my visit, the wavering Siberian sun is glinting on the gold statues arranged on the roofline. Bright roe deer sit listening to the Buddha, statuary imitating the story of Buddha’s first students. The painted eaves and reflecting embellishment scatter vivid color into the muted mixed steppe forest of Buryatia. Thousands gather and stream clockwise, while outside the gates cotton candy is spun, Buryat wrestlers march round a rough milled wooden stadium, and the Soviet anthem, rendered now for the Federation, crackles on bleached loudspeakers. The archers have had their turn, and bare-chested men and boys with Chinese track pants line up to compete. A brooding thunderstorm on distant mountains mixes with chanted mantras and cymbals, adding to the atmosphere.