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Kalmyk Buddhism

Europe's Buddhist heritage
Khurul in Bolshederbetovsky ulus

The bakshi (abbot), gelungs (ordained monks) and mandzhis (novices) at a khurul in Bolshederbetovsy Ulus. Courtesty of the Stavropol State Historical, Cultural and Natural Landscape Museum-Reserve



The term Kalmyk applies to those members of the Torghut, Derbet, and Khoshot uluses of Oirats who migrated from their homeland of the Irtysh River valley in the Altai region to the Volga steppe of European Russia in the first half of the seventeenth century. This migration began with the Torghut and Derbet uluses under the leadership of the Torghut tayishi, Kho Urluk (d.1644). Although the first wave of these Oirat migrants would enter into treaties with the Tsardom of Russia, the formation of the Kalmyk Khanate, as a defined territory within Russia, did not take place until 1664 when Monchak (d.1672), the grandson of Kho Uruluk, was officially recognised as the ruler of the Kalmyks by the tsarist government.

Buddhism in its Tibetan form was officially adopted as the religion of the Oirat in 1615 when the noblemen Bayibaghas of the Khoshot, Khara Khula of the Choros (Dzunghar), Dalai Taiji of the Derbet, Kho Urluk of the Torghut and Kundelen Ubashi of the Khoshot, each offered up a son to become a monk. The adopted son of Bayibaghas, Zaya Pandita (1599–1662), studied the Gelug tradition in Tibet from 1617 to 1639. Upon returning to the Oirat homeland, he spread the Gelug tradition among the different uluses, including among the Torghut who by this stage had already migrated to the steppe between the Yaik (Ural) River and the Volga River.

As a nomadic people, the Kalmyks traditionally lived in khibitkas, tents which are similar to the Mongolian ger or Turkic yurt. Their monasteries, or khuruls, were initially housed in such tents and accompanied the camp of the nobleman of the ulus to which they belonged. Although the khuruls within the Kalmyk Khanate had traditionally been independent of each other, the spiritual authority of a lama, often one who had been trained in Drepung monastery in Tibet, was recognised. The Dalai Lama in Tibet, however, was still regarded as the highest spiritual authority.

                              Interior of a khibitka temple. Подробныя свѣдѣнія о Волжскихъ Калмыкахъ (1834). British Library. Wikipedia.

Within the traditions of the Buryats of Siberia, who also follow the Tibetan form of Buddhism, it was during the reign of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna (r.1741-1762) that Buddhism was recognised as one of the confessional faiths of the Russian Empire along with Russian Orthodox Christianity, Islam and Judaism. This tradition, however, has been contested by scholars, who point to the investiture of Damba-Darzha Zaiaev (1711-1776), a Tsongol Buryat, as Pandito Khambo Lama in 1764 as a more appropriate date for the formal recognition of Buddhism within the Russian Empire.

Following the dissolution of the Kalmyk Khanate in 1771 and the incorporation of its territories into the Astrakhan Guberniya of the Russian Empire, the structure of Kalmyk Buddhism became further regulated by the tsarist authorities. Decrees were passed which limited the number of khuruls allowed to operate and the number of monks who could serve in them. Monks were prohibited from leaving the Russian Empire to train at the monastic seat of Drepung in Lhasa, Tibet, and therefore could only receive their education from lamas based in the Kalmyk Steppe. ​ ​

The first permanent khurul to be erected in the Kalmyk Steppe region of Astrakhan Guberniya was Bagatsohurovsky Khurul, near Tsagan-Aman, Bagatsokhurovsky Ulus, in 1798. Another early khurul, Khoshutovsky Khurul, was built between 1814-1818 by Prince Serebdzhab Tyumen, commander of the Astrakhan Kalmyk Second Regiment, to celebrate the Russian victory over Napoleon.

Aware of the instability that schismatic movements could inflict upon society, the tsarist administration sought to establish orthodox definitions for each of the empire’s tolerated religions through a process termed ‘confessionalism’, to prevent the rise of popular or personal interpretations of these faiths. In 1800, by decree of Tsar Paul I, the Russian government invested the Kalmyk lama, Soibing Bakshi, with the right to oversee the Buddhist traditions of those Kalmyks residing within the Astrakhan Guberniya.

Following the death of Soibing Bakshi in 1806, a senior lama to oversee the Kalmyks of the Astrakhan Guberniya was not formally re-established until 1835 when the Ministry of the Interior released a statute, Regulations on the Administration of the Kalmyk People. This statute established the Lamaist Spiritual Directorate, overseen by a lama chairman, who took the title Shadzhin Lama. Although the khuruls of the Buzava Kalmyks of the Don Cossack Host were traditionally overseen by a senior lama, known as the Bakshi Lama, the position was not formalised by the Russian authorities until 1843.

Despite the construction of the Bagatsohurovsky Khurul and Khoshutovsky Khurul, it wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that the majority of khuruls, both in the Kalmyk Steppe and the Don Cossack Host, made the transition from khibitka tents to permanent structures. The architecture of these khuruls, although still conforming to Tibetan Buddhist models, showed the influence of the Orthodox Church. This was both a result of reliance upon Russian architects and carpenters, and also the regulations of the tsarist authorities and the officials of the Orthodox Church, who hoped to fully convert and assimilate the Kalmyks through a process of Russification.


Khurul in Abganer-Gakhankinovsky, Bolshederbetovsy Ulus. Courtesty of the Stavropol State Historical, Cultural and Natural Landscape Museum-Reserve.


Despite these restrictions, the Kalmyk Buddhist monastic population continued to serve the Russian Empire and in 1905, following the revolution, Tsar Nicholas II was forced to grant concessions to his non-Orthodox Christian subjects. The restriction on the number of khuruls which could operate was lifted, the number of monks increased and there were opportunities to open schools of higher monastic education. It was during this period of freedom that Bagatugtun Syume, which can be considered the apogee of a broader architectural tradition known as ‘international Gelugpa architecture’, was constructed.

The Buddhism of the Kalmyks and its unique architectural tradition suffered heavily from the terror unleashed through policies of enforced socialism and atheism which began with the October Revolution of 1917. Vandalised and desecrated, the khuruls and their monastic inhabitants became victims of the repressive ideology that followed in the wake of the Bolshevik assumption of power. Unable to properly recover from the Red Terror, their fate was eventually sealed by the implementation of Stalin’s Five-Year Plan. The last Shadzhin Lama, Luvsan Sherab Tepkin (1875-c.1941), was arrested by the NKVD and exiled to Tashkent before disappearing in 1941. According to the scholar Nikolai Poppe (1897-1991), by 1940 all the khuruls in the Kalmyk Autonomous Oblast (and those of the Buzava) had been destroyed, their monks and lamas executed or sent to labour camps.

Despite their eradication, the location of these khuruls and the teachings of their lamas remained in the memory of the Kalmyk people, and while their Buddhist faith was oppressed and driven underground, it was not extinguished. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the revival of Buddhism in Kalmykia was implemented by Telo Tulku Rinpoche, who was elected as the Shadzhin Lama of the Kalmyk people in 1992. Under his guidance, the Kalmyk people have constructed new khuruls, trained new Kalmyk monks, and worked to preserve their lost heritage.

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