Mapping A Thousand Buddhist Monasteries in Mongolia: Introducing the Digital Database “Documentation of Mongolian Monasteries”

What is the Documentation of Mongolian Monasteries

The Documentation of Mongolian Monasteries is an online database featuring more than a thousand historical and extant Buddhist sites in the Mongolian People’s Republic. In addition to providing comprehensive geospatial data and extensive notes on the Buddhist sites, the database is also an invaluable trove for oral histories as well as many other indispensable resources on Mongolian Buddhism.  

Buddhist monasteries and temples played critical roles in Mongolian culture and society for centuries. By 1920, more than one thousand Buddhist sites flourished in the region of today’s Mongolia. The monastic population at the time was said to have been at least 10% of the total population. Tragically, most of these sites were destroyed between 1937 and 1939 under the Great Purge; many Buddhist monastics were also cruelly executed (ACM 2004). To recover these sites, their histories, and their memories, an international team of researchers and the Arts Council of Mongolia (ACM) began the Documentation of Mongolian Monasteries project.

The homepage of the Documentation of Mongolian Monasteries website. Visitors are greeted with photographs of a randomly featured Buddhist site (left) and an oral history interviewee (right) every time they log in.

The project was initiated by J. Peter Morrow, Collin Raymond, Stephen Batalden, Guido Verboom, and Sue Byrne, and it was a joint effort between international researchers of Buddhist and cultural preservation and the Arts Council of Mongolia. According to their website, the goal of the project was “to create a database of the location and condition of Buddhist temple and monastery sites in Mongolia at the beginning of the 20th century that could be found in the main survey period of summer of 2007.”

The database contains results from three major surveys on Buddhist sites in Mongolia carried out from 2004 to 2007. The pilot survey was carried out in the Töv Aimag in 2004 and recorded 87 Buddhist sites. Between 2005 and 2006, two Hungarian scholars, Krisztina Teleki and Zsuzsa Majer conducted a survey on monasteries and temples that were a part of Ikh Khüree, or Urga, the old capital city of Mongolia in the early twentieth century, as well as a survey on active temples in the modern capital city of Ulaanbaatar. In 2007, a nation-wide survey was conducted by the ACM in collaboration with the Ganden Monastery, the President’s Office and the Cultural Heritage Center in Mongolia. Six teams of international and Mongolian scholars and monks from the Ganden Monastery carried out this large-scale survey and collected valuable data on Buddhist sites in all 21 aimags.

Discovering A Thousand Buddhist Monasteries in Mongolia through the Database

The online database, Documentation of Mongolian Monasteries, now catalogues more than 1,000 Buddhist sites in Mongolia that were active before socialist destructions in the 1930s. It also records around 300 Buddhist sites that have been revived (often rebuilt on old temple grounds) since the 1990s (ACM 2015). Around 468 oral histories and nearly 500 hand-drawn site plans are available for viewing and download, as well as an extensive collection of photographs (both recent and historical).

Visitors to the Documentation of Mongolian Monasteries database can discover Buddhist sites either through the interactive map, or by their aimag divisions. Individual webpages for individual Buddhist sites all contain a wealth of information. Visitors can look up different names of the monasteries and temples (in Mongolian and in Tibetan), as well as their historical, contemporary, and GPS locations. Some pages also provide really useful geospatial information such as site dimensions and descriptions of surrounding landmarks (e.g. springs, rivers, mountain pass).

The interactive map of Buddhist sites on the Documentation of Mongolian Monasteries website. Each icon represents one Buddhist site. Visitors can click on the icon to see their information.

Visitors can also search for Buddhist sites according to their aimag location.

Most pages for individual Buddhist sites also contain comprehensive notes on their history written both in Mongolian and English. Some incredibly useful information they provide include: founding persons and dates, historical monastic populations (prior to the Great Purge), dates of destruction, restoration status, status of the sites at the time of survey, and linked oral histories of the sites.

The page for the Ganden Monastery in Ulaanbaatar.

Comprehensive information about the monastery is provided in both Mongolian and English, along with links to oral histories told by elderly lamas (right).

Most pages are accompanied with multiple photographs of the sites showing how they are used in their contemporary (2007) contexts after restoration, or what the ruins look like since the 1930s destructions. Many pages also provide links to historical photographs of the sites preserved in other archival resources. Around 500 sites feature on their pages hand-drawn site plans that show how these sites are situated in relation to their surrounding landscape.

For sites that are no longer extant, photographs of the site’s foundation are often provided.

For some sites such as the Ganden Monastery, historical photographs of the site from other archives can be viewed.

Valuable Resources for Studying Mongolian Buddhism

In addition to the database of comprehensively mapped Buddhist sites in Mongolia, the Documentation of Mongolian Monasteries project is also a platform for a wealth of valuable resources for studying Mongolian Buddhism. Under the “Glossary” tab in the main menu, visitors of the digital database can find a helpful collection of Buddhist terms in Mongolian, Tibetan, and English.

Under the “Additional Materials” tab, comprehensive reports in English and Mongolian from the three major surveys can be downloaded in PDF. The two Hungarian scholars who conducted the surveys for Ikh Khüree, Krisztina Teleki and Zsuzsa Majer also prepared a comprehensive bibliography of scholarship on Mongolian Buddhism published in Mongolian and various European languages.

Other helpful resources that the site hosts include maps and lists of Buddhist sites in Mongolia compiled in previously published sources. The full collection of maps featuring 941 Buddhist sites that the Mongolian scholar B. Rinchen created in his 1979 study can be downloaded. Another scholar who participated in B. Rinchen’s 1979 study, D. Maidar, published a book in 1972 listing 735 Buddhist sites in Mongolia. This list is also available on the site under the “Additional Materials” tab.

The page featuring B. Rinchen’s maps and lists of Mongolian Buddhist sites.

The page featuring D. Maidar’s list of Mongolian Buddhist sites.

Lastly, the Documentation of Mongolian Monasteries site has generously provided a comprehensive list (70 pages) of Mongolian reincarnated lamas and scholars between the seventeenth to the twentieth century. This large document was prepared by the Mongolian President’s Office in 2007. The list contains short biographies of each figure written in Mongolian, accompanied by their portraits either in the form of paintings or photographs.

The page featuring a comprehensive list of Mongolian tulkus and lamas.

The list of Mongolian tulkus and lamas features both biographies and images (paintings and photographs).

The Documentation of Mongolian Monasteries digital database is an absolutely essential resource not only for scholars and students of Mongolian Buddhism, but also for anyone interested in Inner Asian history, religion, and material culture.

References:

Arts Council of Mongolia. “Summary of the Survey.” Documentation of Mongolian Monasteries, 2004. http://www.mongoliantemples.org/en/additional-materials/summary-of-survey.

Arts Council of Mongolia. “New Website Uncovers Mongolia’s Buddhist Past as Memories and Traces Fade.” International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies. January 20, 2015. https://ifacca.org/en/news/2015/01/20/new-website-uncovers-mongolias-buddhist-past-memor/.

Maidar, D. Mongolyn arkhitjektur ba khot bajguulalt tojm [Mongolian Architecture of Mongolia and Construction of Cities]. Ulaanbaatar: Ulsyn khewlelijn Kombinat, 1972.

Rinchen, B. Mongol ard ulsyn ugsaatny sudlal helnij šinžlelijn atlas [The Atlas of Mongolian Ethnography and Linguistics]. Ulaanbaatar: Shinjleh uhaanii akademi, 1979.

3 thoughts on “Mapping A Thousand Buddhist Monasteries in Mongolia: Introducing the Digital Database “Documentation of Mongolian Monasteries”

  1. Dear Daigengna Duoer,
    Thank you very much for your comprehensive and clear explanation of our project. You have summarised it very well. I am very happy to see this on your site and hope it will draw more people to the Documentation of Mongolian Monasteries website to explore and learn from the invaluable data it contains.
    With very many thanks,
    Sue Byrne,
    Initiator and Acting Director ,
    Documentation of Mongolian Monasteries project.
    London

  2. This is a wonderful project! So comprehensive and helpful. I wish we could do something similar in Islamic art. Thank you for your article.
    Shiva Mihan

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