Reconstructing Kalmyk Buddhist Monasteries through Digital Modeling: An Interview with Simon Daisley from the Khurul Project


Simon Daisley is an independent researcher of Kalmyk Buddhism and a digital heritage practitioner based in New Zealand. Through a personal interest in Buddhism, particularly in the history of Buddhism in the Russian Empire and among the Kalmyk people, Daisley has been researching Kalmyk Buddhist monasteries (khuruls), especially those that were destroyed in the Soviet period, as part of the Khurul Project.

Although new khuruls have been built as part of a post-Soviet revival of Buddhism in Kalmykia, Daisley points out that it is still important to preserve the former architectural traditions of the Tsarist era khuruls, which were unique Buddhist architectural traditions that not only had their own characteristics but also incorporated the architectural traditions of the Tibetans and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Using SketchUp, Daisley has so far made three digital modellings of Kalmyk Buddhist monasteries that can be accessed on the Khurul Project website. These digital architectural models resurrect the Bagatugtun Syume (built in 1912), the Kebyun Shirya Orgo (Dundu Khuru, built in the 1730s), and the Ike Burul Khurul (built in the late 19th century) in three-dimensional space. The 3D digital models are interactive, allowing users to view the architectures from different angles. The website of the Khurul Project also features story maps of the three Buddhist sites and their brief histories.

With the help and support from both the elder and younger generations of Kalmyks living in both Russia and the United States, the Khurul Project aims to add to the limited scholarship on Kalmyk Buddhism in Western academia, and to provide opportunities for younger generations of Kalmyks to engage with their heritage beyond a few surviving black and white photographs.

The Interview

Please tell us a bit about yourself. How did you become interested in Buddhism in Kalmykia?

I live in New Zealand which is about as far from Kalmykia as one can possibly get. I have always had a strong interest in Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism, particularly the traditions of the Gelugpa. From an academic point of view, I am interested in how the Gelugpa adapted their tradition to the physical and social settings of different cultures beyond Tibet. How different was the daily life of a monk in the Kalmyk Steppe compared to his co-religionist at one of the Three Seats in Lhasa?

I cannot say for sure when I first became interested in Buddhism in Kalmykia. But I became further drawn to this area, particularly the Buddhism of the Kalmyks in the late Tsarist era, about a decade ago after encountering a photograph of Lama Shurguchi Nimgirov, who was the Bakshi Lama of the Buzava Kalmyks and who died c.1920. I later took his photograph with me when I travelled through Tibet and felt a need to tell his story and that of the other Kalmyk monks who lost their world after the Bolshevik Revolution.

Being so far from any centres of Buddhist studies, my research into Kalmyk Buddhism was initially a personal project, until I was introduced to the current Shadzhin Lama of the Kalmyks, Telo Tulku Rinpoche, by Professor Paul Harrison of Stanford University (who is also a New Zealander). Telo Tulku Rinpoche was very patient and understanding of my interest, and when I was in India in 2018, he invited me to a conference he was hosting with H.H. Dalai Lama and Russian neuroscientists. My seating arrangements put me in the middle of a group of Kalmyks, and I made many friends who encouraged me in my interest. They remain my friends today and I am grateful that, through this project and my research, I have made further Kalmyk friends, both young and old, who also encourage me to further my research.

Please tell us about the Khurul Project. What led you to engage in digital reconstructions of Kalmyk khuruls, or Buddhist monasteries?

I started my career in the heritage sector, working primarily on producing reports on historic listed buildings and structures for different agencies in New Zealand. At this time, my home city of Christchurch had been devastated by two large earthquakes. This resulted in much of the city being destroyed or later demolished, which led to the loss of not only the city as I had once known it, but also many historic buildings which are irreplaceable. Through my work I learned about how overseas heritage agencies were using digital technology to preserve or re-create historic buildings, which can then be explored through virtual reality.

During this time, my personal time was spent researching the khuruls of Tsarist Russia. Later, I was working on an article on the Kalmyk Buddhist temple which was built in Bagatugtun village in 1912. To gain a better understanding of its layout, I made a few pen and paper sketches. But this was very limiting as I wanted to explore the building in full. This led me to examine ways of recreating it as a digital model.

When the model was finished, I showed a few screenshots of it to some Kalmyk friends, but I wanted to make it accessible to a wider audience. Initially I thought about donating it to a museum to use in a VR display, but due to the nature of the Kalmyk diaspora, I didn’t want its use to be geographically limited. I wanted to ensure that it could be used in schools or shown to an elderly Kalmyk by a family member, regardless of where they were residing. Some local architectural firms in New Zealand offered some advice on publishing it, and I then decided to create a website. By using a website, I realised I could include additional models and further information, and so The Khurul Project came into existence.

The amazing interactive 3D models for three khuruls on your site were created using SketchUp. What has been your experience using this tool for creating digital modelling of heritage buildings? Would you recommend SketchUp to historians and religious studies scholars who are interested in pursuing digital humanities methods?

I am by no means an expert in the field of digital modelling. I am self-taught, so the only advice I can give comes from my personal experience. While I am aware that there are more advanced programmes available for digital modelling, as a novice I found SketchUp to be useful for what I needed to create. Each model I have created so far has different architecture elements from the previous, and so I have been forced to learn how to use the different tools and methods SketchUp offers to create difficult designs. It has been very much a trial and error process for me, and I am sure that there are many skilled users who could produce the same model in half the time I can. From my experience, I would certainly recommend it to academics who have no digital expertise but who are wanting to use digital modelling as a way to enhance their research. My advice would be to proceed slowly and carefully, and if your source material is limited, then make a few test models first before launching into the final product. You don’t want to be near the end and realise you’ve made an error in calculations which can’t be fixed without dismantling a detailed section of the model. Finally, don’t be daunted. It may take you many months, but the results and the hours you put in are worth it.

What new insights about Kalmyk Buddhism have you found through re-creating these lost architectural sites through digital modeling?

I would say that the Kalmyks of the nineteenth to early twentieth century were extremely eclectic in their style of monastic architecture. They not only built upon their own architectural traditions but also incorporated those of Tibetan architectural traditions and the architecture of the Russian Orthodox Church. There seems to be nowhere else in the world where this unique blend of architecture existed.

Through examining the models, you also gain an appreciation as to how a site was used for ritual purposes. As one Kalmyk mentioned when examining the model of a maṇḍala inspired temple at Ike Burul Khurul, you realise that a building with doors facing the four cardinal points, while symbolically important, would have been impractical in a flat landscape prone to strong winds. Therefore, not all the doors would have probably been open when a ceremony was taking place.

What are the future plans of the Khurul Project?

Time allowing, I hope to create some more models. Ideally, however, I would like to eventually pass the ball to younger generations of Kalmyks who can build upon what I have started. As I say to those Kalmyks who have contacted me, these are your khuruls. I don’t have any claim over them. I simply research them and make the models accessible.

Not everyone is a scholar. I hope that, through the concept of upāya (skilful means), the digital models of lost khuruls might attract the interest of those youths whose heads might be more inclined to video games than books and cause them to reengage with their Buddhist heritage. If that happens, then the website has served its purpose.

While Buddhism teaches the impermanence of all matter, and that we cannot cling to the past, it is still important that the architectural heritage of Kalmyk khuruls be recognised. Like many in the Tibetan-Mongolian Buddhist world, the Kalmyks are still recovering from the cultural damage brought about through enforced atheism and Socialism. To be able to go forward into the future one still needs to acknowledge the past.

There is nowhere else in the world where this unique form of architecture existed. It is unique to the Kalmyks and it belongs to the Kalmyks. Hopefully, the website can achieve a wider recognition of their culture and what was physically lost.

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