Preserving the legacy of Danzanravjaa, Lord of the Gobi

A story of determination and discovery. Part 1

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.

See also part 2

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.

Part 2 will tell how the ‘Takhilch’ system continued after Danzanravjaa’s death and how Tudev, the ‘Takhilch’ in the late 1930’s, saved the precious collections from the communist authorities only for them to be retrieved in the 1990’s.

go to part 2 >>

Copyright (c) 2002 by J. P. Morrow, CEO, Khan Bank of Mongolia

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