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Monday, November 19, 2007

Holy Days

Entrance to the Monastery in Choibalsan
The picture that was above me
Prayer flags and Buddha
After a Saturday night at the Disco spent dancing to Modern Talking, I woke up bright and early Sunday morning to go to the Monastery to celebrate Shiini Nam (New 8). It was explained to me that this is the most auspicious day in the Tibetan winter calendar. Basically, the monks have the worshippers light 108 candles and they chant from the scriptures until the candles go out. The mother-in-law of the people I’m staying with was in charge of making the candles and preparing the offerings for Buddha. The candles were made with “Shar toc” (yellow oil) which is basically this fatty, cheesy smelling product that looks like butter, but tastes and smells like rotting dairy products. She also bought cookies and candy bars (Buddha’s favorite). Because my family was part of the preparation, we went to the Monastery at 8am to set up. My friends set everything up while the grandma’s told them where to put everything.
Preparing everything for the ceremony
I had a chance to sit back and watch the Lama’s get everything in working order. The Lama’s varied in age. The youngest was around 10 and the oldest in his 70s. Around 9:30 everything was set and all the Lama’s had arrived, so we went outside to start the procession in.
The Procession into the Monastery
At this point the youngest Lama’s went and started the call to prayer. They blow into these big seashells to let everyone know it’s starting. We went inside, the Lama’s, started chanting, the faithful lit 108 candles and we prayed. As we sat there, lots of people were filing in and out of the ger monastery. One Lama sat on either side of the ger and people would come in, offer money, and hand over a list of prayers to the Lama who would then say a special prayer for them and bless them. Note: all of the scriptures are written in Sanskrit and read in Tibetan. So, no one has any idea what is being said. I imagine it’s how Catholics feel when the Latin mass is read. Nonetheless, the chanting is absolutely enchanting and I found myself getting lost and wrapped up in it.
The Lama's chanting
I stayed for 3 hours, at which point my friend and I left. His wife and mother-law-stayed for 3 more hours until the candles had burned out. I was actually surprised at how many young people I saw attending services at the Monastery. Generally people here aren't actively religious, but elements of Buddhism survived the Stalinst purges of the 1930s. During Socialist times people practiced in secert. Most of the Mongolians I know say they aren't religious, but they still have their homes blessed and purified by Lamas, and they keep other sacred things in their homes. Most of them confess to only going to the Monastery on the big holy days.
My stay in Choibalsan is coming to an end. It's been really great on the research front and being in the countryside again has been refreshing. It is funny though, my friends who live in Choibalsan don't actually consider this the countryside. They maintain that the countryside is 20km outside of Choibalsan. An interesting part of my research has been this idea of "the countryside" and where and how people define the "countryside" and the people who live in it. But that's a whole other lofty academic issue that I won't bore you with.
Here is a clip of the Lama's chanting


Meg said...


fantastic peek into the Buddhist culture in Mongolia! Thanks for sharing -

Love you and miss you,


Andrew Campbell said...

Great pics, Annie. I'd like to see that sometime. Is Tsaagan Sar a religious holiday at all, or merely a calendar celebration (ie. New Year)?


Ulaana said...

Dr. Campbell
Great question! In my personal experience, Tsaagan Sar marks the new year, but there are a series of traditions that are carried out. I'm not sure if those traditions also deal with religion. Mostly I think it's just to have good fortune in the New Year. I turned to my friend, Wikipedia-