Shankh Khiid. Shankh Monastery. Mongolian monasteries. Uvurkhangai aimag.
THE REGIONS OF MONGOLIA
SIGHTS OF INTEREST IN WESTERN MONGOLIA
SHANKH MONASTERY ( KHIID )
Shankh Khiid, once known as the West Monastery, is the only one of the
region's monasteries other than Erdene Zuu to have survived. Shankh was renowned
because of its connections with the great Zanabazar and is said to have once
housed Chinggis Khaan's black military banner. At one time the monastery housed
over 1500 monks. As elsewhere, the monastery was closed in 1937, temples were
burnt and many monks were shipped off to Siberia.
During the years of repression, five monks secretly kept the monastery alive in
a local ger at great risk to themselves. One of these monks reopened the
monastery in 1990. It is currently trying to raise funds to build a stupa in his
Of the three main buildings only the central main temple has been restored.
Shankh is the oldest monastery in Mongolia, founded in 1647 by Zanabazar
(1635-1723), a revered sculptor, politician, religious teacher, diplomat and
living Buddha, who became Mongolia's first Bogd Khan (God King). Known as the
West Monastery, it was one of the foremost seats of Buddhist teaching and
practice in the country for almost three centuries. At its height, Shankh
consisted of several schools specialized in Tantric rituals, particularly the
Kalachakra, philosophy and astrology. It housed over 1,500 monks and served the
religious, medical and educational needs of the region.
In 1924, three years after thousands of Bolshevik forces had poured in from
Russia, Mongolia became the world's second communist country. While an uneasy
truce initially prevailed between the government and the monasteries, some of
the latter's property and herds were seized in 1929, arrests and executions came
in 1932 and a bloody purge began in earnest in 1937. The reign of terror against
religion was ruthless and coincided with a drive to eliminate "rightist
elements". It is believed that by 1939 some 27,000 people had been executed
(3% of Mongolia's population), of whom 17,000 were monks.
It was in this context that in 1937 Shankh Monastery was closed, its temples
burned and most of its monks arrested and executed or sent to labor camps in
Siberia. Five monks who were only young boys at the time were spared and sent
back to their families. During the 53 years of repression that followed, these
five monks kept the teachings they had received alive at great risk to
themselves, preserving sacred objects and scriptures, and holding secret
meetings during which they performed the rituals and recited the prayers that
had come to Mongolia from Tibet centuries earlier.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 led to decolonization by default in
Mongolia and in May of that year the constitution was amended to permit
multiparty elections in July. That same year the surviving Shank monks reopened
the monastery and began the restoration of its main temple. While the communists
have been in and out of power since that time, democracy has taken hold and
religious persecution is now a thing of the past in Mongolia. Yet, the majority
of Mongolians have experienced a sharp decline in living standards, education
and health care. Mongolia remains a poor country, ranking 117th in the world on
the United Nations' Human Development Indicator in 2003.
SHANKH MONASTERY TODAY
Today a small monastic community once again practices at Shankh. It is
composed of the five monks who survived the 1937 purge, now well into their 70s,
a younger disciplinarian and a dozen or so monks ranging in age from about 9 to
21. With very limited means they have completed the restoration of the main
temple but are lacking in everything needed to ensure the monastery's further
development, such as teachers, writing materials and the means to house and feed
the students, who continue to live with their families and depend on them to
meet their basic needs, as well as to continue to rebuild and restore.
In 1993, responding to the request of senior Mongolian monks, His Holiness
Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, sent three Tibetan monks from Namgyal
Monastery in Dharmsala, India, to help foster a renaissance of Buddhism in
Mongolia. One of those monks was The Venerable Tenzin Yignyen, who taught at
Ganden Monastery in Ulaan Baatar from 1993 to 1995 and who now teaches Buddhist
philosophy and arts at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y.
Since 1995, Tenzin has maintained close ties with Mongolia in general and in
particular with Shankh Monastery, whose spiritual and material development he
continues to assist. In June 2004, with the generous help of a few individuals,
Tenzin provided Shankh with a cash infusion of $1,000 (U.S.), which was
gratefully received by the monks. However, much more is needed to reestablish
this monastic community and allow it to respond to the thirst for spiritual
knowledge of the people of Western Mongolia.
PAGES OF THE PICTURE ALBUM. SHANKH MONASTERY