Last time, we followed a couple along the road from Ulan Ude, to a Buddhist temple – set in the Mongolian/Siberian borderlands. But Ivolginsky Datsan is no ordinary location, but the most important locale of it’s type within the region. As Russia Beyond The Headlines states:-
“The Ivolginsky datsan (monastery), is the biggest Buddhist temple complex and capital of traditional Sangha monasticism in Russia. Remarkably, the temple was built in 1945, a period during which religious adversity flourished.” Initially it was the only Buddhist temple within Russia.
We’d just entered the inner threshold of the complex, but before we continue; a word about our two explorers. N and A are a husband and wife from New Zealand, currently residing in Switzerland after relocating for work. Now approaching retirement, they are in the process of realising a couple of dream trips that are within easy reach of Europe, before heading home to a quiet life in NZ.
The interior of the walled temple grounds revealed several notable structures, just in case you were expecting a single, towering pile. N&A paid an entrance fee (tourist money is an important resource here) and each received a blue silk scarf in return, obviously for some important function later – or so they thought.
Inside the compound, N describes a rustic, functional assembly of buildings, with pride of place occupied by the original temple, proper. Far from being ostentatious, N describes it as a “coloured, old wooden house”, whose vibrantly-hued interior was decorated with wooden sculptures of deities standing watch, whilst monks chanted their prayers and devotions. They really do love a bold, colliding colour scheme – almost 1980’s Habitat in style.
This is the temple: Sogchen, supernaturally protected by 12 stone lions and displaying 1000 visual representations of Buddha. The centrepiece is the sacred throne of Dalai-Lama XIV, where it is forbidden to sit, although the temple itself is open to visitors wishing to view the monks undertaking their daily ceremonies. Some forms of prayer/dedication confound our (limited) expectations incidentally; N&A witnessed a monk falling repeatedly from his knees to a prostrate position on the simple floor, and back again – in some kind of physical prayer “workout”. Fascinating.
Next to the Sogchen temple is the decorated Palace building and a stylised pair of sculpted tigers, brightly painted and each with one front paw balanced on a blue ball. These are also supernatural temple protectors – kept ever awake by the concentration in maintaining their grip on the spheres in their possession.
There are seven temples in all, plus a library, a Buddhist university resembling a three-storey apartment block, houses for the monks, a gallery of Buddhist art, and even a simple hotel for visitors. The whole complex resembles a stylised hamlet – alive with its routines and daily practices; from the red-clad monks attending their duties, the throughput of local devotees, -to the mundane chimney-tops steaming against the frost.
Around the perimeter of the complex, and in amongst the temples themselves, are wooden racks of prayer-wheels – waiting to be spun by every passer-by. They are, in-fact, drums containing hundreds or thousands of prayers (depending on the wheel’s size) waiting to fire-off their payload of blessings and divine petitions with every rotation. Each rack has a collection plate for small change – you’d better take a pocket full. You should cast coins onto the plate, before spinning the prayers off into the ether, a process that quickly exhausts your local monetary shrapnel, before eating into the remnants of your home currency.
In contrast to some of the austere, sombre environments experienced in certain sectors of the Christian church, the presiding atmosphere radiates a “friendliness” that extended across the complex as a whole. The monks were certainly comfortable with having N and A around, especially since New Zealanders are are distinct rarity in the temple’s locale. They had arrived out of season, with treacherous ice still on the ground and nothing resembling a health and safety notice apparent. Their reward for such frosty risk-taking (aside from out-of-season rates) was to witness a working monastery in it’s natural state, devoid of the invading tourist hoards. Instead they could witness the unharried monks at their duties whilst the locals breezed in and out between family, work and lives unknown. As a result, N&A received more quality attention, extra space and even a special gift to mark the occasion, but more of that later.
In the meantime, N leaves me with the image of the incongruous satellite dish perched on a side of the monk’s house. For when the medium of prayer is not enough – a direct satellite link to the Almighty is a must.
By the way, those blue scarfs were just gifts – symbols of the joyous blue skies above the Steppe, pleasant tokens – but nothing more.