Dr Saskia Abrahms-Kavunenko, The University of Copenhagen is joining us for a series of posts to discuss aspects of her current research.
Each summer thousands of Ulaanbaatar’s residents travel across the greening steppe four hours northwest to arrive at Amarbayasgalant Khiid, one of Mongolia’s best preserved temples. Used during the socialist period as a storage facility, it somewhat miraculously escaped the complete ransacking and destruction that was the fate of most of Mongolia’s temples during the socialist purges of the late 1930s. Before the purges, the temple was home to around 3000 lamas. When I visited in 2009, I was told that its residential population was a much-reduced 30 lamas and that many of these lamas were under eighteen. In spite of its small current size, the temple is somewhat notorious amongst middle class urbanites in Mongolia’s capital for a secretive wealth calling ceremony that happens at the temple every summer. Each year, in two different periods, urbanites arrive at the temple to deposit a mysterious enclosed ritual vase, or, as they are known in Mongolia, a bumba. Attendees leave their bumba for the lamas to bless with highly secretive prayers and unknown rituals, receiving a receipt for the payments they make and returning three days later to retrieve their bumba.
To the owners of the bumba, the contents of the vase will and must remain unknown. The only way for them to find out what is inside is if they open the bumba, which, in doing so, will render the contents of the vase inert, with the ceremonial effort and cost of the rituals wasted. For the bumba and its mysterious contents to be effectively empowered its owners must make the journey for three years in a row, and keep the bumba hidden somewhere within the home, out of view from all visitors. For the ritual to work the bumba itself must be an item of value. The ceremony’s purpose is, after all, to call wealth (bayalag duudakh) into the home. Yet, when a person buys the bumba already sealed or commissions a bumba to be made, they don’t know what is inside it, and nor are they able to open it to find out, lest its sacred contents be rendered inutile.
When I first carried out fieldwork in Mongolia I was often told of mysterious religious ceremonies that the country’s elites would attend in order to maintain and increase their riches. These bumba ceremonies, unlike the more commonly performed dallaga (prosperity) ceremonies which most families participate in, are only available to Mongolia’s middle and wealthier classes (Abrahms-Kavunenko 2019). The bumbas themselves are expensive and to travel to Amarbayasgalant Khiid every summer for three years is itself a commitment of resources in a country beset with significant economic inequalities. Whilst the ritual items used in the dallaga (prosperity) ceremony remain partially open to draw fortune into the household and are semi-publicly displayed, the bumba remains closed and hidden from view. Whilst the dallaga ceremony appears to be carried out with some confidence, the bumba ceremony, rather than divesting people of insecurity, seems to instantiate doubt and generate further ritual interventions.
In part this is because one of the main ways in which the ritual can fail to be fruitful depends upon the contents of the vase. And because these contents will never be seen by their owner there are only two ways that the owner can be sure as to their qualities. The first is by having it made by a trusted person or group. The second is through warnings provided to the owner by smell.
The bumbas that religious shop owner Gerelmaa sells come from China, Mongolia, India or Nepal. Those that were made in China had the lowest value and, as Gerelmaa explained, tended to be purchased by people who were carrying out the ritual at the behest of friends or acquaintances and just wanted the cheapest item that they could find. China tends to be negatively viewed in Mongolia and is seen as a source of lower grade products. As she explained, probably due to the materials and the labour costs involved, these bumba tend to be very cheap to buy some costing around 25,000 tögrögs (which at the time was around 12 USD). People who bought these bumbas according to Gerelmaa tended to be sceptical about the ceremony and believed these vases to be inanimate.
As she went on, the most valuable of the bumbas were those made in India or Nepal. These cost around 500,000 tögrögs, a much more expensive 220 USD, in a country where at that time wages averaged around 600,000 tögrögs a month, just marginally more than the vase. These bumbas are perceived to be of higher value, not just due to their loftier price tag, but also because they are thought to be made by Tibetans in diaspora. Tibetans living in India and Nepal are generally believed to be trustworthy and may be thought to have unspecified special ritual powers and knowledge. With these higher-grade vases the mystery surrounding their interiors was productive, reinforcing the belief that these ones had extra special ritual powers. To the nose they smell evocatively of incense or fragrant woods.
Differing from the inert Chinese made vases and the highly animate bumbas made (potentially) by Tibetans in diaspora, the Mongolian bumbas were enshrouded in doubt. Reflecting the ways that people often view ritual specialists in the capital city, people discussed the Mongolian made bumbas with some considerable suspicion. As Gerelmaa told me, one would not know what a local lama might fill the bumba with. She told me that it could be filled with, for instance, only rice. She contended that even after having been ritually empowered the rice alone would never be able to instantiate the same potential as the bumbas that contained more potent contents. Another friend explained to me that one of his friends had had a bumba made by a local lama. After attending her first ceremony at Amarbayasgalant she noticed a strange odour within the house. She tried to find where the pungent odour was coming from, eventually realising that it was coming from her bumba. She opened the bumba to find that it was filled with now rancid dairy products. Perhaps reflecting on the sacred nature of dairy in Mongolia, the lama had placed butter inside the bumba, which had then gone rancid. ‘Imagine that,’ he told me, ‘filling a bumba with butter!’
The unknown contents of the bumba can generate an impression of power and potency or the feeling that no matter what processes the vase goes through it will always remain just an object. Yet, perhaps more fertile still is the knowing that one’s bumba is filled with unknown contents of potentially, but by no means assuredly superlative power – the knowledge of their necessary unknowness. This dynamic tension leads to speculation, suspicion and in turn for some generates the imperative for even more ritual activities. Just to be, maybe, a little more sure.
Abrahms-Kavunenko, Saskia. 2019. ‘Mustering Fortune: Attraction and Multiplication in the Echoes of the Boom’ Ethnos. 84, 5: 891-909.
Abrahms-Kavunenko, Saskia. ‘Tenuous Blessings: The Materiality of Doubt in a Mongolian Buddhist Wealth Calling Ceremony’ Journal of Material Culture. 25, 2: 153-166.
Dr Saskia Abrahms-Kavunenko is an anthropologist and the author of Enlightenment and the Gasping City. She has published on the topics of Buddhism, shamanism, postsocialism, economic anthropology, plastics, global warming and pollution, and materiality in Mongolia and India. Dr Abrahms-Kavunenko’s work is situated at intersections between environmental changes and cultural praxis, in multi-scalar and trans-species contexts. She has held research positions at the Max Planck Institute for Anthropology, New York University Shanghai, the Max Weber Center for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies at the University of Erfurt and the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Edinburgh. She is currently a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow within the Center for Contemporary Buddhist Studies at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies at the University of Copenhagen and is the co-founder of Cenote a travelling multi-disciplinary residency program.