A second guest post by Dr Saskia Abrahms-Kavunenko
‘Very dusty, humid, fungi, very dry, so much dust and insects, mice. The smell is very bad‘ describes a chatty head librarian from a major temple in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. He’s recounting the condition of thousands of sūtras, in both Mongolian and Tibetan, returned to the temple after the shift to democracy. He tells me that the condition of the sūtras is so deteriorated that working with them has left him with bad allergies. Underfunded for the task of preservation, let alone restoration, and despite the on going work of many dedicated individuals to record and digitise them, these sacred texts, found in libraries and temples throughout the country continue to decay.
In 1918 in Mongolia the Buddhist monastic population was estimated to be around 110,000, almost half of the adult male population (Even 2011). After a series of bloody invasions and uneasy alliances, from the south and the north, in the tumultuous beginnings of the twentieth century, the fledgling Mongolian state became a new socialist nation backed by the might of the Bolsheviks. Not long afterwards, the new government began to view wealthy Buddhist institutions as a rival and a threat, and by the late 1930s their increasingly antagonistic attitude towards the country’s religious establishments culminated in violent attacks which sought to eradicate them completely. Mongolian Buddhist institutions were ransacked and their residential populations were brutally repressed. From 1937 to mid-1939 it is estimated that around 36,000 people were killed during purges and that around half of the death toll consisted of Buddhist lamas (Kaplonski 2012, 84). Temples were destroyed and artefacts were burned or melted down for their constituent metals. As the temples were under attack some herders and urbanites hid sacred texts, statues, and images to save them from destruction. Many took Buddhist items from temples and hid them in their homes.
Following Mongolia’s Democratic Revolution in 1990 and the end of prohibitions on the public practice of religion, some families to whom these items had passed became concerned that their improper storage may cause unwanted negative effects (Abrahms-Kavunenko 2015; Højer 2009). After over sixty years of repression many Mongolians told me that they were uncertain about the identity of Buddhist icons and sacred texts written in old Mongolian script or Tibetan. Most Mongolians don’t speak Tibetan and since the introduction of Cyrillic as the alphabet in 1941 most also cannot read presocialist translations of Tibetan texts. Although the iconography and content of ritual items might be unknown, for many, ritual items are believed to be potent. I was told a number of stories about illnesses attendant to the improper treatment of pictures of Bodhisattvas or Buddhas. Upon seeking the advice of a knowledgeable Buddhist lama and restoring the ritual item to its proper place within the home, the ill person then made a complete recovery.
In order to avoid the negative aspects of the improper treatment of sūtras or other ritual items, many families have donated sūtras to temples for safe keeping. In 2015, Dawaatsuren, an IT worker in his early 40s, described to me the Buddhist practice of his grandparents:
In Mongolia even mundane items can be thought to carry hidden potencies. A person’s belongings, for instance, may be thought to carry part of their essence with them. Ritual items, though, are particularly powerful. Many people that I spoke to during my research at Buddhist temples and centers in Ulaanbaatar shared stories with me about the animate potentials of ritual items. It was common to hear about the power of items that had been passed down through people’s families. Whilst some people try to avoid items imbued with potencies they feel unsure about, others have decided to keep them in their home. Many people described to me a ritual artefact that, due to the use of unknown languages or iconographic elements, they explained that they did not know much about. For instance as Chuluun, a middle aged government worker explained to me during an interview:
Saskia: Did your grandfather practice Buddhism before 1990?
Chuluun: A little bit. During this time it was prohibited by the government, but he made some Mongolian traditions at home . . . For example, during Tsagaan Sar [the Lunar New Year], we should make something. We lived in the city and this festival was prohibited. But we had this festival every year. We woke up very early and offered some things… and made a candle and burned incense and read the books. When he died I got one… sūtra. It is in Tibetan. He wrote it down in old Mongolian [Mongol bichig]. But I don’t know old Mongolian . . . Most things came to me when my mother died . . . I have a bell from my grandfather and an ochir [vajra]. . . Before Tsagaan Sar [the Lunar New Year] or before Naadam [the summer festival]. . . I try to read the sūtra from my grandfather . . . I can’t read it but my grandfather recommended that I should make this [gestures as if turning the pages of the sūtra]. The wind will go through it and it is the same as if you read it. Even though you can’t read it, please do this.
The power of these sacred texts, for many Mongolians, resonates through to the present. As Amy Holmes-Tagchundarpa has noted in Sikkim, Buddhist texts are thought to be instantiations of the Buddha, and can themselves be seen as apotropaic agents, generating blessings and merit (2021). For Chuluun likewise, the sūtras of his grandfather didn’t need to be read aloud to carry blessings into his household. The wind and the circulation of air around the sūtras, could do this work, spreading blessings from the text into its surroundings.
Whilst Chuluun’s family has retained the sūtras and looks after them in his home, for many families the animated sūtras that they inherited were thought to be too powerful for storage within the home and were passed onto temples for safekeeping. In the 1990s, following the Democratic Revolution, many people simply didn’t know what to do with sacred texts and passed them on to temples in the capital city. In underfunded postsocialist temples, these items have often been stored in unfavourable conditions. While this is changing, with many being digitised and facilities for storage improving, many invaluable texts are still unable to resist the encroachment of mould and mildew.
Even with the hard work and efforts of librarians and conservators, and ongoing digitalisation projects, the material past of presocialist Mongolia is proving to be hard to preserve. This is especially true of the sūtras, which are prone to decay and have been problematically stored over the previous decades. Even if they are successfully digitalised, the potent materiality of these sacred texts from the past is deteriorating and with them perhaps something more than writing is lost.
Abrahms-Kavunenko, Saskia. 2015. ‘The Blossoming of Ignorance: Uncertainty, Power and Syncretism amongst Mongolian Buddhists.’ Ethnos. 80, 3: 346-363.
Even, Marie-Dominique. 2012. ‘Ritual Efficacy or Spiritual Quest? Buddhism and Modernity in Post-Communist Mongolia.’ In Revisiting Rituals in a Changing Tibetan World, edited by Katia Buffetrille. Leiden: Brill, pp. 241-271.
Holmes-Tagchundarpa, Amy. 2021. ‘The Book as a Generative Agent: The Buddhist Canon as a Community Member in Book Procession Rituals of the Himalayas. MAVCOR Journal, 5, 2.
Højer, Lars. 2009. ‘Absent Powers: Magic and Loss in Post-socialist Mongolia.’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 15: 575-591.
Kaplonski, Christopher. 2012. ‘Resorting to Violence: Technologies of Exception, Contingent States and the Repression of Buddhist Lamas in 1930s Mongolia.’ Ethnos 77, 1: 72-92.
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.