The third and final post by Dr Saskia Abrahms-Kavunenko.
In late May 2009 just as the rolling steppe was finally springing green, my husband and I, along with some friends, pile ourselves into old Russian vans and set out from Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar on a pilgrimage to Mother Rock (Eej Khad) in the nearby Töv region. Following the proliferating indentations of the tracks left by other four-wheeled drives (think a river splitting into multiple rivulets at each obstacle, or the physical instantiation of a probability spread wherein all paths are taken at once), we arrive at the first notable spot en route: Money Rock (Yembüü Khad). Standing a little lower than the height of an average person Money Rock is completely covered in the distinctive bright blue prayer scarves that characterise much of Mongolia’s ritual activity. We are told that if you press money against the rock and circumambulate with it three times that the money will multiply in your wallet bringing ever increasing returns. Next stop on the pilgrimage route and the reason we are making the journey is Eej Khad. As we approach her we notice first the enclosure encircling her. Outside the enclosure people are circling in a clockwise direction throwing oblations of milk as they go. Copying others I do likewise and then join the line to visit the sacred rock. A lady in front of us tells us that if we whisper three wishes under her arm that Eej Khad will make those wishes come true. Another lady explains to me that Mongolians only found out about the existence of Eej Khad after the Democratic Revolution of 1990. Before then her existence was hidden by the anti-religious socialist government.
There are a variety of stories about the discovery of the rock. Caroline Humphrey has written that people started worshipping her in the 1970s and that when the local district leader found out he tried to destroy her (1993). All attempts to destroy the rock failed and stories of the ill fates of those who plotted her destruction seem to have put off others from following suite.
While we shuffle amiably towards our goal nearby worshippers explain to me that when I approach Eej Khad I should place a blue prayer scarf upon her as an offering with the fold opening towards her in the same way that one would offer a scarf to a Buddhist lama as a sign of respect. When I finally reached the inside of the enclosure, I see Eej Khad covered in beaded necklaces, and adorned in an oversized dress. Her shoulders are completely laden with a multiplicity of prayer scarves. In front of her a table is replete with offerings. I approach Eej Khad, placed my prayer scarf upon her and make my wishes.
Both Eej Khad and Yembüü Khad are offered the respect of brightly coloured prayer scarves – but what happens to these prayer scarves after pilgrims have left? Made from polyester they will be unable to decompose if left on site or tied to nearby trees. And, because they carry with them the intentions of the person who has made the offering they cannot be easily recycled and reused (see also Makley 2018). Nor can you just throw them into the bin like ordinary refuse. In the bin (or rubbish pile) they will be mixed with mundane and devalued items and this proximity will disrespect the intentions of the person who has offered the scarf. Each individual prayer scarf carries with it specific potencies, depending on who has offered it, and their mistreatment could potentially harm those who mishandle them. And, as the materiality of the prayer scarves has become more problematic, through shifting from luxurious and largely unaffordable yet long lasting and biodegradable silk to iridescent polyester, the offerings have increased, magnifying the problematics of ritual disposal.
In Mongolia in the presocialist period, before 1921, the majority of Buddhist offerings were made from materials that could decompose. Offerings were often food products, such as dairy and grains. Prayer scarves, when they were owned, were made from precious silks. When items were durable, such as the towering statues of Chenrezig and Maitreya in Mongolia’s capital city, their longevity was intentional. They were built to discourse with human and non-human beings and to stand as a reminder to future generations of the power of Buddhism. In the postsocialist period (after 1990), the materials from which religious offerings are made have undergone radical changes. Statues and prayer scarves are no longer made by a small number of trained artisans but are frequently created in large industrial factories which produce considerable on site pollution. Even food items, such as dairy products, when offered in plastic packaging, are unable to biodegrade.
Although Buddhism is often discussed in popular culture as a religion devoid of the need for material things, Buddhist rituals often generate considerable consumption. Ritual items are embedded in the same kinds of industrial capitalist economies that characterise more mundane forms of consumption. However, differing from ordinary things that outlast their tenure as wanted things and are disposed of in straightforward if often problematic ways, ritual items cannot necessarily be disposed of in an ordinary manner, as they can retain the energies and intentions of those that have offered them.
Even mundane items that are emblazoned with a Buddhist symbol can cause apprehensions regarding their correct treatment. When chatting to a lay Buddhist friend in 2009 she expressed dismay at boxes of matches having the Buddha’s image printed on them. How, she asked me, is one supposed to dispose of such an item after it has been used? If one throws it into the rubbish it will mix with other discarded materials. Mixing Buddhist symbols with mundane refuse, to her, seemed to demonstrate disrespect for the Buddhist teachings. The Buddha’s image can, after all, never become rubbish.
Whether or not Buddhist ritual items after they have been used become problematic depends in part on the materials from which they are made. Offering seeds or grain for instance means that the blessings contained within them spread to nearby animals and birds that eat them. If offerings are made from or encased in plastics these items are unable to biodegrade. Plastics are unable to decompose and hence to become part of life-generating cycles of decay and growth. Instead they factitiously disintegrate, or photodegrade, leaving behind toxic residues (Abrahms-Kavunenko 2021).
When chatting to religious ritual items storeowner Gerelmaa in 2016, she told me that one of the most popular items that she sold in her store were prayer scarves (khadags). Prayer scarves in Mongolia are used in most ritual ceremonies. People offer them to high lamas, they are used in other Buddhist and shamanic ceremonies and they are offered on pilgrimage and when one visits their birthplace (nutag). Unlike prayer scarves elsewhere, Mongolian prayer scarves are a characteristic bright blue symbolising the relationship to the clear blue sky (tenger), the vastness and clarity of which is worshipped throughout the Mongolian cultural region. Because of their unique colour and common usage, prayer scarves are associated with Mongolian national identity. Offering a blue prayer scarf in both hands with a silver cup containing milk is a symbol of hospitality and is frequently used in tourist advertisements and within national imaginings. Circling prayer scarves in upturned hands three times in a clockwise direction is used within many rituals to generate and gather good fortune (Abrahms-Kavunenko 2019).
Following the Democratic Revolution of 1990, and the lifting of prohibitions of religious practices of all kinds, there has been a surge in the number of rituals in urban and rural areas. People now commonly go on pilgrimages, visit shamans and Buddhist temples, and leave offerings on sacred rock cairns (ovoos) as they pass by to bless their journeys. In response to emerging ideas about the responsibility of Buddhists to foster eco-friendly practices, a research project, funded by a Dutch NGO, produced a document titled the Mongolian Buddhist Eight-Year Conservation Plan (Alliance of Religions and Conservation 2010). Beginning with commentaries from two of the most senior Mongolian Buddhists at the time, the document suggested ways that Buddhist religious specialists and lay Buddhists could encourage the protection of local ecosystems. As a demonstration of the widespread concerns about the proper use of prayer scarves, the short report emphasised two different initiatives: one concerning mining and water and the other concerning the proper treatment of prayer scarves. The plan encourages lay people to avoid tying prayer scarves to trees (which can thwart growth) and discourages the practice of leaving them tied to poles and bridges. It also states that due to the imperishable nature of contemporary offerings that temples should encourage the use of biodegradable materials as offerings, including for the materials used to make prayer scarves. Probably due to the difficulties of competing with the vivid and pleasing shiny materiality of the polyester blue prayer scarves, and no doubt due to the costs of researching and producing alternatives on a mass scale, although many people are concerned about the imperishable nature of prayer scarves, I have not noticed alternative prayer scarves for sale or in ritual use since this document was published.
As prayer scarves have become increasingly difficult to dispose of, their use has radically multiplied. Perhaps this isn’t surprising – in the presocialist period silk was valuable and rare, while in the contemporary period, prayer scarves made in Chinese factories are cheap and easy to purchase – yet the consequences of this shift continue to multiply in Mongolia. As their materiality has become more difficult to deal with, the proliferation of sky blue polyester prayer scarf has become an integral part of Mongolian religious life.
What happens to wishes and blessings when their instantiation becomes polluting?
Does the benefit of the blessing outweigh any material or ecological consequences?
Or should ritual forms adapt to these problematic materialities, perhaps reusing or recycling blessed items?
Reflecting the portentous and expanding skies above the land, the near ubiquity of this item in Mongolian religious life awaits a shift in fortune.
Abrahms-Kavunenko, Saskia. 2021. ‘Toward an Anthropology of Plastics.’ Journal of Material Culture.
Abrahms-Kavunenko, Saskia. 2019. ‘Mustering Fortune: Attraction and Multiplication in the Echoes of the Boom.’ Ethnos. 84, 5: 891-909.
Humphrey, Caroline. 1993. ‘Avgai Khad: Theft and Social Trust in Post-Communist Mongolia.’ Anthropology Today. 9, 6: 13-16.
Makley, Charlene. 2018. The Battle for Fortune: State-Led Development, Personhood, and Power among Tibetans in China. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Abrahms-Kavunenko, Saskia. 2022. ‘Zombie Waste, Mummy Materiality: The Undead and the Fate of Mongolian Buddhist Waste.’ In Buddhism and Waste: The Excess, Discard, and Afterlife of Buddhist Consumption. Eds. Trine Brox and Elizabeth Williams-Oerberg. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing: 145-166.
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.