Lama is dug up 10 times a year to prove to pilgrims that his body has not decayed
Incense wafts up to the ribbon-enshrouded ceiling as red-robed monks sit before scrolls, quietly chanting the prayers inscribed in Tibetan. Silent crowds line the walls, sprinkling rice and leaving offerings at the numerous thang-kas (Buddhist paintings) and sculptures that surround the monks.
A large Buddha sits directly across from the door, but is slightly obscured by a clear glass box. A form, covered in robes, lies in the box. As people approach the box, they sprinkle rice and bow their heads to the robes that descend from the form. Having performed this ritual, the people back up slowly, never turning their backs to the box or the Buddha that lies behind it.
It was difficult to remember that I was in Russia and not in a remote temple in Tibet; the numerous bottles of vodka that were given as offerings were the most obvious indicator.
Or perhaps it was my difficulty keeping my frozen hands out of my pockets to show respect. Although it was only October, the temperature had already dropped below freezing. As I walked into the main temple, a monk at the door indicated for us to remove our hats and expose our necks. We had wisely decided to go later in the evening so as to avoid the crowds. I would not have lasted long waiting in line outside.
The reason for today's crowds was the revealing of Hambo Lama Dashi-Dorzho Itigelov, an occurrence that happens about 10 times a year. Although one can see the Hambo Lama nearly once a month, it is nevertheless a day that thousands of Buddhists travel to the temple to say prayers and make offerings.
Itigelov is arguably the holiest Buddhist object in Russia. In 1911, Itigelov was appointed the 12th Pandido Hambo Lama of Russia, the highest Buddhist post in Russia. He served until 1927, when he advised his followers to leave Russia and entered into a death meditation.
After several hours, he ceased breathing and was buried. According to his followers, he told his disciples that he was leaving until a time came that Buddhism was again welcome in Russia.
His body was unearthed by monks in 1955, who were shocked to find that he had not decayed at all.
In 2002, he was revealed to the public and moved to the Ivolginsky Datsan, where he was inspected by monks and scientists, who concluded that his body appeared to have been dead for 36 hours. According to local tradition, saying a prayer and touching the Hambo Lama's robes will make a wish come true. Many Buddhists look to Itigelov as proof that nirvana is real and attainable.
While Itigelov is reason enough to visit the Ivolginsky Datsan, the complex is full of history and famous works of Buddhist art. Interestingly, Buddhism came to Buryatia in the early 1600s, only a few decades before the Russians. After competing with Shamanist tradition, the monks eventually began to embrace shamanist tradition, allowing Buddhism to thrive throughout the 1700s and 1800s.
As with all religions during the Soviet Era, Buddhism was repressed and nearly every temple and monastery was destroyed. The Ivolginsky Datsan was built in 1946 as the new center of Buddhism in Russia and a Soviet tool to control Buddhism. However, as the Soviet Union become more accepting of religion, the Ivolginsky Datsan became much more independent and remained the center of Buddhism in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Due to its position of the only Buddhist temple in Russia for the majority of the Soviet Era, many of the most exceptional works of Buddhist art were transferred to the Ivolginsky Datsan.
Recently, some of the complex's new temples have been modeled on older, destroyed temples. For example, Itigelov's temple is a remake of the Atsagatsky Datsan, the main temple in Russia prior to the Bolshevik Revolution. Additionally, the datsan houses a sculpture by Dashi Namdakov, one of the most famous artists in the history of Buryatia.
The Ivolginsky Datsan is also one of the best places to find souvenirs in Buryatia. Vendors will line up outside the entrance to the complex with small sculptures, prayer wheels, cloths, and clothing. A restaurant near the datsan serves some of the best buuzy (traditional Buryat meat dumplings) in Buryatia as well as rice for sprinkling around the temple.
Getting to the Ivolginsky Datsan can be tricky. On days that Itigelov is displayed to the public, marshrutki (fixed-route minivans) run from the Banzarova bus station to the datsan every half hour. On normal days, some buses will go to the datsan and many will just go to the town of Ivolginsk, where you will have to wait to take another van to the datsan. It is about a 30 minute drive from Ulan-Ude to the datsan, and you should expect to spend about 2 hours at the datsan, plus time for crowds if you're going to see Itigelov.
Brian is a Fulbright scholar on a tourism assignment writing from Siberia for Vision on Sustainable Tourism
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Tuesday, September 18, 2012