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Phase II: Regional expansion

Mongolia (Kharakorin)

Traditional brick making in Kharakhorin, Mongolia © C. Young

Mongolia shares close cultural linkages with Tibet and the other Himalayan sites, through centuries of missionary and trade exchanges across China.   The common tradition shared by Mongolian Buddhism with Tibetan Buddhism dates back to when the Mongolian Khans dominated much of Asia. The Third Dalai Lama was a Mongolian, and Tibet was one of very few places to survive the onslaught of Chinggis Khan.

Buddhist canons spread over the Mongolian Empire in the 13th century becoming the state religion. The first Buddhist monastery Erdene Zuu was established in 1586. Since that time construction of Buddhist temples were developing rapidly and reached to 700. Mongolia was for all intents and purposes absorbed into Russia and the Soviet Union from 1911, recovering its full independence only in 1990. By that time, only six monasteries remained and the number of monks had decreased dramatically. There are now two generations of Mongolians who have never had the chance to practice Buddhism, and know little of their religion. Today, most of the monastic teachers in Mongolia are very old, and teaching is consequently difficult. Each year their numbers dwindle due to their failing health.

Erdene Zuu, located in the Orkhon Valley, is one of two major monasteries that are located in the valley in Uvurkhangai Province, the site of the ruins of Kara Korum, the ancient capital of the Mongolian Empire. Founded in 1586, its area of (400m x 400m) 160,000 square meters is surrounded with stone walls and 108 stupas. There are four fortresses with entrance gates on each side of the compound. In 1792 the monastery comprised 62 temples and around 500 buildings housing 1,000 lamas (monks). At the present time there are 18 temples and 30 resident monks at Erdene Zuu monastery which still remains the main centre of Buddhism in Mongolia.

The training programme focuses on Erdene Zuu Monsatery in Kharakorin, Uburkhangai Province, located within the Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape World Heritage Site. Erdene Zuu is one of the few monasteries that have partially survived the razing of almost 700 Buddhist monasteries during the late 1930s. Erdene Zuu provides an ideal venue for training and capacity building activities for this project. The Mongolian government has plans to establish a national training centre at Erdene Zuu to train monks and novices, as well as lay persons, and in collaboration with Kara Korum University, in traditional techniques, production of traditional materials and conservation skills necessary to conserve the Buddhist heritage as well as the other cultural heritage in the Orkhon River Valley, and eventually throughout entire Mongolia. This project will build upon this momentum by assisting the Mongolian government in achieving this goal.

Project overview and objectives           
This project addresses an urgent request from the Buddhist community of Erdene Zuu Monastery for assistance in reviving intangible and tangible Buddhist heritage through training and in consequent application of traditional skills to reconstruct the main prayer hall of Erdene Zuu which had been destroyed during the late 1930s. Reconstructing the prayer hall will allow the living heritage of Erdene Zuu to continue in a more appropriate environment than in the temporary quarters presently used. The project aims to revive traditional Buddhist decorative arts and crafts required to conserve and repair the remaining Buddhist temples and to reconstruct those that no longer exist, in an authentic way.

The overall objectives of the project in Kharakorin are:

  • To build local capacity in traditional crafts, management capacity of lay and religious care-takers and training capacity of local trainers
  • To institute community-led training projects in traditional decorative arts and building crafts among lay persons and the Sangha in basic preventative conservation
  • To develop partnerships and networks with existing training institutions in formal and non-formal education and local, national and regional technical expertise

The expected project outputs include following:

  • Establishment of a Research and Training Center for Preservation of the Cultural Heritage
  • Institution of traditional and modern systems of transferring skills
  • Revival of knowledge and practice of traditional decorative arts, building crafts and use of traditional materials as well as the provision of further training in conservation principles and skills
  • Production of site/country appropriate curricula, technical manuals and guidelines on preventative conservation and maintenance
  • Documentation of project approach for educational and advocacy purposes, photographic and video records of traditional techniques and methodologies and films documenting traditional Buddhist arts

Project output to date
A Research and Training Center for Preservation of the Cultural Heritage has been established at Kharakhorum University. Three classrooms have been converted into workshops for traditional painting and needlework, traditional metalwork and ceramics, and traditional woodwork. *      

Besides the practical training subjects identified, theoretical subjects including architectural types and styles, of Mongolian Buddhist monasteries, traditional materials, techniques tools and methods used for their construction, as well as color theory are integral part of the training programme. The project team has written and compiled a comprehensive textbook for the training. Content has been gathered from scientific sources, artists and old master-craftsmen. The first two chapters contain general information such as origin, history of Buddhist religion and architecture of Buddhist temples, reason and consequence of declining Buddhist practice and destruction of temples and monasteries and present condition of restoration and conservation work of the Buddhist temples in Mongolia. The third chapter, the core of the book, provides detailed information about the complete range of arts and crafts used for temple construction and decoration in Mongolia, including selection of materials, use of tools, conservation issues etc, all accompanied by visuals, including photos, drawings and diagrams.

From15 August – 20 September 2005, the National Coordinating Committee of the project has undertake an expedition with the purpose of increasing awareness among monks about the care for and conservation of Buddhist temples and artifacts. The Committee visited fourteen monasteries in eight provinces, often located in very remote areas of the country, where they gave lectures and advice to over 1800 monks and local community members. They also advised local abbots on the conservation and maintenance of their temples. The expedition also identified 18 monks with basic proficiency in arts and 2 craftsmen for enrollment in the training programme in Kharakhorin. As identified monk and lay trainers have been trained on traditional decorative arts and building crafts skills, and ready to start the first training workshop, two workshops with each lasted for three month, were conducted.

In addition to the preparation of training manuals based on the documentation of traditional decorative arts and building crafts techniques,  the project team has produces a video documentary. The aim of the video is twofold. Firstly, it can be used as awareness raising tool. Secondly, it contains sections explaining in detail techniques used for temple construction and decoration and can be used as part of the training resources. The 30-minute video is edited from a total footage of more than 5 hours.

As part of the training programme, the trainees have prepared a scale model of a traditional Mongolian Buddhist temple. In addition, they have been invited to assist with the restoration of one of the temple buildings in Erdene Zuu currently being restored.

Finally, the project is preparing the reconstruction of the Main Prayer Hall of Erdene Zuu, which was destroyed during the 1930s and which will, once completed, provide the space needed for practicing Buddhist rituals and prayers at the site, something now done in a tent.

The UNESCO World Heritage Center has in principle agreed to this proposed reconstruction, but has advised that more training will be required prior to commencing the project. A mission undertaken upon request by UNESCO by the Tibet Heritage Trust to assess the current training project and the proposed reconstruction plans have resulted in useful recommendations which now need to be followed up on.