Next Great Travel Writer: Gandan Monastery

This week, Traveler Editor in Chief Keith Bellows and Suzanne Roberts, winner of the “Next Great Travel Writer” contest, are blogging during their trip through Mongolia. Today Suzanne writes of her visit to the Gandan Monastery.

At the gate of the monastery, a woman crouches into the street, scooping rain water from the gutter with a paper cup into a thermos. Street children wearing plastic sandals and wet socks sell bird seed, and three old women sell small bottles of ablution, so visitors may cleanse their faces in preparation for prayer. Pigeons rise with a flutter into the gray sky. We’ve come to the Gandantegchinlen (Gandan) Khiid Monastery to hear the morning chants. One of the few remaining monasteries after the communist destruction in 1938, Gandan is the largest in Mongolia with hundreds of monks. 

We enter the temple and and see monks sitting cross-legged on wooden benches, reciting the Tibetan chants from yellowed parchment paper. Colorful prayer flags hang from the ceiling—each color a symbol: red, prosperity; green, fertility; white, purity; yellow, eternity; and of course blue is most important to the Mongolian people because it represents the blue sky, and Mongolia is known as “the land of the blue sky.” 

Although the younger generation is not as religious, a majority of Mongolians are Buddhist, and the monks play an important role in their lives. If a mother would like a husband for her daughter, she goes to see a monk, who will read her sutras and pray for her daughter. Some even come to find out which day would be most auspicious for a haircut. I am hoping to go back and have my sutras read. In the countryside, I had my fortune told with the ankle bones of sheep (they roll them like dice and then “read” the bones). My fortune was “He can tell you but you must go after your work to had more attention.”  Though I am not sure exactly what that means, I am a little worried about the verb tense—hopefully a translation error.

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The prayers, according to our guide, are only pure and powerful if they are chanted in Tibetan. Three young monks—perhaps six or seven years old—sit together. One mouths the words, another chews gum. An elderly monk wearing sunglasses sits on a high wooden chair on the outside of the circle. He acts as the conductor, tracking each chant with prayer beads, as well as watching the young monks and keeping them “in line,” though the children still whisper to each other and quietly giggle. After the chant, they are served white rice. We leave them to their meal and proceed to the temple of Migjid Janraisig, which boasts a statue of the god measuring over 25 meters high.

The rain now falls steadily, replacing the land of blue sky with a gray canvas of clouds. This summer has been a wet one, which has painted the hillsides green. The people are very happy, because rain is important to the pasture lands. We enter the temple, and I pay my five dollars to take a picture of the enormous statue, which was consecrated by the Dalai Lama in 1996. This statue replaces an earlier one that the communists took to Leningrad; even now, no one knows what happened to it. One theory is that it was melted down to make bullets. This new statue is quite impressive—copper, gold, precious stones, and covered with silk. The Mongolian people donated the money, and Nepal and Japan donated the gold. I walk around the statue, and the blue eyes seem to follow me, which is appropriate since Janraisig means “the god who looks in every direction.”

We leave Janraisig and enter Ochidara Temple. The walls are painted red and gold, and elaborate dragons wrap around each column. Some monks chant, while others play drums or blow into seashells. Devoted Mongolians bow their heads in reverence and clasp their hands in prayer. A high-ranking monk in the middle distributes the holy water by shaking a small feather into the air. The drum’s echo and the incense mingled with sweat create a trancelike atmosphere. I, too, bow my head in reverence for this amazing scene.

Photos: Suzanne Roberts