The Mysterious Museum of Mongolia — Buddha in the Yurt: Buddhist Art from Mongolia Edited by Carmen Meinert

Buddha in the Yurt

Buddha in the Yurt:
Buddhist Art from Mongolia

EDITED BY Carmen Meinert
(Hirmer Publishers, 2011)

From the Publisher:

“Since the introduction of Buddhism to Mongolia in the seventeenth century, art has emerged as an important component of Buddhist culture. Drawing on a large privately owned collection of Mongolian and Tibetan art, this volume reproduces a carefully chosen selection of paintings, scrolls, statues, shrines, amulets, tablets, and ritual implements dating as far back as the eleventh century…. Accompanying each illustration and adding depth to the volume are descriptions that situate the work within Buddhist iconography and the rich symbolism of the Tantric Buddhist tradition….

All of the artworks appear here for the first time in print, making this an essential addition to the literature on East Asian religion, culture, and art.”

Mongolia and Tibet have been deeply intertwined for hundreds of years, though their geography and language differ. Mongolian culture originates in the world’s largest steppe, where shallow rivers diverge to flow either north into the Siberian taiga or east into the plains of Manchuria and China, and where animal husbandry rather than agriculture has been the basis of life. The Mongolian language is Altaic, related to various Turkic languages spoken across Central Asia. Tibetan culture is centered in the Himalayan plateau, a region of the world’s highest mountains, containing agricultural river valleys and arid lake regions. The Tibetan language is related to cultures to the south of the plateau: Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken throughout the highlands of Southeast Asia. What Mongolian and Tibetan cultures share is a north-south border, and it is through that physical connection that the two have deeply influenced each other.

While there have been several major exhibitions built around artifacts from the Mongolian empire in the United States and Germany, none have focused on Tibetan Buddhism among the Mongols.

Tibetan religious leaders played an important political and spiritual role when Kublai Khan’s army unified China in the thirteenth century. But it was the military and spiritual alliance in 1576 between Altan Khan, a leader of the Eastern Mongols, and Sonam Gyatso, the head monk of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, that set the stage for what followed. The Mongol ruler bestowed on the Tibetan monk the title of Dalai Lama, and the Tibetan religious leader bestowed on his Mongol patron the legitimacy of a Buddhist ruler in the image of Kublai.

In the centuries that followed the incarnations of the Dalai Lama became the theocratic rulers of Tibet and spread their religious culture throughout the Mongol world. Pilgrims, teachers and cultural institutions flowed between Mongolia and Tibet from the time of Altan Khan to the early twentieth century. The Mongols at all levels of society adopted Tibetan literary, artistic, medical and religious culture, to varying degrees. Tibetan monasteries grew to become the educational, artistic and medical centers of the Mongol world. This was from its inception a transnational world, straddling the Chinese and Russian Empires, including what is now Mongolia as well as provinces of China and Russia as far north as the present Russian Buryatia and west of the Caspian Sea to the Russian Kalmykia. The end came abruptly. The anti-religion campaign in the Soviet Union was followed in Mongolia by a political and military action that destroyed, literally and figuratively, all Buddhist activity and institutions. The link between Mongolia and Tibet was severed.

As the Cold War began, Mongolia was closed to anyone outside the Socialist world and its Tibetan Buddhist heritage had been reduced to a single showcase monastery and collections of objects in a state museums. The rest of the artifacts that had once graced hundreds of monasteries, thousands of temples and millions of homes were hidden or had been reduced to ashes. The post-Soviet era brought an end to anti-religious policies and a resurgent interest in Buddhist heritage within Mongolia and Russia. The first major exhibitions of Mongolian art in North America and Europe took place in the 1990s. While there have been several major exhibitions built around artifacts from the Mongolian empire in the United States and Germany, none have focused on Tibetan Buddhism among the Mongols.

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