A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Khutulun on the blog, but this week, I want to jump forward a few centuries to another notable Mongolian: Ishdorj. Born in the Tüsheet Khanate (a region in eastern Outer Mongolia) in 1635 to the Khan of that region, Ishdorj became the spiritual leader at the age of four. Later, the 5th Dalai Lama of Tibet recognized him as a reincarnation of Taranatha–a widely skilled Buddhist scholar. Part of this recognition led to Ishdorj’s new name–under which he is better recognized–which in Mongolian is Zanabazar.
Zanabazar is remembered best for the following three areas: his spiritual leadership, his development of the Soyombo alphabet, and his detailed art. He was a renaissance man through and through: highly educated, gifted in languages, and talented in sculpture. As the spiritual leader of the Khalkha Mongols, Zanabazar held the title of Bogd Gegeen (bogd = holy, saintly, saint; gegeen = holiness, enlightened). He was the first to hold this kind of influence and is responsible for the proliferation of Buddhism in Mongolia. Because of his efforts, today, many Mongolians view Buddhism as a part of their cultural identities.
The kind of Buddhism practiced in Mongolia comes from Tibet and is often referred to as “yellow Buddhism”, “yellow hat Buddhism”, or Gelugpa Buddhism (due to the style of ceremonial hats worn by lamas in this tradition). Since it originated in Tibet, one of Zanabazar’s goals was to make Tibetan sacred texts accessible to literate Mongolians. His solution to this problem was to create the Soyombo alphabet. This script can be used to write Mongolian, Tibetan, and Sanskrit. Due to its complicated nature, the script was never widely adopted but remained primarily in monasteries or for ceremonial and decorative use. The Soyombo symbol has since become the national emblem and is located on the Mongolian flag as well as official seals, currency, and so on.
His artistic influence can still be seen today in temples and monasteries around Mongolia, but if you visit the country, I would recommend a visit to the art museum in Chingeltei District dedicated to his art and his disciples’ art. The museum holds famous pieces like his sculpture of White Tara (right), appliqued tapestries, paintings (religious and cultural), costumes, statues, and Tsam masks that are used in religious ceremonies.
Although his influence remains far-reaching, I’m not entirely sure that the average Mongolian knows who Zanabazar is. Buddhism may be a cultural identity marker in Mongolia, but not all Mongolians would consider themselves devout or scholars of Buddhist history. (We certainly had a difficult time directing people to the location of the museum, which was across the street from the office of our former workplace.) That said, I could very well be wrong as this is anecdotal evidence at best and is only an opinion from an outsider. In the end, regardless of recognition, Zanabazar’s mark on Mongolian history remains.