The Kalmyk people (Kalmyk: Хальмгуд, Halm'gud) — or Kalmyks — is the name given to the Oirats, western Mongols in Russia, whose ancestors migrated from Dzhungaria in 1607. They created the Kalmyk Khanate in 1630-1724 in Russia’s North Caucasus territory. Today they form a majority in the autonomous Republic of Kalmykia on the western shore of the Caspian Sea. Kalmykia has Europe’s only Buddhist government.
“The Republic of Kalmykia (Russian: Респу́блика Калмы́кия, tr. Respublika Kalmykiya) is a federal subject of Russia (a republic). Population: 289,481 (2010 Census).
It is the only Buddhist region in Europe. It has become well known as an international center for chess because its former President, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, is the head of the International Chess Federation (FIDE).”
I had absolutely no idea there was a majority Buddhist region so far west, consider my mind blown.
The Kalmyks and Tibet: A Relationship that Started as an Occupation and Developed into a Friendship
Mendit Yakhalaba readers!
As a Kalmyk you may have noticed many cultural similarities between Kalmyk and Tibetan people including our religion, clothing, art, nomadic lifestyle, and so many other aspects of our culture. Communication and relationships between Mongols and Tibetans date back to Genghis Khan’s grandson Koten, becoming the first Mongol patron of Tibetan Buddhism. To understand the Kalmyks direct link to Tibet we must delve into the history of Genghis Khan’s grandson Koten. We must also consider Altan Khan’s relationship with His Holiness the third Dalai Lama and how this shaped our ability to identify as a Buddhist people instead of as a Shamanistic people.
Authors Thomas Laird and John Man describe Koten (spelling in John Man’s text) or Godan (spelling in Thomas Laird’s text) as sending a small army into Tibet in the year 1240, killing five hundred Tibetans in an attack on one monastery, and looting several other monasteries. Koten developed an interest in Buddhism and heard about the spiritual powers of one monk, Sakya Pandita and is said to have sent him a letter in 1244.
“I, the most powerful and prosperous Prince Godan, wish to inform the Sakya Pandita, Kunga Gyaltsen, that we need a lama to advise my ignorant people on how to conduct themselves morally and spiritually, I need someone to pray for the welfare of my deceased parents… I have decided that you are the only person suitable for the task…I will not accept any excuse on account of your age or the rigors of the journey…It would, of course, be easy for me to send a large body of troops to bring you here.”
Sakya Pandita left Tibet with two of his young nephews, including ten-year-old Phagpa Gyaltsen, and a Mongol escort. Sakya Pandita is said to have written to various Tibetan leaders suggesting they co-operate. “There is only one way out, which is to submit to the Mongols.” To seal the pact between the Mongols and the Tibetans, the lama’s seven year old nephew was married to Koten’s daughter and this agreement laid the foundations of Mongol influence in Tibet. Sakya Pandita offered the prince religious teachings, including to refrain from harming any living creature. After some time the Mongol prince appointed Sakya Pandita as the Mongol’s viceroy for Central Tibet, though the eastern provinces of the old Tibetan empire- Kham and Amdo-were under direct Mongol rule.
In 1578 when Altan Khan met His Holiness Sonam Gyatso the third Dalai Lama of Tibet it is believed that the third Dalai Lama converted Altan to Buddhism. Altan Khan had sent an invitation for His Holiness to visit Mongolia and travel more than 1,500 miles where he translated the name Sonam Gyatso. Gyatso meaning “ocean” to Mongolian Dalai meaning “ocean” or “oceanic virtue.” Altan’s devotion to Buddhism encouraged other princes to convert as well. When Altan Khan sent presents back to monasteries in Tibet and financed the printing and translation of Buddhist texts, other princes followed in his example. Altan allowed His Holiness to burn all the wooden carvings his family had kept as shamanic totems. Altan ordered all his subjects to burn their totems and to renounce shamanism as well as banning blood sacrifices or to face execution and the other Mongol princes followed. Buddhist monks were afforded the same status Mongol laws gave the nobility whereas active shamans were now subject to execution.
It is also interesting to note that His Holiness the fourth Dalai Lama, Yonten Gyatso, was born in 1589 in Mongolia to the Chokar chieftain Tsultrim Choeje, grandson of Altan Khan. The abbot of Ganden Monastery recognized him as the reincarnation of the third Dalai Lama but his parents refused to let him leave Mongolia until he was older so he received religious education from Tibetan lamas in Mongolia.
From my readings the Kalmyks are noted as living in Tibet as early as the year 1900 in the Russian Buddhist colony in Lhasa, consisting of only 47 Buryats and one Kalmyk from the Astrakhan Province. Four years later there were twenty-two Astrakhan and Stavropol Kalmyk students residing in Lhasa. Most of the Buryat and Kalmyk monks who came to Lhasa for educational purposes entered the Gomang Datsan at Drepung. As Lhasa became accessible for Russian Buddhists a large number of Buryats and Kalmyks were able to visit freely either as pilgrims or for educational purposes.
In 1905 thousands of Buryat and Kalmyk pilgrims flocked to Urga in Outer Mongolia to pay homage to His Holiness during a visit. While in Urga, His Holiness was approached by several Buryat and Kalmyk delegations and granted his blessings to a group of Astrakhan Kalmyks for establishing a religious school the first school in the Kalmyk steppes.
Closer to the present day, Kalmyks have shown solidarity with Tibetans in their fight for freedom and independence from China. The photo above was taken in 1959 when Kalmyks protested for Tibetan freedom outside the United Nations in New York. I have also come across a foundation in Moscow called Save Tibet which has an objective to provide information on the current situation in Tibet, the Tibetan community in exile, and the development of Tibetan Buddhism in Russia. The Venerable Professor Samdhong Rinpoche recently visited Elista, the capital of Kalmykia, in June 2014 where he gave public teachings from the “Commentary on Nagarjuna’s Letter to a Friend.” During his visit he met with the local Tibet Support Group and Friends of Tibet Society based in Elista.
I hope that you enjoyed my short article on the relationship between Kalmyks and Tibetans and how much it has changed since 1240 and the invasion by Koten.
If you are interested in taking action for Tibet please consider donating towards my Birthday Causes Wish which raises funds for the non profit organization Students for a Free Tibet (SFT). SFT works in solidarity with the Tibetan people in their struggle for freedom and independence. It is a chapter based organization that I have been a part of for many years, since middle school in fact, and it has taught me how to use nonviolent grassroots organizing to campaign for human rights inside of Tibet. An example of this kind of campaigning is lobbying with U.S. representatives in an effort to bring attention to the self immolations inside of Tibet. As someone who is of both Kalmyk and Tibetan descent I see so much cross-over between our cultures. As a Kalmyk I believe we must maintain our relationship with Tibetans by supporting human rights inside of Tibet. Tibetans are fighting for basic human rights such as the right to learn the Tibetan language in schools, the right to have freedom of speech, and the right to preserve their own culture.
If you are interested in standing in solidarity with Tibetans in Kardze please submit your photo like the example below holding a sign that says “American Kalmyks in Solidarity with Kardze Tibetans” but please feel free to write Russian Kalmyks or whichever country you are from.
Above, the Golden Temple, Elista. Middle, Elista and other cities new to Street View. Below, a Street View in Elista.
The Google Street View is quickly expanding to cities we might not have heard of that often. (That’s not to say some wouldn’t know Elista, a city in the Republic of Kalmykia, the only Buddhist region in Europe.)
It’s somehow even democratic to have a navigable network of street imagery reaching areas with lesser recognition. But with so many smaller cities in Eastern Europe and Russia now becoming viewable online, it’s curious what exactly are we seeing in them. For instance, some cities in Russia remained closed during the Soviet era. Some are surprisingly beautiful, most are in various stages of development.
What’s also curious about some of these cities, like Elista, is that although there now is Street View, there is no street map – as if previously the city didn’t even exist to the internet or the global mapping. But suddenly, something beyond the map becomes freely available. Suddenly a market stall on an unpaved road in Kalmykia becomes part of the global catalog of streets.