The Bogd Khan’s Winter Palace Museum

Ulaan Baatar

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The Winter Palace

The Bogd Khan Palace Winter Palace and Summer Prayer Temples complex was built by the 8th Bogd Gegeen, Luvsanchoijinimadanzinbanchug (1870–1924), the last of the Bogd Gegeens to live in Mongolia. After the final expulsion of the Chinese from Mongolia in 1921 he assumed the title Bogd Khan and ruled as the nominal head of a theocracy much like the one that existed in Tibet under the Dalai Lamas until his death in 1924.

The two-story wood-framed Winter Palace was constructed in 1905 according to the designs of a Russian architect working under direct orders of the Russian Czar Nicholas II, who was apparently trying to curry favor with the Bogd Gegen at this time. The Qing Emperor, nominal ruler of Mongolia, took exception to the palace being built on European lines, since Europeans were Christians, not Buddhists, and to placate him lotus patterns were painted on the walls and Buddhist ornaments added to the roof (these latter are now no longer present.) The Bogd Gegeen and his consort Dondogdulam lived in the Palace for almost twenty winters.

In 1925, after the Bogd Khan’s death, many of his personal possessions were auctioned off at a sale organized by Kh. Choibalsan, the future dictator of communist Mongolia, and the following year his Winter Palace was turned into a museum. Despite the dispersal of many of the his effects, the Winter Palace remains an overflowing cornucopia of material connected with the life and times of the 8th Bogd Gegeen; his sumptuous robes and hats; the elaborately decorated thrones of the Bogd Gegeen and his consort; the richly ornamented sleeping chambers where they spent their nights; the music box given to him by a Russian trade delegation in 1910 which played a variety of classical tunes; the silver vase and platter given to him as a token of their esteem by the newly founded Bolshevik government in Siberia (no doubt plundered from wealthy aristocrats); the bizarre collection of stuffed animals and fish, including aardvarks, anteaters, blowfish, tigers, monkeys and much else prepared for him in 1910 by taxidermists in Hamburg, Germany; the handsome trappings worn by the elephant he had imported to Mongolia for his amusement; an incredible ger covered with the skins of 150 snow leopards, a gift from one Sangilig Dorj, a man from the old Setsen Aimag who presented it to the Bogd Gegeen on the occasion of the latter’s birthday in 1893; and a plethora of associated ephemera. Also worth noting are striking portraits of both the Bogd and his consort by the noted artist B. Sharav (1869-1939).

Of more direct interest to Zanabarophiles is the huge wooden chair in the middle room of the second floor. This throne-like seat, glazed with what looks like black enamel and decorated with floridly painted panels and semi-precious stones, which was given to Zanabazar by Kangxi, the Qing emperor, with whom he stayed during his years as an exile in Beijing. The mere fact that this elaborately rococo confection, which no doubt once hosted Zanabazar’s saintly posterior, had been conveyed all the way from Beijing, perhaps on the back of a camel, and then survived the wars, revolutions, and plunderings of the twentieth century is in itself remarkable.

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Zanabazar's Throne-chair

Also on the second floor is Zanabazar’s immense fur cloak made of eighty black fox furs, also a gift from the Qing emperor Kangxi. Its wide collar is decorated with sixty-one coral flowers and 800 pearls. Zanabazar was reportedly a big man physically, and he would have had to have been to fill out this tent-like garment.

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Zanabazar's cloak

The original Summer Palace burned down sometime in the late 1800s. The current complex of seven temples, located in a walled compound just to the west of the Winter Palace, was constructed between 1893 and 1906. In front of the complex is a wall of blue bricks known as the Yampai, or Spirit Shield, a standard feature of Tibeto-Mongolian temples which is supposed to deter malignant influences from entering the temple grounds. Just behind this wall is the Three Open Gates, three wooden gateways which remained permanently open in order to allow all good influences to enter the temple compound. The Bogd Gegen and his advisors always entered the compound via the central gate, nobles and foreign guests via the East Gate, and guards, musicians, and hoi-polloi through the West Gate. Just behind the Three Open Gates are two long cha-gan, or flag posts. In the Bogd Khan’s day the one on the west flew the blue state flag of Mongolia and the one on the east the yellow flag of Buddhism.

Behind the flag poles is the Andimen, or Peace Gate. This elaborate wooden structure was built for the Bogd Gegen between 1912 and 1919 to commemorate his ascension to Monarch of Mongolia following the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and the declaration of Mongolian independence. The gate was designed by the famous Mongolian architect Baajar and built at a cost of over 385 pounds of silver donated by the Bogd Gegen’s followers. The wooden structure does not contain a single nail but was instead constructed with 108 different kinds of interlocking wooden joints. Topped by a seven-tiered canopy, the gate was lavishly decorated with depictions of Buddhist legends and scenes from the life of Gesar Khan, but these have faded with time.

The walled Summer Prayer Temples compound is entered via the Makhranz Temple, which contains the traditional four temple guardians. The first two temples to the left and right after passing through the Makhranz were once used once used by the Bogd Khan’s staff and advisors and by artists engaged in making embroidered silk thangkas and clothes for the Bogd and his consort. They now contain a collection of embroidered silk thangkas and other artwork.

Of special interest here is the visually intricate thangka ”Meditations of the Bogd Gegeens” in the temple to the right. In the center of this thangka is a depiction of dark blue thirty-four armed Yamataka in the yab-yum position with his consort. Just above Yamataka is depicted Zanabazar wearing a hat surmounted by a dorje, and just below is shown the 8th Bogd Gegeen. Just above Zanabazar’s shoulders are White Tara and Green Tara, and above them the Buddhas of the Three Times (Past, Present, and Future), Kashvapa, Shakyamuni, and Maitreya. Below the 8th and to the right the Bogd Gegeen (Zanabazar?) is shown making obeisance to Jamsran, the protector deity of Mongolia. Various events from the life of Zanabazar are also shown, including his meeting with the 5th Dalai Lama and his bestowal of blessings on Emperor Kangxi and his mother the Dowager Empress. Numerous other historical events are also portrayed, including the meeting of the 3rd Dalai Lama and the Mongolian Altan Khan. It was of course Altan Khan who first bestowed the title of “Dalai Lama” on the Tibetan monk Sonam Gyatso in 1578. In fact, this thangka may be viewed as a visual summary of both the exoteric and esoteric history of Buddhism in Mongolia. It is unfortunate that the museum has not provided an iconographic key to the thangka in either Mongolian or English.

The Naidan Temple (Temple of Faith in Learning) forms an entranceway to the last courtyard. The two Jotkhan temples on the left and right in this courtyard contain, among many other items, some especially outstanding examples of the so-called Dolonnuur-Style of Buddhist art from Dolonnuur, in Inner Mongolia, including a silver Ayuush (Amitayus). It was at Dolonnuur that Zanabazar met with Emperor Kangxi in 1691 and accepted the suzerainty of the Qing Dynasty. Kangxi built the Yellow Temple for Zanabazar in Dolonnuur in honor of this event, and the during the nineteenth century the town became one of the leading centers for the creation of Tibeto-Mongolian Buddhist art works.

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Lavrin Temple

The Green Lavrin Temple, the main temple of the complex, was used during the summer by the 8th Bogd Gegen as a meditation retreat. It now hosts Zanabazar’s thirty-inch high Green Tara, one of his great works, and twenty other manifestations of Tara, each about 16 inches high.

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Green Tara

This set of twenty-one Taras was originally made by Zanabazar for the monastery at Tsetserligun-erdemi-tologoi (see Zayain Khüree, above) Each of the Tara embodies a different quality, as described in prayers like “Praises to the Twenty-one Taras."

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Four of the 20 small Taras

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Small Tara

Zanabazar’s previous incarnation, Taranatha, was a leading proponent of the Cult of Tara, and perhaps in recognition of this the Lavrin Temple contains a large, near life-sized statue of him.

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Taranatha

There is also a large statue of Zanabazar himself in his familiar bald-headed guise.

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Zanabazar

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