Monastic Center Established by Zanabazar
Location: N48º27.719 / E107º59.591. Töv Aimag. In the valley of the Khiidiin Gol, a tributary of the Tuul River. Accessible only by horse from the sum center of Möngönmort in Khentii Aimag twenty-three miles to the east-southeast or the Terelj resort area forty miles to the southwest.
Zanabazar obtained his preliminary ordination as a monk of the Sakya sect of Tibetan Buddhism at Shireet Tsaagan Nuur (see above), where he received the title of Sumati-Sakya-Dodza, “He Who Hold the Sakya Banner of the Great Mind.” During his 1649–51 sojourn in Tibet he was converted to the Gelug sect of Tibetan Buddhism by the 5th Dalai Lama. Upon his return to Mongolia he set about converting existing Sakya institutions to the Gelug sect and establishing new Gelug monasteries.Apart from establishing Gelug monasteries, little is known about Zanabazar’s attempts to instill the Gelug doctrines in Mongolia. Podzneev, surveying the traditional Mongolian accounts available in the 1890s, exclaimed,
Thus is would appear—keeping in mind that most subsequent histories were written by Gelug monks—that Mongolia was spared the sectarian strife which had plagued Tibet in the 1630s and early 1640s and resulted in the forceful suppression of the Jonang sect to which Zanabazar’s previous incarnation belonged.
In 1654 we find Zanabazar in the Baga Khentii Mountains, part of the Khentii Range in what now Töv Aimag. Above the valley of a small tributary of the Tuul River, in what is now a very remote area sixty-three miles north of current-day Ulaan Baatar, Zanabazar established a new Gelug monastery with the official name of Ribo-Gejai-Gandan-Shadublin. It became more commonly called as Sardgiin Khiid and, like Zanabazar’s other residences, was also known as Ikh Khüree.
At least one source indicates that the Panchen Lama, with whom Zanabazar studied while in Tibet, instructed him to build Sardgiin Khiid. Unlike Erdene Zuu, which had been built by his great-grandfather Avtai, and Shankh Monastery, which had been established by Zanabazar when he was still a member of the Sakya sect, Sardgiin Khiid was solely Zanabazar’s creation and would be a Gelug institution from its founding. Apparently Zanabazar planned to make this new monastery, located in a remote area removed from the immediate influence of any other monasteries or settlements, the new center of Buddhism in Mongolia.
On the lower slope of Sardgiin Mountain, at an elevation of about 6000 feet, a naturally occurring terrace was built up and enlarged into a flat area measuring some 650 by 575 feet. Here eventually were to be built seven large temples, three big stupas, and attendant buildings. Perhaps influenced by what he had seen in Tibet and by the Tibetan monks and artisans in his entourage, Zanabazar employed Tibetan designs in the construction of the temples, the largest of which, the Tsogchin Temple, had 108 pillars. An Amdo aimag, or section of the monastery, made up in large part of Tibetan lamas from Amdo (parts of present day Qinghai and Gansu provinces of China inhabited by Tibetans) who had accompanied Zanabazar back from Tibet, was eventually established, along with several other aimags and a tantric college. Zanabazar composed new prayers and rituals for the monastery, and the Panchen Lama sent two monks from Tibet to assist him in the creation of new liturgical music. The entire complex was not completed until 1680. In 1886 Zanabazar consecrated new statues at the monastery, perhaps the Five Transcendent Buddhas now on display at the Zanabazar Fine Arts Museum and the Choijin Lama Museum.
Unfortunately, the monastery was short-lived. When Zanabazar’s long-time nemesis the Zungarian Khan Galdan Bolshigt invaded Khalkh Mongolia in 1688 Zanabazar fled eastward and was believed to have gone to Sardgiin Khiid. Galdan and his army followed in hot pursuit. According to a tale, perhaps apocryphal, told by local informants, the monks at the monastery were warned of Galdan’s approach and went into hiding places in the woods. Galdan and his men arrived at Sardgiin Khiid only to find the monastery totally abandoned. Intent on pursuing Zanabazar, they were about to leave without destroying the monastery when a fly with a blade of dried grass tied to its leg landed on the shoulder of one of Galdan’s men. Alerted that there must be people, probably monks, nearby, Galdan’s men searched the woods but were unable to find anyone. Enraged by this, they proceeded to demolish the monastery. Thus, according to the moral drawn from this by the local informants, Sardgiin Khiid was destroyed because of the thoughtless prank of a monk who, becoming bored while hiding, tied a blade of grass to a fly’s leg.
Whatever the circumstances, the monastery was almost completely razed. When Zanabazar returned in the early 1700s from exile in China he refurbished Erdene Zuu and other monasteries which had been damaged in the wars with Galdan but for some reason he never attempted to re-establish Sardgiin Khiid. The site was completely abandoned and today very few people apart from local hunters and plant gatherers who venture into the Baga Khentii Mountains are aware of its location. The ruins are in a thick larch forest several hundred yards from the horse trail that leads from the valley of the Tuul River over 6657-foot Khiidiin Davaa (pass) to Khargiin Khar Nuur and Yestiin Hot Springs (see above) and are very difficult to find unless you know the exact location. Of the large Tibetan-style temples which Zanabazar built all that remains are several sections of stone walls, the barely discernible foundations of buildings, and what looks like the bases of stupas. The best preserved section of wall, up to twenty feet high, apparently belonged to the 108 pillar Tsogchin Temple. Full grown larch trees are growing within several of the foundations, testimony that the buildings were destroyed over three hundred and ten years ago.
According to local informants, when Zanabazar left Sardgiin Khiid for the last time before it was destroyed he scattered incense made from artz, a species of wild juniper, on the nearby mountainsides. The artz which now grows here in profusion is said to have originally sprung up from these incense offerings. From the early eighteenth century on up to the beginning of the communist era monks used to come here to gather this artz, which they blessed by reciting sutras. Laymen were not supposed to collect it. Now, in our more profane age, laymen do come here to gather Zanabazar’s artz, and also to search for the valuable statues and other artwork from the monastery which they believe are still hidden in the nearby mountains.