Mountains of Magic and More

by Tirthankar Mukherjee, The UB Post (Ulaanbatar, Mongolia)
Thursday, July 05, 2007

Kalidasa, the Indian poet-dramatist whose Meghadutam was translated into Mongolian in the 17th century (and whose name, I dare say, is totally unknown to the young in the country today), saw hills and mountains as the breasts of the Earth-woman. The Mongolian would ignore the erotic aspect of the simile, but would have no quarrel with it if female breasts are taken as sources of sustenance, for venerating mountains has been part of the Mongolian life ever since the nomads began their exploration of the country and found they were everywhere under the watchful eyes of hills.

Indeed, in Mongolian mythology, the world is ruled by Heaven and Earth in conjunction, the former male and causing things to be born, and the latter female and ensuring their nourishment and survival. This gradually led to the demarcation of some 800 sites—mountains, hills, lakes, and rivers—as worthy of veneration.

In this, something akin to the Japanese sangaku shinko (meaning “mountain creed”) can be said to have developed independently in Mongolia. Both Shamanism and the Shinto faith express reverence for mountains as sacred places. This is an integral part of a wider veneration of nature that is a feature of both, with both believing that natural features such as trees, lakes, streams, rocks and mountains are the dwelling places of spirits which hold influence over human affairs and respond to human prayer and ritual.

In Mongolia every mountain was given a guardian deity, who could be male or female. The word “deity” may be not very appropriate here, but the English translation I could find of the Mongolian saying is of no help. It reads “Every mountain has a deity and every water body a spirit,” and if any difference is intended between the two categories of superhuman entities, it is not clear.

Anyway, on the steppes, deification was accorded to the hill that was unusually high, or had some outstanding prominence in any other way. This could be its significant geographical position, or any unusual topographical features. Simply being the tallest would suffice, but if it was eye-catching or imposing in some other way, it would be better. In places of higher altitudes, the honor usually went to the peak that stood over the others in a range.

Some of the deities are called “goblins” in English translations of old texts, but they are quite unlike the goblins of English folklore, ugly and dwarf-like, known for their propensity to mischief. These are creatures with a human head on a serpentine body, often friendly of mien, like the one the Oird Mongolians call the White Old Man. They could also be fierce, like the one associated with Mt. Tsambagarav. Whatever their appearance and general nature, they looked after the land around and kept it safe for the herds and the herders, and so had to be kept happy. The propitiation ritual usually consisted of chants, and offerings of food and mare’s milk. There was a wide variety in these rituals because of local and regional traditions.

What the obeisance to the spirits of the land did was to instill in the people a potent reverence for nature and all forms of life around us. This is what modern-day ecological conservation is all about, and the ancient Mongolians almost congenitally acquired the environmental wisdom that to live, men had to see to it that non-human forms of life also thrived. They also realised how delicate and fragile the balance between animate and inanimate was and how carefully this had to be handled.

Accepting the possibility that individual human nature, left unbridled, was likely to turn aggressive and destructive, the community invoked restrictions from the deity. To keep the deity from “getting angry,” which would invariably lead to “destruction of life (of both animals and men) and goods,” people were enjoined not to cut young trees or uproot grass for sport or convenience, or dislodge rocks only to be able to make a short cut. Certain animals were placed under the deity’s special protection and hunting them, at least in certain seasons and situations, forbidden, so as to ensure that supply would never diminish. The water spirit had to be propitiated by making certain that the water was not made impure by dumping carcasses, blood and offal into it.

No matter how or why they were chosen, Mongolians conferred titles on many or most of these venerated mountains throughout the land. Thus we have Undurkhan, Khan Uul, Khan Khentii, Khanbogd, Ajbogd, Ikh Bogd, Tsast Bogd. Honorifics were also common. Khairkhan, not exactly the word for the sky but a term that expresses the all-encompassing canopy over all that is below, was often added to the proper names of mountains, giving rise to such descriptive names of Burenkhairkhan, Buskhairkhan, Zorgolkhairkhan, and Suvargakhairkhan. In the case of many of these, the original name is often not mentioned, at least locally. They are alluded to as just Khairkhan, making for much confusion to those not familiar with the practice.

There are many apparent reasons why many mountains, as well as other places, in Mongolia have several names. The original nomadic herds were not likely to have much traffic with one another, and each named hills and peaks in their way as it liked and stuck to these. The later bigger units retained many of these and since these tribes usually chose not to be friendly with one another, they were loath to let go of the names they had given to places, even if they had no control over them any longer.
Feudalism almost always encourages the vanity of human wishes. Many nobles associated their name with a mountain. Much more about all this can be learnt from Professor Sh. Shagdar’s “A Brief Dictionary of Mongolian Geographical Names,” a remarkable work of painstaking scholarship.

When Buddhism came with its new set of values it did not see any need to quarrel with this veneration of natural sites. According to the Jataka tales the Buddha himself had often been born as the guardian deity of a tree. Accepting mountains as sacred places was particularly easy as in Buddhism the climb to a mountain top is a frequently used as a metaphor for a seeker’s spiritual ascent. Assimilating this inflexible part of Mongolian life into its doctrines and rituals, the intellectually-inclined Buddhism set out to formalise the practice.

Over 280 mountains were described and praised in formal texts called sutras but many of these went out of circulation with the suppression of religious practices in the last century. A project was undertaken some years ago to retrieve them from secreted manuscripts and preserved memory. The task was huge and brought together the Gandan Teglichen monastery, the World Bank-Netherlands partnership program, the international Alliance for Religions and Conservation, the World Wildlife Fund, and maybe others. I do not know if anything has followed the publication in 2001 of Sacred Sites of Mongolia written by Dr. Hatgin Osornamjimyn Sukhbaatar who himself came from a place near the sacred mountain of Zotolkhan.

Buddhism also added much to the existing lore, often confounding for us the confusion of lack of correspondence in names of places, deities and such. As it gained power and acceptance, the new religion also enshrined its own deities, giving them Tibetan names and sometimes even Indian ones.

The sutra pertaining to the Byantukhum Lake in Tov aimag makes this process clear when it says, “The Lord Varuna, deity of all waters, and the Eight Great Goblins invited all Mongolian and Tibetan goblins to a symposium. . . .” Mt. Otgontenger got a new deity, Ochirvaani, most likely the same as Vajrapani, one descriptive name for Indra, the king of gods in Hindu/Buddhist mythology, who holds the thunderbolt (vajra) in his hands (pani).

Five of these mountains gradually attained national prominence and claimed country-wide reverence as a sacred site. These are Mount Otgontenger in Zavkhan aimag, Mount Burkhan Khaldun in Khentii aimag, the Bogd Khan mountain near Ulaanbaatar, Mount Altan Khokhii in Khovd aimag, and Mount Altan-Ovoo in Sukhbaatar aimag. Of these Otgontenger, at 4,021 meters, is the highest peak in the Khangai range. It is about 1,100 km. from the capital city.

One thing to note is that unlike sacred peaks in many other countries the Mongolian mountains are not revered because of any event that is claimed to have taken place there. Mount Sinai is sacred because the God of Judaism gave the law to the Israelites there; Sri Pada Peak is sacred because the Buddha performed a miracle there (and to downplay this Buddhist belief, the British renamed it Adam’s Peak, imposing biblical associations on a Sri Lankan site). The Mongolian mountains are venerated because they are the abode of deities of special, supernatural, and exalted powers, much like Mount Kailash is the home of Siva, the Hindu “God of gods,” or Mount Fuji where dwells the Shinto goddess Konohana Sakuya Hime, “the goddess of the flowering trees.”

With the advent of scientific socialism, there was no way a people could be encouraged to worship mountains, but Otgontenger was nevertheless declared to be “protected” in 1928, albeit in a secular way. Post-transition Mongolia was quick to revive the practice. Ritual worship of these five mountains now takes place at formalized intervals under State aegis. This year it was the turn of Mt. Otgontenger on June 29 and it was wonderful watching the whole thing on television, the bustle of puny humans against the serenity of the snow peak.

There are several legends explaining why Otgontenger holds such a prominent place in Mongolian hearts. The most popular takes one back to a time when Zavkhan aimag found itself ravaged by famine and drought, both leading to massive loss of livestock. With nothing that they could do to reverse Nature’s natural erratic ways, the suffering people decided supernatural support was called for. What they needed was a powerful mountain with abundant water sources, and their choice fell upon the Bogd Khan mountain on the Tuul. The strongest wrestler in the aimag was dispatched to drag the mountain to Zavkhan.

The champion took a big rope with him and when he was at the right distance he lassoed it on to the Bogd Khan. It could be that this mountain did not wish to move, it could be the man had thrown the lasso the wrong way, but the mountain broke into two. Those who have read Thomas Mann’s “The Transposed Heads” will know that in traditional Asian belief the head was the repository of all one’s virtues. The wrestler accordingly did not worry about the base of the mountain that had remained in situ but brought the peak home with him, set it up in Zavkhan and as the water from the broken head started to flow, the land was saved.

I have a copy of the Mongolian translation of the long Tibetan sutra for Otgontenger but my friends here found the language too archaic and convoluted for them to understand clearly. It begins with an invocation to Ochirvaani as the deity of the mountain, addressing him as a Vasu. This is also the Vedic term for eight divinities who form a group in the 33-strong pantheon.

Ochirvaani is called “a great protector who has the power to vanquish all creatures of aggressive intent.” He is “the Lord, with rich, holy and amazing attributes,” and he is entreated to stay on in the mountain so that “his worship is spread and his creations flourish.” So it goes on, giving the name or designation of the lama who wrote the sutra, and ending with the supplication, “Please give us people who can fulfill our wishes and desires to live together in peace and harmony with those around us.”
One does not have to be a believer to harbor a wish like this that deserves to be fully met.

Categories: Buddhism, Earth-based Religions, Environment, Nature, Shamanism | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Mountains of Magic and More

  1. Yara

    Very beautiful article!
    I love mongolian culture and religion.
    I would love to read more about it!

  2. Anonymous

    A wonderful exposition of mountains in Mongolia

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