Beginner’s Guide to Mongolia’s Magnificent Monasteries
Emily Kelso, MIR Travel Support Specialist, is a travel enthusiast with a strong interest in off-the-beaten-path locales and languages. She has studied Asian art as well as the Chinese language.
Mongolia holds a special place in the hearts of adventurous travelers, who come back with tales of its vast steppe, rugged mountains, clear glacial lakes and vivid blue skies. But beyond its natural outdoorsy appeal, it is also a land of deeply spiritual people. The country’s shamanistic traditions may be better known to the world, but Buddhism has played just as important a role in shaping Mongolian history and culture.
Since the Mongolian Democratic Revolution of 1990, Buddhism has seen an incredible revival. Monasteries are being rebuilt and restored, and a once-lost religious and cultural heritage is slowly being rediscovered. With their bold colors, richly detailed paintings and sweet smell of incense, stepping inside one of these sacred places offers a glimpse into the past and a chance to witness a side of Mongolian history and traditions that few have the opportunity to see.
- Gandantegchinlen (“Great Place of Complete Joy”) – Restored as the country’s Buddhist headquarters
- Amarbayasgalant (“Monastery of Tranquil Felicity”) – One of the country’s most intact monasteries
- Mandshir (Named after Manjusri, a Buddhist deity) – One of Mongolia’s largest monastic centers
- Erdene Zuu (“Thousand Treasures”) – One of the earliest surviving monasteries
Built in 1838, Gandantegchinlen (often abbreviated to just “Gandan”) means “Great Place of Complete Joy,” and grew to become Mongolia’s principal center of Buddhist education, at one time housing nine colleges and over 5,000 monks. Badly damaged during the Stalinist purges, Gandan reopened in 1944 as a showpiece for foreign visitors – it was the only temple allowed to function during the Communist regime. In 1990, it was revitalized and restored as the country’s Buddhist headquarters.
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Amarbayasgalant, the “Monastery of Tranquil Felicity,” is one of the three largest monastic centers in Mongolia. Commissioned by Manchu Emperor Yongzheng, the monastery was built between 1727 and 1737 as the final resting place of Zanabazar, the famous sculptor and first spiritual head of Buddhism in Mongolia. The original complex consisted of over 11 temples and in 1936 housed over 2,000 monks.
Unlike many Mongolian monasteries that borrowed heavily from Tibetan temples, Amarbayasgalant was built in the Chinese style. Be sure to note the Chinese inscriptions, symmetrical layout, deep red color scheme and Chinese roof guardians. The richly decorated main temple contains a statue of Rinpoche Gurdava, a Mongolian monk who raised a huge portion of the monastery’s restoration funds. While here, you can witness monks performing their morning ceremonies, and the surrounding mountains offer a great opportunity for a hike and beautiful views of the valley.
Though from the surface it may not look impressive, Mandshir remains an important site for today’s practicing Mongolian Buddhists. Established in 1733, Mandshir was dedicated to Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, and eventually became one of Mongolia’s largest monastic centers, housing over 300 monks and 20 temples. The entire complex was razed during the Stalinist purges; however the main temple was restored and converted into a museum after the Democratic Revolution in 1990.
One of the earliest surviving monasteries, UNESCO-listed Erdene Zuu (“Thousand Treasures”) was founded in 1586 as the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. At its peak, it housed about 1,000 monks. During the Stalinist purges, all but three of its temples were destroyed. Extensive restoration work was undertaken in 1990, and today, Erdene Zuu is an active monastery and museum.
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Travel to Mongolia with MIR
This list is only the beginning: Tovkhon, Shankh and Khamariin Khiid are just a few of many other monasteries you can visit during your travels to Mongolia, each with its own unique style and history.
Want to witness these sacred spaces for yourself? MIR has nearly 30 years of experience hand-crafting tours to Mongolia. MIR’s full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise has twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”
You can view one or more of these awe-inspiring sites on one of our small group tours and rail journeys by private train:
- Mongolia & Tibet: Steppes to the Roof of the World
- Siberia & Mongolia: Spirits & Nomads
- Mongolian Explorer: The Gobi & Beyond with Naadam Festival
- Mongolia to Moscow: A Trans-Siberian Railway Adventure
- Trans-Siberian Winter Wonder Land Route: Eastbound / Westbound
- The Trans-Siberian Express Between Moscow & Beijing: Eastbound / Westbound
- The Trans-Siberian Classic Route: Eastbound / Westbound
- The Trans-Siberian Mongolian Route with Naadam Festival: Eastbound / Westbound
- The Trans-Siberian Ulaanbaatar Express Route
You can also opt to travel on a private journey to Mongolia, customized to your desired dates and style.
(Top photo: Flowers bloom at Erdene Zuu in Kara Korum, Mongolia. Photo credit: Peter Guttman.)
PUBLISHED: June 12, 2015