August 12, 2002

A Lonely Battle in Mongolia to Save Buddhist Relics

Michael Kohn for The New York Times
Altangerel and his son, Altan-Ochir, are hereditary curators of the wealth of a 19th-century Mongolian incarnation of a Buddhist deity.

The New York Times
A poorly protected museum in Sainshand holds Buddhist relics.

AINSHAND, Mongolia — By 1990, Altangerel felt he had kept his secret long enough.

He drove a Russian jeep to a remote ravine in the Gobi with some friends and started to dig. A few feet down, his shovel struck a wooden crate. The box was lifted from the ground and opened, and the men stood in wide-eyed wonder at the contents — a trove of ancient Buddhist artifacts.

Mr. Altangerel knew the location of 62 similar boxes scattered around the desert. His grandfather, Tudev, had buried them in the 1930's during the religious persecution waged by the new Communist government.

Mr. Tudev, who like many Mongolians had only one name, never wrote anything down. All knowledge of the objects, once the belongings of an important 19th-century monk and poet, had been passed on orally to Mr. Altangerel, lest some spy uncover the family secret. The hope was that better times one day would allow Mr. Altangerel to recover the boxes and understand their contents.

His knowledge was finally put to use when Mongolia opened up to democracy in 1990 and restrictions on religion were eased. He recovered about half the boxes his grandfather had buried, and opened a museum in Sainshand, 460 miles southeast of Ulan Bator, the capital. Lacking proper storage for the relics, Mr. Altangerel decided to leave the remaining 30 or so boxes underground.

"I am the only person who knows the location of the crates, so they are safe," said Mr. Altangerel, 41. "Our museum is not safe."

The museum receives little money from the government and has no alarm system. Mr. Altangerel and his friends take turns standing guard. The theft of Buddhist treasures has become a serious problem in Mongolian museums and temples, with objects often ending up in the hands of foreign art dealers.

Still, Mr. Altangerel said, the risks involved in displaying the relics are justified by the opportunity to study and share them. Despite the shortage of money and the clear need to improve conditions at the museum, Mr. Altangerel has refused to sell any part of the collection. He long ago swore an oath to his grandfather to keep it intact. "My ancestors and the people of the Gobi have been protecting these artifacts for five generations," he said.

The artifacts once belonged to Danzan Ravjaa, also known as the Great and Horrible Saint of the Gobi, a Buddhist monk who was believed to be the 35th incarnation of Yansang Yidam, a Mongolian deity. Danzan Ravjaa won fame for his staging of plays at monasteries and his criticism of the Manchu, who ruled Mongolia and China until 1911. He was also renowned for his miracles, like healing the sick from great distances, and was a skilled artist.

After his death in 1856, his personal assistant, Balchinchoijoo, took an oath to protect his belongings, which included silver statues, jewelry and books. A museum was established, and Balchinchoijoo's role of takhilch, or curator, passed to his descendents. The proper heir to this responsibility, it was said, would have a special birthmark on his back.

In 1937, when religious persecution was at its height, Balchinchoijoo's great-great-grandson, Mr. Tuduv, stashed a portion of the objects into crates and buried them. Also hidden were Danzan Ravjaa's remains.

Two months after Mr. Tuduv's desperate plan started, and with only 10 percent of the collection buried, Mongolian Communist troops demolished Hamryn Hiid, the monastery that Danzan Ravjaa had built in the 1820's. The soldiers carted away what was left and sent gold and silver objects to the Soviet Union to be melted down for bullion.

The purge years of the 1930's left more than 700 monasteries in ruins and 27,000 people dead, including 17,000 Buddhist monks. Communist doctrine, which forbade the teaching of religion or of history before the 1921 revolution, erased Danzan Ravjaa from textbooks until reforms allowed some of his poetry to be studied in the 1960's. Interest revived in 1968, when a nomad stumbled on a cavern where two crates were hidden. He dutifully turned them over to the authorities, and they were burned.

After Mongolia abandoned Communism in 1990, Danzan Ravjaa was rehabilitated in the history books. The new freedom of religion has also allowed the reconstruction of dozens of monasteries, including Hamryn Hiid, which is now served by seven monks. Before its destruction, the monastery housed more than 500 monks and had schools of astronomy, art and theater.

Mr. Altangerel says tourist dollars would allow the restoration of the monastery to its former glory. He also hopes to erect a museum that would ensure the safety of the items inside the 30 odd boxes still buried. In the summer, he shuttles foreign visitors to Hamryn Hiid, about 25 miles south of Sainshand.

While Mr. Altangerel is willing to wait for investors and tourists to turn up at this bleak desert outpost to finance his museum, his colleagues have grown impatient. Mr. Bold fears that if something should happen to Mr. Altangerel, the location of the boxes and the history of Danzan Ravjaa will be lost. "We need to complete our work while he is still with us," said Mr. Bold.

But Mr. Altangerel has his son, Altan-Ochir, the heir to the title of Danzan Ravjaa's takhilch. The promise that this 11-year-old can maintain the legacy of the monk seems to be etched on his body. Like his father and the takhilch that preceded Mr. Altangerel, he bears the distinguishing birthmark.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company