The Lost Tribe
Text and photos by Ray Nayler
Om mane padme hum . . . The chant echoes throughout the Burkhan Bakshin Altan Sume, or “The Golden Abode of the Buddha Shakyamuni.” The Temple is peaceful, gently washed with music. The devout make their way around the room slowly, barefoot, or sit meditatively, facing the enormous golden Buddha whose presence dominates the room. On the walls of the temple, winding murals depict the spiritual world of Tibetan Buddhism. The murals are not yet fi nished. Scaffolding, splashed with the rich colors of paint being used for the temple’s decoration, partially obscures the image of the Dalai Lama being completed across from the main alter. We bow to three Tibetan monks as they pass by, gently smiling, in their dark red robes. The completed murals depict the Buddha in various states of repose, along with the spirits and gods of a different world, one that seems far away from this one.
That world seems especially far away because we are located in the city of Elista, on the Russian Steppe, in the often forgotten Republic of Kalmykia. The Golden Abode’s interior is still unfinished not because it is being restored, but because it was built in 2004. It was dedicated in a ceremony by the Dalai Lama himself, and its construction is a small triumph – part of the spiritual revival of the Kalmyk people, the only Buddhist nation in Europe. The Kalmyks have recently been undergoing a quiet revolution, reviving traditions that were almost destroyed under communism, and attempting to recover from a strange and tragic history that nearly destroyed them.
As the plane circled to land, the airport is clearly visible: just a single runway and a small building in the middle of seemingly endless golden steppe, under a crystalline blue sky. Once the plane’s engines shut down, the silence of the landscape closes in, the footsteps of the plane’s few passengers echoing on the tarmac as we make our way to the airport’s main building. Our is the only plane at the lonely little airport, and it does not appear that there will be another today.
In Kalmykia, One of the Many Ethnic Republics of the Russian Federation, Ray Nayler explores Europe’s only Buddhist Nation and Finds a People Reconnecting With Their Past.
Elista rises from the steppe, at first seeming much like any other Russian city – rows of blocky apartment buildings along the road, a series of half-abandoned factories. But the apartment buildings are painted in pastel colors. And here and there, under the bright blue sunshine of this September day, is the gleaming lacquered roof of a pagoda – a sight that seems more than out of place among the concrete cubes of the outer city.
The Kalmyks, descendants of the Mongol hordes, arrived in this region under a different name – the Oirat – in 1630, having traveled from the banks of the Irtysh river in Siberia in search of better pasture lands for their animals. They settled along the Volga and Don rivers, in areas formerly held by the Nogai Horde, whom the Oirat drove out. Russia, perhaps exhausted from just having emerged from under the yoke of the Golden Horde, chose to tolerate the Oirat presence on their land. A treaty was signed granting the Oirat autonomy in exchange for its defense of the Russian empire against tribes further to the South. But eventually, as the Russians grew stronger, they put more and more pressure on the nomadic Oirat, settling Russians and Germans on formerly Oirat pastureland and interfering in the succession of their Khans.
In fact, the interference was so intolerable that 200,000 Oirat, in 1771, under the leadership of Uzbashi Khan, decided to return home by traveling directly across the Central Asian deserts. Along the way many were attacked and killed by Kazakhs and Kirghiz, their historical enemies, and many more died of starvation and disease along the way. Eventually, 96,000 of the tribe reached the safety of Lake Balkhash in Western China, their historical homeland. Those Oirat that remained behind were called the Kalmyk, meaning “remainders.” The Kalmyk Khanate was abolished, and they quickly succumbed to expanding Russian imperial power, becoming vassals of Catherine the Great’s expanding Russian empire. But their troubles were not nearly over.
In the center of modern Elista is a multi-leveled red pagoda, surrounded by fountains. At its center is a metal prayer wheel decorated with Sanskrit writing. People climb the marble steps and walk around the prayer wheel, turning it slowly so that it rings a small bell. This holy wheel has come all the way from Tibet, and contains 75 million written mantras, filling it with energy. Now the wheel constantly turns as a steady stream of Kalmyks mount the stairs. The pagoda stands where Lenin used to be, his statue having been politely moved to the edge of the square. And this movement of Lenin is representative of the Kalmyk way of dealing with history: The square retains the name it had under communism, but new things have been added, including the pagoda and an over-sized chess board, around which several old men are standing, involved in an ongoing game. The Kalmkys seem careful not to forget their past. As our guide, Nadezhda Alekseyevna puts it: “Here in Kalmykia, we do not destroy our history. We respect all things that have happened, good and bad.”
The center of the town is filled with small statues, many of them abstract, lining the leafy boulevards. A small square commemorates Pushkin’s visit to the Kalmyk Steppe. As we walk further, under the golden gates and along the Alley of Heroes, we pass statues commemorating the old gods of the Oirat before their conversion to Tibetan Bhuddism. We stop to admire a statue dedicated to the author of the Kalmyk’s main historical epic, The Dhangar, a series of songs celebrating the heroism of a mythical Kalmyk knight, and then a Soviet-era monument to the Kalmyk dead of World War Two and Afghanistan. The total impression is of a history of many combined, unlike elements. But one major event, commemorated by a powerful monument at the edge of the city, looms among all others: in 1943, immediately following the Soviet victory at the battle of Stalingrad, thousands of trucks arrived in Elista and all other cities of the Republic of Kalmykia. In one evening, troops and police rounded up every man, woman, and child, and the entire nation, including many of its men who had fought bravely at the front in the Red Army, was deported to Siberia.
Inside a stupa near the outskirts of Elista, I turn a prayer wheel and listen to a Kalmyk woman’s questions. From the other side of the wheel, she asks me where I am from and what brought me to Kalmykia. What do I know about them? What do I want to know? She tells me about the cultural revival that has happened here, and about the Tibetan monks who live in a monastery on the steppe, and have come to help the Kalmyk people get in touch with their ancient culture; a culture that came so close, so many times, to being destroyed. Like many of the Kalmyks I have met, she is warm and open. But, like many, her own knowledge of the past is shadowy, obscured by a cultural gap that may never be closed.
In 1957, after being “rehabilitated” by Nikita Khrushchev, what remained of the Kalmyk nation was allowed to return home from Siberia. Over one third of them had perished in unheated, freezing cattle cars en route to their exile, and shortly afterwards. Every Kalmyk family lost many of its members, and the damage done to language and culture may be irreparable. However, the impression one gets from modern-day Kalmykia is not one of bitterness, but of remembrance, endurance, and cultural revival.
Later in the day, we sit in a cafeteria downtown eating Beregi (Kalmyk dumplings of pork and mutton) and drinking the traditional salted and buttered Kalmyk tea. I am filled with such a kaleidoscope of impressions. But most of all, I am impressed by the spirit of the people inhabiting this often forgotten corner of Russia. And I find myself eager to return.
Where to Stay: The Beliy Lotos (White Lotus) is a pleasant, centrally located hotel with modern facilities. Phone (84722) 5-4070 another option is the Elista, which is cheaper, but also less comfortable. It is, however, right across from the main square of Elista.
Where to Eat: For a simple meal, try Leka-Pizza, with 17 varieties of Pizza to choose from. (Ulitsa Gorkogo, 25). They also deliver, for a price (84722) 5-5519. For traditional cuisine, most restaurants downtown offer Kalmyk standards. The Beregi (Kalmyk dumplings) are excellent.
What to See: Not to be missed in Elista are the Pagoda on Lenin Square, Chess City (Just outside of Elista on the Steppe, a small town devoted entirely to Chess) and the Burkhan Bakshin Altan Sume, a gorgeous temple complex about 10 minutes’ walk from the center of the city. Also take a walk along the Alley of Heroes, stopping to admire various monuments to Kalmyk history along the way.
Getting There: Try Eltur for guides (84722) 5-2764. For tickets, try Interpares (Moscow, Petrovka 27, (495)234-0334)