ULAN BATOR, Mongolia (AP)-When prayers are held at the Gandan Monastery, boisterous
pre-teen boys join frail, shrunken monks in their 80s. They sit side by side in saffron
robes to chant the Buddhist scriptures.
The age gap-and the lack of many monks in between-represents the six decades when
Mongolia's hard-line communist government all but wiped out the national religion.
Under Dictator Marshal Horloogiyn Choybalsan in the 1930s, authorities executed or
jailed thousands of monks, destroyed an estimated 700 monasteries, and burned religious
books. Young student monks went home to marry and lead secular lives.
"There were times when I thought this would be the end of Buddhism in Mongolia,"
said Ishjamts, 79, who gave up his life as a monk in the 1930s and his beliefs for
40 years while herding cattle on the Central Asian steppe. Like most Mongolians he
uses only one name.
In 1990, influenced by Soviet glasnost, the Mongolian communists yielded their authoritarian
powers and introduced democratic reforms. Hundreds of aging former monks were called
back into service to lead a Buddhist revival.
Ishjamts expanded the Gandan monastery school and began working almost from scratch
to build a new generation of monks, known as lamas.
From 1944 until 1990, Gandan was the only monastery allowed to operate in Mongolia,
but it was basically a showpiece tightly controlled by the government. Very few young
monks were trained.
Now it is the dynamic headquarters for Mongolian Buddhism.
Monks from Gandan helped form a Buddhist Party that fielded several candidates in
the recent legislative elections. The party won less than one percent of the vote,
indicating that few Mongolians want to see a restoration of rule by lamas.
There are no reliable figures on how many of Mongolia's two million people still
believe in Buddhism.
But many want the monasteries restored, if only to reassert the nation's distinct
cultural identity after decades of efforts by the Soviet-dominated Communist Party
to westernize the mostly nomadic nation.
Over the past three years, Mongolians have rebuilt 130 monasteries and temples from
ruins. There are now about 3,000 lamas nationwide, compared with an estimated 100,000
before the Communist Revolution in 1921.
Yo Amgalan, a deputy head monk at Gandan, said he is not afraid that the tragic past
will be repeated.
"There are other people in the world watching us now," he said. "Today
is very different from the 1930s."