Map of Russian Federation

Map of Russian Federation


The Transbaikal area
Buryatia is part of the Transbaikal area.  Lake Baikal is the world's oldest, largest and deepest lake with 20% of the world's fresh water supply. Some of the most beautiful landscapes in the Russian Federation surround the Lake. Its age and isolation have produced one of the world's richest and most unusual faunas and floras, and many of the species found here are unique. The region around the lake has been inhabited and considered sacred by many different cultures for centuries.

The Hunnish state ruled here, lasting from the 3rd century B. C. to the end of the first century A.D. and home to diverse Central Asian nomadic tribes. Thereafter successive nomad states came and went until Genghis Khan established the Mongol Empire in 1206, uniting all the main Mongolian tribes, including tribes living in the Transbaikal, who took part in the campaigns of conquest of the Mongol Empire.

Russian explorers first came to the region in the 17th century. Among the first Russian immigrants to the area were "Old Believers," who were exiled to Siberia under Peter the Great after Patriarch Nikon’s religious reforms. This group was followed by exiles and criminals (political and otherwise) up through the Soviet era. Other Russians immigrated to the area as industry developed, and Buryats now constitute a minority of around 30% in the republic of Buryatia.

Sultim Badma, alias Aleksander Aleksandrovich Badmayev
In the 1850s General Muravyev-Amurski's army was hit by a typhoid epidemic during a mission near the eastern border of Russia with Japan. The General sought help from Sultim Badma, a well-known Buryat lama and Tibetan doctor, who managed to get the epidemic under control. The General was impressed and invited Badma to St Petersburg. Badma was successful in St Petersburg. He opened a pharmacy and the Tsar became his godfather when he was baptized. He took the name Alexander Aleksandrovich Badmayev. A few years later his younger brother joined him and was baptized as well. His Christian name was Pyotr Aleksandrovich Badmayev. Sultim died in 1873, but his brother Pyotr stayed in St Petersburg and was well connected with Russian high society. Two of Pyotr's nephews, Nikolai Nikolayevich und Vladimir Nikolayevich, came to the capital and learned both Tibetan and Western medicine. After the revolution Pyotr Badmayev was imprisoned several times and died in 1920 shortly after being released from prison. His nephew Vladimir left Russia and immigrated to Poland. Vladimir was successful in Poland. He died in 1961. In the 1960s Vladimir's son, Peter, started the commercial production of Tibetan medicines in Switzerland on the basis of the Badmayev formulas. Peter himself moved further west, to the United States.

The Badmayevs were not the only Buryats to become part of St Petersburg’s society. Agvan Lobsan Dorzhiev was born in a village not far from Ulan Ude in 1854 to Buryat parents. At the age of nineteen he left home to study in a Tibetan monastery and eventually became a master of Buddhist philosophy and spiritual advisor to the 13th Dalai Lama. In 1898 Dorzhiev travelled to St Petersburg where he was presented to the Tsar.Dorzhiev became a politically important person. He felt that Russia might prove a useful balance to British interests in Tibet and propagated the idea that Russia was the mythical land of Shambhala and that the Russian Tsar would act as the saviour of Tibet and Buddhism. By 1903, the British became wrongly convinced that Russia and Tibet had signed secret treaties threatening the security of British interests in India, and they also falsely believed that Dorzhiev was working for the Russian government. The following year the British invaded Tibet. 

In 1909 Dorzhiev got permission from the Tsar to build a Buddhist datsan or temple in St. Petersburg. Construction was completed by 1915, and a staff of nine lamas from Transbaikalia, Astrakhan and Stravropol moved in.In late 1933 the last Buddhist service was held at the temple in honour of the recently deceased 13th Dalai Lama of Tibet. By 1935 a large group of lamas was arrested by the NKVD and sentenced to hard labour, and in 1937 the remaining Buddhists in the city were arrested and shot. Dorzhiev was among those arrested in 1937 and charged with treason, preparation for an armed uprising, and spying for the Mongolians and Japanese. He died in police custody in January 1938, aged 85.In 1989 the Buddhist community in St Petersburg was officially recognised. That year a service was held in the temple, the first in 50 years. Dorzhiev was not officially fully rehabilitated until 1990, when his case was dismissed. Today the St Petersburg temple is still active, with four resident lamas. 

The Buryat
The Buryat are the largest ethnic minority group in Siberia and number approximately 436,000. They are ethnically a mixture of Mongol, Turkic, Tungus, Samoyed and other peoples, but Buryat is a Mongol language. The Buryat are traditionally Buddhist, and one of the three Buddhist nations in the Russian Federation.The Buryats were originally nomadic cattle herders. Travelling at the turn of the last century, Charles Hawes describes the Buryats with admiration and fascination. He finds them tall and handsome, and on festive occasions they dress in beautiful clothes, embroidered and trimmed with velvet and fur. Their yurtas are decked out with beautiful rugs, and they keep chests full of holiday clothes, silver and other finery. They keep vast herds of horses, cattle and camels. As there are no trees, fire is made with dried dung[1]. 

Jeremiah Curtin, writer, polyglot, ethnographer and folklorist, travelled in 1900 to central Siberia to study the religion and folklore of the Buryat people, of which he wrote a book. The last two-thirds of the book is a record of the traditional way of life and mythology of the Buryats.Curtin says that the most important work in a Buriat house and of a Buriat woman is to keep the milk barrels full, and to distil the milk into tarasun, a liquor looking like alcohol or pure water. When the milk is sour enough for the watery part to separate from the curd it is ready to distil. As much milk as is desired is taken out of the barrel and put in a large iron pot, then the pot is sealed up with a heavy paste made of mud and cow manure, and is placed over a slow fire burning on the ground in the center of the Buriat house. From the pot a pipe runs into a tub which stands four feet or so away. From the end of this pipe drips out the tarasun. If strong tarasun is desired the first is redistilled. The strongest is made by distilling the liquor three times[2].”

Curtin describes Buryat ceremonies connected with marriage, childbirth, sickness and death:

When a young boy and girl take a fancy to each other their parents, if in favor of the marriage, begin the regular negotiations through matchmakers, or one father may say to the other, "You have a daughter and I have a son, let us become relatives." This agreement made, the matchmakers' work begins. The matchmakers, usually, if not always, elderly women, go to the father of the girl with the proposal from the father of the boy. […] The father must always get "kalym"—the price of the girl. Now begins bargaining, one side asking a big price, and the other offering little. […] This kalym is almost always paid in horses, cows, sheep, grain[…] A day is appointed for the next visit, and the matchmakers and their assistants go home. On the day appointed a large company goes to the girl's home. They sit on the ground, talk, and drink tarasun. Then dancing begins in front of the house. Sheep are killed, and if the father is rich he kills a horse also. The meat is cooked, and the crowd feasts. Only friends, relatives, and neighbors are present; neither the girl nor boy attends the ceremonies of this first day. The second day of the marriage ceremony, which may be some weeks later, the bridegroom comes early in the morning to the bride's father, bringing provisions. If he is wealthy he has a horse killed and gives the head of the beast to his father-in-law[…] All of the meat is cooked, then the best parts are distributed among the people present. Tarasun is dealt out in abundance. There is dancing and feasting[…] The third day […t]he house where the young couple are to live is made ready. […] Meanwhile [the brode] is at home. All at once a small party on horse-back is seen in the distance approaching on the keen run. They halt in front of the door, enter, seize the girl, put her on a horse, and race away to the new home. […] She […] is taken into the house[…]The bride and groom bow to the Ongons [house divinities] and […] three old men, who ask of the Ongons that the newly married may be prosperous, gain much wealth, and have many children to begin a new line. After this ceremony the bride returns to her father's house. On the fourth day of the marriage ceremony the bride again goes to the new house (or yurta), puts on a mask and bows before the Ongons. […]she takes a piece of fat mutton[…] and throws it into the hands of her father-in-law; in this way she assures him that she will be bountiful and kind to him. The ceremony over, the bride sits down near the milk barrel, which always stands at the northwest corner of the fire. Taking her place at the milk barrel concludes the marriage ceremony[…]. Thereafter […] it is her business to make, or to cause to be made, the tarasun[3].
After childbirth, Curtin says that "the father takes a broad arrow-head and cuts the umbilical cord. The infant is then washed in warm water, wrapped in a lamb skin, and put into its father's fur coat." Various ceremonies follow involving eating meat and drinking tarasun, and on the third day after the child is born, the placenta is buried. Two planks are removed from the floor near the mother's bed, a hole is dug in the ground, and dry juniper is burned near it. The tomta is put into the hole, covered up, and the planks are replaced. Then the mother is purified. Only women are present during this ceremony. The tomta has a sacred significance among the Buriats. If you ask a Buriat where he was born, he will answer, "My tomta is buried in that house;" or will say, in such or such a village "is the house where my tomta is buried.[4]"Curtin says that when a person is sick, a shaman is sent for, who finds out what has caused the illness and then usually performs some kind of sacrifice to appease the angered spirit who has caused the illness:The Shaman kills the animal by making an incision in the breast and pulling out the heart. The body of the animal is disjointed at the neck and at the knees, the skin removed, except from the legs and head, and the body carried away to be boiled. Then a long pole is driven into the ground and the skin of the animal is fastened to the top of it, the head facing the mountain, hill, or place where the Burkan who has caused the sickness is supposed to have his home. The pole leans slightly toward that same mountain. The flesh of the animal is cut up and cooked, and bits of it offered to the Burkan, either thrown into the air or burned, the rest is eaten by the family and those who assist at the sacrifice. Tarasun is used freely at such times. During the ceremony the Shaman mumbles mysterious words and prayers[5].The Buryat usually burn their dead, according to Curtin:

The deceased is dressed in his best clothes his face is covered with a white cloth. In the coffin a small sum of money is placed, each friend contributing. A sheep or cow is killed and bits of the meat put in the coffin, together with a small bottle of tarasun. […] Every necessary article, such as his coat, cap, pillow, and blanket, is put into the coffin, as well as his pipe and tobacco, even his whip for his horse, if he has owned one in his earth life, goes with him. The family and friends eat the meat of the animal they have killed and drink tarasun. […] For three days and nights refreshments of every kind are served in the house[…] The spirit is often sorry to go from among the living, and tries to prove to itself that it is still alive; that is, in the visible form. "It goes to the fire, steps on the ashes, and when it sees no track fears that it is no longer in a material body. It goes close to the chained dog to see if the dog will bark. If the dog barks it is a proof that he sees something, and the spirit hopes that it is visible. When the man's friends breakfast, dine, or drink tea, the spirit waits anxiously to see if any one will offer it food or drink. If four or five are drinking tea, the spirit takes a cup and wonders that they do not notice it; but the five cups are there, it has taken only the spirit of the cup. The man is there in spirit among his friends, he moans and weeps, hopes and tests the position; no one sees him, no one pays any attention to him. Poor man, he is sad indeed."; […] The Buriats believe that sometimes a person dies because the spirit or soul gets tired and sad, and wants to leave the body. In such a case the Shaman and friends talk to the spirit, tell it to come back, and it shall eat well, drink well, and have a good time. This effort to persuade the soul to return to the body is called "the invitation." "You shall sleep well. Come back to your natural ashes. Take pity on your friends. It is necessary to live a real life. Do not wander along the mountains. Do not be like bad spirits. Return to your peaceful home." (They think that the spirits of the dead wander about the mountains, returning to their homes from time to time.) "Come back and work for your children. How can you leave these little ones?" And the Shaman names the children. If it is a woman these words have great effect; sometimes the spirit moans and sobs, and there have been instances of its returning to the body.

The body is burned on the second or third day. Curtin continues:

[…] generally if a man dies in the autumn or the winter his body is placed on a sled and drawn by the horse which he valued most to some secluded place in the forest. There a sort of house is built of fallen trees and boughs, the body is placed inside the house, and the building is then surrounded with two or three walls of logs so that no wolf or other animal can get into it. The horse which drew the body to the forest is led away a short distance and killed by being struck on the head with an axe, then it is left for wolves to devour. If the man was so poor as not to have a horse, but had a cow, the cow is sold and a horse bought to take the body to the forest. If so poor that a horse cannot be purchased, the body is carried on a stretcher. If other persons die during the winter their bodies are carried to the same house. In this lonely, silent place in the forest they rest through the days and nights until the first cuckoo calls, about the ninth of May. Then relatives and friends assemble, and without opening the house burn it to the ground. Persons who die afterward and during the summer months are carried to the forest, placed on a funeral pile, and burned immediately. The horse is killed, just as in the first instance. Often the ornaments and the most valued trinkets of the dead are burned with them, as well as their best garments. Ordinary garments are left for their heirs. A Shaman does not officiate at this cremating ceremony, which is conducted in the most quiet manner possible[6].

Originally, Buryats practised shamanism and believed in the existence of three worlds (the lower, middle, and upper worlds), the power of ancestral and other spirits who could be benevolent or hostile to human beings according to how they were treated. Buddhist missionaries appeared already in the 5th century, but it was only in the early 17th century that Tibetan Buddhism began to win its place among Buryat communities of the Baikal region.

Buddhism in Buryatia and Mongolia belongs to the Tibetan Gelugpa tradition, which emphasises the scholastic study of Buddhism, but outside of monastery life, so-called folk Buddhism prevails, which interacts with and incorporates Buryat shamanism into Buddhist practice. Local landscape spirits and deities were ''tamed" and converted to Buddhism. In 1741, Empress Elizabeth established eleven monasteries in Buryatia and issued a decree that recognized Buryatian Buddhism as independent from Mongolian Buddhism. This is considered the date of the official recognition of Buddhism in Russia. The Empress’ motives were political and an attempt to reduce Mongol and Manchu influence in the region. Indeed, Buryatia lies within a strategic zone long contested by Russia, China and Mongolia, and (before 1945) Japan. Under Soviet rule, Buryat Buddhism suffered severe blows. In 1926 Buddhist monasteries were 'nationalized' and responsibility for their management was transferred to collectives of laypeople. The clergy was deprived of its power, but the monasteries remained active. During Stalin’s rule Buddhist and Shamanist traditions came under attack and virtually disappeared. Today, there are about twenty active monasteries in Buryatia, young lamas are being trained, and contacts with Tibetan Buddhists in India and the 14th Dalai Lama have been established.

[1] Charles H Hawes, In the Uttermost East, 1903
[2] Jeremiah Curtin, A Journey in
Southern Siberia, p. 92
[3] Ibid. pp 93-96
[4] Ibid., pp. 96-97
[5] Ibid. p. 100
[6] Ibid., pp. 101-104