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Ivolginsky Datsan

The cloister that brings happiness

Faith. People often rely on faith in difficult times throughout their life. Sometimes people cover some other things with faith. Sometimes they throw themselves into faith because there is nothing else left. Sometimes faith substitutes hope and love. People are attracted to faith for different reasons. Talking about faith is guaranteed to drive a fierce debate. Therefore, I will not talk about it, instead I will tell you about Ivolginsky Datsan in Buryatia, a citadel of Buddhism in Russia.

The datsan itself is a bright and positive place, which is located near the post-Soviet dull city of Ulan-Ude in Verkhnyaya Ivolga village. At the opposite side of the entrance there is a market with a big choice of religious goods, as well as socks made of camel wool.

However, the same choice is offered in tents behind the gates of the monastery. The Merchants are selling in a pretty lively way, they know all the nuances of Buddhist rituals -  what, where, what color, on which side to hang. They advise how to make wishes correctly. A person who is far from the postulates of Buddhism may have an impression that Buddhism is a religion of miracles. However, for a long time, the Ivolginsky datsan actively supported the legend of the miracle of the nirvana-like state of the monk Pandito Khambo Lama (it is the title given to the senior lama of a Buddhist monastery in Russia) Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov. For a long time, a story about his voluntary transfer to a state of meditation in 1927 was very popular. They said that in fact the lama did not die, but was only in the deep stage of the prayer “coma”. Before his death, the lama asked to have his body examined 75 years after the funeral.

For the imperishable body a special Etigel Khambin Temple was built in the Ivolginsky datsan. For an admission of 250 rubles you can bow down to the "sleeping monk". In 2002, the former lama was brought to the datsan in the same cedar box, in which he was buried for many years.  Well, I have to say, the imperishable body looks more like a wax figure with closed eyes sitting in a lotus position in a Buddhist gown, than a mummy. Buddhists believe that the lama was able to achieve "Comprehension of the Void” state - the Great reality of all events. While scientists carefully admit only the usual posthumous chemical processes that led to mummification. Buddhists are glad to see Itigelov’s participation in religious holidays, they say that the body temperature of the lama rises up to 34 ° C on such days. The Dalai Lama, however, refused to comment on this during his visit to the Ivolginsky datsan. Well, people can believe whatever they want. If it makes them happy, why not.


At the entrance to the temple, the monks advise to look at the lama to ask for something, and if the great teacher Itigelov suddenly opens his eyes, blinks or even gives a sign - prayers will be heard. I am thinking, what would I really like to have in the near future - peace, stability? Thoughts are mixing in my mind, I cannot focus on the question, because of my own curiosity. I try to catch sight of the smallest details of the old man in a glass cube, and, of course, I assure myself that he blinked at me. I move back towards the exit and then, for some reason, wave goodbye to the lama. At the exit they give me a wall calendar with a picture of the deceased lama, as a sign of blessing.


We have somehow gotten used to the relics in caskets, that have toured around the world for a long time. But to inspect the monk’s imperishable body covered with glass is quite strange for any religion. But the flow of visitors to “Khambin Khuree” - “the cloister of the Wheel of the doctrine, giving happiness and full of joy” (the official name of the datsan) never dries out. Not only Buddhists from Buryatia or neighbouring Mongolia come here, but many idle tourists of any other religion, who visit Lake Baikal.. 

On the monastery grounds, there are several temples - dugans, sacred stupas, a library and the first Buddhist university in Russia, "Dashi Choinkhorling”. The students have to study 15-20 years just to comprehend the basics of Buddhism in datsan, but there is a basic course in theology, which can be studied in a shorter time. There are only four faculties at the university: philosophical, tantric, iconographic and medical. In addition, students study Tibetan, Old Mongolian, English. But State diplomas can not be issued here.

You are allowed to visit most of the temples in datsan, and even join the services - khurals in Tsogchen-dugan - in the main cathedral. There you can listen to monks reading mantras. After the service, you can even talk to one of the lamas about the Buddhist Traditional Sangha of Russia or look at the murals on the walls. The pictures give some short information about the symbols, for example: a snake is evil, a pig is cad and a rooster (surprisingly) symbolises passion. And all of them are kind of sins, that we need to get rid of. 

The monks are quite hospitable, many temples are open, but guests are asked to respect the rules while visiting the holy cloisters: do not take videos, do not make noise, leave the sanctuary with your back forward. You can also come here with some request - in the windows of wooden houses you can often see what can you ask for, for example: make an astrological horoscope or cure a disease.

A couple of hours are more than enough time to inspect the Ivolginsky monastery. I revolve the prayer drum and head to the exit. At the gate I am stopped by the seller again and he warns me: it’s bad luck to leave the monastery empty-handed. I ask, is there something made in datsan? Well, he gives me a matchbox with juniper incense and an amulet for good luck. Well, I took it, just in case… But we all know, there are no fortuities in Buddhism.


How to get to Ivolginsky datsan:

The monastery is 36 km from Ulan-Ude. It can be reached by car or taxi. And also by public transportation, there is a minibus number 104 or 130, departing from the bus stop "Banzarova Square". You need to get off in Ivolginsk village, then take a transfer (minibus) to datsan.

The cost of a tour of datsan is 350 rubles. You can order it at the Visitor Center. Tickets for visiting the Khambo Lama Itigelov you can buy in Tsogchen-dugan.

The Four Seasons of Russia project is supported by the Russian geographical society www.rgo.ru
A visit to winter Baikal is recommended by the Russian geographical society.


Also read about Baikal:
How I Met a Shaman at Olkhon: What Spirits of Ancestors Explain
Baikal: Winter trip. Part 1. Listvyanka. Taltsy
Baikal: Winter trip. Part 2. Olkhon Island, Ogoy Island.
Baikal: Winter trip. Part 3. Buryatia
How I spent the night in a tent on the ice of Lake Baikal
Lake Baikal: What do we know about it?
Questions and life hacks about a winter trip to Lake Baikal

Translation: Irina Romanova, Instagram: @astrabella1


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