Tov Pilot Survey Report 2005

Төв аймгийн анхны судагаа 2005 он


A Project done in collaboration with the Arts Council of Mongolia 

Supported by: Alliance of Religions and Conservation and Jan Brummelhuis Grant

Report prepared by

Renske Franken

Guido Verboom

Sue Byrne


As an extension of the Great Purge in Soviet history, Soviet and Mongolian officers from the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the KGB destroyed more than 900 priceless Buddhist temples and lamaseries in Mongolia between 1937 and 1939. Today, in one of the most dramatic signs of the recovery of religious and ethnic identity in the post-Soviet “transition” period, Mongolian cultural leaders are seeking to identify and document the remains of these magnificent wood and stone structures that for more than four centuries served as centres of Mongolian Buddhist culture.

The monks and witnesses of the pre-communist period are passing away and with them, direct knowledge of this amazing cultural heritage will die. In view of this, Prof. Stephen Batalden of the Russian and East European Studies Consortium of Arizona State University initiated a large project to conduct a survey and record data of all the monasteries and temples in Mongolia. As partners he recruited the Arts Council of Mongolia, the Agricultural Bank of Mongolia, and Collin Raymond, a National Security Education Program (NSEP) fellow studying at the Institute of Economics and Finance in Ulaanbaatar on leave from Arizona State University.

Brief History of the Sites

From the sixteenth century, when Mongols adopted Tibetan Buddhism as the official religion, Buddhism became inextricably associated with the development of Mongolian culture. By the early twentieth century, when Mongolia was fighting for independence from China, the rebellions and the early government had as their focal point Javzandamba Hutagt, the head of Mongolian Buddhism. In the years between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, the Mongolian lamasery institutions of the sum (temple sites), khiid (temples combined with buildings for the training of monks/lamas), and khuree (large lamaseries and gathering places incorporating as many as ten to twenty thousand people--lamas, their families, and related service personnel) came to dominate the landscape of Mongolia, constituting landmarks of fixed religious and cultural settlements amongst a people who otherwise remained largely nomadic. The lamaseries served as a de facto state within a state, minting their own money and offering leadership to the society at large. When the Soviet Union first began calling for the liquidation of Mongolian lamas and their temples and lamaseries in the 1920s, there were no fewer than 100,000 lamas in a population that numbered little more than 700,000 people.

During the Soviet inspired destruction of Mongolian Buddhist temples and lamaseries in the 1930s, most wood structures were burned to the ground, stone buildings were torn down, and the treasures from these monasteries were carted off, many of the less valuable Buddhist statues being decapitated and left at the sites. Some of the decapitated and other metallic remains, in addition to the wells associated with each architectural monument, remain on the grounds of the sites. While there is an effort currently under way to identify lists of destroyed sites in the relevant Soviet archival records of the internal affairs ministry now housed in the central archive of Mongolia, the original figure from the 1930s of some 770-800 sites is almost surely too low.

A Mongolian published account dating from the post-Stalinist ‘thaw’ (B. Rinchin, Huree Hiid: Barkhantai baisan huree hiid [Ulaan Baatar, 1979]) concluded that there were almost 941 such sites.

Today, it is widely believed that the actual number may exceed 1200. The historic and cultural importance of these sites cannot be overestimated. The city of Ulaanbaatar, for example, was founded upon one of the largest of these lamasery sites; a khuree occupied by several thousand lamas, their families, and related service personnel.

Wider Significance of the Project

While this is a project of global significance involving the protection, preservation, and future restoration of invaluable world monuments, the documentation drawn together in this project will also contribute to two major issues of intense contemporary interest in Eurasia.  First, the project will document the tragic dimension of Soviet destruction of indigenous non-Soviet culture and religious tradition in inner Asia. For a world that was shocked by the recent Taliban destruction of ancient religious shrines, this project demonstrates that there continues to be global concern for the preservation of cultural and religious artifacts so gravely endangered in the twentieth century. The recultivation and training of lamas and the restoration of several of the destroyed lamaseries must be seen in the wider context of the recovery of historical memory and of religious and cultural identity throughout former Soviet Eurasia. In demonstrating Western concern for such indigenous traditions, this project contributes to that awakening of historical memory and offers a solid bridge of understanding with this important emerging inner Asian republic. Since much of the opportunity for reconstructing historical memory rests upon the first-person oral testimony of local Mongols who are now already in their eighties, the project is also particularly timely. 

Second, the project seeks to illumine the roots of Inner Asian history by documenting the breadth and importance of fixed religious and cultural settlements in Mongolian history. These remarkably large settlements and the importance placed upon them in early modern Mongolia need to be documented alongside standard historical treatments that frequently forget the power of religious traditions in emphasizing exclusively the nomadism and migratory population patterns of inner Asia.  As the English journalist Jasper Becker noted a decade ago in his alluring travel monograph, Lost Country: Mongolia Revealed (London, 1992), the historical significance of these lost Buddhist monuments in Mongolia await rediscovery by historians, architects, art historians, and the public at large.

Purpose of the Documentation of Mongolian monasteries and temples

The purpose of the national survey is to determine the precise number of sites and the exact location (measured by GPS) of all the Monasteries and temples existing in Mongolia at the time of the Purges in 1937-39.

Pilot Project

Pending funding for the full project, the Arts Council decided in early 2004 to proceed with a pilot project focusing on the capital Ulaanbaatar and Toev Aimag, the province surrounding it.

This enabled us to move ahead while preparations and funding for the complete survey are being arranged. There is a particular urgency to conduct the survey as quickly as possible as site identification often depends upon the memory of Mongolians who were young at the time of the destruction and who are now in their seventies and eighties and will soon no longer be around to assist the identification and documentation work.

Intended Output of the Pilot

The goal of the pilot was to provide a systematic documentary record of each site located in Toev Province (Aimag) and Ulaanbaatar, coupled with a digitized photograph into a comprehensive database. This will be the first stage in producing a database for the complete survey of Mongolian temples and lamaseries.

A further goal of the pilot was to design a Website (in Mongolian and English), which will display the information captured in the database and accessed by all those concerned about the preservation of traditional Mongolian culture. We propose to launch the main site documentation as soon as funding is available, with project completion date scheduled for 9 months after commencement.

The pilot would also enable the methodology and logistics to be tested and recommendations to be made for the national survey.

Pilot Organizational structure

The pilot was executed and headed by Renske Franken, Student of Cultural Anthropology in Utrecht, Netherlands. She worked with a team of three students of Mongolian Studies from the University of Warsaw, Kystina Teleki, a post-graduate scholar from Budapest, Judith Neeser, University of Bern, Switzerland and Badmaa, the translator.

Professor Geoffrey Samuel gave guidance to the project with scientific and theoretical advice. He is a renowned international expert on Northern Buddhism and is currently the Deputy Head of the School of Social Sciences, Faculty of Education and Arts at the University of Newcastle.

The project was coordinated by Guido Verboom and logistically supported by the Arts Council of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar, and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation, Manchester. Ms. Franken was funded through a Jan Brummelhuis Grant, provided by the Mongolian Consulate in the Netherlands, Amsterdam.

Pilot Summary Report


The pilot took place in Ulaanbaatar and Toev Aimag from May to July 2004. The Rinchen lists and maps of 94 temples in Toev Aimag and 32 in Ulaanbaatar were used as a guide.

A series of field trips were undertaken to locate the sites of monasteries and temples all but one to Toev Aimag: 16 out of the 22 soum in Toev Aimag were visited.  Some of the Toev field trips were straightforward and several sites were visited over a couple of days. Others were much more arduous and time consuming with little constructive outcome because travel was very slow due to the road conditions or the local guides could not find the sites (or both). In some cases sites mentioned by Rinchen were marked in Toev Aimag and they were not: either the boundaries had changed since the map was drawn up or Rinchen had been mistaken in his positioning.

The first port of call was usually the Soum Centre where information was sought from local people and connoisseurs about all the locations of temples (sum, khiid, khuree) in that Soum.  Rinchen maps and lists were used to stimulate discussions with the informants but it was made clear to them that the survey team were searching for all the pre-1937 temples in the Soum, whether they were on the Rinchen list or not. Much of the information obtained came from these ‘off-site’ interviews. Information was also sought from locals living near the sites and, as very few of these meetings were pre-arranged, this was a very ‘hit or miss’ method and resulted in variable results: some interviews were very fruitful while others were not.

On the whole all those questioned in the survey were very happy to co-operate. The project leader directed the interviews working with a Mongolian translator. The most fertile information came from two types of sources:

Old men who had been monks at the time of the purges 1937 / 38

Local ‘historians’ usually found in the Soum Centres

At each site an attempt was made to complete a record containing the following information:

The primary and secondary names associated with each site.

The descriptive site type (is it a sum / jas, a khiid, or a khuree?)

The relative location of the site with respect to other dwellings/villages and / or natural features

The GPS location

The measured perimeter of the site, and the size and status of remaining or destroyed buildings. If no buildings are extant, oral description of the appearance of the former site is to be sought

The history of the site (depending upon the availability of local or archival written or oral sources identified by the surveyors, the fieldworkers tried to find out the date of the site’s construction, the number of lamas or other occupants accommodated at the site; information about the date and circumstance of its destruction. Some of the interviews with local people were recorded on sound tape.)

The current situation and use of the site

Information on the sources used

One or more digital photographs of the site, depending upon its size and the number of extant buildings / remains

In addition, information was collected about any temples built since 1990 on new sites in the location.

It will be clear when reading the ‘historical’ sections that the data recorded is more reminiscence than academic history. We do not feel that this undermines the value of the data, as the primary aim of the survey is to determine how many sites there were in 1937 and to pinpoint exactly where they are. This is what the pilot survey set out to achieve and this is what it did. We feel it is for others to do the document based historical research, which will only be possible once the State Archives have been opened up. For this reason we suggest that the section title ‘History’ is changed in the final website to ‘Anecdotal History’

Pilot Results

A total of 7 sites were investigated in Ulaanbaatar, all of them listed in Rinchen.

On all 7 sites some of the temples have been partially or fully restored and are being used for Buddhist practice

Using modern city maps it was inferred that there no visible remains on site of 10 monasteries as they have been completely built over

A total of 74 temples were included in the investigation in Toev Aimag that covered 16 of the 22 Soum

48 are listed in Rinchen

36 sites were surveyed

31 were ruined with some visible remains

3 had no visible remains 

2 temples were found to have been partially rebuilt since 1990

7 sites were confirmed by locals but not surveyed

2 temples were asked about but not known by local people

3 new temples visited were found to be revivals of pre-1937 temples on a new site

21 pre-1937 temples not listed in Rinchen in Toev Aimag were confirmed by locals (mostly small Jas) and

3 of these were surveyed. 

Corroboration is needed for the remainder. It could well be that some are listed by Rinchen in an adjoining Aimag.

5 temples built since 1990 were included in the survey of which 3 are no longer active full-time 


Remains of temples varied from partial structures to vague outlines or a few scattered stones. Many of the Ulaanbaatar temples surveyed have been completely built over.

It emerged in the research that in many cases remains of buildings had been left after the purges but have been further reduced since that time as local people removed materials for use in domestic and agricultural structures.

Signs of academic archeological excavation were evident on some of the more significant sites and in the presence in local museums of artifacts from the temples but it also became clear that local ‘excavation’ (and ‘treasure hunting’) had taken place particularly after 1990 when the newly introduced market economy gave a monetary value to remains of Buddhist artifacts previously thought to have solely religious value.


The survey has provided some colourful historical anecdotes from people who were alive at the time the monasteries were active. Taken together they provide an invaluable insight into the daily life in the monasteries, the interchange between them and their economic foundations. However, the data gathered is bound to be partial and not rooted in documented or corroborated accounts. A more through history of the monasteries in this and other Aimags will only be possible when the State Archives are opened.

Number of Temples in Toev Aimag 

These early results seem to confirm the hypothesis that there were many more temples in Mongolia pre-1937 than were recorded by Rinchen. 

In this survey 21 unlisted pre-1937 sites have been ‘discovered’ of which 3 were surveyed. In fairness to Rinchen, it seems that most of the unlisted pre-1937 sites about which information was collected were small Jas (locals used this term rather than Sum) possibly attached to larger nearby khourals or khiids. More research needs to be done on these sites to corroborate this and to survey them to see what remains. It could also be that some of them are listed in Rinchen in an adjoining Aimag. Notwithstanding this it seems likely that some of them will be genuine additions and it is likely more will come to light when the remaining Soums in Toev are surveyed. Thus the pilot seems already to have demonstrated that Toev Aimag had considerably more temples pre-1937 than the 94 listed by Rinchen. If this result is repeated throughout the country then the total number of temples in Mongolia pre 1937 will truly be in excess of the number listed by Rinchen. 


A website using the un-edited material from the database has been designed and was put on the web by August 2004. It is currently undergoing rigorous editing and analysis and a Mongolian translation has been commissioned.

Key lessons for the National Field Survey

The survey team made the following recommendations for designing the main survey.

The survey team

The translators are vital and the same one should be used for any significant tranche of work NB: in Western Aimags local translators will be needed because of the dialects in this area

The survey team will benefit from the inclusion of the following skills: good understanding of Mongolian Buddhism; Archeological knowledge (to be able to distinguish between Buddhist sites and others e.g. collective farm buildings); social scientist or someone with relevant training and experience in eliciting, processing, evaluating, presenting and reporting data

Survey organisation and time estimates

It is estimated need 1.5 days per site – this takes into account preparation work, survey time and database entry time. Thus for each Aimag with an average of 40 sites (Rinchen) 60 days will be needed.

Each Aimag should be organized from the Aimag Centre using local drivers with very accurate records kept of site visits / personnel involved

Gathering historical information and site location

Plan to interview off-site either in Ulaanbaatar (people / ex and current monks from the countryside now living there) or in the Aimag or Soum centers – local museums, local governors and local monks (young and old - collect as much as possible from the old monks)

Knowledge of the old Aimag names is useful as is knowledge of boundary changes since the introduction of the 21 Aimags

Good maps of each Aimag would to brief survey teams on the names of rivers mountains sacred sites springs etc. Map center in UB has good Aimag maps.

Gathering information at the site

To ensure consistency of data collection it is recommended that data is captured on a proforma designed to mirror the database fields


use a compass to take overview pictures of N, S, W, E, of the site.

Keep pictures very general and take no more than 15-20

Picture database needs to be set up with cross-references to database and website

Pictures need to be captioned and entered onto the picture database

Drawings should be captured digitally, captioned and entered onto the picture database

Entering the data on the database

One person to be appointed as database manager

A very rigorous system needs to be set up to process and track the data from its raw stage to the final edit for the website.

The survey team needs to remain wedded to entering the data on the database NB Current Situation and History / Decriptions data need to be re-written for database entry – in good Mongolian / English prose


The website would benefit from a Glossary of Terms

Attached are a list of amendments and changes to the website recommended by the team

Filing original data

Clear and well labeled system needs to be set up to file original documents and notes

Completing the work in Toev Aimag and Ulaanbaatar needs to be factored in to the National Survey

Supplementary aim of the survey

to collect site data about temples built since 1990. The survey will then have the added value of providing accurate information about the re-instatement of Buddhist temple since 1990.

These lessons will be used to prepare a proposal for the National Field Survey to be conducted in 2006 / 7. This proposal will be sent to potential funders and participants.