Summary of Survey

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Summary of the Survey

Documentation of Mongolian Monasteries

A collaboration of international researchers and the Arts Council of Mongolia


In 2004 an international team of researchers approached the Arts Council of Mongolia to ask them collaborate with them on a countrywide survey to determine the precise location and collect oral histories of all the active monasteries in Mongolia in the years prior to 1937 to 1939 when nearly all of them were destroyed in Soviet-style purges.

The background to this was that from the sixteenth century, when the Mongolians re-adopted Tibetan Buddhism, Mongolia’s Buddhist monasteries and temples were at the centre of Mongolian cultural tradition. Similar to the role played by the great monasteries of China, Tibet, Bhutan, Himalayan regions and the Russian republics of Tuva and Buryatia, Mongolian monasteries became places of fixed settlement for an otherwise largely nomadic population and provided cultural leadership to Mongolian society.

By the time the Soviet Union first called for the liquidation of Mongolian monks and monastery sites in the 1920s, there were no fewer than 100,000 lamas (monks) in a population that numbered approximately 700,000 people. As an extension of the Soviet Great Purge under Stalin, between 1937 and 1939, Soviet and Mongolian authorities executed thousands of lamas and destroyed more than 1,000 priceless Buddhist temples and monasteries in actions that constituted the most violent extension of the Great Purge beyond the official borders of the Soviet Union.

UNESCO has recognized two Mongolian monasteries as World Heritage sites. However, there was upward of a thousand monasteries and temples in the country at the time of the repression most of which had literally vanished with hardly a trace. Since the Mongolian democratic revolution in 1990, in one of the most dramatic signs of the recovery of cultural and ethnic identity in the post-Soviet ‘transition’ period, Mongolian cultural leaders recognized this loss and realised the importance of trying to identify and document the remains of these magnificent wood and stone structures that for centuries served as the focus of the rich Mongolian Buddhist culture using the collective memory of people alive at the time.

Goal of the Documentation of Mongolian Monasteries Project

The international team with the Arts Council of Mongolia undertook to carry out the Documentation of Mongolian Monasteries Project. The goal was to prepare a written documentary record (based on oral interviews) of each monastery / temple location in all twenty one aimags (provinces) in Mongolia along with its precise geographical location (GPS coordinates of the site) and a set digital photographs. This data would then be gathered in a systematic, comprehensive database and website of Mongolian temples and monasteries.

The Survey

Pilot Survey 2004

The documentation began with a pilot study conducted during the summer of 2004 in Tov Province. The aim of this was threefold:

1. To provide a systematic documentary record of each site located in Tov Province (Aimag) and Ulaanbaatar, coupled with a digitized photograph into a comprehensive database.

2. To begin the process of designing a Website (in Mongolian and English) to display the information captured in the database

3. To enable the methodology and logistics to be tested and recommendations to be made for the national survey.

A report on the Pilot Survey can be found on the Documentation of Mongolian Monasteries website in the Additional Materials section.

Ulaanbaatar Survey 2005-2006

The survey of the capital, Ulaanbaatar, (Ikh Khuree), was conducted in autumn 2005 by two Hungarian scholars, Krisztina Teleki and Zsuzsa Majer who had worked on the Pilot Study. They produced a detailed report on the temples existing in the late 1930s and a second report on the temples active in the capital in 2005-6. (They made annotation to this work in 2007 and 2011.)

These reports can be found on the Documentation of Mongolian Monasteries website in the Additional Materials section.

The Main Countrywide Survey 2007

A single survey conducted in the 1960s ((B. Rinchin, Huree Hiid: Barkhantai baisan huree hiid [Ulaanbaatar, 1969]) concluded that there were almost 941 monasteries in Mongolia before the purges. This contradicted the original figure of 757 sourced from 1930s Mongolian Government Intelligence. In the mid 2000s, based on oral evidence, anecdotes, the pilot and Ulaanbaatar survey, it was widely believed that the real number of monasteries in the early part of the twentieth century might exceed a thousand.

In 2006/7 there was a particular urgency to conduct the project as quickly as possible. It was known from the Pilot Survey that site identification depended upon the fading memories of Mongolians who were young at the time of the destruction of the monasteries – many of whom were by now in their seventies and eighties and would soon no longer be able to assist in the identification and documentation effort.

While the principal focus of the survey was an investigation of the sites of the monasteries existing in the 1930’s, it was decided that the countrywide survey would also include active temples i.e those revived on the site of an old temple or a new foundation. This would provide a snapshot of the revival of Buddhism in 2007 in Mongolia to complement the understanding of the situation in the past.

Countrywide Survey Methodology

The survey methodology involved 4 Stages

Stage 1 Completion of preliminary information tables, containing known information about monasteries and possible contacts

Stage 2 Hiring, equipping and training of survey teams

Stage 3 Surveying the sites

Stage 4 Data Entry and Website

Stage 1 Preliminary Information:

The principal source of information about sites of monasteries and temples in Mongolia was the study conducted by B. Rinchin and published in the book: Huree Khiid: Barkhantai baisan huree Khiid. Ulaanbaatar, 1969. (In the event a 1979 edition of this work was used.) The second source used was by Maidar in his book: D. Arkhitektura i Gradostroitelstvo Mongolii. Ulaanbaatar, 1972. Both these sources can be found on the Documentation of Mongolian Monasteries website.

These were provided to the surveyors prior to the fieldwork to act as a starting point for their investigation. See Appendix A for a partial list of other sources.

The survey teams and project manager used these sources as a tool to plan site visits. It will allow for estimates of the amount of time to be spent in each soum. Of course, adjustments were made during the surveys; sites previously unknown to the project were discovered through local knowledge interviews with locals, or certain sites might have multiple names. In some cases some of the sites listed by B Rinchen or Maider were not visited, because the local population no longer has knowledge of the site.

Stage 2 Hiring, equipping and training of survey teams:

The project recruited and employed five Mongolian survey teams each composed of a surveyor, a Buddhist monk from Gandanthegchenling and a driver. All members of the survey team were graduates in either Buddhist Studies or social sciences. The sixth team was comprised of the two Hungarian scholars who did the Ulaanbaatar survey. All the surveyors were given training in interviewing, data collection and data entry skills.

Each team visited approximately three aimags. The team responsibilities were (the independent cities were folded into the surrounding aimag, e.g. Darkhan into Selenge):

Team J: Dornod, Khentii, Sukhbaatar

Team G: Tov (part), Bulgan, Arkhangai, Khovsgol, (Orkhon)

Team E: Dornogovi, Omnogovi, (Govisumbar)

Team D: Tov (part) Dundgovi, Ovorkhangai

Team B: Gov-Altai, Bayankhongor, Selenge, (Darkhan Uul)

Team A: Bayan Olgii, Hovd, Uvs, Zavkhan


Prior to the site visits, each documentation team underwent one week of training with the project team in Ulaanbaatar with some field experience in Tov aimag. This consisted of:

· A group training session for all twelve surveyors led by the project team, familiarizing them with the equipment, survey forms, and interview techniques

· Individualized training for each team, planning their itinerary, and familiarizing them with the source data about the sites they will be visiting.

· Two days of site visits in Tov aimag with the project team for hands on training of the necessary interview, photography, and GPS techniques.

Survey material and equipment:

Each team was provided with several forms to assist them with interviewing individuals, surveying sites, recording the photographs taken, keeping a log of all sites visited in each aimag.

Site Information Forms were prepared to capture all the required information about the site: there were two version of the form, one for old and one for active (i.e. established after 1990) temples/monasteries. Some of the information on the form was collected at the site itself (especially those detailing the physical condition of the site), while the rest of the information was collected during interviews. A photograph record sheet was used to record the numbers of digital photographs taken at each site.

A long and a short version of a guide for the Oral History interview was designed based on that developed in the Ulaanbaatar survey with considerable input from the two researchers, Krisztina Teleki and Zsuzsa Majer. The interviews were recorded on MP3 recorders and a classification sheet was filled in for the informant. A photograph was also taken of the informants who were asked to sign a release form for use of the photograph in any future publication.

The forms, along with the audio recordings, and digital photographs, have been used to populate the final database.

Each team was equipped with a digital camera, GPS, digital audio recorder, and digital wallet, to backup all the digital data. This equipment was standardized across all teams.

Each survey team carried a letter from our project partner, Gandanthegchenling, which gave an introduction and explanation of the project and a request to those encountered by the team to co-operate with the survey.

The teams were provided with a list of sites to visit (from the sources) in their assigned aimags and given the names of local governors and aimag officials as well as being told they could use the local branches of Khan Bank for general assistance and as centres of local knowledge.

Stage 3 Surveying the sites:

Once in the field, it was usual for each team to begin their survey of a soum by visiting the soum centre and establishing contact with local officials, monks in the local temple (where they existed) and others who had knowledge about the sites. They sought out and interviewed these individuals, recording the interviews, and filling out the classification form for each individual. The team also note down whether the locals have knowledge of any sites that existed prior to 1939 previously unknown to the project, and modified their itinerary to include the actively discovered sites.

The survey team attempted to visit every monastery and temple site in the soum, both previously identified by the project, and actively identified through interviews with locals. Where possible, they interviewed locals that live or nomadicize near the site for additional information or identification.

Once at a site, the team took on average 15 digital photographs (although the exact number varied on the condition of the site)[1], to show the extent of the site, its current appearance, and the appearance of any surviving or actively built artefacts and structures. They filled out Site Information Form for the site.

Because of the time and distance intensive nature of the survey, it was essential that the data collected by the team was organized, and frequently backed up.

The first guarantee was the use of identical equipment and forms across all six survey teams. This ensured that the data entered into the final database is very similar. In addition, each interview and site visit form will be given a unique identification number, so that each individual interviewed and site visited will be identified. Each audio recording of an interview will begin with the interviewing stating the time and date of the interview, the name of the interviewee, and the identification number of the interview, allowing easy linkage to the interview forms. Likewise, information on the Site Information Form gained from interviews was given a citation that links the information to the interview identification number.

The site identification number was used to not only keep the site forms organized, but also to link the digital photographs to each individual site. The site visit form included an area to list what photograph numbers were associated with that particular site.

Stage 4 Data Entry and Website Creation:

Upon finishing their allotted aimags, the documentation team will return to Ulaanbaatar with the completed forms, recordings, and photographic evidence. With the assistance of the project team and two trained data entry experts, the teams populated the fields of the final database from the nfromation on the site forms and downloaded all the digital information (photographs and audio recordings).

The ambiguities in the survey forms were resolved as far as possible through discussion with the surveyors, and use of the audio recordings and digital photographs. If necessary the Buddhist Content manager arbitrated on Buddhist issues (knowledge, facts, spellings, descriptions etc). The data-enterers, using the Glossary developed in the Pilot and Ulaanbaatar study (by Krisztina Teleki and Zsuzsa Majer) and guidelines for Mongolian phonetic spelling, used the information in the survey forms to populate the fields of the final database. Succinct prose summaries were written (Precis) for the majority of the sites and these now appear on the website. The project manager appointed by the project director and the Arts Council of Mongolia oversaw the efforts to ensure the database entries were consistent across teams.

At a later date, when funds became available, translators were employed to translate the Old Temple database fields into English. In the future should funds be available, it is intended to complete the translation of the Old Temples and translate the Active Temples database fields into English, and to translate all the Ulaanbaatar entries into Mongolian.

The project manager initially constructed the webpage that linked to the database. In 2012 eessence were employed to re-construct the website from a re-formatted database, which was double checked for accuracy.

In addition to the normal backup procedures used by the hosting organisation, the IT developers working with essence have stored a second copy of the database and website.

In addition the entries for each site in the Site Information Table table will be formatted, printed, and bound, creating a hard record of the information gathered about each site. A further development of the project would be to present the data in a publishable form.

Timeline of the countrywide survey

Fundraising for the project began in 2006 and sufficient funds were raised by the end of the year to enable the project team to commit to conducting the fieldwork the following summer. The survey proper began in February 2007, and has taken just over fourteen months, from the initial set-up to the release of the database and webpage (May 2008). This period included the project start-up, recruitment of Content Manager and survey teams, training, site visits, data entry, and preparation of the webpage.

Based on a pilot study of the sites in Tov Aimag, conducted in the summer of 2004, a total of one and a half days was allocated to visit, interview, and process data. Using this estimate, 30 days were allotted for fieldwork in each aimag. In the event, some teams took longer as they had many sites to visit. Fieldwork was carried out between late May and September (one team started at the end of June) with one team being sent out in October to complete the survey in Tov aimag.

Therefore, each team was traveling for 3 months in their allotted aimags. Of course, given Mongolia’s weather, the site visits had to be in the summer. During this period while the documentation teams were in the field, visiting sites and collecting data, the project team in the Arts Council was managing the teams from the central office receiving and monitoring the data as it is sent back as well as dealing with logistical issues, obtaining border permits, transport problems and other details.

In September 2007, the teams returned to Ulaanbaatar and the data input phase began. This process took longer than estimated given the richness and sheer volume of data (forms, supplementary material, photographs and MP3 recordings) collected plus the logistical challenge of online data entry. The webmaster began the process of building a webpage to allow access to the database. The project team worked closely with the documentation teams, survey assistants employed to do the data entry and webmaster to make sure all data was inputted correctly and can be clearly understood.

The initial database and website, published in 2008, had to be completely overhauled and rechecked with the present website based on a re-structured database, being published in 2014.

Appendix A

Other sources used by the surveyors included:




Baabar (Bat-Erdene Batbayar). Twentieth Century Mongolia. Cambridge: White Horse Press, 1999.


Bawden, Charles. The Modern History of Mongolia. Kegan Paul. London, 1989.


Brown, William A., and Urgunge Onon (trans. and annot.).History of the Mongolian People's Republic.(Harvard East Asian Monographs, 65.) Cambridge: East Asian Research Center, Harvard University, 1976.


Maidar, D. Arkhitektura i Gradostroitelstvo Mongolii. Ulaanbaatar, 1972.


Moses, Larry Williams. The Political Role of Mongol Buddhism. Indian University Uralic Altaic Series Vol. 133. Asian Studies Research Institute, Indiana University. Bloomington, Indiana, 1977.


Pozdneyev, Aleksei M. Mongolia and the Mongols. Trans. Shaw, John Roger and Dale Plank. Uralic and Altaic Series, Vol. 61. Indiana University Publications. Bloomington, Indiana, 1971.


Pozdneyev, Alexsei M. Religion and Ritual in Society: Lamaist Buddhism in late 19th Century Mongolia. Ed. John R. Krueger. Trans. Raun, Alo and Linda Raun. Publications of the Mongolia Society Inc, Occassional Papers Number 10. Bloomington Indiana, 1976.


Purejav, S. and D. Dashjamts. BNMAU-d Sum KKhiid, Lam Naryn Asuudlyg SKhiidverlesen N' (1921-1940) (The Resolution of the Questions of Monasteries and Lamas in the MPR (1921-1940)). Ulanbaatar 1965.


Rupen, Robert A. The Mongolian People's Republic, Stanford University. Stanford, California, 1966.


Rupen, Robert A. Mongols of the Twentieth Century. Indiana University Publications, Volume 37, Part 1 of the Uralic and Altaic Series. Bloomington Indiana, 1964.




Matusovskii, Z. Geograficheskoe obozrenie Kitaiskoi Imperii : s kartoiu na chetyrekh listakh. Tipografiia Imperatorskoi Akademii Nauk, St. Petersburg, 1888.


V Surin, Map of Mongolia, 1925. The Commercial Department of the Economic Bureau of the Chinese Gaolin Railway. Under the supervision of V Surin. Compiled from the latest material by P Andrievski, Yu Stankovich and O M Ravanov. Drawn by P Andrievski, Yu Stankovich and LA Blashkevich


]Sites with no extent buildings will generally require fewer photographs, generally eight; one from each cardinal direction on the perimeter, and one looking out from the estimated center of the site in each cardinal direction. Sites with extensive ruins, or that have been rebuilt, required more photographs.