New website uncovers Mongolia's Buddhist past as memories and traces fade

Arts Council of Mongolia,
20 January 2015, Mongolia

In January 2015 the website went live. Mongolia’s Buddhist heritage is revealed in a treasure trove of data presented in this website of the Documentation of Mongolian Monasteries project.


Today, as Mongolians are actively seeking to retrieve the past, striving to make contact with their historic cultural identity, the “Documentation of Mongolian Monasteries” website present to the public a complex database of over 1,000 temples existing in Mongolia in the early part of the twentieth century along with a record of temples active in 2007.


The project is a collaboration between the Arts Council of Mongolia (ACM) and Mongolian and International researchers. The “Documentation of Mongolian Monasteries” website presents a globally accessible wealth of data on over 1,000 historic Buddhist temple sites, many of which today are no more than vague outlines on the steppe, as well as sharing the stories of hundreds of Mongolia’s old people who knew the temples when they were young. It documents a rich cultural past and, promotes Mongolian cultural heritage internationally while encouraging young Mongolians to embrace their heritage.


In addition this rich and unique collection of data will provide Mongol scholars in and outside Mongolia with a starting point or adjunct to their study of Mongolia’s Buddhist past. It can also serve as the basis for further study on the revival of monasteries in Mongolia after 1990.



The project’s genesis was in 2001 when Pete Morrow, then CEO of Khan Bank of Mongolia, and Dr. Stephen Batalden, professor of history at Arizona State University discussed how quickly knowledge of the temples—nearly all destroyed in purges of the 1930s—was being lost as people old enough to remember those times were nearing the ends of their lives. The two began sketching a plan to save the information. 


Batalden secured a grant and provided Morrow an intern, Collin Raymond, for the 2001—2002 school year. This small team began scoping what the project would require, securing cooperation from Buddhists, local archivists, government officials and others with an interest in the topic. Early-stage funding for the project came from Khan Bank and Arizona State University. 


Guido Verboom, then the project manager for ARC (Alliance of Religion and Conservation) engaged with the project and introduced Sue Byrne, a professional survey researcher then working in Buddhist restoration in Mongolia with a London based charity, to the project team She had long planned to do such a project having promised the the Head Abbot of Mongolian Buddhists center-Gandantegchenling Monastery Choijamts Demberel in 1998 that it would be done. She became highly engaged and later, as volunteer, became the project’s director. 


The team agreed that a Pilot project would be done in parallel to developing proposals and funding for a countrywide survey. Verboom then connected the project to the Arts Council of Mongolia shortly after it was formed in 2002. He then secured support from a Dutch sponsor. 


The Pilot study was conducted in Tov in 2004, followed in 2005-2006 by a full survey of the Ikh Khuree temples done by two Hungarian scholars, Krisztina Teleki and Zsuzsa Majer. They allowed the project to use this invaluable and unique data as well as contributing to the countrywide survey.


In 2007, ACM in collaboration with Ganden Monastery, the President’s office and the Cultural Heritage Centre conducted the countrywide survey.  Six survey teams consisting of academics, monks from Ganden Monastery and the two Hungarian scholars conducted the survey in 21 aimags in the summer of 2007. 


Lhagvademchig Jadamba, a Buddhist scholar, who studied at CTHS (Centre for Tibetan Higher Studies) in Sarnath, India, oversaw the Buddhist content of the survey leading the academic surveyors and a team of Buddhist students in processing and analysing the data. Two of the surveyors, Munkbat and Khulan Chimedtseye, now Assistant Professor at the Agricultural University, did sterling additional work on the Precis Histories of the sites and the Oral Histories. 


In the final phases, Byrne became the voluntary director of the project, spending several years and making many trips to Mongolia to oversee and often directly manage the work. Under her guidance, the collected data on the Old temples were translated and processed and were assembled on the website to be accessible to international and local academics and to the general public.


It is only with Byrne’s vision, leadership, tireless work and enormous investment of time and treasure that this project has produced this newly expanded and feature-rich website. 


The website includes data of over 1,000 pre-1939 sites and around 300 temples that had become active since 1990 (the majority of these on the site of an old temple). Photographs and GPS co-ordinates were taken for the vast majority of the sites. Over 350 Oral Histories and nearly 500 site plans can be downloaded from the site. Mongolian archive photographs have been supplemented with further archive photographs from Russian and European sources such that there are pre-1939 images for around 60 monasteries on the site 


The project was funded by Khan Bank, Petrovis LLC, Western Union, US Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Heritage, Arts Council of Mongolia-US, the Shelley and Donald Rubin foundation USA, anonymous private donors, a successful online crowd-funding drive and many other supporters.


We thank all international researchers, Gandantegchinlen monastery, Buddhist institute, Mongolian President’s office, the Intelligence Agency archive, National Archive of Mongolia, the Centre for Cultural Heritage, Arts Council of Mongolia-US, all donors who contributed to the promotion of Mongolian heritage to the world, the project initiators and Sue Byrne who dedicated her heart and many years of diligent work to the DOMM project.


The project is dedicated to all the old people in Mongolia who shared their memories with us without whom we would never have been able to do what we did.



Facebook: Mongolia’s Buddhist Monasteries


For more information contact:

Bayanmunkh Dorjpalam, Arts Council of Mongolia cultural heritage program director at [email protected]

Sue Byrne, Project Manager at [email protected]