Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Transmission and Source of Prophecy in Contemporary Mongolia by Bumochir Dulam and Oyuntungalag Ayushiin

Mongolian Shaman Ceremony

The Transmission and Source of Prophecy in Contemporary Mongolia

by Bumochir Dulam and Oyuntungalag Ayushiin

Article from: "In Time, Causality and Prophecy in the Mongolian Cultural Region", Edited by Rebecca Empson.
Inner Asia Series, Cambridge : Globe Oriental (in English, 2006).


In the Mongolian cultural region prophecies have spread among the public in various ways. They have been passed on in written form, like the prophecies (lünden) of the Bogd Khan (see chapter one, this volume), or they have persisted as a form of social memory in oral form (see chapters five and six, this volume). In this chapter, we explore the sources through which prophets currently receive prophecies. We will also examine the processes involved in transmitting prophecy to the public at large. This includes a discussion of written prophecies distributed in books and newspapers, followed by a focus on three different types of divine inspiration that lead to prophecy. Finally, we present a discussion concerning Mongolian ideas about belief and knowledge. Before we explore some of the sources of prophetic inspiration, we present a brief introduction concerning the transmission of prophecies in Mongolia.

Prior to the emergence of democracy in Mongolia in the 1990s, prophecies were not available in Mongolian newspapers and other published media. However, written prophecies such as the ‘lünden’ discussed in chapter one, did circulate privately among people. These prophecies instructed people to copy and distribute their content. Some elders in Mongolia mentioned that, during the communist period, people continued to reproduce and pass on hand-written copies of these prophecies privately. The Mongolian astrologer Mönx-Ochir (1996) has noted that in the Sheep Year of 1979 many people copied one of the 8th Bogd Khan’s lünden. This was due to the fact that the prophecy stated that it would be worshiped greatly in the Yellow Sheep Year.

In present day Mongolia, many people are moving away from the strong scientific rationality of the communist period toward the older teachings of Mongolian religious and spiritual specialists. In light of this transition, predictions concerning the future are becoming increasingly popular. Mongolian newspapers frequently re-issue old prophecies and written prophetic texts. Many newspapers also publish information concerning the current predictions of seers, diviners, and shamans. For example, the Mongolian newspaper Dal (founded in 1996) frequently publishes thoughts about the future. Essays concerning the Bogd Khan’s biography and his ‘lünden’ were printed on the 130th anniversary of his birth. In addition, between 1993 and 1995 a newspaper called ‘Bogd Min Örshöö’ (Bless Me, Bogd [Khan]) published prophecies of the Bogd Khan. Another newspaper called ‘Bilgiin Melmii’ (Eyes of Wisdom), published by Gandan Monastery,2 also features articles about prophecy. Before the Mongolian Lunar New Year (Tsagaan Sar) numerous newspapers also publish the prophecies of various people (lamas, astrologers, shamans, seers, diviners and so on) that concern the coming year. These prophecies predict what the weather will be like and what kinds of things will happen to people in the year ahead. They predict things for politicians and people in high positions, as well as for ordinary people. However, our main concern in this chapter is not with the prophecies that circulate in newspapers or other publications. Instead, we explore what happens to a prophecy once it has been uttered, before it appears in written form. Therefore, the question we address is: what is the source behind the information that can be found published in newspapers?

There are certain steps in the transmission of prophecy, starting with their origin and ending with their public dissemination. Newspapers are probably one of the last stages of this transmission. In other words, newspapers are just one of several ways to transmit a prophetic prediction. We will suggest that certain categories of religious specialists, who use trance to issue prophecy, are another medium for the transmission of prophecy. Unlike newspapers, which they precede, they are the oral channels of divine inspiration concerning prophecy. Prophetic experts, such as shamans (böö), gürten and choijin, can be viewed as similar to a radio set. They broadcast breaking news before it has been published in print. Obviously, these ways of issuing prophecy do not allow for the prophecy to reach as wide an audience as those published in newspapers. For example, when shamans transmit information from the spirits, this information may only reach a family or a local audience. Spirit mediators, such as shamans (böö), gürten, and choijin, enter trance so that spirits and gods can speak to people through them. According to these spirit mediators, the sources of their prophecies are spirits (ongod), gods (burxan), the heavens (tengers), or guardian spirits (saxius). For example, the prophecies in the Secret History of the Mongols originate from Eternal Heaven (Mönx Tenger).

There are certain social and political conditions that give rise to the revelation of spiritual information and prophecy. Historically, there have been many politically influential prophecies issued by religious practitioners, usually of high political rank. For example, shamans’ prophecies existed during Chinggis Khan’s Empire and during the Manchu State (Humphrey 1996). Written prophecies (lünden) were issued by the Bogd Khan (see chapter one, this volume), and the prophecies of Dashtseren, the seer to the President of Mongolia Mr. P. Ochirbat, were issued in the early 1990s (see chapter three, this volume). All of these prophecies were issued by someone who held a high-ranking position in relation to the state. To a certain extent, many of these people had a duty to prophesy about the state, nation and society. In light of these examples, we must assume that prophecy has been highly valued in the Mongolian cultural region. We suggest that this is because these ‘prophets’ were to be found in a central social position, maybe not in the state centre itself, but at least in one of the big temples. For example, the seer Dashtseren, mentioned in chapter three, revealed prophecies from a position of central authority. When a ‘prophet’ is in a central position, the transmission of their prophecy is fast and it is held to be practically relevant, in that it relates to political events as they unfold.

In contemporary Mongolia we do not find prophets currently occupying a central position of power.3 Instead, many prophets are located on the periphery of political arenas. In other words, no one is obliged to prophesy for the state and society. Instead, different spiritual and religious practitioners usually divine the future for individual clients. There is no officially recognized position for someone who should issue large-scale prophecies. This does not mean that prophets have ceased to issue big prophecies, or have become incapable of issuing prophecy. Because prophets are currently located on the periphery, even when they do prophesy for the whole society and state, their prophecies go through a more complex route before they reach the public. The following examples show that when prophets are positioned on the periphery, their prophecies travels a long way, starting with a spirit, passing through a shaman or gürten, then to their families, then through local people to researchers and journalists, before, perhaps, finally being published in an academic journal or a newspaper and taken up by the wider public.

One of the reasons that prophets in Mongolia currently occupy a peripheral position is because the religious centre is not particularly clear or stable. In such a way, we cannot define an exact centre or periphery. There are many different beliefs and religions flourishing in the country. Obviously, in terms of the geographical location, the centre is the capital, Ulaan Baatar, and the government building (zasgiin ordon) is at the centre of the city. Nevertheless, in terms of popular religious belief, it is difficult to locate an exact centre. This is because there is a diversity of different beliefs. Some people think that Buddhism is the central religion. It is true that it is the biggest religion in Mongolia, but we suppose that it is not powerful enough to be considered a central religious power. There are also many atheists, shamanists, Muslims, and Christians. In turn, political leaders and their parties’ change every four years and the Mongolian public are unsure where, exactly, their alliances lie.

Shamanic prophecy

Shamans can be considered to be different from some of the ‘prophets’ discussed in this book, such as Dashtseren (see chapter three) and Molon Bagsh (see chapter five). Nevertheless, their predictions are sometimes similar. As we know, shamanism is very complex, and consists of various elements of artistic and religious practice, and even of everyday performance. In this sense, the shaman is a singer, dancer, diviner, healer, bonesetter, magician, and so on. In addition to these varied talents, we suggest that shamans can also be ‘prophets’. We do not mean to suggest that shamans are always ‘prophets’ in the very literal sense. Instead, shamans do have the ability or potential to issue prophecy. As Humphrey discussed in chapter two, many historical materials show that shamans often made prophecies when they were in a central role in state affairs (cf. Humphrey 1996). Compared to the Mongol Empire of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, shamanism in contemporary Mongolia is not a practice that has been institutionalised by a sanctified centre. Humphrey, in chapter two of this volume, illustrates some of the historical materials from the 13th century, about prophecies made by the shamans Teb Tenger and Qurchi for Chinggis Khan. Unlike contemporary shamans in Mongolia, shamans in the Mongol Empire, such as Teb Tenger, held high positions and had a duty to supply the leader with information about state and social affairs, which they received from the spirits (or more precisely from Eternal Heaven as described in the Secret History of the Mongols). In such a situation, shamans are more likely to be viewed as prophets. In contrast, when shamans are peripheral in relation to the state, they are not obliged to issue prophecies, unless they (and their spirits) are directly questioned about the future of the nation when in trance. This is also evident from the lack of a fixed term for prophecy among shamans. In this sense, it is only partially correct to understand that shamans in contemporary Mongolia are not involved in prophecy. Nevertheless, just because they are not institutionalised does not mean that shamans do not issue prophecies at all. On the contrary, they do, and we will introduce some examples of shamanic prophecy from present day Mongolia.

In Mongol shamanism there is a phenomena referred to as ‘spirit information’ (ongodyn medee). This can include information concerning prophecies for the future. According to shamans, spirits send information to the shamans’ minds and sometimes, as Pürev (2003) has argued, oblige them to deliver their messages. Pürev (2003) writes about spirit information in the following way:

From the time spirits choose someone, turn him into a shaman and establish communication, spirits always communicate with the shaman and supply him with all sorts of information. In other words, there is a microcosm consisting of several spirits that make the shaman their centre. Spirits do not just supply information during rituals they also do so in everyday situations too. Therefore, a really good shaman gives answers and solutions without any divination (Pürev 2003: 138, trans. Bumochir Dulam).

Extending the idea of ‘spirit information’, Pürev (2002) has analysed a prophecy issued by the shaman Teb Tenger concerning the rule of Chinggis Khan’s brother, Qasar. The shaman told Chinggis to strike Qasar by surprise. As it says in the Secret History of the Mongols (see chapter two, this volume), at first Chinggis Khan believed Teb Tenger’s prophecy that he should strike his brother Qasar and Chinggis accused his brother. After this, Chinggis Khan realised that it was Teb Tenger’s intention to break the brothers’ relationship, and put him to death. But Teb Tenger claimed that the prophecy was the will of Eternal Heaven (Mönx Tenger). According to Pürev (2002: 177), Teb Tenger’s prophecy should not be viewed as slander. Instead, the prophecy was information received from the spirits that Teb Tenger was obliged to disclose. As Pürev (2002) argues, Teb Tenger already knew that he would be put to death; unfortunately it was the shaman’s duty to reveal the information, even though it endangered his life. Along with the discussion concerning Teb Tenger, Pürev (2002) presents a similar case concerning information where a shaman was recently killed because of his prophetic ‘spirit information’.

‘Around 1939, when the victimisation of religious practitioners such as shamans and monks was very strong, a female shaman named Tümenbayar, of Xutug-Öndör sum (district), Bulgan aimag (province), asked the shaman Renchingiin Pürevjav, of Saixan sum of the same aimag, about the present and future situation of the country. He answered: “Japan is a very powerful country we cannot defeat them alone [referring to the military aid from Russia]…red Russians will take and exhaust all of our herds…The Revolutionary Party’s attempt to cultivate vegetables is a lie. It is a way to finish off our herds and make us vegetarians. Russian medicine will not suit Mongolians.” What he said spread as a rumour and the shaman Pürevjav was executed in August 1941’ (Pürev 2002: 177, trans. Bumochir Dulam).

Pürev (2002) argues that Teb Tenger and Pürevjav occupy a similar position. They both knew they could be killed for what they had said. He explains that shamans do not communicate dangerous information because they want to die. Instead, shamans do not have any other choice but to pass on this information as it is the spirits who force them to do so. According to Mongolian shamanism, spirits force shamans to act in certain circumstances. For instance, ‘shaman’s sickness’ (böögiin övchin) is an example of spirits’ coercion of the shaman. When spirits choose someone to become a shaman, the person becomes psychologically ill or suffers terrible misfortunes. However, it does not necessarily follow that shamans have no alternative but to reveal the information that they have received and, indirectly, to condemn themselves to death.

Pürev’s analysis stresses the importance of spirits in the transmission of prophecies. According to him, without the force of spirits shamans would not be able to reveal prophecies. Shamans say that they are a medium through which spirits convey information. The complexity of the transmission further makes the matter of belief problematic. Believing in the prophecy is not only a matter of trusting the prophecy itself, but also of believing in every stage of the transmission, including the idea of spirits and shamans.

We can find more recent examples of shamanic prophecy in Mongolia. In the following section, I present two famous shamans’ prophecies. One example is the Darxad Mongol shaman T. Baljir (1913-2003), from Xövsgöl province. The other example is a Buryat shaman called Ch. Tseren, from eastern Mongolia, Dornod province. After the 1990s, Tseren was one of the few powerful shamans that survived the communist regime and he has contributed to the re-emergence of contemporary Mongol shamanism.

As local people and a few other researchers know, T. Baljir issued several prophecies, which she claims were sourced from what her spirits (ongod) had told her. In an interview with Sh. Süxbat (2003: 68, 97, 121), the head of the Golomt Shamanic Centre in Mongolia, she predicted that the Ox (1997) and Tiger years (1998) would be the most difficult years for Mongolia, especially two months in these two years, but she did not know which two months they were. According to her spirits’ information, the hard time will end and life in Mongolia will improve from the Sheep (2003) and Horse (2004) years. This will also be the time that the gate of the Sky-god of Death (üxliin tenger) will open and many men and herds will die. The gate of the Sky-god of Death will close in August of the year of the Horse (2004). This prediction matches the shaman Enxjargal’s prophecy explored in chapter two. The solution to this impending problem is, first of all, Mongols should build a stable and powerful state, and keep unity and solidarity. Secondly, they should ask and pray for blessings from Heaven (Tenger).

In 1978 and 1979, T. Baljir issued prophecies (or in shaman’s words; ‘was told by her spirits’) concerning the democratic revolution and the fall of communism in 1990 (Pürev 2002: 1939). Local people recall that she was shocked by the information and could not imagine that the state would collapse. On the other hand, she did not think that the spirits would lie to her.4 Also, in July 1997, she mentioned to Pürev (2002) ‘my spirits are telling me that there is a nineteen-year-old man who lives in an area around two households, in the south of the country, in five aimags (provinces) distance from here. In the future, this man will be the leader of Mongolia and the country will develop very well. No one will bring him out but he will come out by himself through history’ (Pürev 2002: 177-178). Besides these predictions, she and her spirits also predicted a plane crash in 1995. On the 15th of September 1995, six days before the plane crash, after shamanising, Baljir said that the spirits had told her: ‘the sky is falling or something is coming down from the sky’. On receiving this information she pondered on what it could mean, then a plane crashed close to the province capital of Xövsgöl province (Pürev 2002: 139). For shamans, the question of believing in prophecy is easy compared to the final recipients, the general public. Shamans and the whole shamanic community believe in spirits. Because they believe in spirits, they trust spirit information even thought the information maybe unbelievable and unrealistic. To sum up, shamans have an indirect belief in prophecies through their unquestionable belief in spirits.

Our next example concerns a shamanic prophecy that was issued by the Buryat shaman Ch. Tseren5. After fieldwork in 1995, we (B. Dulam and S. Dulam) became good friends with this shaman and his family. The shaman is an old man, in his late seventies. He is quite famous, not only in his local area, but also in many other parts of the country.

Image 7.

Photograph of Ch. Tseren Zaarin in antelope skin garment with metal skeleton corset,

Baikal Lake shamanic ceremony 1995

Photograph by Bumochir Dulam

In 1996, his son Oyunbaatar sent a letter to us on behalf of his father on the official letter paper from his shamanic monastery ‘Dambadarjaalin xiid’ (see Figures 1 and 2 in appendix). The first part of the letter was concerned with our trip to Buryatia, in Russia.6 The second part outlined a pronouncement made by Chinggis Khan through the shaman Ch. Tseren. They claimed that Chinggis Khan entered the shaman while he was in trance and left a message for the President of Mongolia and other government officials. Chinggis Khan’s messengers asked people in the ritual to deliver this message to Mr. Ochirbat, the President of Mongolia. Below is a part of the letter written by the shaman’s son on behalf of his father (to view the full letter, see Figure 2 in appendix):

25th Feb 1996

Dear S. Dulam, Bumchka [Bumochir] and all the family.

While I [Oyunbaatar, the son of the shaman] was away, Master Lord Chinggis Khan (Ezen Bogd Chinggis Khan) himself came and possessed Tseren and left a message and a duty. People in the ceremony wrote down the messages that were left for the president and other top officials. They tried to transcribe what Bogd Chinggis said. Please read the letter. I wonder what you and your son think of it? What shall we do with it? Do not pass the letter around. It is a secret? It cannot be allowed to reach the hands of mercenary people!

In the evening before the New Year (tsagaan saryn bitüün), when we were ‘doing the ninth ceremony’ (yösnöö xiix)7 Chinggis Khan’s janjin [warrior], Muxulai, came as an envoy and brought a message from Chinggis Khan. He presented greetings and asked whether we had delivered the message. Then we thought that we had to discuss it and take it more seriously and decided to tell you. I have attached the draft transcriptions of this message [See Figures 3-8 in the appendix]. I am sending it to you with trust that you will believe in it. Looking forward to hearing from you.

Best regards,

Old Tseren, son Ts. Oyunbaatar and all the family (trans. Bumochir Dulam)

On receiving this letter we did not know what to do with the information. From the covering letter it seemed as if they also did not know what to do with it, until the envoy Muxulai came and insisted that they pass on the message. When this was announced they decided to send this information to us in the form of a letter. For them, we are academic people based in the capital city and are closer, and therefore have more access, to government officials. However, in the letter they did not ask us to give the information directly to the president. Instead, they asked for our advice about what to do with the information. Unfortunately, the letter and the prophecy ended with us and did not go further. As it says in the letter, they also attached drafts of the pronouncement ‘made by Chinggis Khan’ through the shaman. The pronouncements have been noted down by one of the participants in the ceremony, as the shaman was in trance and was relaying the information from the spirits. In the transcript of this pronouncement, some sentences are not very clear and the general composition is poetic and reminiscent of the folk teachings of the great Khans.8 But its meaning is prophetic, in that it provides information on how to develop the country and resolve its problems. Other parts are more like an ethical teaching about what is good and bad, and what is right and wrong. The following is an English translation of the transcribed pronouncement (for further information see Figures 3-8 in appendix):

[The spirit (of Chinggis Khan) declares where he is from]

I have come from the Heaven Ochirvaani

At 64 years of age I was killed by the red Chinese

I have 33 clans (omog)

I am from the Borjigin clan

My father is of Buryat origin

Boar canine takes away [heals] the poison of vodka

([the spirit, through the shaman] drank vodka)

Announcement for masters and lords

State officials should think of what is good for the people

[You] can win over sufferings by thinking of your state officials as your father-master

Until the age of 64 [I was] mistakenly greedy for various properties

Everyone who thinks of the welfare of the Mongol country should think good thoughts for the


Let the supreme erx [sovereignty] grow

The supreme knowledge is good

Who is the master of the Mongols?

Son of a wife?

Announcement for the master of the country Mongolia

Think hard

If it is useless, then throw it away

Sons who oppose the state will break the state (tör) [father-master]

Taking bribes is foolish

Offer a black blood libation for the nine black standards

Oppressing people in the name of the state is foolish

To think of yourself [to be selfish] is foolish

Selling things that have been taken from inside the ground is foolish

By selling these highest of things they will never come back

I never gave them to anyone for 64 years

Sale of copper treasures will bring an end to the state

Gnawing at each other, they will suck all the good things and use them up

Forgetting the decree of previous Khans

Is an extreme form of foolishness

Forgetting the past leads to foolishness

By destroying one family you will destroy the country

The Khan is foolish who destroys creations already built

If diseases grow,

If people kill each other,

If people drink too much,

All [these problems] will become extreme

Women who rule men are demons

Wives who dictate to husbands are an abomination

Wives do not dominate men

Middle woman will not get up in the morning

They will marry other peoples’ husbands and bring things back home

Marrying a foreigner is bad

Zaarin [shamanic title] Tseren is in charge of chunsal9

If he does not do it

Horse will …

Cattle will be sick

Camel will be hurt

[Rites have to be done]

Worship the Burxan Xaldun [Mountain]

Born in the place ‘Lamyn Xüree’

At the white Onon Lake there are two bronze cauldrons

Two people should go there and worship them with blood

Suffering will then go away

If [people] worship me [Chinggis Khan]

Then worship me with a white sheep that has a black head

Help the monastery of Tug [flag or standard] urgently

Then, Mongolia will improve

Otherwise it will be bad

It is good for Mongolia to pray to Master Bogd Chinggis

Give my announcement

To the door of the state

It is good to give it to Ochirbat, successor of the crown of Master Bogd

Ochirbat is a good man

Eight ministers of Ochirbat, listen please!

(trans. Bumochir Dulam)

The beginning of this text is typical of the kinds of things mentioned during shamanic possessions. They usually start with the spirits introducing themselves, reporting their age, and residence in heaven, telling of their death, and then drinking vodka. This is what most spirits do when they possess a shaman.10 At the beginning of the trance, the spirit of Chinggis Khan, speaking through the shaman, states that he is from Ochirvaani’s Heaven.11 There are many other oral and written sources among the Mongols that state that Chinggis Khan is a reincarnation of the Bodhisattva Ochirvaani.12 The shaman Tseren is a ‘yellow shaman’ (sharyn böö)13 who was deeply influenced by Buddhism and has adopted Buddhist shrines and gods. The next line states that Chinggis Khan was killed by the Chinese. There are several stories about the death of Chinggis Khan, but the most popular one, according to historical sources such as the Secret History of the Mongols, states that on his way to fight the Tibetans Chinggis Khan fell off his horse when he was hunting wild horses. The next line specifies his age and corresponds to other historians’ theories about his lifespan (i.e. 1162-1227). It is also interesting to note that he states that Chinggis Khan’s father was a Buryat. I leave the discussion of the historical content of the prophecy here, because exploring the text’s historical content is not the aim of this chapter.

In terms of transmission, the contemporary shamanic prophecies discussed above are not widely known by the public. The prophecies do, however, concern the public and people are supposed to know about them. Nevertheless, these shaman’s prophecies are not widely known in Mongolia. We think that this may be because, in contemporary Mongolia, a particular ruler does not institutionalise shamanism. Maybe not only shamanism, but also prophecy itself, is considered peripheral to the concerns of those in power. Furthermore, even if people do pay attention to such predictions, they do not take actions according to these prophecies as Chinggis Khan did against his brother Qasar in the thirteenth century. The prophecies that we have presented have not all reached the wider the public, especially the last prophecy concerning Chinggis Khan. The way in which these prophecies have been transmitted can be divided into five stages. In the first stage, spirits issue prophecies. In the next stage, shamans transmit the spirits’ words, sometimes in a state of trance. In the third stage, kin members and local people are the first to hear the prophecy. In the fourth stage, academics received the prophecy in the form of a letter. In the final phase, these prophecies may be published in academic books and articles that publicise the prophecy. In the prophecies of the shamans Baljir and Tseren, they both passed the information concerning their prophecies to academic researchers. The final recipient of the prophecy is the public. This is the last stage in the ‘breaking news’. For the public, believing in a given prophecy is a matter of trusting the academic, or the President who revealed the prophecy to the public, as well as in the shaman or the seer and possibly in the spirits. Passing the information to people we know, who believe in shamanism, is an easy task which does not risk one’s reputation or life. Yet, passing this information to the public, to the whole nation, is risky.14 This was our task. We had to believe in the spirits first and then in the shaman. Even if we did believe in both, it would still have been difficult for us to pass on the information and convince the public. We were in the situation of being in-between believing and not-believing, being both believers and non-believers. The believers were our shaman friends and the shaman’s community, while the non-believers were the majority of the public. This is not an unusual dilemma; it is a situation that many academics in this field regularly find themselves in whenever they are questioned about belief.

On the other hand, prophecy itself is also a kind of knowledge that is on the border of being both true and false. In other words, judging it as true or false does not necessarily end with us. If the predictions in the prophecy come true, we can still reveal this prophecy to the public. Alternatively, if the prediction does not reveal itself, the prophecy may be considered to be of no use. Because it is a prediction, no one knows whether it is true or false unless it actually happens. Sometimes people suspend their uncertain belief in prophecy and believe in it directly, by believing in the spirit or the shaman. Shamans believe in prophecy because they believe that spirits do not lie, some continue to reserve judgment and suspend their belief, while others still reject it as false.


We turn now to focus on a kind of prophet in contemporary Mongolia referred to as an oracle (gürten). Like the shamans mentioned previously, ‘gürtens’ are also involved in spirit possession and they are able to deliver prophecies on behalf of the spirits. As we mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, a gürten is neither a shaman nor a ‘choijin’. In contemporary Mongolia these three kinds of practitioners are different from each other. The relation between gürten and choijin is quite complicated and they have many shared boundaries. At first we were unaware of the difference between the two, but in researching the materials, even though people were uncertain about the distinctions, we found many differences and it became clear that they are different. Historical sources present very vague data on gürten and choijin practices, and sometimes the terms refer to the same thing. For example, in chapter two, Humphrey explores the prophecies of the revolutionary hero Xatanbaatar (Hatan Bator) Magsarjav (1878-1927). Some materials refer to him as a choijongi or choijon, while other sources say that he was a gurten (gürten). Humphrey states: “Evidently Magsarjav was not a gürtüm attached to a monastery. But what kind of choijin was he?” Furthermore, the gürten Dulamsüren16 told us that Xatanbaatar Magsarjav was a gürten, while Myagmarsambuu (2005) refers to him as a choijin. Also the ‘oracle’ at the Mergen Monastary in Inner Mongolia is described as a gurtum (see chapter two). However, according to Myagmarsambuu’s story, what he did was the same as what choijin do. This suggests that there is confusion in the terms used for similar kinds of ‘oracles’. People we interviewed were not aware of the differences between these two kinds of ‘oracles,’ and people often hold that the two terms refer to the same kind of person. The question is whether the two terms refer to one thing, or two. We think that there are two types of practitioners and two terms, which may sometimes overlap. If we compare historical sources and examples of contemporary oracle practitioners in Mongolia, it is clear that there are two kinds of oracles. On the one hand, there is a ‘complex’ and wrathful ‘oracle’, sometimes called gurtum (gürten) and sometimes choijin, which is the one usually described in historical materials. In the present day, Mongolian Buddhist specialists claim that we do not have any real wrathful ‘oracles’ in Mongolia. We will call this wrathful kind ‘choijin’, to distinguish it from the other kind, which is still found in Mongolia today. Besides the choijin, who has a special costume, weapons, interpreters and supporters at their monasteries, and perform at big public possession rituals, there is another type of oracle referred to as ‘gürten’. There are several people who call themselves gürten in Mongolia. They are mostly from Bayanxongor province. They are quite different from the choijins described in the historical documents (see chapter two, this volume). Dulamsüren calls herself a gürten, rather than a choijin. According to her, a choijin is a higher and more developed type of gürten. Unlike a choijin, she is not attached to a monastery. She practises at home, does not perform big ceremonies involving many monks, calls her guardian spirit (saxius) whenever she needs to, does not wear a special costume, performs in her everyday clothes, does not use weapons, does not become completely possessed by her saxius, and she does not dance and jump around, in fact, she does not even stand up when she communicates with her guardian spirit. In the following section we discuss further what it means for her to be a gürten.

A Mongolian gürten

One day, when Dulamsüren’s maternal great uncle17 was escaping from the revolutionaries, he passed through Dulamsüren’s grandmother’s house and gave her something wrapped in a ceremonial silk scarf (xadag). It was a silver plinth for an ochir (vajra in Sanskrit, a Buddhist ritual object). He told her to give it to her grandchild, even though Dulamsüren’s mother was only three or four years old at the time. Her grandmother asked him where the ochir for the plinth that he had given her was. He answered that the ochir will reveal itself in the future. This ochir revealed itself to Dulamsüren through her father. Before her parents were married, Dulamsüren’s father was a monk at the monastery of Sangiin Dalai. He was one of the followers of Naran Gegeen in Bayanbulag. When he was attending a ceremony in his early twenties, he saw that the Naran Gegeen had something in his mouth while he was reading texts. During the break he met the Naran Gegeen outside the temple and asked him what was in his mouth. Naran Gegeen took an ochir out of his mouth and whispered a spell (shivshleg xeleed) on it and gave it to Dulamsüren’s father. He told him to give it to his future child (i.e. Dulamsüren). The young monk (Dulamsüren’s father) was very surprised by what Naran Gegeen said about his future child. At that time he was a monk and had never thought of having a family. He thought that there must be something wrong which would cause him not be a monk in the future and he asked Naran Gegeen why he would have to ‘turn black’ (xar bolox)18 and become a layperson (xar xün). Naran Gegeen answered that in the future all monks will ‘become black’, and that all the monasteries will be destroyed. This was Naran Gegeen’s prophecy about the revolutionary movement and its fight against monasteries. What he said came true, after a few years the monastery was burnt, Naran Gegeen and many other monks were killed, and the younger monks ‘became black’. One of them was Dulamsüren’s father. Later he married Dulamsüren’s mother, and this is how the two objects (the plinth and the ochir) came together.

Later, a Tibetan seer (üzmerch), whose name was Renyam, informed Dulamsüren’s parents that they would have a ‘good [special] child’ (sain xün). He warned Dulamsüren’s mother to be careful during her pregnancy, and told her that she ate too much meat and should be careful. Her parents did not really understand what the seer meant until events began to unravel themselves. Once, when her mother was pregnant with Dulamsüren, she ate mutton from a sheep that had been attacked by a wolf. According to Mongolian concepts of purity and pollution, because she hate this meat, she had become impure. But her mother did not care and ate the mutton anyway. On that same evening, when she went to milk the mares, she was badly kicked by one of them. They called the seer, Renyam. He made a cure (zasal) for the mother and the baby (Dulamsüren). He told them that the baby was meant to be a boy but because of what had happened the gender had been changed and the baby had become a girl. Furthermore, he said that the baby might be better as a girl, because no one would suspect her of being a Buddhist practitioner. The seer also said that it would be very good if she gave birth on the ‘candle festival of the 25th’ (zulyn xorin tavan, the celebration of the birth of Tsongkhapa), which she did. When she was a child, Dulamsüren could sense (zön) various things. For example, in the autumn when she was three years old her family moved pasture and decided to settle in a very beautiful place with plenty of grass, but Dulamsüren cried and asked her parents to leave. Her father immediately decided not to settle there, and some of the families moving with them agreed. However, two households continued to stay there and did not take heed of what the three-year-old had said. A week later an epidemic (taxal) spread through the area and many people died.

From the age of seven, Dulamsüren secretly began to learn elementary religious practices from her father and her teachers. At the age of eleven she could invoke the saxius (guardian spirits) by herself and was able to go into trance. Besides her father, she had several other teachers such as Baatar gyalxai (a title for a Buddhist monk), who used to ‘seize a saxius’ (saxius barikh), invoke the spirit and go into a trance. There was also gürten Begzjav, Lut gürten, and Bazarjav, a tantric specialist, who taught her tarni (spells). During the Xalx Gol War (during the Second World War), her teacher, Lut went to war as a soldier. After he had gone, on the night that the soldiers were supposed to go to the front, the saxius in his domestic shrine issued a strange sounding noise, such as: ‘turrr’.19 His mother heard the noise and worried about her son and sensed that something was happening to him. At the same time, just before getting into the truck that was leaving for Xalx Gol, Lut blacked out so he had to stay behind. Later, he explained that his saxius saved his life and did not let him go to war, maybe because it knew that he would be killed.

When Dulamsüren was a small child, her first teacher Baatar used to visit her parents. Once he told her parents that she was not an ordinary child. He said that she would not learn Buddhist philosophy. Rather, she would learn how to communicate with saxius (guardian spirits). Later, he became her teacher. In the evenings, her father used to take her to her ‘great teacher’ (ix bagsh) Baatar to practice. When she was possessed by the spirit, represented in the object, her teacher used to gently support her right hand. When she was thirteen years old her teacher granted her permission to practice by herself. After this she became a gürten.

Image 8.

Dulamsüren gürten holding her saxius

photograph by Bumochir Dulam, 2003

Possession by saxius

We have seen that gürten worship their saxius (guardian spirits).20 The term saxius has two meanings. Firstly, it refers to the actual spirit. Secondly, it refers to the object that represents the spirit and is used as an instrument to go into a trance. In Dulamsüren’s case this object is a plinth for an ochir (vajra in Sanskrit, Buddhist ritual object) and an ochir, wrapped in a ceremonial silk scarf (see Figure 9). The sacred saxius object does not always have to be a plinth and an ochir. As she told us, it can be anything, such as a knife, for example. Later, when I (Bumochir Dulam) visited her again, she had a big wooden stick with a metal human skull sculpture on top of it, with many coloured streamers (Figure 10). She said that this was another saxius that belonged to one of her apprentices. Her apprentice could not go into a trance and communicate with the spirit. Therefore, the guardian spirit wanted to stay with Dulamsüren. Besides the plinth and the ochir, Dulamsüren also has a rosary (erx) that acts as an object through which she receives the spirits. She says that her saxius likes to stay at home at her house most of the time, and when she goes somewhere she takes her rosary instead, so that she can go into a trance if she needs to by holding her beads.21

Unlike the spirits of choijins and shamans, a gürten’s saxius does not have a physical images that is painted or sculpted like Buddhist deities, or are made of wool, felt, wood, metal or cotton like shamanic ones. Rather than being an object of worship, the ochir and its plinth, or the skull on the stick, are instruments that allow them to go into ‘trance’. Many families in Bayanbulag have their own saxius with different instruments that gürtens hold to go into a trance, just as the shamanic spirits and their corresponding effigies. Choijin saxius, by contrast, are only found in temples. When Dulamsüren once visited her natal home, many families wanted her to establish communication with their saxius and asked her to go into trance to communicate with them. None of these saxius had possessed a gürten for about forty or fifty years. Dulamsüren complains that at the Gandan Monastery in Ulaan Baatar, there are also many saxius who attack her and try to possess her. She laments that people in Mongolia do not know about saxius and that all the monks just read texts and do nothing to revive the gürten and choijin practices.

According to what gürten say, their saxius are not human souls, like shamanic ancestral spirits. Instead, saxius are similar to actual gods. Dulamsüren says that it is not an ‘emptiness’ (xooson yum bish), meaning that saxius is not something that does not exist. Instead, saxius is a ‘thing’ (yum) that belongs to gods, like the god Damdinchoijoo, one of the ten Xangals (ten wrathful gods of Ninma-pa sects of Buddhism). More precisely, their saxius are messengers (zarlaga) of wrathful Ninma-pa Buddhist gods. This is the answer Dulamsüren had from her saxius, and she always uses the term ‘ömnöös buux’ (to descend on behalf of one of the gods) when describing how her spirits visit and possess her. For example, her saxius descend on behalf of the gods Gombo, Lham, and Damdinchoijoo. She worships images of these gods, but there are no images to be found that represent her actual saxius. In the sense of worshiping the wrathful Ninma-pa deities, a gürten is similar to a choijin because these gods are the deities and spirits of the choijin.

However, in the case of a spirit possession by a choijin they do not invoke the wrathful gods, but their messengers. Another aspect that distinguishes gürten from choijin is the difference in spirit possession. Compared to choijin, the spirit possession of the gürten is quite simple. For example, Dulamsüren first purifies herself by washing her hands and burning juniper incense, she then sits in front of a chest, with pictures of wrathful gods on it, and is seized by her saxius through the ochir plinth and the ochir, which she holds in her right hand. She purifies the saxius in the juniper smoke and, while raising her right hand she supports it by holding her right elbow. She closes her eyes, concentrates, and reads an invocation (solxo) in Tibetan. Choijins have similar invocations for spirits and gods and they are also referred to as ‘solxog’. Unlike the gürten, who reads these texts by herself, the choijin has other monks who read these for him. The term ‘solxog’ refers to a text (unshlaga) that is recited in order to invoke the spirit or god. Every saxius or god has its own specific invocation text (cf. Myagmarsambuu 2005: 37). Gürten do not go into deep trance, or become unconscious. When they go into a trance, their right hand which holds the saxius begins to shake. The spirit possesses the hand, rather than the whole body of the gürten. Dulamsüren says that if the saxius is angry then the possessed hand will beat her chest incessantly. Once it has entered her, she talks to her saxius in her mind and keeps her eyes closed. After ten or twenty seconds she opens her eyes and tells people what her saxius has said. If people ask further questions, she closes her eyes again and talks to her saxius in her mind and again opens her eyes and tells people the answers. The conversation between the saxius, the gürten and the clients continues in this fashion. Dulamsüren describes the words of the saxius as coming to her mind ‘like letters appearing on a computer screen when we type’. In Mongol shamanism a similar kind of possession is called yavgan böölöx ‘to go into a trance without a mount’. It means to go into a trance without wearing a costume and the use of a drum, which is the shaman’s mount. Instead, shamans sometimes use the Jews’ harp (xuur) and metal mirror (toli) to talk to their spirits (ongod) in the same way as a gürten. We suggest that this type of spirit-medium relationship cannot be considered to be ‘possession’ or ‘trance’ in comparison to the deep trance achieved by shamans where mediums do not remember anything. Maybe the hand of the gürten can be considered to be possessed, but not the whole body or the mind. A gürten or shaman in possession is often conscious and communicating with people. We presume that this situation is not complete possession or trance.

We asked Dulamsüren whether any of her children or grandchildren would continue to communicate with her saxius. She answered that her saxius does not want any of them to be her successor. The transmission of the ability to gürten is different from shamanic inheritance which is passed down through family lineages. Instead, succession is decided by the saxius. The saxius chooses the next gürten, who may not necessarily be from the same linage. According to her, when gürtens die they do not come back to the family as a shamanic ancestoral spirit. They go to another world or are re-born on Earth. For example, Dulamsüren was told by her saxius that she is a reincarnation of a monk, and that another monk of the monastery, Baruuny Nandin Xüree had been the mediator gürten of her saxius.


Another type of prophet that receives prediction in trance, similar to the gürten and shaman, is the choijin. This is our third case of ecstatic prophecy. The choijin practice was prohibited during the Communist period, and now there are not many people who know about it. Nevertheless, before the Communist period and even during the early revolutionary period many district and province monasteries used to have their own choijin. In this part of the chapter, we continue to illustrate the difference between gürten and choijin by focusing on the position of the ‘state choijin’ (töriin choijin), Luvsankhaidav (1872-1918) (see Figure 12 in appendix), whose temple has become a museum in Ulaan Baatar.

According to Mongolian Buddhist specialists there are no choijin in Mongolia at present. However, many historical sources present rich material on choijin, as discussed in chapter two. For example, Montell (1934) describes a choijin using the term gurtum (gürten), among the Torgot Mongols in Inner Mongolia. As mentioned previously, sometimes the two terms (gürten and choijin) refer to the same thing. However, the following description of an oracle in trance is nothing like the one we explored in our discussion of Dulamsüren gürten.

…the gurtum entered the tent and began to wash his hands and face with milk-white liquid, which was poured out of a highly decorated teapot. The gurtum was slowly dressed in his outfit. Once dressed, he sat down on a prepared box with a high pile of cushions on top. Incense filled the inside of the tent and the chanting of prayers began again. Suddenly, the gurtum’s feet began to tremble and with this sign flags were placed in his belt and a very large helmet decorated with skulls was placed on his head. This was tied very tightly under his chin with khattaks [xadag, a ceremonial silk scarf] so that he could not move his chin at all. This is a safety precaution to ensure that, while in trance, he does not bite off his tongue or break his teeth. His whole body then began to tremble, his bloodshot eyes began moving wildly and turned out and in. He jumped up and down on his throne while out of his mouth poured a bloody froth. With a sword he lashed around wildly and looked like a dangerous demon. The lamas bang on their drums and cymbals throughout and recite Tibetan texts.

Now the moment is ready for the public to have the future told to them. One after the other they move towards the gurtum with khattaks [xadag, a ceremonial silk scarf] and ask questions concerning illness, travel plans, the outcome of business affairs etc, etc. The answers are given in an unknown language which one of the Gurtum’s assistants translates. When everyone has asked their questions and the trance is subsiding, the helmet is slowly removed and a peculiarly decorated black hat that is drawn down below the eyes is placed on his head. The gurtum then rushed out of the door and into the other tent that was decorated for the fire offering. There he performed a wild dance with huge prancing leaps and jumps and after some time fell down exhausted. After a little while a fire offering is performed in roughly the same way as described before.

[…] A lama once described the gurtum’s power in the following way: “He can extend or shrink his body, twist his limbs, bend and drag out iron weapons as he wishes. He knows everything, he can predict the future, he does not fear an enemy, however strong or powerful they may be. He can take away illnesses by placing his hands on people or with a single slash of his sword” (Montell 1934:192-196, trans. Rebecca Empson).

Compared to gürten Dulamsüren discussed in the previous section, this gürten appears to be completely different. According to the historical sources a choijin (gurtum) had an elaborate costume including a hat, garment and boots. Secondly, they had weapons such as swords, bows and arrows, (cf. Montell 1934: 192-196; Haslund 1992: 58; Myagmarsambuu 2005: 39). Thirdly, they were attached to monasteries. Fourthly, they performed at large public rituals and were possessed on particular days in the presence of other monks who recited Buddhist texts so that they could enter trance22 (cf. Montell 1934:192-196). Fifthly, when the choijin or gurtum was possessed he spoke in a strange language, sometimes he spoke through his mouth but at other times it has been noted that he spoke through his armpit and therefore had an interpreter called gombo lama (cf. Myagmarsambuu 2005: 37; Montell 1934:192-196). Sixthly, there was a monk on each side who supported the choijin when he collapsed (cf. Haslund 1992: 58, Myagmarsambuu 2005: 37). The choijin ritual is more complex than Dulamsüren gürten’s calling down of her guardian spirits. This is because the choijin is not possessed by the ‘messengers of the gods’. Rather, they are possessed by the gods themselves. In the example presented by Montell (1934), the god is held to be the god Dharmapala, or a fire god, depending on different perspectives.

‘The ordinary Etsingol Mongols understand that it is the fire god that possesses the gurtum’s body and speaks through his mouth. The orthodox Tibetan theologians hold that the god that possesses him is Dharmapala, that is one of the protectors of the lamaist faith’ (Montell 1934: 195-196, trans. Rebecca Empson).

Haslund (1992 [1935]) describes a similar ritual also using the term ‘gurtum’.23 According to this example it is an actual god who possesses the gurtum.

…the possessed gurtum was not a human being, but was a god himself incarnate in a chosen human body. No man could be responsible for the actions of a possessed gurtum, since during the ecstasy he was a god. A gurtum carried the god’s dangerous weapons, and it might happen that the god’s will was to make away with an objectionable person.

…Everyone regarded the two gurtums with reverence, for in their present condition they were not human lamas bearing the dress and symbolic weapons of Damchan. No, they were possessed by Damchan who had changed their appearance to his own and the deeds they performed and words they uttered were those of the god himself. … Damchan is one of the Tavan Khan, “the five kings” who have given a sacred and eternal promise to protect religion and who are the lords of all magicians and the wisest of all soothsayers (Haslund 1992 [1935]: 58, 59).

According to a Mongolian lecturer in the philosophy of religion at the institute of Buddhism, named Bulgan, there are two categories of choijin. The first consists of a choijin who is born with the ability (törölxiin). They are the reincarnations of previous choijin. The other kind consists of a choijin who has learnt his skill from teachers (oldmol). Bulgan makes a further distinction between a nomyn choijin (official) and a nomyn bus choijin (unofficial). The Nomyn choijin becomes a proper choijin by passing certain tests, learning different spells and undergoing religious teachings, they are usually recognized officially by higher religious authorities and reveal prophecies for society. On the other hand, nomyn bus choijin do not have any of these characteristics, they simply call themselves choijin, without official recognition. They practice at home and deal with the personal issues of individual clients. We suggest that this classification reflects the differences to be found between a choijin and a gürten, introduced in this chapter. For the purposes of description, let us call nomyn choijin ‘choijin’, and nomyn bus choijin ‘gürten’.

Like the other ecstatic practitioners discussed above, the choijin also predicts the future. Before the revolutionary period, Mongolians respected choijin and used to visit them when they needed to solve problems. People received spiritual treatments (arga zasal), were told what would happen in the future and what had to be done. The presence of the choijin was common, especially in cases of revolts and strikes against the state or in any other significant disasters or problems affecting the whole nation. People asked the choijin to hold ceremonies to defeat enemies, clear obstacles and predict the future (cf. Myagmarsambuu 2005: 54).

In the 1920s, just before the revolution in Mongolia, the People’s Revolutionary Party (Ardyn Nam) received information about a prophecy made by a choijin lama (Maygmarsambuu used this term to describe him), whose name was Gütembe.24 The prophecy made by his saxius declared that the state needed some help and it was time to help the state, referring to the need for a revolution. The party sent Dogsom, Galsan and Dendev to find out about the prophecy. They described Gütembe’s home as being full of religious implements and pictures of gods. In front of the images there were small offerings (takhil), sacrificial offerings shaped out of dough (balin) and incense and candles burning on the altar. On the left side of his house, there was a costume consisting of a mask, helmet and a metal mirror. An image of mandala (representation of the cosmos) and a butter lamp (zul) were placed in front of them on another smaller altar. On the two sides of the altar, there was a sword, bow, arrow and bayonet. To the right of the main altar there was a drum, and a cymbal was hanging from the wall of the house. Gütembe told them that the previous day his guardian spirits had suddenly possessed him and told him about the present situation of the state and society. He went into a trance to ask more. He lit the lamp and the incense and started to recite a text. After a short while, the skirts of his garment (deel) suddenly began to shake and he yawned and roared. He shook his head, his face was red, and red and white foam was dripping from his mouth. His assistant lama then poured a glass of vodka into his mouth and mopped his eyes with heart meat (zürxnii max). This returned him to normal. He said that he had asked his saxius about state affairs and the saxius had replied that a specific Buddhist text referred to as ‘Damdiny Dordog’ had to be recited for a week to clear the obstacles. Three days after this, they would see an improvement (cf. Myagmarsambuu 2005: 55-56). While the 1921 revolution was predicted by this choijin for the Communist revolutionaries, the monarch of Mongolia at the time also had a state choijin.

State oracle (töriin choijin)

In 1874 when, the eighth reincarnation of Bogd Jebtsundamba (Agvaanluvsan 1870–1924) was four years old, he came to Mongolia with his parents and brothers. He was Tibetan, born in Lhasa, the son of a senior civil servant in the administration of the Dalai Lama. He was the Holy King of the Mongolian state and head of religion from 1911 to 1921. His younger brother, Luvsanxaidav (1872-1918), was appointed as the ‘state oracle’ (töriin choijin). In 1883-1884, the Xamba Lama Baldanchoimbol, the religious leader of Xüree, capital of Mongolia, discussed with the Bogd Khan about training his brother Luvsanxaidav as a choijin to protect religion. In 1884, Mongolian religious leaders invited the choijin Setev from Tibet to lead the training. Luvsanxaidav learned to go into a trance and the three main gods that possessed him were Naichun Choijin, Zumer and Dorjsug. By the decree of the Bogd Khan he started performing a possession ritual twice a year; once on the eighth day of the first lunar month, and once on the twenty-eighth of the last. The rituals were held to strengthen the Mongolian religion and state, and to defeat enemies and demons (cf. Myagmarsambuu 2005: 65, 66, 67).

Image 9.

The State Oracle Luvsanxaidav

Photograph reproduced with kind permission by the Choijin Lama Temple Museum, Mongolia

Luvsanxaidav first began training in a Mongolian felt tent (ger). Later, when he became a choijin, he had two temples built for him. The first temple was built between 1898 and 1901 at East Xüree. It consisted of one main, and several small prayer halls, and some other small buildings and fences. Fifty of the Bogd’s disciples became students in the Choijin Temple (Choijingiin Süm), and they collected alms as taxation for the monarch. The temple was called ‘zanxan’ and had the title ‘The Palace that Defeats the Demons of the Black Direction’ (xar zügiin shulamsyn aimgiig daragch ord). In 1903, the temple, including the Choijin’s personal quarters, burnt down. Therefore, they started building a new temple in 1904, which was finished in 1908. This new temple later received the honorary title ‘Forgiveness-Promoting Temple’ (Örshööliig xögjüülegch süm) from the Emperor of the Qing Dynasty. The temple consisted of several different pavilions (see Figure 13 in appendix). The preserved body of Luvsanxaidav’s teacher, Yonzon Xamba Baldanchoimbol, was seated like an image of a god in a meditative position in the main prayer hall. Choijin Luvsanxaidav’s corpse was also preserved in the same way after his death and was kept in his house.25 This house burnt down in 1934 and the Choijin’s remains were destroyed. After this, his ashes were placed in an effigy that was placed in the main prayer hall. During the 1930s almost all of the temples in Mongolia were burnt down, but this temple survived. A rumour says that the temple was saved by the Communist leader Choibalsan and his wife, because they believed in the choijin Luvsanxaidav.

In 1916, Luvsanxaidav received the position of ‘State Oracle’ (Töriin Choijin), and the title of ‘Protector of Xalx Religion’ (Xalxyn Shashnyg Xamgaalagch).26 After his death in 1918, the temple continued to perform rituals, as usual, reciting texts until it closed in 1936. In 1941 it reopened as ‘The Choijin Lama Temple Museum’ (see Figure 13 in appendix). There are several theories about the circumstances of Luvsanxaidav’s death. For example, Myagmarsambuu (2005) claims that on the morning of the 28th March 1918, he suddenly blacked out and passed away (cf. Myagmarsambuu 2005: 67, 68). We were told, however, by the museum guide that he blacked out and died while he was in trance.27 The guide also mentioned another theory, according to which he died in his sleep when his home was destroyed by a fire. This explains why the museum does not have many of his costumes or instruments.

For the possession ritual, Luvsanxaidav used to light candles and close all the doors and curtains. State officials and religious leaders used to come to participate in the ritual and to pray and ask the saxius for protection. While in trance he issued prophecies from the gods to the participants. He became very powerful and demonstrated many magical feats, such as tying swords into knots, licking hot metal from a fire, issuing fire from his body, flying and so on. People who were wounded by his sword during the possession were considered to be very lucky. Because of his enormous power, his arms and legs would sometimes be tied to columns.

Now the temple is officially a museum, however, it is also an active religious temple. People come to pray and worship at the temple. All the gods and saxius inside are considered to be alive and, therefore, active. Lamas even come from Tibet and India to worship and read prayers in the temple. People believe that a god called ‘Yadam’ who resides at the temple helps them to find their pre-destined spouse and that the god ‘Zanxan’ brings success in work and life, as well as in money. When the government started privatizing property, some lamas wanted to privatize the temple museum and re-open it as a choijin temple. One of the motivations to re-open the museum as an active temple is the revival of the highly esteemed position of ‘state choijin’.28 In this sense, the choijin and his temple are a good example of a prophet who existed in a highly centralised powerful position with regards to the state.


Given the diverse sources of prophecy and the different ways of distributing its messages, we turn now to focus on belief in prophecy. The question of belief varies according to different historical periods. One of the ways in which we can gauge whether people believe in prophecy is to note if people’s actions have been influenced by prophetic predictions. For example, as discussed in chapter two, in the Secret History of the Mongols, Chinggis Khan is reported to have believed in the prophecy of the shaman Teb Tenger. After hearing his prediction, he arrested his brother Qasar. If a similar kind of prophecy were to be issued in contemporary Mongolia, it is doubtful that people would react in a similar way. For example, the former president of the country, Mr Ochirbat, mentioned to us that if someone issues a prophecy concerning an impeding plane crash then he could not do anything to stop it.29 People would not cancel their flight due to the prophet’s prediction. If people did cancel their flight, they would not find out if the prophecy were true or not. Therefore, as the prophet Dashtseren mentioned,30 prophecy is something that people believe in after the predicted event has come true. Apart from the type of prophecies that can be acted upon, there are other types of prophecies which simply state that things will happen and nothing can be done to prevent them (see, for example, the prophecies of Molon Bagsh in chapter five).

In contemporary Mongolia, people do not always take prophecies at face value. There are certain circumstances when people believe in prophecies and reveal to others that they do believe in them. In present day Mongolia people can be said to have two major ways of thinking, which could be seen to contradict each other. The first way of thinking is based on modern, scientific rationality. The second way of thinking is based on traditional and spiritual reasoning. Before the 1990s, the scientific mode of reasoning dominated Mongolian society. After the advent of democracy, however, both ways of thinking have become popular. Modern scientific reasoning has started to refer more to Western concepts, such as ideas about globalization and democracy. Alongside this, however, traditional and spiritual practices have also re-emerged throughout the country. The two ways of thinking can be seen to govern different parts, or aspects, of society. Nevertheless, distinctions between ‘globalized’ and ‘traditional’ ways of thinking are not always distinct. For example, belief in prophecy is not only thought to be a ‘traditional’ way of thinking in Mongolia. Many people, who consider themselves followers of modern scientific reasoning, also draw on prophetic knowledge. For example, the prophecies of the Bulgarian prophetess Gushterova Vangalia, and Nostradamus (Michel de Nostredame 1503-1566) are both well known and wide-spread across Mongolia.

Using the popular Mongolian distinction between ‘traditional-spiritual’ (ylamjlalt yxaan / shutleg bishrel) and ‘modern-rational’ (shinjlex yxaan) thinking, we can identify two general groups of people in Mongolia. One group of people do not believe in prophecies, regardless of where the prophecies come from. The other group is made up of people who do. However, its should be noted that this classification describes not only two groups of people, but also highlights two types of reasoning which may coexist in a single person. Recourse to globalized and scientific rationality is often something that people commit to publicly. The other type of reasoning is often considered to be something that comes to the fore in private. So what, one might ask, do people think about public state sacrifices and communal acts of ritual worship? The answer we give is that these are mostly symbolic acts.31 One does not need to believe in the real existence of ‘spirits’ in order to take part in and revive public rituals. In public, people hesitate to answer the question whether they believe in prophecies or not. However, in private, among family members or in their local areas, people reveal their belief in spiritual, religious and prophetic reasoning. It is important to note here that the two kinds of reasoning cause many people not to act in accordance with what they really think. More precisely, many people who believe in spiritual and prophetic knowledge cannot admit this in public, especially if they are public figures. People do not officially announce their beliefs in public in order not to be seen as abnormal by people who do not believe in prophecies. For example, when the shaman Tseren and his family received the command from Chinggis Khan, they did not do anything until the warrior Muxulai came and checked if they had issued the predictions. They did not act immediately, not because they did not believe, but because they knew that many others would not believe in them and they were hesitant as to how to proceed. For the shaman, it was safer to send the letter to us, where it has remained. We could have delivered the prophecy to President Ochirbat and he might have acted upon the prophetic information, as we know that he supported his own seer. But he could not have made this public. When his support for the seer was made public, his reputation was put into question. On the other hand, publicly declaring that one does not believe in these kind of knowledge presents a similar kind of danger. Therefore, the best option is to suspend ones belief and attribute these beliefs to others. The conclusion, therefore, is that many people do believe in prophecies and many others do not, and the way in which a prophecy is transmitted and delivered to others depends on who believes in whom and what. People confess their belief or disbelief in private, even if many of the matters raised in the prophecies that have been presented in this chapter actually have the potential to speak to issues that concern the public at large.


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1 In Time, Causality and Prophecy in the Mongolian Cultural Region, ed. Rebecca Empson. Inner Asia Series, Cambridge: Globe Oriental, 2006.

2 Gandan Monastery is the main centre of Buddhist authority in Mongolia. It is based in Ulaan Baatar.

3 Although, some monks at Gandan Monastery in Ulaan Baatar hold public lectures concerning how one should interpret previously known prophecies.

4 Pers. comm. S. Dulam (Professor of Mongol studies).

5 He passed away in late summer 2005. We have heard that his body will be embalmed in his shaman temple.

6 B. Dulam and S. Dulam were invited to participate at the symposium of the International Society for Shamanistic Research (ISSR) in Ulan-Ude, in Russian Buryatia.

7 Shamans in Mongolia routinely worship their ancestral spirits three times a month, on the 9th, 19th and 29th of each month of the Lunar calendar. Darxad shamans, from the north, call this worship ongodyn tailga (sacrifice for the spirits), while Buryat shamans from the east call this worship yösöngöö xiix (to do the ninth).

8 Folk teachings and wisdoms, such as the Oyun Tülhüür (Key of Mind) and Chinggisiin Bilig (Wisdom of Chinggis), teach people traditional political ideology and what is right and what is wrong in a poetic form.

9 This is a ritual consisting of burning food to feed spirits. For further information see S. Dulam and B. Dulam (1999).

10 This is similar to what other spirits (ongod) do when they possess a shaman. Spirits greet people in the ceremony, introduce themselves, drink vodka, tea and milk and smoke a cigarette, talk about their previous human lives, give advice on how life should be led on earth, and finally say farewell. For further information, see Bumochir Dulam (2002).

11 Ochirvaani is one of the wrathful deities of Buddhism.

12 Pers. comm. Dr. Hürelbaatar and Dr. Erdenebayar.

13 In Mongolia there are two main categories of shamans. One category is referred to as ‘black’ (xar). This usually refers to the Darxad shamans of Northern Mongolia who do not worship any Buddhist gods. The other category is ‘yellow’ (shar), the colour of Buddhism, referring mostly to Buryat shamans in the East of Mongolia, who do worship Buddhist gods.

14 At the time, it was difficult to pass this information to the public, especially just after the President, Mr. Ochirbat’s reputation had been compromised, in the eyes of some people, by his support for the seer, Dashtseren.

15 The term is spelled in different ways in the Mongolian cultural region, such as: gurtum, gürtüm, gurten and ghurtam (see chapter one). I will use the above version, following contemporary Mongolian usage.

16 Dulamsüren was born in 1938 in Bayanbulag district (sum) of Bayanxongor province (aimag) in central Mongolia. Her father, Norov, was a monk from Xovd province. He married her mother Tsend-Ayush and they moved together to Bayanbulag district.

17 He was a reincarnation of Lama Lash.

18 Buddhist practitioners are called ‘yellow’ (shar) people in Mongolia, referring to the Gelug-pa sects of Buddhism. In contrast, laypeople and state officials are called ‘black’ (xar) people, and the term ‘to become black’ means to stop being a monk.

19 Here the term ‘saxius’ refers to the object or figure representing a spirit, such as the plinth and ochir of Dulamsüren.

20 The literal meaning of the word saxius is ‘guardian spirit’. However, in some contexts, especially for choijin, saxius is ‘god’ rather than ‘guardian spirit’.

21 I (Bumochir Dulam) met a Tibetan gürten in Lhasa, in the summer 2004. Her name is Tseyan. She is ‘xor’, that is, a Tibetan Mongol and a descedent of Chinggis Khan’s armies. When we visited a reincarnated lama together, as soon as we entered his room she began to shake, especially in her right hand, which was raised like when a gürten goes into trance. I remember that she was not holding anything in her hand, only her rosary which she always carries.

22 A 96 year-old lama in Mongolia called Sereeter, told us about the same ritual. He was a lama at Ix Xüree (Gandan Monastery) and saw an actual possession ritual of a choijin. He recalled: ‘When a chojin is possessed by a saxius it is because a lama is sitting next to him reading a special book, when a shaman becomes possessed he can have the saxius enter him by himself’ (Ulaan Baatar, May 2003).

23 An extract from Haslund’s description (1992 [1935]) includes: ‘And the Mystery came. A pair of grotesque apparitions rushed out of the temple closely surrounded by the red-robbed lamas. On their heads were shining helmets and from their backs fluttered long, many-coloured streamers. In their hands they held bows, arrows, swords and other weapons. Their faces expressed complete madness. Their eyes bulged, bloodshot and staring, their cheeks were swollen and livid, and white froth foamed from their slack drooping mouths. The creatures reeled as if drunk. From time to time they crumpled up and would have fallen to the ground had not the attendant lamas held them upright. The air was rent by hideous roaring, and with the strength and agility of wild beasts the two possessed creatures rushed with drawn swords towards some imaginary prey in the fleeing panic-stricken crowd. Countless people were wounded and red blood flowed’ (Haslund 1992 [1935]: 58).

24 We suspect that Gütembe was not his real name; instead it may have been his gürten title.

25 An English language newspaper in Mongolia, The UB Post, recently published an interview with the Mongolian lama G. Pürevbat about the practice of embalmment concerning Luvsanxaidav. The article reports:

[Journalist:] The embalmed mummy of Luvsankhaidav, the brother of Bogd Jebtsundamba, is in the Choijin Lama Temple. What can you tell us about this embalmment?

[Pürevbat:] The great writer B. Rinchen said that it is the embalmed mummy of Luvsankhaidav but I heard that it is just paper …We have not studied it. The legs of the body are different from the Mongolian tradition; its legs are hanging down from the body but [a mummy is usually] made to sit crossed-legged. Most embalmed mummies in Mongolia were destroyed at the time of political persecution around 1937, including the mummies of the seventh and eighth Bogds that were in Gandan Monastery (The UB Post, Self-embalmment in the Buddhist faith, 10th August 2005, www.ubpost.mongolnews.mn/culture, as accessed in December 2005).

26 Xalx Mongols are the largest ethnic group in Mongolia.

27 Ch. Jargal, a researcher and guide at the Choijin Lama Temple Museum.

28 For reasons of privacy, we have not revealed the name of the lama who became a choijin and started his own temple.

29 Interview conducted by Bumochir Dulam in June 2003, in Ulaan Baatar.

30 Interview conducted by Bumochir Dulam in June 2003, in Ulaan Baatar.

31 For further information concerning communal acts of ritual worship, see S. Dulam (2004).

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