Saturday, 23 December 2006

Cruelty, The Choijin Lama Temple

Saturday 23rd December
Yesterday evening my former helper Puru got a severe dressing-down in front of me by her mother, for neglecting her duties cleaning the halls etc by taking time to tidy my apartment. Her mother (or grandmother or aunt - I don't know which) drove home one point by slapping the poor girl backhanded across the mouth. It was a sorry scene. I felt particularly useless and stupid as of course I could contribute nothing except protests in English. I had had a cleaner start working for me earlier in the day: I may see if she can speak to the vicious woman for me to clarify matters. Meanwhile, the incident did at least spur me to make a phonecall to the Christina Noble Children's Foundation - who work with street kids in Ulaanbaatar, please visit the link on the right where you can sponsor a child from $24 per month - to see about doing some voluntary work out here whilst I'm getting paid an extremely comfortable salary teaching the spoilt offspring of the city's wealthy.

Today the sun was glorious and in the direct sunlight, felt almost warm. I walked down to the Choijin Lama Temple. Traditionally, Mongolia’s Buddhist temples were mobile structures, to move with the mobile population. From the end of the 19th Century more permanent structures of wood and brick were built. During the 1930s however, the majority were destroyed by the communists. Of the few surviving temples, according to my Bradt guide to Mongolia, Choijin Lama, built around 1905, is one of the finest.

The temple compound is close to the centre of Ulaanbaatar. It is surrounded by half built concrete towers and cranes, but faces south where the mountains loom blue and impressive. The curling roofs and their carved and painted eaves are dimmed and coated by the city’s dust. The Choijin Lama Temple is a museum now: June to September traditional Mongolian ‘Tsam’ masked dances are held here: on this fine sunny December afternoon I was the only visitor.

A guide opened each of the different temples for me and did her best not to show impatience as I slowly strolled around the chilly interiors. The main temple building has dozens of glass cases containing the elaborate and monstrous Tsam costumes. The daddy of the lot is this here costume, which I believe is Jamsran. The mask is made of coral, and weighs thirty kilos. That’s more than three full-size bluegrass banjos! The total weight of the costume is 70kgs. The sign on the case notes that the costume is worn by particularly strong and healthy young men.

There are many fine brass and gilted buddhas and the like. I was particularly interested in two paintings one of the ‘cold hells’ and one of the ‘hot hells’: many amusing little Bosch-like details (a flaming elephant walking on sinners; demons using naked men as pack animals; naked warriors chopping each other to pieces: all the damned wearing dolorous and pained expressions, as you might expect).

A frequent motif in the temples is that the ceilings are often decorated in what I guess is Genghis-fashion: with rows of the carcasses of enemies hanging down from broken knees. I first noticed these painted on the ceiling in one temple and so was pleased to see silk, stitched corpses tied together with pink silken entrails around what I take to have been the throne of the chief priest of the complex.

Most tantalising stop on the tour was The Temple of Yadam: forbidden to the public when the Temple was operating as intended - home of secret Tantric rites. After the gruesome silk work mentioned above, I had hoped for something outrageous and carnal in the decor, and so was a bit disappointed. Finally, paid my respects to the Mongolian deity of Banjo-playing, a cheery-faced little chap, who has his home, most appropriately, in the Temple of Peacefulness.