Religion in Mongolia


The most popular religion Mongolia is Buddhism so, according to the national census of 2010, 53% of the Mongolians identify as Buddhists, 38.6% as not religious, 3% as Muslims (predominantly of Kazak ethnicity), 2.9% as followers of the Mongol shamanic tradition, 2.2% as Christians and 0.4% as followers of other religions.  Other sources estimate that a significantly higher proportion of the population follows the Mongol ethnic religion (18.6%).


In 1578, the Tibetan monk Sonam Gyatso, recognized as a reincarnation of Khubilai, received the title Dalai Lama by the Mongol Altan Khan.  This was the date of the recon version of Mongolia to Tibetan Buddhism.  Mongolia used to be the second, after Tibet, stronghold of Buddhist religion.  In the turn of 20th century each and every family was obliged to send on of their children to a monastery to become a monk.  By the beginning of the 20th century, Mongolia had 780 monasteries and temple complexes and Buddhism has penetrated deeply into Mongolian culture.  In 1930, the power of the Buddhism temple had to face to the Soviet Party in a political struggle.  The monasteries were closed and the Buddhism temple removed from public administration.  In 1970, the Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar was opened with 100 monks it was the only one functioning monastery in the country.  Erdene Zuu, which has been a museum since 1941, has been re-opened to service since 1991.  Other monasteries serve as museums and tourist attractions.  Nowadays Mongolia offers foreign visitors a glimpse into Tibetan Buddhism that can hardly be observed elsewhere.  Under this new freedom of belief, other religions flocked in, including more than 40, mostly Christian churches and cults.  Another popular religion is Islam, practiced by a 60000 strong Kazakh minority in Bayan Ulgii province.  

Religion in Mongolia | BuddhismIn 1220 Chinggis Khaan decided to move his capital from the Onon Valley in Khentii to Kharkhorin, 373km south-west of modern Ulaanbaatar.  Building only began after Chinggis death by his son Ogodei Khaan.  The second great khan, Ogodei made it the real capital of the Mongolian Empire.  The fourth great khan, Monke, entednded the city and European travelers recorded the city in the world history in 1246 as “Khara Khorin”.  Kharakhorin served as the political, cultural and economic capital of the Mongols for only 40 years, before Khublai Khaan moved it to Khanbalik, in what is now Beijing.  Following the move to Beijing, and the subsequent collapse of the Mongolian empire, Kharakhorin was abandoned and the destroyed by vengeful Manchurian soldiers in 1388.  Whatever was left of Kharakhorin was used to help build Erdene Zuu Khiid in the 16th century, which itself was badly damaged during the Stalinist purges.

Erdene Zuu is the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia.  It was built at the initiative of the most influential Khalkha lord Abtai Khan, in 1586 on the spot where Kharakhorin, the famous capital of the Mongolia Empire of the 18th century was.  A considerable portion of the building work of the temples, fortress and stupas were created under the direction of the Mongolian artisan Manzushir and many Mongolian craftsmen participated in erecting this architectural ensemble.  The architectural style of the temples combines the style of ancient Mongolian, Tibetan and Chinese architecture.  Most noteworthy is that not a single nail was used in the building.  The territory of the monastery occupies an area of 400 square meters and is surrounded by a stone wall with 108 stupas.  These stupas were erected either in honor of a prominent historical event, or as the grave of a state or religious figure.  Almost ten thousand lamas lived within the fortress, which contained more than 60chapels of various sizes. Erdenezuu is said to have had 108 Tsam dancers and religious rites were arranged annually in different parts of the monastery.

The Mongolians, Chinese, Arab and Tibetan scripts of the 13th and 14th centuries have been preserved to the present in some of the temples.  The chapel built in honor of the Tusheet Khan Chahundorj’s visit to Dalai Lama in 1675 is also situated here.

Furthermore there is brick fortress wall with two graves, of Abtai Khan who died in 1587, and his son Tusheet Khan Gombodorj.  The tomb of Gombodorj’s wife is placedoutside of the fortress in the so called “female sector” of the monastery, on the north eastern side.  Three main temples, “Three Zuu” the western temple of which was built by Abtai Khan and his son Gombodorj, stand in most sacred western side.  Three statues of 8 idols are placed in the temple, the one on the left side depicting Sanjaa who, according to the religious mythology, was the first disseminator of religion before Buddha, the one on the right being Jamba( The Holy Maitreya), disseminator of Buddhism after Buddha, and the one in the centre is Buddha in his old age.

The main Central Zuu was built by the missionary Tsogt at the Zungen Lord’s ruling.  An idol can be seen on either side of the entrance of the main shrine of Erdene Zuu, the idol Lham to the left and the idol Gombogur to the right.

Three big idol statues are placed along the northern wall.  On the left of the God of medicine Otoch Manal, on the right is Holy Abida, and the centre the Buddha in his youth.  Statues of 8 idols are also placed in the temple.  These are the Buddha’s disciples, the God of the Moon, 8 Sages and others.  A special pedestal displays dozens of guilded statues of idols (chased and molded) the works of Under Gegen Zanabazar, a master sculptor and artist.  The walls of the temple are adorned with beautiful works of appliqué depicting the forest, mountains and caves where the gods pursued their hermitic existence.  These pictures are called the land of the Thousand Buddha of Golden Time, who has descended from heaven to earth.  The eastern temple of  Zuu was built by Erhi Mergen Khan’s wife and the Bogdo Lama’s mother.  There are three big statues displayed in the temple, on the left is the Bogda Lama himself, on the right is the idol Janraiseg, and the center is the image of the Buddha in his teenage years.  The model of the eastern Zuu Temple made of brown sandalwood is placed on a central pedestal.

The main stupa which is called the Golden Prayer Stupa stands in the northern sector.  The three-circled palace of Lavran restored in 1969-1973 is located nearby and is the only monument in Mongolia of pure Tibetan style.  The central square of the monastery, 45 meters in diameter, is paved with flagstones and is named the Square of Happiness and Prosperity.  Legend says that the ger (yurta) of Abtai Khan stood here, a big ger (yurta) od Benediction erected in 1658, in which the annual assemblies of the Mongolian lords were usually held.  A grass-covered hollow has been left at the place near the square where there was once a pond.  The Erdene Zuu monastery preserves the marvelous works of the Mongolian artisans, painters, cutters, sculptors, embroideries and craftsmen of the 17th century.

Erdene Zuu monastery was severely damaged at the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th centuries at the time of the struggle of the Mongolians against the Manchu invaders.  It was restored several times, in 1760-1796 and in 1808-1814.


Amarbayasgalant is one of the most well known and largest monasteries of Mongolia, is located in the beautiful Iven Gol River valley on the foot of Burenkhan Mountain in Baruunburen som of Selenge province. Visitors especially enjoy the magnificent art and architectural construction.

Since then the monastery of the Undur Geghen was a great source of Dharma teaching and accomplishment with over six thousand novices and ordained monks who followed the rules of Lord Buddha`s Vinaya, combining the Three Basket in full harmony with the Three Higher Trainings.
The beauty, decorations and construction of the monastery have made it one of the most magnificent architectural monuments not only in Mongolia, but in the whole Asia.

The monastery was established by order of Manju emperor Enkh- Amgalan Khan, to cherish and give respect to the Undur Geghen Zanabazar, his skills, wisdom, intellect and accomplishments.
One hundred thousands langs (=3730 kg) of silver from the state fund were used to build a magnificently styled place for Buddha teaching and practice in honor of Zanabazar. After searching for a suitable place, the construction works of the monastery called “ Amarbayasgalant ‘’, a palace for God `s meditation , began in 1726, and was completed in 1736. Out of deep respect the monastery was then offered to the Undur Geghen.


In 1937-38 a fearsome repression covered Amarbayasgalant Monastery and all the highly trained knowledgeable monks were executed. Also huge numbers of rare religious relics, books, sutras, thangkas and Buddhas which had been collected for 200 years, were destroyed completely. This is how the holy temple of Amarbayasgalant became mere ruins and it was abandoned for 50 years.


1990 was the time when the circumstances came for Amarbayasgalant to be restored. Communism had fallen and the people were eager to revive their religious tradition. Under Geghen’s monastery Amarbayasgalant was reestablished and nowadays stands strong on it’s remarkable construction, as on it’s 300 year history.

Today about sixty novices and ordained monks, who followed precisely the rule of Vinaya, are in residence and practicing Dharma to create great benefit for all sentient beings. One of the Buddhist traditions, that is revived since the reopening, is the Tsam Dancing ceremony which was held in September 13-15, 2002, after being interrupted for 65 years.

Gandan monastery

The Gandantegchinlen Khiid or Monastery is the largest and most important monastery in Mongolia.  Its name means “the great place of complete joy”.  The building of this monastery was started in 1838 by the fourth Bogd Khaan.  When the revolution of 1921 brought the communists to power all religious worship and ceremonies in Mongolia remained outlawed till 1990 except at the Gandan monastery, which was kept as showcase to impress foreigners.  It contains one of the biggest standing Buddha in Asia (26 m high).  The first temple of Gandantegchinleng Monastery was established in 1835 by Fifth Jebtsundamba, the highest reincarnated lama of Mongolia.  In the following years temples for daily service, veneration of Avalokiteshvara and colleges of Buddhist philosophy, medicine, astrology and tantric ritual were established.  In the beginning of the 20th century Gandantegchinleng Monastery was the center of Buddhist learning in Mongolia.  Many prominent Buddhist scholars in Mongolia as wellas in Buddhist world were educated and trained by its various colleges and their works on Buddhist philosophy, linguistics, medicine, astrology and tantric practice became the most authoritative and accurate Buddhist texts.  During 30s the socialist government adopted a policy of banning all religious activities in Mongolia.  As a consequence all monasteries were closed and monks were executed, jailed and disrobed all over Mongolia.  In 1938, Gandtegchingleng Monastery was closed, but reopened in 1944 as the only functioning monastery during the socialist regime.  After the democratic change took place in 1990 Buddhism regained its full right of worship.  Gandantegchinleng Monastery has, as being the Center of Mongolian Buddhists, been striving to propagate peaceful teaching of Lord Buddha among family and society.  In the whole country 140 monasteries and temples have been re-established and many sacred statues were reconstructed so far.

Migjid Janraisig

Migjid Janraisag temple is a main attraction.  Lining the walls of the temple are hundreds of Ayush, the Buddha of longevity, which stare through the gloom to the magnificent Migjid Janraisig statue.  A 20 m gold and bronze statue of Janraisig, built by Bogd Khaan in 1911 once stood in the main temple at Gandan Khiid.  The magnificent statue was removed by the communists in 1937 and taken to Leningrad (St Petersburg).  Its fate is still unknown; one theory is that it is still hidden in storage and another that it was melted down to make bullets.  In October 1996, after nearly five year of work, a new statue called Migjid Janraisig (which means “The Lord of Who Looks in Every Direction) was consecrated by the Dalai Lama.  The 26,5m-high, 20-ton statue is made from copper, gilded with gold donated from Nepal and Japan, and covered in gold brocade and over 500m of silk.  The statue contains precious stones, 27 tones of medicinal herbs, 334 sutras, two million bundles of mantras, and in the base, and entire ger, plus furniture.

Important Figures of Tibetan Buddhism

Buddha Shakamuni (Siddhartha Gautama)

Buddha Shakyamuni was born about 624BC.  He left his home in search for truths and meditated for six years and finally under bodhi tree in Vajrasana he achieved Buddhahood.  He lived 81 years.

Ochirdari (Vajradhare)

Dorjchan:  Means the one who holds vajra.  The Buddha in this form helps those aspiring to achieve Buddhahood by conferring upon them initiations and blessing, thus putting them on the tantric path.  This Buddha is an embodiment of all tantric Buddha.  As any tantric Zanabazar hold Vajradhara as his main Buddha of veneration.

Avid (Amitabha) of Immeasurable Lights

There is a statue of deity Avid on the right had of Shakaymuni.  He cures or eradicates mental affliction of attachment.

Buddha Maitreya ( Maidar)

Buddha Maitreya is Buddha that will come in the future.

Tara – The Saiour (Dari Ekh)

Tara has 21 different manifestations.  She symbolizes purity and fertility and is believed to be able to fulfill wishes.  Tare was born from a tear of compassion that fell from Chengresig’s eyes.  Statue of Tara usually represent Green Tara (Nogoon Dari Ekh), who is associated with night, or white Tara (Tsagaan Dari Ekh) who associated with day.  White Tara is the female companion of Janraisig, holds a lotus bud in her left hand and has eyes of wisdom in the palms of her hands and soles of her feet.

Green Tara (Nogoon Dari Ekh)

They are worshipped to decrease of negative karmas and increase of life span and positive karmas.

Medicine Deity ( Otoch Manal)

The worship of medicine Deity started to spread in Mongolia in the 17th century.  Mongolians have worshipped Medicine Deity symbolizing to get rid off illnesses.

Manjushri (Gentle Melodious)

The Manjushre is well know among the Mongols as Deity of wisdom.

Gobbogur Dharma Protector

In Mongolia, each monastery has its own main idol.  Deity Gombogur is the main idol and protector of Erdene – Zuu monastery.  One image of 75 Mahakalas and main function of the Deity is to quard the religious laws.

Palden Lhamo ( Banda Lham)

An angry manifestation of Tara

Begze ( Jamsaran)

The protector deity of Mongolia

Yamantaka (Yamandag)

A wrathful form of Manjushri.  Know as congueror of Yamagod of death. (Choijil).  Yamantaka has the head of buffalo, 16legs and 34 arms.

Amitayus (Ayush) – Buddha of Longevity

This Buddha is often red and holds a vase in his hands.

Four Guardian Kings

Comprised of Virupaksa ( red, holding a snake), Dhitarastra ( white, holding a lute), Virudhaka ( blue, holding a sword), and Vaishrovana (yellow, sitting on a snow lion).

Buddhist symbols

On the offering table in from Buddha’s, there are offering like eight auspicious symbols, seven royal precious treasures, light offering bowls and coral mandala.

The eight auspicious symbols ( Naiman takhil)

The eight auspicious symbols are associated with gifts made to Sakyamuni Buddha upon his enlightenment and appear as protective motifs and good luck charms.

Precious Parasol (Shukher): Placed over Buddha images as protection against evil influences; it is a common Buddhist motif.

Banner of Victory (Dartsag):  Heralds the triumph of Buddist wisdom over ignorance.

White Conch Shell (Dun):  Blown in celebration of Sakyamunis’ enlightenment.

Two Golden Fishes (Zagas):  Shown leaping from the waters of their captivity: thus they represent liberation from the Wheel of Life.  They are sometimes depicted as complementary forces of yin and yang.

Vase of Great Treasures ( Rashaantai Bumba):  A repository of the jewels of enlightenment.

Knot of Eternity ( Olzii Khee): A commonly seen Tibetan motif, representing the entwined, never ending passage of harmony and love.

Eight-Spoked Golden Wheel (Khorol):  Represents the Noble Eightfold Path, and is also referred to as the Wheel of Dharma.

Lotus Flower ( Badamlinhua):  Represents Sayamunis’ purity and compassion, and symbolizes the blossoming of good deeds.

Om Mani Padme Hum:  It’s the most common mantra carved on prayer wheels and ovoo.  Its six syllables mean “Hell to the Jewel in the Lotus” and form the mantra of Janraisig, the bodhisattava compassion.


The national symbol of Mongolia, dating back to at least the 14th century is the soyombo, signifying freedom and independence.  It’s found on the covers of Mongolian passport and on the national flag.  Legend attributes its creation to Zanabazar, the living Buddha.  Explanation of its complicated symbolism have changed and become lost over time.  From to bottom, the shapes are most likely to represent the following:  the three tongued flame symbolizes the past, present and future prosperity of the country;  the sun and moon are what they seem, but can also represent the father and mother of the nation; then inverted triangles are arrowheads indicating victory; the two small horizontal rectangles symbolize honesty and integrity; the interlocking symbols in the middle represent fire, water, earth, and sky, or alternatively the duality of yin and yang; and the two large vertical rectangles stand for friendship.


One the most ubiquitous ceremonial objects used in Mongolia is the khadag, a silk scarf used as symbol of respect.  Mongolians offer khadas on important occasions to elders, lamas (teachers), or distinguished people, often along with a bowl of milk, or possibly a gift.  The presentation of the khadag conveys the deepest consideration for the person to whom it is being offered.  When being presented the khadag is folded lengthwise and offered with the open edge facing to recipient.  The person offering the khadag will generally bow or kneel with repect the recipient takes the khadag in both hands then gently folds it and sets it aside.  There are special ritual words pronounced when giving khadags on different occasions, generally wishing for good health, long life, and the like.  Khadags can also be put in sacred places as symbol of respect of sacred object or monument.  For example,   khadags can be seen tied to branches of and ovoo (sacred cairn) or around the trunk of a sacred tree, or placed in the hands of icons in temples.  Often families will keep a khadag at the rear of the ger along with their sacred objects.  There are many kinds of khadag having different lengths and decorated with different words or patterns and symbols, designed for use in different rituals.  Most khadags used in Mongolia are blue, symbolizing the eternity of the blue sky.  The khadag has five different colors and each color represents a different blessing (e.g health, wealth, peace or a happy life). 

  • The blue khadag symbolizes the sky and peace
  • Then green khadag symbolizes good wishes
  • The red khadag symbolizes fire and the power of the state
  • The white khadag symbolizes the purity of the mothers’ milk, generosity and good luck
  • The black khadag symbolizes war
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