Alkhanai: natural temple of northern Buddhism
Alkhanai is one of the few places in Russia where unique natural and sacred objects are harmoniously combined. A system of natural cult monuments of the Buddhist religion has historically developed here, rightfully being a treasury of the material and spiritual culture of the Buryat people.
The Alkhanai mountain range, located in the south of the Trans-Baikal Territory, is an ancient Jurassic volcano over 150 million years old.
Since ancient times, long before the penetration of Buddhism into Transbaikalia, Alkhanai was considered by the indigenous inhabitants of the region to be the habitat of great and formidable spirits – the owners of mountains, rivers, majestic rocks, gorges, waterfalls, healing springs. It was revered as a sacred place that has the miraculous property of healing people from various ailments and charging them with positive energy. Alkhanai is not only a unique natural site, but also a historical and religious center, one of the five sacred places of northern Buddhism. To preserve this unique object, a national park of the same name was formed in 1999.
Buddhism penetrated into Transbaikalia relatively recently, at the end of the 18th century, and before that, local residents – the Buryats – practiced shamanism. Black shamanism dealt with spirits of earthly origin, while white shamanism dealt with sky deities. Subsequently, white shamanism was assimilated by Buddhism in its Tibetan-Mongolian version – Lamaism. In the area of Mount Alkhanai, especially on its southern spurs, there are many sacred places, the history of which goes far back to the pre-Buddhist period. Almost all places of worship, as a rule, are tied to remnants, natural caves, grottoes, karst arches and crevices. In some places there are sacred writings made on stones.
The Tibetan name for Alkhanai is Lhunshin Tara. This is the only holy place of Buddhism in Russia, where the Sogshid Khural and sacrifices to thousands of heavenly gods are held. In 1991 His Holiness the Dalai Lama XIV visited Alkhanay. A memorial stupa (suburgan) was erected at the place where he first set foot on the Alkhanai land.
The sacred complex of natural shrines of Alkhanai constitutes a single religious world – Demchogei-oron, or the World of the Great Good. The central place of Alkhanai in terms of sacred significance is occupied by the Temple of the Gate rock and the crevice of the Sinners’ Gap, the grotto of the Mother’s Womb, the remnants of the Diamond Princess, the Heavenly Musician, the Heavenly Fairy of Wisdom, the Temple of the Lamp (or the Eternal Lamp), the Temple of the owner Alkhanai Dimchig, compactly located around it.
Temple of Dimchig
The rocky outlier with a natural grotto is located on the western slope of the Arshan river valley at an altitude of 1200 m above sea level. The grotto is a hemispherical depression in the rock with a diameter of about 7 m. In the upper part of the vault there are vertical cracks, from where drops of water, which is considered healing, flow down. In the Temple of Dimchiga, they pray and make offerings in the form of grains of rice, coins, cigarettes, pieces of matter are tied to the branches of trees with requests to bestow health, wealth and well-being.
Dimchig (in Tibetan – Demchog), or the Great Good, is the most important tantric deity of Buddhism, supposedly living on Mount Kailash, next to the mythical center of the Universe – Mount Sumber. Dimchig is one of the five main buddhas, the embodiment of Samvara. Believers begin their pilgrimage to Alkhanay with a visit to the natural Temple of Dimchig (Dimchig-sume).
This is a massive rock, in the cavity of which, as a result of weathering, a through arch about 8 m wide and about 6 m high was formed. A cornice up to 10 m high hangs over the arch. The rock rises on the left bank of the Ubzhogoe River.
According to legend, Uuden-sume (Buryat. Uuden – “opening, door, gate, entrance”, sume – “temple, chamber”) is the gate through which people enter the world of the deity Dimchig. According to the custom of the Buryats, a person, before entering them, must put his thoughts, clothes and body in order. This is one of the most revered and visited places in Alkhanai: every year numerous pilgrims and tourists come here to bow and lay gifts. The cult of the Temple Gate was formed in pre-Buddhist times.
Under the vault of the arch in 1864, believers built a sacred Buddhist stupa – suburgan. After being destroyed in 1930, it was rebuilt in 1956. Every year on June 29, a big prayer service is held here – the Khural in honor of Dimchig, the owner of Alkhanai. It is believed that on this day he is invisibly present here.
People climb to the Gate Temple along stone paths, which are lined with rather high stone borders on both sides. Each stone raised and laid on top of the curb during the ascent and descent represents a prayer read by a pilgrim. Especially many stones were laid during the terrible years of the Civil and Great Patriotic Wars. On smooth stone walls, if you look closely, you can see ancient rock inscriptions. Guarding the rock Temple Gate is an expressive remnant of the Guard Zaguurdi.
The Gap of Sinners, or the Intermediate World
This is the name of the rocky ridge, located slightly higher up the slope from the outlier Temple Gate. At its base, as a result of a natural accumulation of debris, a narrow through passage 2.5 m long was formed.
It is believed that if a person freely climbed through this natural gap, it means that there are no sins on him and Alkhanai accepts him. If he cannot climb through or is afraid, then Alkhanai does not accept him, because he is a sinner. Buddhists believe that the soul of the deceased hovers in gaping rocky cracks and crevices for 49 days before experiencing rebirth.
The natural grotto, about 4 m long and about 1.5 m high at the entrance, is located 300 m up the slope from the Gate Temple. Since ancient times, this is one of the most visited places in Alkhanai, personifying the cult of mother earth.
A childless woman must enter the cave and break off a piece of stone from the walls or find a pebble at the bottom. In this way, she will be healed and will be able to have children. Turning to the mother-goddess Dara Ehe, the keeper of the grotto, women read the mantra: “Um dari dudari duri suuha.” Confirmation of numerous reports that desperate women, having bowed to Alkhanai, became mothers, are copies of birth certificates hung at the entrance to the grotto.
The immediate vicinity of the grotto and the entrance itself are literally draped with numerous ribbons and pieces of cloth tied by the afflicted. Children’s things and toys left as offerings are not uncommon here.
Rock Dorzho Pagma (Diamond Princess) is located 200 m north of the Gate Temple. The diameter of this large rock outcrop at the base is about 10 m, and the height is 12 m. At the base of the rock there is a small natural niche used for various Buddhist rituals.
Dorzho Pagma is the wife of the owner Alkhanai Dimchig, his tantric half. Ritual veneration of the remnant is considered an obligatory act of pilgrimage. Here the pilgrim finds moral peace, gets rid of mental anguish and physical suffering, receives an energy charge. A little higher is the remnant of Ayushi – the Temple of the deity of Longevity, personifying the infinity of life on earth.
An impressive oval-shaped rock is located 500 m from the Gate Temple on the left bank of the stream that flows into the Ubzhogoe River. The height of the remnant of Nara Khazhad (Heavenly Musician) in the southern part is 50 m, in the northern part – 10 m. An extensive crevice is formed in the rock, the lower part of which ends with a horizontal platform, and the upper part ends with a through oval hole in the rock. Natural stone steps lead to the hole, climbing which pilgrims place gifts on a makeshift altar.
It is believed that negative energy escapes into space through the hole, and a powerful stream of positive energy flows back. Most of the lamas in the pre-Soviet period of all the shrines of Alkhanai preferred this particular remnant for meditation. A “stone path” for the city is laid around it.
Heavenly Wisdom Fairy
The Sendema rock, one of the main sacred objects of Alkhanai, is located approximately 400 m from Nara Khazhad along the slope of the Ubzhogoe River. It differs from the rest of the outliers in its almost flattened apex.
The height of the rock on the north side is 15 m, on the south – 30 m. There are many cavities and grottoes in the rock. The remnant is named after the lion-faced dakini, the celestial fairy of wisdom, the protector of believers and the teachings of the Buddha. Pilgrims, walking around the rock of Sandama, pray that good will overcome evil, that justice, peace and tranquility will triumph on earth, that children will master the basics of science.
Healing waters of Alkhanay
About 40 rivers and streams flow through the territory of Alkhanai. The main watercourse of the territory is the Ilya River, but the relatively small Arshan stream, which originates in the southern spurs of Alkhanai, occupies a central place in popularity. The word “arshan” is a commonly used term in the Buryat language, denoting a healing spring, the water of which is considered sacred. Arshan water is cold (1.9–5.4 °C), ultra-fresh, bicarbonate calcium type, contains many trace elements: iron, manganese, strontium, iodine, selenium, fluorine, silver. The amount of iodine is 10–50 times higher than its content in the waters of most streams and rivers in Transbaikalia. The strong bactericidal effect of Arshan waters is due to the high content of silver.
In the minds of believers, Arshan is a symbol of the purity and holiness of all Alkhanai. Its healing water enjoys great fame not only among the Buryats, but also among the Russian population of the entire Transbaikalia. Every year, thousands of pilgrims and tourists flock to the Arshan valley. Since ancient times, the Buryats have been treated with the waters of the sacred Arshan, which, passing through gold and silver ores, acquire miraculous power. Holy water requires a special attitude from a person. It brings health, spiritual fulfillment, and therefore, while taking baths, it is important to work on yourself, on your inner world, so that negative thoughts do not harm yourself and the world. Arshan water increases working capacity, makes it possible for physical rejuvenation. When taking baths, it is advisable not to dry yourself with a towel, but to allow the body to dry naturally.
In the Khara Zaba gorge in the upper reaches of the Salia River (the nearest settlement is the village of Krasnoyarovo) there is a cascade of waterfalls. The river bed is rapids, there are 21 waterfalls over 1 km. They are diverse in height (0.5–3 m) and shape (sloping, jet, cascading). The waterfalls are especially spectacular during floods. The water in the river is considered healing – pilgrims who managed to overcome the difficult path to this place rest and are treated here.
One of the streams that feed the Salia is called the arshan of the Nine Gutters, or simply the Nine Gutters. The healing power of this arshan has been known since ancient times. In terms of natural resources and landscape, the gorge is the most exotic corner of Alkhanai. Here, sacrifices are made to the spirit of the mountains: coins, rice, matches are scattered on blocks of basalt, and colored shreds are hung on trees and bushes.
The top of Alkhanai mountain
The top of Alkhanai (1662.8 m) is a rocky platform formed by a natural accumulation of rubble and small rock fragments. On this site there is a state triangulation sign (a point that determines the coordinates of the area and the height above sea level, which is necessary for creating modern maps).
There is also an oval-shaped obo (Buddhist sacred building) where believers make sacrifices. As the highest point of the Alkhanai mountain range, since ancient times this peak served as a place of departure for the traditional cult of the Buryats, who believe that the abode of deities is located here. A path has been laid along the perimeter of the flat top, which serves to perform sacred rites. In 1991, Mount Alkhanay was consecrated by the 14th Dalai Lama.
Alkhanai fits perfectly with the concept “place of power”: having been here and returning home, you will full of vivid memories and will certainly feel a surge of strength.