Sudha Mahalingam

Through Kalmykia, in the heart of the vast, desolate Russian steppe

  • One of two Buddhist-majority republics
  • Kinship with Indians is talked about

    Elista: Of all the regions of Russia through which the Nikitin Expedition which retraces the footsteps of Russian traveller Afanasy Nikitin, on its way to India has driven through since November 12, none has been more impressive than Kalmykia, the Buddhist Republic in the heart of the vast steppe.

    As we race through the black ribbon stretched out on empty flatness, the horizon spreads out like a panorama. Not a blade of grass seems to grow, and there is no dwelling for hundreds of kilometres.

    After driving nearly 500 km from Astrakhan, right in the middle of the wilderness we are greeted by a group of Kalmyks, with salted butter tea and doughnuts. They were waiting in the cold for five hours.

    The landscape and our hosts' facial features make us wonder if we had strayed into Mongolia. But Yuri Alexivich Amninov, Deputy Minister of Culture, Kalmyk Republic, clears our confusion. He welcomes us to Elista, capital of Kalmykia. Mr. Amninov promptly claims kinship with Indians and emphasises our common ancestry traced to Genghis Khan. He says most parts of white Russia including Nizhny Novgorod through which our expedition had travelled, were once Mongol territory.

    Kalmyks, who trace their ancestry to Mongolia, are Buddhists. There are half a million Buddhists in Russia and their numbers are growing. Kalmykia is one of two republics in which Buddhists are concentrated. The other is Buryatiya in Siberia. Kalmyks were Buddhists even before the advent of Islam in Mongolia. When the Khanate embraced Islam, they refused to convert and preferred to wander westward here.

    In the 16th century these people made a home for themselves in the unyielding steppe, a familiar enough landscape for people of Mongolian origin. Sheep and cattle farming and horse rearing sustain them in the barren land. Kalmyks belong to the Gelugpa or `Yellow Hat' branch of Buddhists who owe allegiance to the Dalai Lama. Stalin tried to wipe out Buddhists, destroying their monasteries and temples called khuruls and executing their lamas by the thousands.

    During the Second World War, many Kalmyk leaders supported Hitler and his forces and incurred the wrath of the Russians. Whereupon they were sent to Siberia to be confined to camps. The march was long and arduous, and thousands perished on the way. Of the hundreds of thousands sent, 30,000 survived. Kalmyks were allowed to return home three years later. But by then, virtually all the khuruls had been destroyed, their literature burnt, their sculpture smashed, their lamas banished or murdered.

    In the 1990s, Buddhism made a impressive come-back in Russia. Worship resumed. Monastic schools were rebuilt. A khurul was built in Elista and was consecrated in 2005. The Dalai Lama has been visiting to guide and help with the design of the temple. His third visit was in 2004. He donated a collection of manuscripts.

    The khurul is impressive, complete with gyaltsens, tangkas, kapenas and a massive Shakyamuni statue seated on a lotus, not to mention a myriad other Buddhist deities. It was built at the initiative of Telo Tulku Rinpoche, a Kalmyk born in the U.S. but went away to live and study Buddhist philosophy in India.

    The expedition members attended Sunday prayers at the khurul, jam-packed on a rainy, bleak day. At the library we met Kelsang Ngudup, who has come from Lahul Spiti to train Kalmyk novices .

    He is happy to chat in Hindi. He finds the weather too cold. Another monk, a Tibetan, whom we met at the khurul, tells us how difficult the Indian visa procedure is for Buddhist monks wishing to train at Dharmasala or Hubli.

    The town square has a new, bright red, prayer wheel under a painted Buddhist-style canopy. A statue of Lenin stands at a distance.