The Buddhist hordes of Kalmykia

by Lawrence Booth, The Guardian, September 19, 2006

Elista, Kalmykia (Russia) -- Chess and Buddhism may seem, to the uninitiated, to have nothing in common beyond the fact that both require ferocious concentration and are practised by serious-looking men in milk-bottle specs.

Yet on Thursday the connection will be strengthened when the opening ceremony of a series of matches between Veselin Topalov and Vladimir Kramnik, the title holders of international chess's two rival federations, is held in Elista, a small town roughly halfway between the Black Sea and the Caspian in the south-west Russian state of Kalmykia. And Kalmykia, for those who have missed the pre-match hype, is Europe's only Buddhist nation. Or, to be more precise, its only Buddhist self-governing republic.

The history behind the Dalai Lama's spiritual presence in this unheralded corner of the continent goes back to Genghis Khan and his - theoretically Buddhist - hordes, descendants of whom settled in present-day Kalmykia in the early 17th century. A western journalist who visited nearly 400 years later described the place as "more a state of mind", but it is a miracle that even that exists. Because, like "the meek" in the Life of Brian scene which sends up the Sermon on the Mount, the Kalmyks, who make up just over half the population of 292,000, have had a hell of a time.

They have been abolished by Catherine the Great, butchered by Bolsheviks, invaded by Nazis, and exiled by Stalin before being allowed to return to their country by Khrushchev in 1957. By then, there were fewer than 70,000 Kalmyks left, and no Buddhist temples at all. And their mood was not helped when vast swathes of their country were reduced to desert by the sharp hooves of sheep imported from the nearby Caucasus mountains.

But spiritual sustenance arrived in the form of Erdne Ombadykow, a Philadelphian of Kalmyk origin who was sent to India by his family as a boy and in 1979 was spotted by the Dalai Lama , who believed him to be the reincarnation of the Buddhist saint Tilopa. Now known as Telo Rinpoche - "precious one" - Ombadykow visited Kalmykia in 1992 and, with the Dalai's blessing, has since become the country's spiritual leader. It doesn't seem to bother the locals too much that he forsook the life of a monk three years later to start a family. He is a figurehead, and that, it seems, is enough.

The Kalmykian president Kirsan Nikolayevich Ilyumzhinov, who doubles up as the president of Fide, the World Chess Federation, takes his religion just as seriously and recently decorated Elista with Europe's largest Buddhist temple, which opened last December. That said, the exact nature of Ilyumzhinov's spirituality defies orthodoxy. "Irrespective of what I tell people," he said in 1995, "I give them instructions on a subconscious level. I am creating around the republic a kind of extrasensory field." He also claims to have spent time with aliens, although this is not thought to be a slur on Topalov and Kramnik. All in all, it seems a good job that the Dalai Lama is an open-minded man.