Buddhism Drew Many Mongolians to India

by Jack Sabharwal. UBPost, April 17, 2009

Ulan Bator, Mongolia -- The Mongolian community, which existed in Kalimpong, India, beginning in the 1950s, was almost a continuation (as well as much smaller version) of the Mongolian community in pre-Communist Tibet, especially in Lhasa. Contact between the Mongols and Tibet is said to have started during Chinggis Khaan’s time.

Although Buddhism used to flourish in Mongolia during the reign of Chinggis Khaan, and even more while his grandson Kublai khan was in power, “the good time did not last for long”. Thus, the meeting of Altan Khaan and Sonam Gyasto in 1578 becomes the real beginning of Buddhism in all parts of greater Mongolia.

Sonam Gyatso was a head of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism and was later recognized as the third Dalai Lama.

In fact, the title “Dalai Lama” was give for the very first time to Sonam Gyatso at the above-mentioned meeting.

There were always special communities of Mongol monks wherever there were larger Buddhist institutions in Tibet. In some important monasteries in Tibet, some sections were specially established for Buddhist students from all over greater Mongolia.

This gradually become a tradition, at least in some of the major institutions in Tibet, such as Kumbum, Labrang, Drepung, Sera and Gandan, and many more. India and Tibet were considered among the Mongols as “burhanii-oron”, meaning “the land of the Buddha”. Thus, Mongol pilgrims who would go to Tibet would often extend their journey into the holy sites of India.

Darjeeling and Kalimpong, India, are located on a former trading route that connected the Himalayan regions of Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and India, making the two cities important centers of commerce. Kalimpong also became an academic center as a number of the foremost scholars of Himalayan culture from all over the world chose to reside there. There were some Tibetans living in Darjeeling and Kalimpong even before the Chinese invasion of Tibet. A few Mongols were there as well. After 1959, many Tibetan refugees settled down in Darjeeling and Kalimpong. Most of the Mongols who accompanied Tibetans to India had settled down in Kalimpong. These Mongols mostly were monks, but later some of them got married, and gradually formed a special community of Mongols.

There were some very talented scholars among them as well as some high-ranking lamas, religious leaders and noble families. Mongolian scholars such as Da-Lama, Rigzin Wangpo, Geshe Wanggyal, Geshe Kaldan, Geshe Agwang Nima, Lama Chimpa, and many others played important roles in academic activities in Kalimpong. For instance, Lama Chimpa assisted Russian scholar Dr. George Roerich in compiling a large Tibetan-Sanskrit dictionary.

Some Mongols were invited to teach at famous Indian institutions such as Benares Hindu University in Varanasi, India, the International Academy of Indian Culture in both New Delhi and Nagpur, and Delhi University. Those Mongols who remained monks lived in Tibetan monasteries elsewhere. For instance, Mongol monks had done important works during the restoration of Dre-pung Gomang, one of the most important Tibetan monasteries in southern India.

Something also worth mentioning about the Mongols community in India is that they gave great importance to the education of their next generations. For example, Tohtoh, who later immigrated to the US and became one of the founders of the Mongol-American Cultural Association, was a brilliant student of the Central School for Tibetans in Mussorie, India.