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Telo Tulku Rinpoche, About the Burkhan Bagshin Altan Sume

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Terbish, Baasanjav 


Telo Tulku Rinpoche talks about the Burkhan Bagshin Altan Sume, also knows as the Central Temple. Telo Tulku: Actually, this temple was not originally planned to be as big as it is today. This idea came spontaneously and we were very fortunate to have a very supportive president at that time – Kirsan Ilyumzhinov who was the first president of the Republic of Kalmykia, a very devout Buddhist and somebody who has done a lot for the promotion of the republic. Somebody who has really achieved a lot in Kalmykia, in Russian politics and on the international stage as well. As you know, the very first Buddhist monastery that we built is outside of the city of Elista. We had a good number of people who were attending that temple on a daily basis. During Buddhist holidays it was overflowing with the pious. There was not enough room for everybody to fit inside. Most of the Buddhist holidays happen either at the hottest or the coldest time. So, there were more people standing outside than inside during the Buddhist holidays. I thought, ‘Ok, our temple is getting too small for the public’. The president of Kalmykia comes to the temple quite often just to relax, meditate, engage in prayers, have a cup of tea and have some conversations. One day he came to relax, talk and asked randomly 'What are your future plans?' I said, 'Well, we are thinking about the possibility of building a new building in the city, because this temple is getting too small during the Buddhist holidays. We do not want anything fancy, just four walls, a big hall, roof and a statue of Buddha. As simple as that so that it can be used during Buddhist holidays and big gatherings'. Then he said, 'Well, why are you thinking so small? You have to think big, grand'. And I said, 'Well, we do not have the resources and money to think like that. Of course, it would be nice, but we are being realistic'. He said, 'Do not worry about it, think big, and I will take care of the rest'. And I said, 'OK, well'. I didn't take it very seriously, because sometimes politicians tend to exaggerate and he also had times when he exaggerated. So, I was not sure how to take this. I knew that he could do it, I believed in him. I kind of took it as, 'OK, let's see what happens'. And this was in the summer of 2004. Several months passed and I never brought this topic up. I did not feel comfortable asking him. It happened that the Dalai Lama was able to make a very brief visit to Kalmykia in 2004, at the end of November. And the visit was, of course, arranged by the Buddhist monastery and the president himself who worked very hard to make the visit happen. During His Holiness' visit we had a lunch which was attended by His Holiness, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov and me. Kirsan Ilyumzhinov spontaneously said, 'I am thinking of building a big temple in the city. What is your Holiness’ advice or what would you recommend?' His Holiness asked me, 'What is he talking about?' He asked me in Tibetan, I gave his Holiness a briefing. I said, 'Well, our temple has become too small. It would be much easier if there was a bigger temple in the city, centrally located so that people would have an easier access to it’ and so on. His Holiness looked at the president and said, 'Well, if you want to build a temple, then do build a grand temple'. When His Holiness gave the advice, 'OK, you should build a grand temple', this fitted the president’s idea and vision. Then the president decided, 'OK, I am going to do it' and shared his vision with His Holiness. His Holiness was getting excited as well. His Holiness clearly mentioned that, ‘If you build this temple, do not just build a temple, but make it a learning centre, a cultural centre, where people can come and get a proper knowledge not only of Buddhism, but also about different religious traditions, cultures and philosophies. So, the president agreed to that. Immediately after the lunch the president gave a direct order to the Architectural Institute to do preliminary drawings of the temple. He arranged for the land to be consecrated by the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama blessed the land. It was on the 1st of December in 2004. There was an old factory on that land. It took a few months to demolish it. They immediately began working on the building of the temple. The construction started in April 2005 and was completed on the 27th of December 2005. Although the building was completed, there was still a lot of interior work that needed to be done. Over the course of years, we have finished the interior design and structures. What we do: we organise seminars, trainings, lectures for people who are interested in Buddhism and Buddhist philosophy. We organise photo and art exhibitions. Occasionally we show films related to Buddhism and Buddhist culture. We have a book club that gathers every month to discuss Kalmyk culture, history, Buddhism, and various other topics. We also organise free Kalmyk language courses. And the reason why we do this is that now many secondary schools dropped Kalmyk classes due to a lack of funding. We want to keep this momentum and are making Kalmyk classes available to all who are interested in learning this language. We have been doing this for the past 4 to 5 years, and it has been very successful and effective. We also invite lamas, geshes, tulkus, academicians and scholars of Buddhology, Tibetology as well as Mongolists to give lectures, seminars, workshops and all these programs are part of the reintroduction of Buddhism and Buddhist culture in Kalmykia. Baasanjav: Can we talk about the architectural planning of the khurul (temple)? Did you participate in it? TT: Yes, we combined an Indian design. If you look at the temple, it has a kind of architectural flavour from the Stupa in Bodhgaya. Then there are some elements of a Tibetan monastery and also many elements that we took from Mongolian architecture. And to a certain extent there are also some Kalmyk traditional designs from old temples that existed before the Revolution in 1917. The exterior and the architecture are a mix of various designs from India, Mongolia, Tibet and Kalmykia. We try to use the temple as a multiuse building, meaning that we have a conference hall for secular or non-religious events. Then we have the main prayer hall. On the third floor, we have a place where people can just relax, meditate. At the same time this space could be used as an exhibition hall for photo and art exhibitions. There are also several rooms that we use as offices for administrative purposes. There are rooms where monks receive and give consultation to the believers on a daily basis. On the fourth floor are more administrative offices, a video and audio section where we keep an archive. The top floor is a residence dedicated to the Dalai Lama. If he visits Kalmykia, we are ready to host him at the temple where he can stay along with his delegation. B: The outside of the building has elements of modernity. There are glass panels there. TT: The glass was not my idea, but that of an architect. If you go to Buddhist temples all over the world, these buildings seem to lack light. We wanted our temple to be visible and have proper light. The architect came up with this design to have glass panels on three sides so that to make more light come into the temple itself. B: Inside the building the walls are beautifully decorated. Who were the painters? Were they locals or from Tibetan monasteries in India? TT: Kalmykia no longer has a tradition of iconography, or thangka painting, as we call it. We are trying to revive this tradition. We have sent students to study iconography. In the new temple, all paintings were done mostly by Tibetans that we specifically invited from India. We had several local artists who assisted them. It took about two and a half years to complete the whole project. If you go to the old temple, its interior paintings were done by a Kalmyk artist. In 1993 when I sent the first group of students to India there was a young boy among them who was very interested in learning how to paint. His name is Erdne Nimgirov, which is his secular name. Lobsang Thapke is his ordained name. He studied very well and was very talented. After completing his studies in India, he came to Kalmykia and took upon himself the responsibility to do the whole interior of the old temple. He did a wonderful job. Later he emigrated to America. Unfortunately, he is not working in this profession. B: Inside the temple you have a big, beautiful statue of Buddha. You also have some impressive chandeliers and furniture. Where did you get them? TT: I would not say all of them are locally produced. Some were ordered from the neighboring regions. It is an impressive temple and we wanted it to be beautiful in order to attract people. What are the benefits of attracting people to it? Because every month there is something happening in the temple, something new. It is either a new exhibition, a lecture, or an educational event. The beauty of its architecture and various educational events attract people. People say, 'Oh, I wonder what is happening this month? Last month such and such exhibition took place, I wonder what is on this month?’ Every time they come to the temple they always learn something new. It is our idea to make people learn new things every time they come to the temple. That is why it is such an impressive building for a small and poor republic such as ours. We were fortunate to have a very good president who had a vision. We shared a lot of similar ideas with him and we complemented each other very well. As a matter of fact, the temple was voted to be one of the 10 best places to visit in southern Russia – we came in second place. B: What was the first place? TT: The first place was Grozny in Chechnya. B: Inside the building I saw relics, clothes of the Dalai Lama XIV. What other relics do you keep in the khurul (temple)? TT: We have many relics. We have a complete monk’s robe of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. We feel very fortunate to have this. The Dalai Lama does not usually give away his personal clothing. This is a very rare and complete set of relics. Also, we have the statues of Buddha and Green Tara given by His Holiness for the purpose of putting them as relics inside the big statue of Buddha. We have relics given by a Sri Lankan ambassador to Russia. When he paid a visit to Kalmykia he brought with him a set of relics from one of the stupas in Sri Lanka and offered them to our temple. Then we have another set of Buddhist relics that His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave to a Russian family who put them inside a very nice small silver stupa that they built themselves. This stupa is now kept at our temple. So, these are the main relics that we have. B: In terms of funding, was the khurul (temple) built on donations? TT: Yes, the khurul (temple) was built strictly on donations from businessmen and individuals. The temple does not receive money from the federal budget. Neither does it receive money from the local government or any government organisations. So, it is run on public donations and offerings. Another thing that I take great pride in is that we do not solicit donations or offerings. If people offer – they offer. If not – it is OK. We have survived without having to go out and solicit. This is my belief and I tell my staff and colleagues that we must show results and the results should be visible as well as spiritual. Let people feel it, let people see it. If they are able to feel and see it, people will realise how much work we are doing and they will automatically make contributions. There will be no need for us to go and say, ‘We need this or that, we have this project’. Show the people your results. The khurul has a staff of 70 plus people, all of whom are paid salaries. We have to maintain the building, which has high utility bills. We have survived so far. We have not had problems with maintaining the temple and organising various events and programmes.




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Kalmyk Cultural Heritage Documentation Project, University of Cambridge

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Sponsored by Arcadia Fund, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin