Erdene Zuu Monastery, ”Jewel Temple”, was built between 1585 and 1586. It’s certainly the oldest Buddhist monastery of Mongolia. Located in the province of Ovorkhangai, about 2 kilometres (1,2 mile) Northeast Kharkhorin, it’s inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in the category “cultural landscape of Orkhon Valley”.
The Prince Abtai Han, Khalh leader and Zanabazar’s grandfather, ordered to build it in 1585 outside the ruins of Kkarkhorin, after he has met the 3rd Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Buddhism was declared religion of state in Mongolia.
Three Chinese-style temples, “Gurvan Zuu”, were built at that period with bricks and stones taken in the imperial city of Kharkhorin. They line up in a small enclosure, facing East. They were the only sedentary temples of the Empire, as the other monasteries were set in yurts and followed the nomadic princes. An inner hall allows walking around the statues sheltered in the temples. In 1743, a 400-metres (1312 feet) square enclosure with four huge doors was added. Then other temples and residences were added around the first buildings and outside the enclosure so that at the beginning of the 20th century, there were more than 700.
The enclosure was built in order to protect the treasure of the nation and to resist the many attacks of the Züüngar. At the beginning of the 19th century, it was built again in bricks and surmounted by
108 stupas (108 is a magic number in Buddhism, it’s notably the number of pearls of a Buddhist rosary mala), all different and each one bearing the name of its donor. During the restoration of 1990, they were restored but all identical. Two other stupas contain the remains of Prince Abtai and the ones of his son Gombodorj. You will also see the small temple of Dalai Lama, dating from 1675, and the “lavrang” that is the residence of the reincarnated lama and that was built in 1780. You will also see Bodhi Suvraga standing, a large golden stupa erected in 1799 in honor of the 4th Javzandamba Khutagt.
A wooden yurt that is 20 metres (65,62 feet) in diameter was the Javzandamba’s residence. There was also a temple dedicated to Zanabazar and six monastic faculties. In 1792, 10.000 lamas were living there.
Erdene Zuu is a monastery of Saskyapa rite. This school tries to keep the equilibrium between erudition and meditation. According to this school, there’s no difference between the Samsara, the cycle of births, and the Nirvana.
In 1939, the communist leader Horlogiin Choibalsan destroyed the monastery in the context of a purge that brought about the disappearance of hundreds of monasteries in Mongolia and the death of more than 10.000 lamas. Three temples and the outer wall with the stupas remained intact; the temples were transformed in museums in 1947. This part of the monastery is reported to have been spared due to pressures exerted by Joseph Staline. A researcher thinks that it’s the American president Franklin Roosevelt who asked Staline to spare the monastery in 1944.
So Erdene Zuu went on existing as a museum; the only monastery that worked in Mongolia was Gandantegchinlen Monastery in the capital, Ulan-Bator.
Nevertheless, after the fall of communism in 1990, the monastery was given to the lamas and Erdene Zuu became a place of worship again, where many pilgrims come to walk and gather their thoughts. The site was restored at the end of the century and almost found back its religious activity. Today, Erdene Zuu remains an active Buddhist monastery, and at the same time a museum open to travelers.