Letter from Mongolia 03: Familial spaces

This is a different example of how a narrative can illustrate modalities of contribution by Mongolian women to revitalise their spiritual tradition and its practices. In this story (a long read), the  focus is on the familial aspects from the perspective of an older generation of Mongolian women (those  born before 1960) and indicative of a common thread from that point of view. In this version, there are no images accompanying the text. Pseudonyms again have been retained, and the person’s own words have been rendered in italicised text. 


Familial spaces

Although she now lives in her small apartment in the 4th district of Bayangol, Baljmaa was born in 1939 in the Gobi Ugtaal sum of Dundgobi Aimag. She completed her secondary school education in 1961 and her college education in 1969. For twenty-three years, from 1965 – 1988, Baljmaa worked as the chief cook in an army artillery battalion kitchen. A widow since 2001, she has born eight children of her own and in 2008 had seven grandchildren so far, one of whom was a lam.

Baljmaa’s UB (abbrev. Ulaanbaatar) apartment is warm, friendly and light. Through its double-glazed windows, although heavily barred for security, one can clearly see the vegetated community parkland below. You can also see the hills surrounding UB from the vista afforded by this old, comfortable, well-positioned 3rd floor apartment.

The smell of food cooking on the stove permeates the atmosphere. Behind a closed door to one room in the small apartment is the household’s devotional alter storing its many, precious, inherited religious objects. Statues of both wrathful and peaceful deities have been passed down from one generation to the next. All are housed safe in Baljmaa’s sturdy glass and timber display cabinet. This is a particularly special altar,

One’s altar is a very private thing, something to be kept secret to outsiders. When you live in an apartment you can just keep the door closed to outsiders. In a ger it is different. Everyone is coming and going, and things are visible. So in a ger we use a curtain, or put these things in a special box with a lid. What is on someone’s alter says a lot about the spiritual lineage to which they belong. That is another reason why we do not show … to others.[1]

In Baljmaa’s city apartment, although there are no thangkas adorning the walls, there are however many exquisitely crafted, old statues of wrathful deities, photographs of which are not permitted. According to Baljmaa, to capture an image (through photography) of a wrathful deity belonging to someone else is considered inauspicious and in some instances could be dangerous to the perpetrator. Many framed photographs of Mongolia’s recent religious and monastic aristocracy hang on the wall directly above and behind the glass cabinet-altar. It is to this entire entourage, along with whoever or whatever accompanies them, that Baljmaa as a disciple of her living tradition offers daily prayers and other expressions of devotional practice.

In 2008 she had just returned from an extended stay with her grand-daughter and her family who now live in the USA. So far, she has visited the USA on two occasions, the first of which was in 2006. Both her sister and her grand-daughter now live in New York State. Her grand-daughter, who had recently given birth to her own first child, a daughter, had moved to the USA eight years ago after graduating from the Trade and Industrial University in Ulaanbaatar. Baljmaa worries about how her grand-daughter will manage full-time work and parenting without other family, especially without her ‘grannie’ being there to help her. Her grand-daughter was at that time working as a cashier in a restaurant, the owners of which were Greek.

During her visits to the United States, as a family, they on a number of occasions made the long six hour journey to visit one of their Mongolian lams who now lived, along with other Gelug lams from India at an established Gelug Buddhist residence in New York. The whole family went, but it was Baljmaa’s arrival and her presence that was the main catalyst for this particular excursion.


Whilst in New York, Baljmaa also liked to visit the waxworks museum. One of her favorite attractions there was Hillary Clinton. On first viewing, Baljmaa thought that the wax form of Hilary was actually a real person until someone pointed out to her that she was not. To this day, she remains incredulous and becomes very animated when remember how truly life-like Hillary Clinton appeared to her. Photos of the two of them together were brought out as testimony.

Another highlight of Baljmaa’s visit to Manhattan was the ocean. In 2006, at the age of 67, she walked beside the ocean for the very first time whilst visiting her grand- daughter’s friend who lives in Manhattan. On the way to New Jersey there was ocean all the way! As simple as it may sound, closer proximity to the ocean is something still considered truly remarkable for Mongolian women such as Baljmaa who have been born and lived their own lives in Mongolia’s land-locked countryside. [2]


One of the more important stories in Baljmaa’s family she tells me, is how Dashdemberel, one of her three grandsons then 20 years of age, had become a lam. As with other many such older generation Mongolian Buddhist family narratives, we have to go back another generation or two for the genesis to this particular young man’s (at that time) life trajectory.

In his retirement, Dashdemberel’s grandfather (Baljmaa’s husband) was working as abbot/shunlai at Gungaa Choeling monastery, the reconstruction of which only began in 1990. He passed away in 2001 not long after this Gelug monastery had finally been reopened. Before that, he had worked all his life. Over a lifetime together, through Baljmaa’s eyes, it seemed that from a very early age, the unfolding of her husband’s familial and domestic social life had unfolded in tandem with suggestions and opportunities proferred by senior, and much older in years Mongolian Gelug Buddhist clergy, to which he naturally deferred. At certain junctures, discontinuities in his own paid employment in the essentially still socialist world, intersected with familial responsibilities and these other expectations.

When only five years of age (1930s) Baljmaa’s husband had become a lam at Ganden Monastery, for the first time. She had not even been born (b.1941). It was a time in Mongolia when lams were considered as not even being proper persons. So, as a young boy he quit being a lam and began working as a water distributor using a horse-drawn carriage. Whilst at work one day, he met one of his Teachers who told him that instead of doing such hard physical work, he should return to being a lam. He was a very handsome young man, with beautiful white hands [she smiles]. Not only would doing such work destroy his hands, but according to his Teacher, it would influence his way of thinking in life.

So hearing that, he again  wondered so much about what did his Teacher mean? And why he told him such word? knowing full-well that at that time it was so very difficult to survive as a lam. In those days, many lams were being killed. Others were disguising themselves, sometimes as girls, in order to survive. So, he travelled to and arrived in a very very remote place and recalled the words of his Teacher and cried. He was very young. It was the 1950s. He was only 20 years old at the time.

Decades later, it was Baljmaa’s husband who was assigned the important task of bringing the sorogzon, the main pillar of wood for the Janraisag statue from Bogd Khan mountain when it was being built in 1995. Of this contribution by her husband in terms of cultural reconstruction in Mongolia, she is especially proud. Baljmaa believes that his photographs were being kept by […] Lama, although (she) herself had not seen them yet. Such personal recognition by such a senior prelate was highly-valued and what had been sought.


Along life’s complex journey, Baljmaa’s husband had also graduated from Mongolia’s Institute of Commerce. Now an educated man, he got a job in a place making eyeglasses. At the time considered by many to be harmful for one’s health, he retired from this job also whilst still a young man. Soon after, he met Lama […], another senior prelate at Ganden Monastery, who told him that he should come to work for Ganden Monastery in UB because he had been a lam there before.

Baljmaa’s husband once again returned to Ganden, this time as a lay worker instead of a lam. He stepped into the role of Ganden’s Head of Treasury. Whilst working there, he again met up with his old Teacher from Hubsugul Aimag, who pointed out to him that doing such work for Ganden was very risky for someone in his position, someone who was not only married but who also had many children of his own. At that time, to be in this situation was still dangerous. He could easily have been  sent to prison by the still- socialist authorities thereby leaving both (his wife) and (their) children to fend for themselves.

As Baljmaa recounts, Lama […] was much older than my husband. He persuaded my husband to become a lam again and so he did. That was 30 years ago. My husband was at that time 40 years old. In what appears to have been a recruitment drive, senior Ganden officials were promoting the notion that lots more young people were again becoming lams. It was by now the early 1980s.


Baljmaa grew up in the countryside and had never seen (or rather, noticed) a lam in robes. At first (she) did not like to see her husband of many years in lam’s robes. The only lams (she) had seen were at Ganden monastery, and being a very young person just making a short visit to the monastery, lams’ and their clothing was not at all considered. As she puts it, the first time I saw my husband in a lam’s robe was very strange for me. I really did not like it. Although my husband and I had shared hural/puja and meals for 47 years, it was only much later in our married life that my husband became a lam again. Life is so very interesting don’t you think?

Delgeruun Choira’s Abbot Zava Damdin Rinpoche’s own grandfather (on his mother’s side) had been Baljmaa’s jorvon, the principal high lam. The story of my grandson becoming a lam is related to his own  grandfather’s life, so we need to go back into his life,  if we are to talk about Dashdemberel.

When my Teacher (Zava Rinpoche) was in his early 20s (cf. late 1990s), having returned from studying in Switzerland, he would often come to meet with my husband bringing fruit and other things. My husband, although much older, always showed him great respect. He not only embraced him, but always let him sit above him in the most respected position. His behaviour made me admire him, although it did make me wonder if he was going a little senile! I did not understand why he would go out to welcome him, farewell him and let him sit above him in the most respected place in our home.

Over more than 40 years of my husband’s association with Ganden, many lams had visited him, young and old. But it was they who showed respect to my husband, sitting lower than him. None of them were either welcomed or followed out by my husband. But when my husband was told that the young lam (Zava Rinpoche) was coming, he would jump up and was out the door at full speed! I shared with my husband what I had been thinking and he reminded me that, ‘This was lam’s business.’ So that was that, but it did makee me take the matter a lot more seriously, and eventually I too became the young lam’s disciple.

Finally, I offered Zava Rinpoche a very nice big khatag, which my husband had given me, on a special visit to his apartment in Tavan Shar in 1992 or 1993. He was so happy and supportive of my decision. I asked him for a suitable day on which to visit. My husband looked at the lunar calendar and told me which day I should go and what to bring. I brought 5000 Tugrik, a big yellow khatag and a butter lamp too.

At that time, my husband did not know that my Teacher was a reincarnate lam, but he felt him to be a special and learned lam. You know many lams came from India to grant my Teacher a Rinpoche title. At that time I heard a story from other people speaking. At that time, Zava Rinpoche was very sick and in hospital. Whilst in hospital taking treatment, all of his clothes went missing. All of his clothes, even his socks had been stolen.

At the very same time Guru Deva Rinpoche was told that the lam who is Mongolia’s previous Zava Lama’s reincarnation is very sick and will soon leave this world. My Teacher’s name, age, birth month, date and every other sign fitted for the reincarnation. Then, when Guru Deva was told that my Teacher’s clothes were stolen from the hospital, he said it was not a theft but that it was a sign that the time had come for my Teacher to change his robes (Mong, janch).

Next came the ceremony at which Guru Deva, crying, expressed his dismay at not realizing such a learned person was living right next to him. Until his passing, Guru Deva referred to my Teacher as, ‘our lam.’ After the (enthronement) ceremony, Guru Deva ordered his mother to change every single piece of my Teacher’s old clothing for new, which of course she did.


Baljmaa’s husband tried to be Dashdemberel’s first Teacher but according to Baljmaa up until he was 12 years of age, he learnt nothing! Then one day after returning home (to Baljmaa’s) from elementary school he announced that he wanted to become a lam. His grandmother was willing to allow Dashdemberel to become a lam and to continue his grandfather’s tradition.

One day very soon after their conversation, Dashdemberel came home from school, threw his school bag on his bed and announced that he was never going back to school. He was going to become a lam. This happened sometime in 2002, the year after Baljmaa’s husband had died. Baljmaa then asked Zava Rinpoche for his help and subsequently, after due protocols were attended to, Dashdemberel became his student. At an appointed time, Dashdemberel’s light colored curly hair was shaved off by Zava Rinpoche. Baljmaa kept it. Her grandson’s hair is safe, here in a special place.

Baljmaa goes on to recount what is for her a funny (read as. disquietening) story about her grandson. Both his complexion and his hair are fairer in colour than most Kalkha Mongols. And so one day when he was 4 or 5 years old, whilst out walking she had suddenly realised that her grandson had gone missing during the time she had become absorbed in conversation with a friend. She then started anxiously looking around for him and asking people if they had seen him. One girl told her that she had seen a boy who looked like a Russian being taken away by a Russian man. They had gone to another apartment close by. This was a time the Russians were leaving Mongolia and going back home. It was around 1995. I was afraid that he had been stolen by one of of them. After much rushing around and calling out I found him. He came out of the apartment holding many candies and sweets and smiling. I burst into tears with relief! Dashdemberel’s mother was living in Hungary at that time. 

The day after his fair curly hair was shaven off, Zava Rinpoche took Baljmaa’s grandson to Amarbayasgalant with him, to begin his monastic and buddhist education. This was in 2002. Baljmaa only met with (her) grandson during the time of the Tsam dance.


When Zava Rinpoche moved to his Gobi Desert monastery in 2005, Baljmaa’s grandson was one of the small group of lams to eventually follow him.  Baljmaa made enquiries with the older Abbot now in charge of Amarbayasgalant regarding when she could meet with her grandson. The old abbot had known her husband, although he was much older. At that time he was responsible for growing vegetables at the monastery. As she recounts, when I arrived (to take him away) he came holding many keys in his hand. The head lam did not give me permission to take my grandson with me. I begged him and told him I was a very old woman and what could I do without my grandson … […] … but finally I got permission.

Before we left Amarbayasgalant, I offered a yellow khatag at every temple, to Vajrapanin and I took my grandson around the monastery to pay prayers (read as: made offerings) to all the temples and statues. This is how I managed to bring my grandson from Amarbayasgalant and give him once again to my Teacher. This is how my grandson became a lam after his grandfather’s death. He did not learn Buddha’s teachings from his grandfather, but from his Teacher. This is my grandson’s fate. A history is history. It does not matter how big or small it is.

Baljmaa’s grandson’s monastic training has continued, uninterrupted. By his 16th birthday, her grandson had been promoted by Zava Rinpoche to the position of gesgui, the disciplinary lam. This is a high position in a monastery. Since 2007 he has been one of only two lam-attendants for the duration of Zava Damdin Rinpoche’s three year-three month retreat.

According to Baljmaa, the main benefits from becoming a lam are to do with elimination of any wild characters, training both the mind and the soul in kindness and compassion and also learning to follow one Teacher’s orders and teachings. My only help is that of a mother’s soul wishing him to become a good lam whilst being next to his Teacher. There is nothing else I can do for him. It is said that a good student is from a good Teacher … We have yet to take the eternal water, so I am happy to have a lam who will do puja at my head when the time of impermanence comes to me.


In conversation, Baljmaa then turns to reflecting on her own less important genesis. Although I was born in Dundgobi Aimag, when I reached 9 months of age I was adopted out to a couple in Ugtaaltsaidam sum in Tuv Aimag. My adopted father was a revolutionary, an aetheist.  He had a high position and worked closely with Marshal (Khorloogiin) Choibalsan. Baljmaa’s adopted mother, on the other hand, had strong religious beliefs. On her adopted mother’s side there was a high ranked lam named Natsag Do Soivon who worked very closely with the eighth Bogd Lama. Each of my adopted mother’s three brothers had been high ranking learned lams. In addition to Natsag Do Soivon, there were also Rentsendorj and Damdirlan. But on my real parents’ side, there were no lams at all. Not a single one.

Living in my adopted father’s household, there were no childhood experiences related to Buddhism, at least  none that I can remember or think of now. My very first influence to Buddhism was my husband, and then again when I retired. People can get unstable when they retire from work, especially those people who have worked for the army and who have always had to follow orders from others before.

After working for the army and being an atheist, it’s only been since 1996 that I started feeling that some form of religion is useful for me. Worshipping Buddha really helps me a lot. It helps my children live healthy lives. Getting pujas done at Ganden when someone gets sick helps. Telling my troubles and dreams to my Teacher brings relief and success… In terms of helping Zava Rinpoche? We just have to follow our Teacher’s suggestions and to try to accomplish, to the best of our abilities, what he would like us to accomplish.

Baljmaa in fact uttered (I’m told) an old Mongolian proverb, which could well reflect (at times) her own discursive approach. She uttered, zarimdaa ajilaa amarchlah heregtei which loosely translates into the English language as, sometimes we should make our work easier for ourselves, even if that means saying less (rather than more) about the more gritty, challenging aspects of one’s own life.



[1] It was a great honour for me to be invited by Baljmaa into her home, and even more so to be invited into, and show the artefacts in her altar room. This was the first time she had ever shown her personal altar to an outside person, in this case me.  This privileged viewing would not have taken place had I not also been so closely associated with Zava Damdin Rinpoche’s own mother. It remains a truly special encounter, one that I’ll never forget.

[2] During the process of speaking with Baljmaa and other Mongolian women in my study, I discovered many (if not most) of them had already travelled to destinations well beyond Mongolia’s national and political borders years before I ever set foot on their turf. As a westerner in an unfamiliar culture, particularly in those earlier years of visitation, I was so naive, awash with assumptions as I tried to absorb and at the same time ‘map’ against my own experience and understanding, the complexity of what I was hearing, experiencing and learning at the time. I thank all of these women for their patience, understanding and detailed explanations, as I waded into the work when at times I felt somewhat out of my depth.


A Personal Reflection

I am struck by how Baljmaa’s story, like those of other Mongolian women with whom I’ve spoken with such candour and in such detail, inevitably steer clear of directly referring to the more difficult aspects of their own lives. Over the years, I’ve come to truly appreciate the personal dignity in this approach. Yet, having listened carefully and observed attentively, I have repeatedly found myself with more than enough informational architecture offered by each of these wonderful people, now in the form of interview transcripts and my detailed journal notes, to then shape my own stories about each of them.


And so, we arrive at the question:

What do you think is the mode of contribution Baljmaa is making (physical, social or spiritual) to the revitalisation of a tradition and its practices as presented in the story above?


This Letter from Mongolia like others in this series, is grounded in my ethnographic fieldwork (2004- ) and interviews with the person about whom I write. All of the people in this assemblage are Khalkha Mongol, the largest group of ethnic Mongol peoples living in Mongolia today. See: Pleteshner, C. (2011). Nomadic Temple: Daughters of Tsongkhapa in Mongolia (Unpublished manuscript).  The Zava Damdin Sutra and Scripture Institute Library Archive in the Manjushri Temple, Soyombot Oron). pp145-152

In keeping with ethical scholarly research and publishing practices and the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, I anticipate that anyone replicating the photographs, using or translating into another language all or part of this article and submitting it for accreditation or other purpose under their own name, to acknowledge this URL and its author as the source. Not to do so, is contrary to the ethical principles of the Creative Commons license as it applies to the public domain.

end of transcript.

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© 2023. CP in Mongolia. This post is licensed under the  Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Documents linked from this page may be subject to other restrictions.   Posted: 17 April 2024. Last updated: 17 April 2024.