Tag Archives: Buddhist women in Mongolia

Vignette 09: Narantsetseg

This vignette is a long read …

The wonderful Jantsan Gundegmaa (our Narantsetseg, the pseudonym we’ll use in this telling) is Zava Damdin’s (1976- ) mother, his Eej.


Viewed from a literary perspective (cf. Weatherford & Buchholtz, 2004) the Mongolian term ‘Eej’ (Mong. Ээж) or mother is used in The Secret History of the Mongols (see Rachewiltz 2004) in several ways: most often and most importantly (in terms of the narrative text) as either a title for Hö’elün, the mother of Genghis Khan, or as a direct reference to somebody’s biological mother. Mother is also used as a metaphorical title for several natural elements: Mother Onon, Mother Earth and Mother Sun. It carries, as do may words, a certain cultural significance that is dependant on exactly which culture and time period is being considered.

In the literature of the Mongol culture during the 13th century for example, mother conveyed the dual meaning of a respected and necessary role, but that was nonetheless relevant only within certain contexts. In the analyses of such historical literary repositories, mother is never mentioned for the sake of being a mother, but rather in relation to other people and other events.


Narantsetseg is a capable woman (emegtei, Mong. эмэгтэй), a consummate host and organiser displaying both flair and great skill.

A person in a woman’s body

In a literary analysis of The Secret History (Weatherford & Buchholtz, 2004) women are generally presented in three different ways: (i) as developed characters with relatively large roles in the narrative; (ii) as characters whose actions are described in a short anecdote; and (iii) as characters who are only briefly mentioned as being taken as a wife.

Among the women in the first group are Genghis Khan’s (Temujin’s) mother Hö’elün, and his principal wife Borte, both of whom are portrayed as influential in numerous important decisions. The women of the second group are to a great extent presented in a positive light, as strong, courageous, and a rallying influence.

These three literary appearances of women illustrate important cultural themes in ancient Mongolian life. This could suggest a passive nature of women, but this view is contradicted in the more developed characters. Most women who are developed as characters in their own right are portrayed in a more positive light; themes of strength and influence are widely present in the History among, for example, Genghis Khan’s wives and his mother.

The culture among the steppe tribes also gave to women much importance because, when their husbands were away fighting or herding, the responsibility of [over-seeing] the community … fell to them.

This cultural view in The Secret History of women as strong characters led to a number of female rulers in the Mongol Empire. Not only does this important text attribute many positive qualities to women, but tribes on the steppe were accustomed to handing over home rule to women when men were away.



Narantsetseg moves purposefully and fluidly in and out of social spaces. She is a Mongolian beauty and unusually agile for her years. She is a facilitator of organisation, and in the early days of monastic reconstruction, she was a painter of freshly sealed walls and a plasterer of new walls too. She can hang wallpaper so that the patterns match, along with being a supurb seamstress and cook.

Each year since 2005 until very recently, Narantsetseg, together with her contemporary and long-time friend Monkhtsetseg, would sew new winter robes for all the lams in residence at Delgeruun Choira (DC) as Mongolia’s harsh and prolonged desert winter approaches.  These days Monkhtsetseg has taken over this important job.

When high Gelug prelates came visiting from overseas (so, so many when reconstruction of the destroyed monastery first began) they would stay in Narantsetseg’s city apartment or at DC if there were important matters to be attended to there in the Gobi. In either situ, she has prepared, or overseen the preparation of, all of their meals and served them personally. The food is simply delicious. Since 2004 I have not known of anyone who has become ill as a result of eating food prepared by Narantsetseg and her helpers in her kitchen.

Narantsetseg can produce an incredible array of delicious food from the very simplest of basic ingredients: flour, yoghurt, mutton and throw in a vegetable or two. Whether in the monastery or in town, there are always many mouths to feed. Where there are high lamas, there are always many people. First there are the lams, and then there is the long (at times seemingly endless) queue of devotees and other visitors coming to pay their respects and/or to seek counsel from these prelates regarding their personal, business and family affairs.

Since 2005, DC has been Narantsetseg’s in the countryside home. First she lived here at DC for three years in a 5 panel ger, sharing it with the very young boy lams whilst the first and then the second new temples of the monastery were being built. They lived together like a traditional Mongolian herder family. Then she finally moved into her own little house, and the lams to their gers in pairs or small groups.

Her house was the first of the renovated small out-buildings at DC to have a painted yellow roof. When visitors first arrive, having made the long journey by road from UB, they know to head straight for  Narantsetseg’s stone block kitchen-house. There are always homemade breads and a fresh cauldron of hot milk tea simmering for breakfast, as well as big packets of individually-wrapped chocolates and other confectioneries stuffed into the many (and more difficult to get to) drawers in Narantsetseg’s kitchen-house. These are for children, tired guests and the workers.

During DC’s reconstruction, hospitality was also and always generously offered to the many less-well off Mongolian people who were travelling through the local countryside, often three-to-a motorbike. No-one ever left Narantsetseg’s kitchen house hungry or empty-handed. All visitors, wealthy or less so, were treated with the same courtesy and respect.

In the Gobi, if there was no fuel for her simple stove, she would go outside to get it herself whatever the weather: dung, wood, coal but only during the winter because it is so expensive. In the Autumn of 2010 Narantsetseg purchased a cow, the monastery’s first. The young lams jokingly referred to it as, holy cow-maa.

From fresh milk, she now made her own fresh milk-rice, a favourite and delicious hot soupy food eaten regularly here at the monastery. It is served either with or without added white refined sugar.

From the cow’s pee and cow dung, Narantsetseg began making bajung nga, a traditional medicine used to sustain good health during long meditation retreats. Narantsetseg not only has the ability and prerequisite training to work with food as medicine, but she also has the ritual permission to do so.

Her son the Abbot had gone into a mandatory solitary retreat here at DC in December 2008. From the day he embarked on this rigorous and personally-challenging undertaking, Narantsetseg prepared his simple but nutritious meals; three times a day, every single day. She did not see her beloved son even once since the commencement of his retreat. Nor has she communicated with him, nor he with her, even through intermediaries such as her nephew who is responsible for delivering the food personally from her kitchen and then bringing back the plates and other utensils so that the entire process could start all over again.

Surely, such an act of sustained motherly love, constancy of endeavor and devotion is as noteworthy and commendable as the completion of the solitary retreat itself?

How stabilising, how affirming for a long-term retreatant to know, experience and be the beneficiary of such constancy of both practical support and succor. With this rigorous system of food preparation and delivery overseen by his own mother, the possibility of someone tampering with the only supply of food was removed.

For Narantsetseg, an obstacle (Mong. Саад тотгор) of which there seemed to be a procession, is a problem to be worked through, or around. With such a relentless procession of all sorts of visitors to DC how could it be otherwise?

When one enquires about Narantsetseg’s wellbeing? Her answers are always the same. Whether the expression is gestural, expressed in the Mongolian language or in Russian, her polite, deflecting (attention away from herself) answers distill down into variations of, everything is fine, everything is normal or its business as usual. The only clue to any lack of wellness is a [temporary] lack of activity, a state of being that Narantsetseg constantly strives to overcome.

The quality of her constancy of both purpose and affection is exemplary, and a source of inspiration for me.

Like many Mongolian women of her generation, she has born many children: eight of her own, all of whom have now grown into healthy adulthood. Along with her own children, there is now also a growing number of grandchildren (and great grand-children) in whose lives she is actively involved, particularly over the summer when they come as a group, or by themselves to spend time wth her.

She would never (herself) refer to instances where she may have had a positive influence on the life of another, whether they are people in women’s bodies or those of men. However, given the many personal and detailed accounts by others of how she has been of assistance, it would be remiss of me not to mention such an important contribution to the cultivation of her own matrix of social inter-relationships here.

Many of her women friends irrespective of age, speak of Narantsetseg in terms of someone who embodies (read as: exemplifies) (Mongolian) notions of mother (read as: someone who is a superior elder in authority over a religious community) as well as being a mother (read as: showing female maternal tenderness and affection and motherhood (Mongolian, эхболох). I am in no doubt that she is highly regarded, a pillar of strength and wisdom in her community and extensive social sphere.


As a young woman, Narantsetseg had managed to combine caring for her extended family, including her own parents, with a successful career as an army cook.

Whilst working for the army, Narantsetseg progressively rose through the ranks of workers. By the 1980s, she was already head cook for a battalion of 1000 army soldiers. Her husband also worked as a chauffeur for senior officers in the same army battalion.

In this role,  Narantsetseg was responsible for overseeing the efficient running of an army kitchen and the preparation of all meals, every day, seven days a week, for all of these people. There were also additional expectations placed on her at work. She was required to be on call to prepare, often at short notice, more elaborate meals for senior army officers and visiting Russian government officials. These were more often than not evening meals or dinner parties. Having already starting her working day at home at around 4.30am, arrived at work at 6am-sharp to prepare breakfast for the soldiers, she was required to also work late into the night serving the army officers and their guests until the time that her culinary services were no longer required. Amongst the women of her generation, here there is a saying, women are always busy.


Initially trained as a kindergarten teacher during the socialist era in Mongolia, Narantsetseg was enlisted as a cook in the army where she worked until 1986 when she took the major step of retiring from the time-consuming responsibilities of this job. Instead, she would put her then considerable energies into the reconstruction effort around Amarbayasgalant Monastery in Selenge Aimag near the Siberian border where two of her sons were now lams.

These then young boys, the younger following in the footsteps of the older boy two years his senior, had left secular schooling with both their father’s and Narantsetseg’s permission. Known to be children of devout Buddhist parents, they had each been singled-out by the (then) socialist public school administrators.

The two boys endured harsh physical and other punishment and were frequent recipients of unprovoked and seemingly irrational assaults on their character … They were teased and tormented, particularly the elder of the two, for having Buddhist parents by their classmates who were instructed to do so by the socialist agitators in the school’s administration.

One day these two boys were at school, and on the next day, their father and another senior Lama escorted them to Amarbayasgalant where they would stay and study the Buddha Dharma according to the Mongolian Gelug tradition for the next 14 years.

A particularly sadistic narrative was constructed by the socialist agitators at the school. The eldest boy had been accused of cruelties including that related to a rabbit. Outraged and increasingly fearful for the safety of their children, the two teenage boys were taken out of secular schooling. Students from the same class, and who have remained life-long friends with their schoolmate (now DC’s Abbot), have confirmed these events. For her part, while all this was going on, Narantsetseg kept on cooking and caring, for everyone, the whole time.

The two boys had been taken to Amarbayasgalant for their formal monastic education in this then remote monastery near the Siberian border many years before democracy was officially pronounced in 1992 and whilst pro-Soviet, pro-socialist sentiment and its prohibitions still circulated if not prevailed.

In those days, you caught and train from Ulaanbaatar and walked the remaining fifty kilometers to Amarbayasgalant on foot.  My husband and I would regularly make this difficult journey together; back and forth, taking food—with my husband dragging a big trolley on wheels carrying the food behind him— for not only our two sons, but for the other lams there too.


 Most stories about Narantsetseg, are related to her religious inheritance and her insuppressible determination to preserve it, to reconstitute it, to not let it be subsumed and to pass it on. She is always teaching, explaining, showing. Above all, through my eyes, she embodies ways of practical doing and being that she has been taught and now cultivated, and in which she is now a specialist. Embodied loving kindness and perseverance are just two of her many gifts.

She comes from a religious family. The family’s birthmark, the amulet is Palden Lhamo. Her father was born near Baga Gazriin Chuluu in Dundgovi Aimag around 1907. Narantsetseg’s father was also  a famous Mongolian Lama, a Jorvon.

As a young man, at seventeen years of age in 1924, her father had moved from his home country (Baga Gazriin Chuluu) to Gungaachoilin Datsan in Ulaanbaatar to become a young lama. There he would pursue his studies and over time became the leader of his class. Jantsan’s lamaist studies, however, were interrupted when in 1939 at the age of 32, he was conscripted into the Mongolian army and sent to fight in Manchuria.  So overwhelmed was he by the horrors of this experience, that on his return from fighting in the war, he chose not to return to Ulaanbaatar but rather to relocate to the remote countryside of Sukhbaatar Aimag where he worked as a simple herder of goats and sheep. It was quiet there …


According to Basan Tushihbayar, PhD scholar Religious Studies Department Mongolian National University (Personal correspondence: 31 March, 2011):

Jorvon is the head monk of a class. It used to be said as “Zindaanii Jorvon”. Zindaa means class, and as jorvon means head: it can be translated in English as a head of the class.

Every class engaged in monastic study has to choose the most dignified, well-behaved and the best example person among the students in the class as a “Jorvon”. The Jorvon is responsible for the whole class and represents the class in matters of study and other monastic daily events, and the higher-ranked lamas and masters communicate with each class through the Jorvon. The Jorvon must not be just the smartest or the most accomplished lama, but has to be the most respected one among the whole class members.

So even many years after the graduation from monastic study, the Jorvon is still responsible for re-gathering the class and organising activities among the former class members. And in short, the Jorvon is the highly-respected lama among one class of lamas during their monastic study and after their graduation as well. So Jorvon is the title related with his duty in one particular class, but not a rank of lama related with his accomplishments in religious study.”


Narantsetseg was born in 1946 in Munkhkhaan sum and grew up in and around the western part of Sukhbaatar Aimag in Mongolia. Her early childhood was also spent tending goats and sheep and making white products such as many different types of cheeses and yoghurt. When she was eight years old she went to primary school and at 16 years of age she graduated from secondary school.

Around 1962, she moved to Ulaanbaatar to study at the Kindergarten Teacher’s College. Her future husband, also from Munkhkhaan sum, was already working in the Mongolian Army. He was six years her senior. They married when Narantsetseg was seventeen years old. They had their first child, a daughter, when she was twenty years old, in 1966.

With a growing family, in 1971 they moved out of their family ger and into a new soviet-style apartment in Ulaanbaatar. Many family stories remain, particularly amongst her older children, describing the contrast in lifestyle (for them) as they moved from one kind of dwelling to another. Before that, she and her family all lived together, according to Mongolian tradition, in the one family ger.


Narantsetseg’s husband’s father Buyan Sharav, Zavaa Damdin’s (1976-) grandfather, was also a devout Buddhist. He had three brothers. All three were lamas. They too died in the religious purges of 1937.

In 2001, Narantsetseg’s family with her beloved husband Dugarjav as patriarch, was awarded one million Mongolian tögrög per deceased Lama in their family by the Mongolian Government as compensation for the loss of these precious lives. On receiving these funds, and after much family discussion, the family declared that, ‘We cannot put food bought [with] this money in our mouths … ‘We must give it away.’

With one million tögrög, the equivalent of three kilograms of silver, the family erected a stupa to honour the lives of their own family lamas, and a consecration (of stupa) puja was also sponsored and performed. The family distributed the remaining two million tögrög from the government’s compensation award between three relatives of Buyan Sharav and their respective families, all of who live in the countryside.

When asked to speculate on what motivates Narantsetseg to be the person she is, her adult children say that, she has her father’s blood He made butter lamps and prayed every night …her heart is like that of her father. It is a lama’s heart!  They also say that her own mother Arildii Lhamsuren, who has memorized many many sutras and counted many hundreds of thousands of mantras has strongly influenced the cultivation of Narantsetseg’s devotional and other qualities.


Transmission of objects of material culture

Transfer of custodianship of such objects of material culture play an important role in Mongolian religious families. Narantsetseg’s father, being a Jorvon, was himself the recipient and therefor custodian of certain religious objects. After his passing in 1984, these were distributed to other members of the family.

His snuff bottle, as well as all the sutras and thangkas (see below) were now given to his son, Narantsetseg’s brother. The family ger and importantly, its central wheel, were passed on to her. His Amber mala went to Narantsetseg’s oldest sister, a medical doctor.

The mala is [considered] more precious than the amber, because it belonged to Jantsan, because he had used it and had counted many many hundreds of thousands of mantras with it. 

The thangkas of Green Tara, White Tara and of Palden Lhamo have since been handed on to Narantsetseg’s sons who at the time were young lams (one of whom is now DC’s Abbot). This took place in 1990, two years after the boys became lams in 1988. Their uncle, initial custodian of these thangkas is alive and well, continuing to be actively involved in revitalising their family’s living Buddhist practices. In this instance, transfer of custodianship took place earlier than it would otherwise have taken place. They were gifts to the boys to carry on the tradition. The thangka of Palden Lhamo was given to them for protection.


Background Notes

A thangka, also rendered in the English language as tangka or thanka, is a scroll painting, sometimes embroidered with silk, depicting a Buddhist deity, with their entourage, or mandala. A silk brocade textile is often seen mounted around the painted or embroidered picture panel.

Serving as important teaching tools, they were originally popular among travelling lamas because the scroll paintings were easy to roll up to transport from one place to another. For Vajrayana Buddhists, these religious paintings are imbued with manifestations of the divine: of Buddha(s), deities and other Bodhisattvas, lineage tutors as well as other influential lamas.

Properly created thangkas can perform a range of functions: (a) they can describe historical events concerning lamas; (b) help retell important myths associated with particular deities; (c) act as centerpieces and objects of veneration during deity rituals or ceremonies (often functioning as a medium through which prayers may be offered and requests (to the deity) can be made; and/or (d) as religious art, be used as a tool to assist one’s own journey along the path to enlightenment.

For Vajrayana Buddhist practitioners, thangka image(s) of their yidam(s) are used to visualise, internalise and cultivate particular qualities on the long and winding road towards one’s own enlightenment.



This vignette, 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). pp116-124

Weatherford, J. and Laura Buchholz (2004) for the Macalester College collaborative online student research project at: http://www.macalester.edu/anthropology/mongolia/mother.html].


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