The Gandan Khiid monastery is an active monastery which stands atop a hill in Ulaanbaatar city. Its full name – Gandantegchinlen – roughly translates as ‘the great place of complete joy’.
The monastery was one of the few to survive the Communist purges of 1937, but was closed in 1938. It was hastily opened again in 1944, when US President Henry Wallace asked to see a monastery during his visit to Mongolia that year. Until 1990, Gandantegchinlen remained a ‘show monastery’ for foreign visitors, distracting from the fact that Prime Minister Choibalsan had laid waste to much of Mongolia’s religious heritage in the first part of that century.
As you enter the monastery’s main attraction, the Migjid Janraisig Sum, you find yourself face to face, or rather, face to base, with a 26m high statue, made of copper with a gilt gold covering and inlaid with 2,236 precious gems. The eighth Bogd Khan commissioned the original statue in 1911, but it was removed by Russia in 1937 and allegedly melted down to make bullets. The new statue was built in 1996 with donations from the Mongolian, Japanese and Nepali people and is said to contain 27 tonnes of medicinal herbs and 334 Sutras (Buddhist scriptures).
As you enter the monastery you see candles and incense burning in front of a kind of altar. People stand in front of this to pray, and use their hands to waft the smoke towards their faces.
All around the room there are gold prayer wheels embossed with religious scripture. The custom is to walk around the whole monastery, turning each wheel with your right hand.
The monastery is part of a complex – you can also see the Ochidara Temple, the two-storey Didan-Lavran Temple, the four colleges of Buddhist philosophy, and the Ondor Gegeen Zanabazar Buddhist University.