25 January 2012

The Meaning Of Buddhist Stupas

Learn more about one of Buddhism's most sacred objects

Throughout our trips and on our city walking tour, I like our guests to gain an 'essence' of Mongolia's Buddhist heritage. Monasteries are built not just as centres of worship but as centres of learning - their elements are designed to teach and inspire. The architecture of a monastery will be practical and at the same time deeply symbolic - such as the symbolism of a stupa. If you have travelled through a Buddhist country you will have come across stupas. They are often a dominant part of Buddhist monastery architecture along with prayer wheels. Spend time at Gandan Monastery (Gandantegchinlen Khiid) in Ulaan Baatar or Erdene Zuu Monastery in Kharkhorin and you will observe local Mongolians circling these structures.

Golden Stupa, Erdene Zuu Khiid, Kharkhorin.
The rich cultural heritage of Mongolia - a stupa at Erdene Zuu Monastery
Most travellers are aware that stupas are significant structures within a monastery but few really know what they fully represent - for a long time, I was one of those travellers.

Stupas are said to bring prosperity and harmony to the surrounding community and to help prevent natural disasters by pacifying harmful environmental forces. As a Buddhist, it is the sum of your actions in life which determines your form in the next life. It is believed that the power of an action performed close to a stupa is greatly magnified. Prayer wheels are often found at the base of stupas - turning a prayer wheel in close vicinity to a stupa will create a store of merit or positive energy. Circling a stupa as a Buddhist will keep the hope of enlightenment at the centre of your awareness.

Prayer wheels with Tibetan script inlaid upon them. Gandan Monastery, Ulaanbaatar
Prayer wheels - according to Buddhist belief spinning a prayer wheel is just as effective as reciting the sacred texts of Buddhism aloud. Spinning the prayer wheel increases the power of the mantras (prayers) inside the prayer wheel.

The stupa is one of the oldest Buddhist structures - the practise of  creating them has existed since possibly neolithic times when simple burial mounds or cairns were constructed as reliquaries for holy people. Stupas are built to house sacred objects and relics of Buddhist masters are placed inside to amplify the power of a stupa. Commemorative stupas are built to observe events in the life of Buddha or his disciples.

Every layer of a stupa will contain multilayered symbolism. The five geometric shapes that make up the main design of a stupa are said to represent the elements of fire, water, earth, air and space. Part of the construction represents a lotus (the lotus has many meanings but one is spiritual and mental purity). The overall form of a stupa is said to be that of the Buddha seated in meditation - architectural representations of Buddha's mind, body and speech.

Now you (and I) know. I may just go and circle one for a little enlightenment. You can learn more about Mongolia's country profile on my Eternal Landscapes website.

5 January 2012

Mongolia's Mining Boom

A general introduction into the mining of natural resources in Mongolia

Mongolia is vast. It is one of the least densely populated countries on earth. It is home to one of the few true nomadic cultures left in the world. It has wilderness that is still wilderness. But, where there is tradition there is also progress and the two make for a very interesting contrast.  

Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park, Mongolia
Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park - a wilderness under threat.
Underneath the surface of this remarkable country lies wealth. Of a mineral variety. World-class reserves  of untapped mineral deposits such as gold, copper, silver, tin, coal, fluorspar, uranium, tungsten and 'rare earth minerals' used in today's modern advanced technology.

Located in southern Mongolia is Oyo Tolgoi - 'Turquoise Hill', a gold and copper ore deposit and the world's largest mining exploration project. The list continues:  Nalaikh coal mine,  the Tavan Tolgoi coal project, Boroo hard rock gold mine, Erdenet copper and molybdenum mine.......

Add to this Ninjas. Ninjas are small scale miners, local Mongolians, scouring sites rejected by larger mining companies for quartz or crumbs of gold. They are given the nick-name Ninjas after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cartoon  for the plastic green buckets they wear on their backs, Ninja's are often the long-term unemployed looking for a way to support their children's education, or herders left destitute by savage winters that destroyed their livestock and therefore their way of life. One or two are just looking to get rich quick.

The spread of mining, and a hunger for the land and its natural resources are putting incredible pressure on Mongolia's slender water resources and fragile pastures.The spread of mining has consequences for the traditional nomadic herding culture, still a mainstay of the country's traditional life and economy.

Mongolia is an ancient land of marked extremes, from its climate to its extraordinary natural environment. Known as the 'Land of the Eternal Sky', the beliefs of ancient Mongolia linger in 21st century Mongolia mirrored by practises that remain current - the shamanistic honouring of the Eternal Sky and the spiritual forces of nature and the belief in a sacred landscape. There is a deep reverence for nature and as written in Lonely Planet and other publications, the fact that Mongolia's land is being torn up in search of minerals is inexcusable according to shamans, and may lead to retribution from Tenger (the sky god).

A shamanistic ovoo, Khovsgol Nuur National Park
Honouring the Eternal Sky
The current question should not be whether mining should occur in Mongolia. It is and it's here to stay. The essential question is how to have mining operations without losing other important environmental and cultural resources.  Local Mongolians with international support are fighting back, working to protect their natural environment including winning environmental awards, focusing on community projects and herders coming together to campaigning for their rights as land users.

You can learn more about Mongolia by going to my Mongolia country profile page on my Eternal Landscapes website.