Kalmykia: Buddhism in Europe

Artwork By Sonya Gajdosova

The Russian Federation is the largest country geographically on Earth – it occupies roughly 3.34% of the world’s surface. In other words, the land of vodka, pierogies, and AK-47s covers over 17 million square meters.

Western media has long portrayed Russia as a slavic country, which it is to an extent, but by no means is it a culturally homogenous one.

I bet you didn’t know:

  • 10% of Russians are Muslim 
  • There are 35 official languages and over 100 minority languages spoken today across the Russian Federation
  • The Federation contains 21 almost fully self-governed republics (a special type of federal subject) each of which having their own cultures

When we hear the word Buddhism, we tend to point at the East, somewhere in between Tibet and Laos. We certainly don’t think of the continent of Germany, Spain, or Finland. However, you’ll certainly be surprised to know that there is a place at the very edge of Europe where Buddhism is the dominant religion. 

Let’s talk about the Republic of Kalmykia that resides in the North Caucasus, home to the Kalmyks. I am Russian myself, and to be completely honest, I first heard about this place when watching a YouTube video by Bald and Bankrupt

Please, take a pause here and look it up on Google Maps.

Is that Europe?

After looking at the map, you may be wondering: Is that Europe? Well, the answer is absolutely.

The Republic of Kalmykia is considered Eastern Europe since it is internationally agreed that the Caspian Sea separates Asia from Europe (at least at the respective latitudes), making it the only place in the European continent where Buddhists are the majority.

The Kalmyks

The Kalmyks are defined as a Mongolian subgroup in Russia and Kyrgyzstan, whose ancestors emigrated from Dzungaria, which corresponds to modern-day China. How on earth did they get there? To answer this question, we have to go back 400 years into the past.

The Kalmyk people descend from the Oirat Mongols, nomads who migrated through the Steppe, riding horses and camels (mostly used to transport yurts and belongings), and arrived in the region in the 17th Century. They settled and concentrated in Elista, which is now the capital of the Republic of Kalmykia. 

Nowadays, very few Kalmyks are nomads, but some still live in traditional yurts (circular portable tents) and look after their sheep, camels and horses. Herding is an important part of their culture and it’s roots come from their nomadic lifestyle.

A very fascinating part of their culture is their music. Similarly to other Mongolic nations, they have their own overtone singing, featuring goosebump-inducing epic poems. Click here to listen to a famous Kalmyk folk song.

FUN FACTS: 

  • George Lucas based the Ewok language from Star Wars on the Kalmyk-Oirat language because of its peculiar phonetics.
  • Kalmyks often meet to play chess. Many are pretty good at it, and the hobby is even taught in some schools. In fact, a former president of the Republic of Kalmykia was also the president of the FIDE (International Chess Association).

Buddhism

The reason Kalmykia is often regarded as a piece of Asia in Europe is because since the arrival of the Kamlyks, the region has been predominantly Buddhist for 400 years. 

Kalmykia has 160 000 Buddhists and 21 Buddhist temples. You will find beautiful pagodas, statues of Buddha next to statues of Lenin, and the tallest statue of Buddha in Europe (9 m). In fact, the Dalai Lama visited the Golden Abode of Buddha Shakyamuni, Kalmikya’s most important temple located in Elista (consecrated in 2005).

All of the standing temples are relatively new. These are part of the cultural revival of the Kamlyks. After the Russian Revolution, the Kalmyks were persecuted and had to secretly practice their religion as their temples were being destroyed by the USSR. 

In 1943, Joseph Stalin decided to deport as many Kamlyks as he could, accusing them of collaborating with the invading Nazis. Most of these exiled Kalmyks were sent to Siberia and Kazakhstan (both within the borders of the USSR). 

The exile lasted 13 years until Kruschev (leader of the USSR from 1953 to 1964) gave them permission to go back to their land (1956). But it wasn´t until the collapse of the Soviet Union, that the Buddhist Revival of Kalmykia commenced.

It was in the 90s that they started building new temples, the first one being erected at the gates of Elista. This first new temple symbolized and still symbolizes their sense of belonging, resistance, and unity after their persecution and deportation.

The Kalmyk nation never gave up hope. Their strength and their faith combined were their weapons, their means to achieve cultural survival. The freedom of faith that followed the fall of the USSR meant that they could pass their religion, customs, and traditions onto the younger generations, keeping Buddhism and the overall Kalmyk culture alive.

Buddhism is omnipresent in today’s Kalmykia, come and visit the bridge between the East and the West. 

Sources

Kalmykia – Europe’s Only Buddhist Region | Europe To The Maxx. (2019, July 12). [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ys4DqKOjxpE

bald and bankrupt. (2019, November 19). Lost In Kalmykia | Europe’s Weirdest Republic [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bR_eA_c_Yts

Okna Tsahan Zam – Eejin Duun (Kalmyk Folk Song). (2013, May 25). [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3rPtuCvbUtw

Sebastian Farje
Chief Content Officer @ The Avant-Guard Media Dual Degree in Philospshy, Politics, Law & Economics+Data & Business Analytics Student Cuisine enthusiast "Dare to be Curious"

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