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Buddhist Music of Mongolia*

Buddhism expanded into Mongolia from Tibet during the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. Four great religious traditions had emerged in Tibet:  first Nyingmapa (Tibetan rnying mapa), then Kargyudpa (Tibetan Bka' brgyud pa) and Saskyapa (Tibetan sa skya pa), and finally the reformist Gelugpa (Tibetan dge lugs pa or dga' Idan pa).  The lineages and traditions of the Gelugpa school (called Shar Malgaitai 'Yellow Hat' by Mongols) gained supremacy in Mongolia when Zanabazar (1635-1723), who was the son ofTusheet Khan Gombodorj, a direct descendant of Gengis Khan, became the first incarnate Bogd Gegen of Urga, Ondor Gegen. Zanabazar built new temples in the capital in Mongolian style and designed new rituals, music, and monastic costumes. However, recently rehabilitated lamas recall that in Mongolia, other schools-collectively referred to as Ulaan Malgatai 'Red Hat'-still exerted some influence up to the precommunist period.

Mongolian monks and lamas adapted the monastic traditions of Tibet.  Each monastery had its own manuscripts of song texts and notation (yan-yig, Tibetan dbyangs yig). Chants performed by lamas during religious rituals were in Tibetan and Sanskrit and were interspersed with sounds of gongs, cymbals, or wind instruments.  Lamas used religious and philosophical long-songs (Mongolian shastir daguu) as a vehicle for teaching.  In the West Monastery of Alasha, the Red Hat lama Danzan Ravjaa (1803-1856) used musical drama (such as Saran Hohoonii Namtar 'Biography of the Moon Cuckoo') and hariltsaa duu 'conversation songs' in long-song form (such as Ovgon Shuvuu Hoyor 'Old Man and Bird'). Similarly, in Red Hat monasteries in West Mongolia, lamas played the ikil and topshuur. They also performed long-songs and occasionally the biy dance. 

Bards were invited to perform epics within monasteries, and lamas were even thought to be reincarnations of epic heroes. Dani-Hurel, hero of a lengthy Bait and Dorbet epic cycle, was said to have been reborn in the Bait Dejeelin monastery, where he held the grade of bagsh-gegen. Similarly, epic heroes became identified with Buddhist gods, while retaining many of their shamanic abilities and characteristics.

Four manuscripts entitled Gur Duuny Bichig containing song texts used in Nomyn Khan monasteries in the early eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have been discovered in Mongolia. The second and fourth manuscripts have musical notation for the ten-stringed yatga. These manuscripts provide evidence of four intriguing aspects of Mongolian Buddhist music: (1) an apparent relationship between some of the song texts and contemporary long-songs performed in non-Buddhist contexts; (2) composition of songs and development of notations by successive incarnations of the Nomun Khan; (3) use of yatga (see video below) in Mongolian monasteries; and (4) an unknown notational system providing melodic contours for yatga tunes and for songs.

Use of the yatga in monasteries sets Mongolian Buddhist music apart from Tibetan Buddhist music, in which chordophones are absent. The yatga was believed to have been played as a sacred instrument by "living Buddhas," and its performance was therefore surrounded by ritual. Before playing, the musician would wash his hands, burn incense, and observe the Buddhist "six taboos" and "seven persuasions." The yatga was also played in worship at oboo and during sports, such as horse racing, held on such occasions.

In contemporary Mongolia, recently rebuilt monasteries are trying to reacquire liturgical instruments. An indispensable instrument is a small bronze-embossed handbell, the honh (Tibetan drib bu), which has an iron clapper that produces a clear high tone. Held in the left hand, it is used together with a ritual scepter called dorje 'diamond', 'lightning', 'thunderbolt' held in the right. During scriptural recitation or chanting, the bell may be sounded continuously, used to repeat short rhythmic formulas, or shaken violently.  Cymbals (tsan) are played using a complex mathematical organization of rhythmic structures, which may also "voice" the four ritual syllables or mantras. The rhythms played and the manner of striking vary according to the performing school, and according to the ritual considered necessary for summoning particular deities. At least three kinds of cymbals are used in Mongolia: large-bossed, small-bossed, and miniature (denshig). A pair of cymbals may be sounded alone or played along with other instruments, such as the frame drum, to punctuate ritual recitation and song, to mark the rhythmic patterns of instrumental music for ceremonies, and to accompany tsam dance dramas.

A large, powerful gong, the haranga, is placed outside the prayer hall and is sounded to signal the hour when the monks assemble. Duuduram, gong-chimes comprising ten small bossed gongs of different pitches placed upright in a wooden frame and sounded by a beater or beaters, were used in some monasteries.  Various types of hengereg, or drums, are used. The double-headed portable or suspended frame drum-held by a long, thin handle or a wooden stand during a performance is beaten with a curved stick (tahiur) with a round leather pad at the distal end to muffle the sound. It is played by two rows of monks, seated facing each other, who rhythmically mark the chanting of religious texts in ceremonies of the lower Tantra classes. Playing techniques vary according to monastic traditions and the type of ritual. The damar, a double-headed hourglass drum with suspended pellet strikers, varies considerably in size, shape, and ornamentation. Traditionally, it may be made of white or red sandalwood, red acacia, or ivory; but a Tantric damar may be made of two human skulls or female pubic bones. Performing schools differ regarding whether oscillations of wrists or thumb and forefinger accomplish the twirling necessary to produce sound. The skin of drumheads may be human, mammal, or snake.

A thighbone trumpet, gangdan buree, usually played in pairs, is used to invoke fierce deities and also to signal the entry of masked dancers in the dance drama tsam.  Preferably made from the thighbone of someone who met a violent death, it is symbolically associated with Buddhist concepts of the impermanence of phenomenal existence.  The bishguur (right), a wooden shawm with a widely flared bell of copper or engraved silver and seven finger holes interspersed with semiprecious stones, is played using circular breathing. One of its functions among Ordos Mongols of Inner Mongolia was to accompany the "offering of the lamp," a ceremony held before dawn and after sunset, when lamps were cleaned, wicks were trimmed, and butter was replenished.

In all four sects, long metal bass trumpets, buree, were used primarily in Tantric ceremonies of the higher class. Made of brass, copper, or even silver, with richly decorated joints (mostly of copper), they may have two or three sections that telescope for storage. A white end-blown conch-shell trumpet, dun or tsagaan buree, is pierced at the tip for blowing and sometimes also has a metal mouthpiece. In Buddhist contexts, it is usually played in pairs, especially on monastery rooftops, facing the four points of the compass in turn, to call monks to the prayer hall or to signal the beginning of a teaching session. It is also played during the first part of a rain ritual and during rites to cleanse the air by burning incense.

In Ordos, Mongol lamas also used a free-reed mouth organ (Mogolian pak bishur; Chinese sheng--image left) in Buddhist music. This instrument consists of a cluster of bamboo tubes, differing in length, each with a free reed embedded in a window, assembled in a circle of lacquered wood. To sound more than one note simultaneously, air is drawn over the reeds through a spoutlike lateral mouthpiece inserted in the bowl.

Tantric masked dance-drama tsam (Mongolian cam) probably arrived in Mongolia in the early eighteenth century; it then assimilated elements from Mongolian folk-religious and shamanic complexes and developed distinctive Mongol characteristics. Although a manual for the cam of Mergen Monastery, Inner Mongolia, was compiled in 1750 by Mergen Diyanci Lama, the first evidence of performance is at Erdene Juu in 1787. In the early twentieth century, the annual event in lh Htiree (now Ulaanbaatar) was attended by the khan and his ministers, the aristocracy, and Buddhist hierarchs.

The tsam has an underlying structure: movements of dancer-lamas metaphysically create the spheres of heaven, wind, water, and fire, that is, the iconography of the mandala; dancer-lamas invoke and embody Tantric deities for those spheres, together with their retinues; malevolent spirits, also created and invited, are forced to enter a "corpse" or "human effigy," previously made of dough, wax, or paper, and are then magically destroyed; and parts of the "corpse"-the dead bodies of the spirits-are offered to the "dieties of the mandala." 

The figures of the Tantric mandala, taken mostly from Tibet, are reinterpreted in the Mongolian context. The central figure of the Gelugpa tsam, Yama, Lord of Death, portrayed by an ox's head with a fierce countenance, became the Mongolian Choijil, also identified with the shamanic Erlig Khan. In Mongolian tsam, Erlig Khan is the last to enter the dance. After killing the dough figure, he begins the final whirling, trancelike dance, thereby exorcising evil and other obstacles to enlightenment. Black-faced, six-armed Mahakala, worshiped in Mongolia since the days of Khubilai Khan, is popular as a manifestation of the two-armed Gurgon, Lord of the Tent. The great protector and war god Jamsaran (Begtse) appeared only rarely in Tibetan ritual dances but was an important figure in Mongolian tsam because of his military prowess and his status as protector of the nation. In Tibetan versions, Black Hat lama-dancers have been interpreted in various ways, including as representations of the Tantric monks of Bon; in Mongolian tsam, they are considered to be grandchildren of the god Yamandag, who subdued the egocentric deity Erlig Khan and converted him to a more benevolent Buddhist point of view.

Each monastery had its own versions of masked dances, depending on the beliefs, traditions, and ethnicity of the order. Many local gods and spirits of earth and sky were represented. In the Khalkha lh Huree tsam, Erlig Khan was accompanied by the lords of the four sacred mountains surrounding the city. Danzan Ravjaa's monastery, Hamaryn Hiid in present-day East Gobi Province, featured a demoness called Mam with fangs and pendulous breasts. Tsagaan Ovgon 'White Old Man' appeared in most tsam; one of the Mongolian folk pantheon of gods, he was transformed into a joking figure when incorporated into Buddhism. Along with him appeared Kashin Khan. In the Janjin Choir monastery, East Gobi, this character wore a costume with many children on his back and front and was said to represent Abadai Khan, who made the Gelugpa order the state religion in the seventeenth century. In the Khalkha lh Huree tsam, Kashin Khan had eight children, each of whom played a different instrument, providing music for the dancers who followed. In the Bait tsam, performed at Dejeelin monastery, he had only six children, and their dances expressed the movements of various kinds of work, such as spinning, sheep-shearing, and felt-making, much like the movements of the biy dance.

 The dance steps and musical accompaniments were complex and carefully choreographed.  Research remains to be done on this aspect of Mongolian tsam, but an important part was clearly played by the orchestra that accompanied the dances. In some of the more important tsam, more than 100 musicians took part, playing the instruments described above. 

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Further reading (compiled from Paul D. Greene, Keith Howard, Terry E. Miller, Phong T. Nguyen and Hwee-San Tan, "Buddhism and the Musical Cultures of Asia: A Critical Literature Survey," in The World of Music,Vol. 44, No. 2, Body and Ritual in Buddhist Musical Cultures (2002), 135-175 (VWB - Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung, 2002).
  • Chimed, R.  "Hiiree Tsam Buyu Bagt Biijig" [Mongolian monastery Tsam masked dance-drama].  Onoodor (1993) 24.
  • Hamayon, R.  "Quelques chants bouriates" [Some Buryatian chants]. Etudes Mongoles (1975) 6:191-213.
  • Pegg, Carole.  "Mongolian Conceptualizations of Overtone Singing (Xoomii)." British Journal of Ethnomusicoogy 1 (1992) :31-55.
  • Pegg, Carole.  "Ritual, Religion, and Magic in West Mongolian (Oirad) Heroic Epic Performance." British Journal of Ethnomusicology 4 (1995):77-99.
  • Pegg, Carole.  Mongolian Music, Dance, and Oral Narrative: Performing Diverse Identities (with CD). Seattle: University of Washington, 2001.
  • Van Oost, P. J.  "La musique chez les mongols des Urdus." In Anthropos IX-XI (1916)
  • Van Tongeren, M. "A Tuvan Perspective on Throat Singing." Oideion: The Performing Arts Worldwide 2 (1995): 293-312.
  • Vargyas, Lajos.  "Performing Styles in Mongolian Chant." Journal of the International Folk Music Yang, Hai-Yup [Yang Hyeyop]
    1982 Die buddhistische Musik in Korea: Aufzeichnungen und Betrachtungen. Seoul: Seoul
    National University.Yang, Hai-Yup [Yang Hyeyop]
    1982 Die buddhistische Musik in Korea: Aufzeichnungen und Betrachtungen. Seoul: Seoul
    National University.Counci/20 (1968):70-2.