Ivolginsky Datsan, located in East Siberia near Lake Baikal, is the most important Buddhist monastery in Russia. It is also home to a phenomenon that continues to intrigue scientists and attract believers by the thousands — the preserved body of the Khambo Lama, who died in 1927 and is still sitting upright in the lotus position .
History of Ivolginksy Datsan
Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov was born in 1852 and began his religious education at the age of 16. He studied in Anninsky Datsan (a Buddhist university in Buryatia now in ruins) and earned degrees in medicine and philosophy. In 1911, he was appointed the 12th Pandito Khambo Lama (also spelled Hambo Lama), the head of Buddhism in Russia.
As Khambo Lama, Itigilov is credited with inspiring a Buddhist revival among Buryats and with founding the Gunzechoyney datsan, the first Buddhist temple in St. Petersburg. He was also closely involved with Tsar Nicholas II, who invited the Lama to his house during the 300th anniversary celebrations of the Romanov dynasty in 1913 invested him with the Order of St. Stanislas in March 1917.
Itigilov remained an influential figure after stepping down from his post as Khambo Lama in 1917. During the First World War, Itigelov founded the organization of “Buryat Brothers" that helped the army with money, meals, clothes and medication. He also built a set of hospitals with lama doctors helping wounded soldiers. For this he received the St. Anna Award.
In 1926, Itigilov warned his students about the coming terror of the "red teaching" and advised them to flee to Tibet. He remained in Siberia, and in 1927 he announced it was time for his passing. He asked the lamas to join him in meditation and begin funeral rites, and he died while meditating in the lotus position at the age of 75. In accordance with his will, the Khambo Lama's body was buried in a wooden box sitting upright in the lotus position.
Myth and Mystery
Interestingly, Itigilov's testament also requested that monks exhume his body after a period of some years. This was done once in 1955 and again in 1973, after some difficulty in locating the body. Both times they found the body perfectly preserved and still sitting upright (which a dead body cannot normally do for more than two weeks). The monks did not publicize the astonishing phenemon due to the anti-religion policies of the Communist government.
The body of Dasha-Dorzho Itigilov was transferred to Ivolginksy Datsan and publicly unveiled for the first time in September 2002, 75 years after his death in 1927. His body has decayed slightly since its exhumation but still remains in a state of preservation that baffles scientists and draws believers by the thousands.
In November 2004, Professor Viktor Zvyagin of the Federal Center of Forensic Medicine examined Itigilov's body in Ivolginsk and conducted analyses of hair, skin and nail specimens in Moscow. He concluded that Itigilov's body was in the condition of someone who had died 36 hours ago. "In my years of practice I have encountered quite a few instances of preserved bodies, but those were either the result of mummification" or extreme environmental conditions, Zvyagin said. "But this is something different, and for me, incomprehensible. It's a phenomenon that calls for the most detailed research."
Buddhists believe the 12th Khambo Lama was the reincarnation of the Lama Damba Dorja Zayayev, the first Khambo Lama, who was born in 1702. Lama Damba Dorja Zayayev lived to be 75. And 75 years after his death, Lama Itigelov was born, who also lived to be 75. Buddhists believe that the condition of Lama Itigelov's body, understood to be like no other in history, is evidence that he reached the state of emptiness. He has thus become a source of inspiration to many lamas and novices following the spiritual path and others of the Buddhist faith.
Many locals also believe Itigelov's body to have healing powers, and pilgrims flock to Ivolginksy to press their foreheads to the Lama's scarf. Wheelchairs and crutches are often left near the body as a sign of healing.
What to See at Ivolginksy Datsan
The temple is pleasantly situated in a wide green valley overlooked by mountain peaks. The complex, which is a state-protected cultural monument, includes several temples: Sockshin-gugan, Maidrin-sume, Devazhin and Sackhjusan-sume. There is also a library, a hotel, a center for Buddhist learning, a museum of Buryat art, service buildings and houses for lamas.
The focus of the site is the main temple, protected by painted tigers and elaborately decorated inside. The interior is a riot of colors, with painted dragons spiraling up columns, and hundreds of portraits and statues of the Buddha in various incarnations.
It is here in the main temple that Itigilov's body is kept, in a glass case on an upper floor. It is exhibited just seven days a year, on Buddhist holidays (a decision of the current Khambo Lama, Damba Ayusheyev). Itigilov sits in a glass case in front of the large Buddha statue in the temple, dressed in bright gold and orange robes. His body is slumped slightly forward, and his eyes and nose are now sunken in.
The monastery attracts visitors and pilgrims throughout the year, but especially on the seven days each year on which the Khambo Lama's body is displayed. Pilgrims began their visit by walking a clockwise path around the monastery, placing coins in collection boxes and spinning mounted prayer wheels of all shapes and sizes. They then wait in line, which may take well over an hour, to enter the main temple.
Monks hurry awed observers past the glass case containing the Most Precious Body, leaving them only a moment to touch their forehead to Itigilov's scarf, which extends through the bottom of the case. Believers invariably linger in the temple as long as possible, backing away from Itigilov's case with tiny steps, palms pressed together in prayer.
Quick Facts on Ivolginksy Datsan
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- Pilgrims Flock to Buddhist Center to See Their Lama - St. Petersburg Times, September 28, 2005
- Pandito Khambo Lama Itigelov's Most Precious Body - North Country Public Radio, October 9, 2005
- Ivolginksy Datsan - The Lake Baikal Guidebook Online
- Hambo Lama Itigelov - Neplaneta.ru
- Lonely Planet Russia & Belarus (2003 ed.), 574.
- Mortals and saints can remain physically immortal after death - Pravda.ru, March 25, 2005
- Photos of Ivolginksy Datsan - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Ivolginksy Datsan, Ivolginsk
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