About the Tod Nomin Gerel Collection

Beginning from the mid-seventeenth century Qing period, through to the end of the Socialist period, the numerous ulus (peoples) in the Mongolian plateau were subjected to deliberate homogenization projects, which culminated in a national unit ‘Mongolia’ within the nation-state system. At the same time, Buddhist practitioners and practices were either eliminated or forced underground, as part of a larger Soviet project to curtail religious identity. After the 1990 Democratic Revolution in Mongolia, citizens were allowed to select their yastan (yas = bone), or ethnic group for official documents. Most Khalkh Mongols, not sure of their lineage, chose popular Chinggisid ones such as ‘Borjigid.’ However, the Western Mongols (the Oirat) emerged from Socialism with their identity relatively intact, including knowledge of their yastan. Currently, Oirats self-identify as Torghud, Dorbet, Baid, Olood, Choros, Uriankhai, Khoshud, Khoid, and Zakhachin.

Although Oirats share many of the traditional Inner Asian steppe traditions, they have always had an identity separate from the Khalkh and Inner Mongolian ulus. Oirats, by definition, did not have a claim to Chinggisid legitimacy of rule and they were incorporated into the Qing Empire well after the Khalkha and Inner Mongolian ulus. Oirats have their own customs, oral tradition, dialects and a writing system (clear script Oirat or todo bichig) that was given to them by Zaya Pandita (1599–1662) who at the same time converted them to Buddhism. From the time Zaya Pandita developed clear script Oirat in 1648 until his death in 1662, he translated approximately 186 Buddhist texts from Tibetan into Oirat and Mongolian.

Translation of and access to extant texts for analysis is necessary in order to contribute to a ‘definitive’ history of the Oirat. This is important because the Oirat Confederation existed at a time and place where two expanding empires met. Almost all of the scholarship on the Oirats is based on either Russian or Chinese sources. Being able to access the scant information that exists on Oirat culture and history, in their own voice, provides important insights into this little understood but important transition area, and into the religious, literary, linguistic, and historical cultural heritage of the Western Mongols within a greater ‘Khalkha’ Mongolia.

Items in the collection are hand-made copies of originals created prior to the advent of photoduplicating machines. In this ritual, performed up until the Socialist period, there was a great ceremony surrounding the hand-copying of sutras and manuscripts. Both lay people and lamas were involved and the ceremonies prior to the actual handcopying which took several days. These ritual practices were abolished during the Socialist period and subsequent duplicating technology made these rituals for the most part obsolete. However, elements of these rituals remain in the Western provinces of Mongolia. For example, the curator of the collection performed several rituals while removing the texts in the collection from the monastery in order to bring them to Ulaanbaatar for digitization.