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Military might and healing power. Appropriation and representations of the goddess Palden Lhamo in Kalmykia

Puissance militaire et pouvoir de guérison. Appropriation et représentations de la déesse Palden Lhamo en Kalmoukie
Valeria Gazizova

Résumés

L’article vise à revisiter une interconnexion paradoxale qui peut parfois exister entre les représentations des pouvoirs militaires et de guérison dans le culte et l’imaginaire populaires de certains groupes. Ces énergies contradictoires peuvent-elles se manifester dans une seule représentation et, surtout, quelles formes peuvent prendre ces représentations ? Je tente de répondre à ces questions en me concentrant sur les formes d’appropriation de la déesse tibétaine Palden Lhamo dans la société bouddhiste de Kalmoukie, une république située dans la partie européenne de la Russie. J’examine les types de représentation et les discours qui construisent cette divinité féminine comme étant simultanément une source de puissance militaire, une source de légitimation politique et un réceptacle de pouvoirs thérapeutiques. L’article présente également les théories locales expliquant pourquoi et comment une divinité féminine, dont la fonction principale est aussi celle de déesse de la fertilité, est devenue le centre d’un culte militaire. Outre les communications personnelles et les entretiens menés en Kalmoukie au cours de la période entre 2010 et 2019 avec un large éventail d’interlocuteurs, ma discussion s’appuie également sur l’iconographie d’anciennes bannières militaires portant l’image de cette déesse.

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Texte intégral

The research and writing-up of this article was assisted by the PRIME DAAD fellowship. I thank Isabelle Charleux for insightful comments on the earlier version of this paper. I also express my sincere gratitude to the GSRL (Groupe Sociétés, Religions, Laïcités) laboratory and Maison Suger, an international centre for hosting and cooperation in Paris, for providing excellent conditions for my work.

Introduction

1In this article, I attempt to revisit the theme of a paradoxical interconnection that can sometimes exist between the representations of military and healing powers in the popular worship and imagination in certain societies. How can these seemingly opposite ideas – those of destruction and recovery – become inalienable continuations of one another? Can these contradictory energies be manifested in a single vessel and, importantly, what forms can such vessels take? I suggest unpacking these questions by focusing on forms of appropriation and representation of the Tibetan female deity Palden Lhamo in the Buddhist society of Kalmykia, a republic situated in the European part of Russia to the northwest of the Caspian Sea. Descendants of the nomadic Oirats who came to their present-day location in the 17th century, the Kalmyks have followed the Tibetan variant of Buddhism, with the reformed Gelugpa (Tib. dGe lugs pa) order historically predominating. Until the end of the 18th century, they had close ties with Tibet, and not only the head of the Kalmyk Sangha, but also the khan of the Kalmyk khanate was appointed by the Dalai Lama (Èrdniev [1970] 2007, p. 101).

  • 1 The class of the wrathful defenders of Buddhism largely consists of male deities.

2In the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon, Palden Lhamo (Tib. dPal ldan lha mo; Mo. Baldan Lham), or “Glorious Goddess”, often referred to simply as Lhamo, belongs to the class of terrifying defenders of faith (Skt. dharmapāla; Tib. chos skyong)1. Venerated by all Tibetan Buddhist schools, she is recognized as the personal protector deity of the Dalai Lama lineage and a special guardian of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital (Heller 2003; Mullin & Watt 2003, p. 182). The worship of Palden Lhamo is said to have been introduced to Tibet in the 11th century by itinerant teachers from Oḍḍiyāna. While the First Dalai Lama (1391-1471) established this female deity as the special protector of his lineage, it was the Second Dalai Lama (1475-1542) who played the key role in fashioning and institutionalizing the cult of Palden Lhamo in Tibet by making her the main protector of the monasteries he had founded and authoring numerous texts for her worship. The Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682) further modified and strengthened the cult of Lhamo in Tibet, integrating her worship into public celebrations and, in this way, not only gaining support of the population, but also establishing relations among different monastic schools (Heller 2003).

  • 2 I transliterate Kalmyk terms in parenthesis in accordance with their normative dictionary spelling (...)
  • 3 For more on the deity’s role in Mongolian Buddhism and vernacular religion, see Kollmar-Paulenz (20 (...)

3In the Tibetan tradition, Palden Lhamo is already a very complex figure that has assimilated attributes, functions and mythology from diverse sources, including foremost such terrifying Hindu goddesses as Durgā and Kālī, as well as several local pre-Buddhist deities. In the Kalmyk context, she received further development, including on the levels of visual representation, popular mythology and worship, and ritual healing. Among the Mongol groups, she is commonly known as Okon Tengri (Kalm. Okn Tenggr; Mo. Ohin Tenger; Cl. Mo. Ökin Tngri)2, the name literally meaning “sky maiden” or “girl deity”. The questions of genealogy with regard to her Mongol forms remain contested. Kalmyk local scholars routinely argue that she was initially a pre-Buddhist goddess of fire and fertility, whose origin can be traced back to older Turko-Mongolian cults of Mother Fire, the progenitor of all living beings, and was later incorporated into Buddhism with the characteristics of Tibetan Lhamo (e.g. Batyreva 2005, pp. 114-115). Another established opinion is that the name and personage of Okon Tengri came to be known only with the proliferation of Buddhism among the Mongols (Heissig 1980, pp. 72-73), and that the functions of the fire deity were later attached to the terrifying Buddhist goddess (Bakaeva 2003, p. 182)3.

4Here, I shall neither attempt to present the historical development of this figure among Mongol groups nor argue for any predominant sources of influence in this regard. Instead, I shall examine certain representational genres and discursive milieux constructing this goddess, largely modelled on Palden Lhamo, as simultaneously a fount of military might, a source of political legitimation and a vessel of therapeutic powers. Besides personal communication and interviews conducted in Kalmykia between 2010 and 2019, including with regional researchers, museum guides, artists, Buddhist monks and other types of religious specialists, my discussion draws foremost on examples of her local iconography, of special importance being Kalmyk military banners bearing her image. It seems helpful, however, to begin by exploring some of the key myths associated with the goddess, as well as pointing to certain prominent elements of her composite iconography, most of which are linked to her mythology.

Popular re-workings of mythological patterns

  • 4 Tangka (Tib. thang ka) is a depiction of a Buddhist deity, painted, embroidered or appliquéd on cot (...)

5While numerous forms of Palden Lhamo are known in Tibet (Nebesky-Wojkowitz [1956] 1975, pp. 22-37), the one prevalent among the Mongols and identified as Okon Tengri portrays her with dark skin, one head and two arms riding sidesaddle on a mule across the sea of blood and surrounded by flames. To be precise, this aspect of Palden Lhamo is known as Magzor Gyalmo (Tib. dMag zor rgyal mo), although this distinction is not explicitly made in Mongolia and Kalmykia, with the names Lhamo, Okon Tengri and Palden Lhamo used interchangeably to denote her equestrian two-armed form. On Tibetan painted scrolls (Tib. thang ka)4, she is frequently depicted with three bulging eyes, a crown of five human skulls and a garland of severed heads; she has a human corpse in her mouth, brandishes weapons and sits on the flayed skin of her own son, whose head dangles beneath her saddle (Mullin & Watt 2003, pp. 182-185; Linrothe & Watt 2004, pp. 168-169). There is a legend known across the Tibetan-Mongolian cultural world, the origin of which is routinely attributed to South Asia, that explains how the goddess turned into such a terrifying being. Palden Lhamo was married to the king of Śrī Laṅkā, who ate people and conducted human sacrifice. As a devout Buddhist, she took a terrible oath: if she failed to convert her husband to Buddhism, she would kill her children to interrupt his royal lineage. When her husband ignored her efforts, Palden Lhamo had to murder their only son. Not only did she kill her own child, but she also skinned him, ate his flesh and drank his blood. Having done this, she saddled her mule, using her son’s skin as a saddle, and galloped northward (allegedly towards Tibet, where she would finally settle). Her furious husband shot at her with a poisonous arrow, hitting her mule. Lhamo turned the wound on the rump of her mule into an eye that enables her to see the past, another distinctive element of her iconography.

  • 5 In Kalmyk and Mongol mythology, Okon Tengri is often portrayed as married to the lord of the underw (...)
  • 6 Parallels in other traditions are numerous, the Greek goddess Persephone immediately coming to mind

6While the Kalmyks have largely borrowed the Tibetan iconography of Magzor Gyalmo, the local mythology of Okon Tengri has its distinctive characteristics which deserve attention. In Kalmyk cosmogonic myths and popular legends, Okon Tengri appears in two contrasting forms – as a graceful young woman and as a terrifying warrior, but invariably as a saviour of the world who restores the cosmic order. One well-known myth narrates that the lord of the underworld Erlig Khan, being envious of people’s happiness, swallowed the sun. Left without sunshine, the land became infertile, people were starving and animals were dying. Feeling great pity for all those suffering, Okon Tengri acquired a fearsome appearance of a warrior, cut open Erlig Khan with her sword and freed the sun (Basaev 2007, pp. 31-32)5. Her triumphant return after subduing the deadly forces, bringing back the sun and enabling the beginning of spring, is a recurrent motive in her mythology6. Her key role in maintaining the universal balance by enabling the change of seasons endows her with the functions of the deity of time, which is also reflected in her iconography as she is often accompanied by the deities of the seasons depicted as wrathful riders.

  • 7 The deity of fire, at least in its older form, was often perceived across Siberia and Central Asia (...)
  • 8 Conversations with monks in the Central hurul in Elista, the Golden Abode of Buddha Śākyamuni (Kalm (...)

7It is no exaggeration to say that in Kalmykia Okon Tengri is not merely associated with the element of fire, but is virtually equated with it7. The family hearth (and its contemporary emanations, e.g. a stove) is imagined as her abode. It is commonly held that the stove, oven or furnace in one’s home must be always kept clean and regularly whitewashed (personal communication with Shantaev, a researcher of Kalmyk religion and culture, January 2022). It should come as no surprise that Okon Tengri would be the central recipient of the “offering to the fire” (Kalm. hal täklhn), a ritual conducted in Kalmykia on various occasions, and yet the main season for her worship is the festival of the White Month (Kalm. Tsagan Sar), which begins on the first day of the first spring month. It is believed that at sunrise on the first day of the festival the goddess arrives from the underworld, the realm of demonic forces, to initiate the change of seasons. Unlike the case among other Mongol groups, Tsagan Sar does not function as the Lunar New Year in Kalmykia. In the nomad context, it typically indicated the beginning of migration into new pastures, whereas in Buddhism it merged with the Tibetan Great Prayer Festival (Tib. sMon lam chen mo), established in 1409 by Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), the founder of the Gelugpa school of Buddhism, to commemorate the Buddha’s victory in the 15-day-long dispute with six heretical teachers. Before the Soviet anti-religious reprisals in the 1930s, its celebration in Kalmyk monasteries involved a ritualized performance of the goddess’s return – at dawn, a monk had to run towards the monastery assembly hall with an image of Lhamo in his hands, thereby reenacting her arrival. With the advent of the postsocialist renewal, prayers to Lhamo are recited in Buddhist temples during the first few nights of the festival8.

  • 9 While some variants of the legend state that she was commissioned to save the world by the Buddha, (...)
  • 10 Fantastic beings are often portrayed in fairy tales of different peoples as having their life-force (...)

8Although different legends involving the goddess are recollected during the White Month, it is not so much her aforementioned struggle with the lord of death, but her saving the world from cannibal demons that is routinely associated with this festival in Kalmykia. This story seems to be a Kalmyk elaboration of the “Tibetan” legend about the queen of Śrī Laṅkā and her terrible oath, cited above. The legend has it that many centuries ago, when the Kalmyks still lived in Western Mongolia, their very existence was challenged by hordes of demons that devastated their settlements, abducted children and inflicted lethal diseases and frost by means of black magic. The khan of demons, a many-headed monster, was immortal. A brave young woman called Okon promised to destroy him and his army9. When the khan of demons saw her, they married. Being close to him, she discovered that his life-force was concealed in three birds hidden in three chests, which in turn were buried in a big barrow at the edge of the world10. Having killed her husband, Okon comes back to people with the first rays of sunlight, her return coinciding with the beginning of spring. One popular version of the legend goes further, relating her struggle with her own son, born from the union with the khan of demons and presenting a deadly threat to the entire humanity (Basaev 2007, pp. 77-78). Her killing her own son to save the Kalmyks and, ultimately, the entire world is perceived as particularly important. In this capacity, Okon Tengri is sometimes correlated with the key Christian ideas and figures – foremost with Mother Mary, whose son has also been sacrificed to save people. As expressed by the Kalmyk artist Aleksandr Povaev (born 1948) during our conversation in the autumn of 2018: “For us, Okon Tengri is like Mother Mary, the same Mother-Protectress. She has sacrificed her own child, and yet she saves all other children”. He illustrated this local perception of the goddess as simultaneously a great battle queen and protectress of children in his painting Okon Tengri (fig. 1). Aleksandr received his professional training as a painter in Rostov Art School. He drew my attention to the fact that he had been initially trained in the tradition of socialist realism and that it was only after the 1980s that he began learning about Tibetan Buddhist and Mongol art. He told me that his visual construction of Okon Tengri was inspired by her local mythology and also by Tibetan Buddhist images of Lhamo.

Figure 1. Aleksandr Povaev, Okon-Tengri, 2001, oil on canvas, 120 х 130 cm

Figure 1. Aleksandr Povaev, Okon-Tengri, 2001, oil on canvas, 120 х 130 cm

© photo by Valeria Gazizova, oral permission has been given

  • 11 In Mongolia, Lhamo is also held to be a sister (or consort) of Begtse (Tib. Beg tse), a protective (...)

9It remains unclear to what extent the khan of cannibal demons can be correlated with the lord of the underworld Erlig Khan, also commonly held to be her consort. Lhamo’s relationship with yet other wrathful male deities is known in various Buddhist contexts. Besides Yama, she is often associated with Mahākāla (Tib. mGon po; Kalm. Makhgal), a wrathful defender of Buddhism. “Okon Tengri is the wife of Mahākāla”, was the concise definition given by a married lama from Iki-Burul, who also identifies the goddess as “the Kalmyk parallel to the Hindu goddess Kālī”11. However, the importance and power of Okon Tengri is not derived from her male consorts and she is therefore not subordinated to any male deity. Povaev depicted the union of Okon Tengri and Mahākāla, as that of equally powerful but somewhat opposite entities, in a series of paintings called Meeting (fig. 2). Moreover, it is precisely by subduing (and in some legends destroying) her male consort that she saves the world and intensifies her own power.

Figure 2. Aleksandr Povaev, Meeting, 2006, oil on canvas, 100 х 110 cm

Figure 2. Aleksandr Povaev, Meeting, 2006, oil on canvas, 100 х 110 cm

© photo by Valeria Gazizova, oral permission has been given

Two tangkas of Lhamo from the National Museum of Kalmykia: Tibetan Buddhist iconography and local artistic devices

  • 12 Besides books on Buddhist art and popular legends, her sources of information include her own upbri (...)

10To follow certain particulars of the visual representations of Okon Tengri as historically known in Kalmykia, I shall describe two tangkas from the Pal’mov National Museum of the Kalmyk Republic. Its collection of Kalmyk Buddhist art includes approximately 165 items dating from the late 18th to the first quarter of the 20th century. The two tangkas depicting Okon Tengri (both painted with mineral paints on cotton) reportedly come from the indigenous environment and can be attributed to the 19th century. Both works are distinguished by a bright palette, with red and yellow dominating, which may seem somewhat unusual for Tibetan terrifying deities. The first tangka (fig. 3) portrays the half-naked body of Okon Tengri with electric blue skin, identical in colour and almost merging with the sky in the background. She has orange-red hair, three eyes and an open mouth revealing her fangs. The five skulls ornamenting of her crown are depicted in a schematic and naive way, resembling eggs with eyes and mouths drawn on them. She wears a grey mantle with flutter sleeves and a tiger skin around her lower part. Her left earing is decorated with a white lion tale, while a snake is lurking over her other ear. Waving a club adorned with a thunderbolt with her right hand and holding a skull cup (Tib. ka pa la; Skt. kapāla; Kalm. habal) filled with blood in the left, she sits on the flayed skin of her own son, whose head is depicted dangling beneath her saddle. The museum guide, a Kalmyk woman in her mid-50s, also emphasized that the severed head of her husband – or at least one of his heads, if we remember that he was a many-headed monster – was portrayed below that of her son12.

Figure 3. Okon Tengri Devi Lhamo, mineral pigments on cotton, app. 19th century, Pal’mov National Museum of Kalmykia, Elista

Figure 3. Okon Tengri Devi Lhamo, mineral pigments on cotton, app. 19th century, Pal’mov National Museum of Kalmykia, Elista

© photo by Valeria Gazizova, oral permission has been given

  • 13 For the “magical weapons” of Paldem Lhamo in Tibetan iconography, see Róna-Tas (1965) and Beer (199 (...)
  • 14 In fact, cartomancy using a deck of standard playing cards is proliferated across Russia.

11While such elements as a crown of skulls, severed human heads, a skull cup, or ornaments made of snakes and human organs are common for ferocious Tantric deities, the canonical iconography of Magzor Gyalmo has its distinctions. These include foremost her “magical weapons”, some of which are shown in the two paintings from the Kalmyk museum. Beneath the saddle of the mule, we see a pair of playing dice, the so-called bag of diseases and the book of red curses bound together with a snake, while her famous scored stick (Tib. khram shing) is depicted stuck into her belt13. According to the museum guide, these objects attest to her crucial function as the deity of destiny. Thus, the playing dice are her famous divination implements used to determine the outcome of any situation. While an entire system of dice divination ascribed to this goddess is known in the Tibetan tradition, different methods of divination are associated with Okon Tengri in Kalmykia, including by means of ordinary playing cards14. For instance, a Kalmyk woman in her late 70s from a small village outside Elista diagnoses illnesses by means of an old Mongol pack of playing cards, which she claims to have received from her guardian deity Okon Tengri at the age of twelve.

  • 15 Robert Beer describes Lhamo’s bag of diseases as a representation of an early example of a bacterio (...)
  • 16 For the iconography of Tibetan Buddhist terrifying deities, see Linrothe (2004).

12The museum guide pointed to the medical application of two other weapons of Okon Tengri. The goddess is said to be able to remove all sorts of impediments by collecting them in her book of curses, depicted wrapped in red cloth in the Tibetan style (Tib. dpe cha), and cure all illnesses by swallowing them and then breathing them out into her bag of diseases. Conversely, she can inflict illnesses from her bag and cast spells from her book on the enemies of her devotees15. Syrtypova (2009, p. 146) writes that in earlier Buryat mythology Lhamo – referred to as Ühin Hara Tengeri in Buryat, or Black Maiden Goddess – was predominantly a hostile entity held particularly dangerous to pregnant women. This unequivocally negative perception of Lhamo is no longer widespread among Russian Buddhists, although she undoubtedly retains a substantial degree of ambivalence. What seems to be missing in both paintings in question is Lhamo’s famous “ball of thread” (Tib. gru gu), frequently depicted on Tibetan painted scrolls, which she is said to use for immobilizing her enemies. Other iconographic attributes typical of Magzor Gyalmo, such as a garland of severed human heads, a girdle of snakes or a corpse in her mouth, are also missing in the given tangkas. These obvious omissions when compared to Tibeto-Mongolian representations of the goddess clearly attest to a significant simplification of her local iconography in the process of appropriation of Tibetan Buddhist visual patterns of wrathful deities16.

  • 17 In the top left-hand corner, the queen of summer (Tib. dByar gyi rgyal mo) is depicted with red ski (...)

13In both paintings from the Kalmyk museum, Okon Tengri’s retinue consists of six terrifying female figures. To the right of her mule is Makaravaktrā Ḍākinī (Tib. Chu srin gdong can), depicted with a blue female body and a pink head of a makara (a half crocodile and half elephant mythical creature), while to the left is Siṃhavaktrā Ḍākinī (Tib. Seng ge’i gdong can) having a dark red body of a woman and a head of a snow lion. The two animal-headed servants seem to be constant attendants of Magzor Gyalmo, frequently found in her Mongolian and Tibetan representations. In the corners of both paintings, the four female deities of the seasons of the year, known as “queens of the seasons” (Tib. dus kyi rgyal mo), are depicted as wrathful riders different in colour and mounted on different animals, which corresponds to Lhamo’s tangkas in Tibet17. Their presence in her retinue reflects her important function of the patron of time controlling the cyclical recurrence of the seasons. Portrayed with three round eyes, red tousled hair, two arms and surrounded by flames, the four queens of the seasons parallel the central figure. According to one popular interpretation I heard in the field, they arise from the crown of Okon Tengri as her emanations. Their crowns, however, are decorated with only one skull, which according to the explanation of the museum guide, indicates their lower status to that of Okon Tengri.

  • 18 This is the Tibetan Buddhist version of the Indian goddess of arts, wisdom and poetic inspiration, (...)
  • 19 To be precise, Palden Lhamo in her four-armed form is considered the wrathful emanation of the godd (...)

14The lateral lines constituted by the members of Lhamo’s retinue, with the queens of the seasons in the corners and the animal-faced servants in the middle, create the symmetry in the composition. At the base of the central vertical axis is a wrathful offering of the five senses, a common attribute of Tibetan wrathful deities (Beer 1999, pp. 325-327; Linrothe 2004, pp. 13-14). At the top of both tangkas is a small image of Sarasvatī (Tib. dByangs can ma), a goddess of music and learning, depicted with a milky white skin, two arms, dressed in white and playing a string instrument (Skt. vīṇā, or an Indian lute)18. It comes as no surprise that Sarasvatī should be depicted in the position of the patron deity above Lhamo, for the latter is traditionally identified as the wrathful form of the wisdom generating Sarasvatī19.

  • 20 Researchers of Tibetan societies have also traced a close connection between the vertical axis in c (...)

15The second tangka from the National Museum of Kalmykia (fig. 4) is smaller in size and has a brighter palette abundant in red and orange. One may assume it was made rather for a home altar. In Kalmyk popular piety, golden and orange-red are associated with Okon Tengri, for every member of the Buddhist pantheon is connected with particular colours (Gazizova 2016). The hues of Okon Tengri, at least as perceived in Kalmykia, also attest to her functions of the fire goddess. The composition and iconography of the second tangka parallel those of the first. The number and arrangement of deities, their colours and attributes are virtually the same; the omissions of iconographic elements associated with Lhamo found in figure 1 are also evident in figure 2. One conspicuous detail in the second painting, which is missing in the other, is the eye on the left haunch of Lhamo’s mule. As mentioned in the previous section, it is an important attribute of Magzor Gyalmo linked to her mythology. In Kalmykia, as the museum guide underlined in our conversation, the eye on the flank of her mule is an indication of the goddess’s connection with the underworld and also of her ability to travel between the universal realms. As discussed earlier, Okon Tengri’s mythology is dominated by the idea of her self-sacrifice through a marital union with demonic forces and descent to the underworld. Furthermore, the goddess is conceptualized as not merely descending to the underworld, but also as travelling between the cosmic realms and connecting them. Just as the fire (and the column of smoke from the fire) is viewed among the Mongols as the axis mundi, or the central vertical pillar making a link between earth and sky, Okon Tengri as the fire goddess and embodiment of fire is also envisioned as sustaining the stability of the cosmos by maintaining this vertical connection20.

Figure 4. Lhamo, mineral pigments on cotton, 19th century, Pal’mov National Museum, Elista

Figure 4. Lhamo, mineral pigments on cotton, 19th century, Pal’mov National Museum, Elista

© photo by Valeria Gazizova, oral permission has been given

  • 21 The bright yellow landscape in Kalmyk tangkas must have been inspired by the dry summer steppe and (...)
  • 22 Other specific landscape features found in pre-Soviet Kalmyk Buddhist art, which are not represente (...)

16The museum guide further explained that the functions of Okon Tengri as the fire deity are understood to be visually conveyed in the composition of her tangkas; the background in both works is divided into the lower green part representing the earth and the upper blue realm with white (fig. 3) or pinkish (fig. 4) clouds representing the sky, while Okon Tengri on the mule constitutes most of the central vertical axis connecting the two parts of the background. Such simplified bipartite division of the background with a larger image of the main deity in the centre, which the Kalmyk art historian Svetlana Batyreva defines as the “world tree scheme” (personal communication, October 2018), appears perhaps the principal compositional pattern in pre-revolutionary Kalmyk Buddhist art (but definitely not exclusive of it), at least according to the materials exhibited in the Kalmyk National Museum. Researchers of Buddhist art maintain that it is precisely in the consistency of specific ways of rendering the landscape that the distinctive traits of regional variations are revealed (Ivanov 2009). It appears not uncommon for regional artists to try to reproduce a local landscape, placing members of the pantheon in a familiar setting. Regarding prerevolutionary Kalmyk tangkas, the depiction of mountains and bodies of water was often more schematic in contrast to a much more elaborate portrayal of landscape features in Buryat and Mongolian works. The terrain was typically greyish-khaki, green and sometimes even bright yellow21, and comprised at least two thirds of the entire background, this proportion being also typical of Mongolian style (Fleming & Lkhagvademchig Shastri 2011, p. 816)22.

  • 23 For Buryat Buddhist art, see Ashencaen & Leonov (1996).
  • 24 A similar composition was in fact not uncommon in Buryatia, Mongolia and Tibet (Ashencaen & Leonov (...)

17One may argue that bright contrasting colours, a certain naivety in the depiction of animals and faces of deities and a relative distortion of the iconometric proportions are among the indigenous artistic devices found in prerevolutionary Kalmyk and also in Buryat Buddhist art23. These devices are vivid in the two tangkas from the Kalmyk museum, which attests to a profound folklorization of the canon of Tibetan Buddhist masters. The number and placement of deities (all of which are female) in both works – with the animal-faced attendants flanking the central figure, the queens of the seasons depicted in the corners and Sarasvatī at the top – appears a standard pattern of depicting Lhamo in Kalmykia in the 18th and early 20th centuries (Batyreva 1991, ill. 18; Ivanov 2009, p. 32)24. Lhamo in the form of Magzorma is also represented across Inner Asia in numerous tangkas and murals devoted to other deities, male and female. One such example from the National Museum of Kalmykia is the painted scroll of Buddha Maitreya, attributed to the 19th century (fig. 5), with Okon Tengri depicted in the bottom right corner.

Figure 5. Buddha Maitreya, painting on cloth, 19th century, Pal’mov National Museum, Elista

Figure 5. Buddha Maitreya, painting on cloth, 19th century, Pal’mov National Museum, Elista

Adorned with a jewelled crown and a small stupa on his head, the future Buddha Maitreya sits on a throne. His feet rest on a moon disk and his hands are in the dharmacakra mudrā. Two lotus flowers bloom at his shoulders, supporting a dharma wheel on the right and a ritual water pot on the left. His two disciples sit cross-legged on either side. Above is Tsongkhapa, flanked by two fully-ordained monks of the Gelugpa order. In the bottom centre is Mahākāla, flanked by Yama to the right and Lhamo to the left.

© photo by Valeria Gazizova, oral permission has been given

Benevolent forms of the wrathful goddess: Sarasvatī or White Tārā?

  • 25 There are variants of the famous legend about cannibal demons associated in Kalmykia with Tsagan Sa (...)
  • 26 In Tibet as in Mongolia, Green Tārā is usually depicted with peaceful appearance, emerald green ski (...)
  • 27 A similar understanding of Tārā as a kind of “Buddhist Madonna” is shared by some scholars (Shaw 20 (...)

18Although Kalmyk legends consistently portray Okon Tengri also as a gentle and beautiful young girl (which does not exclude her being an invincible warrior), I have not encountered Buddhist images of her peaceful forms that would be different from the female deities whose wrathful manifestations she is considered to embody. While her tangkas have typically had an image of Saravatī as her main benevolent form, in the lore and popular worship of the Mongols Lhamo is foremost correlated with the goddess Tārā in her two famous forms – that of Green Tārā (Kalm. Nohan Därk; Tib. sGrol ma), a female bodhisattva representing compassion and enlightenment activity, and White Tārā (Kalm. Tsagan Därk; Tib. sGrol dkar), venerated in Kalmykia, Mongolia and Tibet as one of the three buddhas of healing and long life, along with Uṣṇīṣavijaya and Amitāyus. Regardless of the specific form, Tārā’s essential role is that of compassionate saviour protecting from suffering. Stories about Tārā performing miracles to rescue her devotees, including from starvation and peril, abound in the Buddhist and Hindu lore (Kinsley 1988, pp. 166-168; Shaw 2006, pp. 310-312). Tales of abduction and successful return of Tārā, parallel to those about Okon Tengri, are circulated in Kalmykia25. As is also the case with Okon Tengri, Green Tārā is often compared, if not identified altogether in popular imagination, with the Christian Mother Mary26. “Our Green Tārā and Christian Mother Mary are the same goddess, you see, they are identical”, is a routine explanation among Russian Buddhists27. In Kalmyk popular worship, however, at least according to my fieldwork material, Okon Tengri is more strongly correlated with White Tārā, with the two names sometimes used interchangeably. Consider the following explanation from a 60-year-old ritual expert specializing in healing small children from the village Altsynkhuta:

Green Tārā is the mother of all living things, but White Tārā is one of her formidable militant forms. We call her Okon Tengri in Kalmyk. Lhamo, or Palden Lhamo in Tibetan, is the terrifying appearance that Okon Tengri can take and become very ugly and scary. She turns into a monster who rides a white horse across a river of blood. The day of White Tārā and Okon Tengri is the day of the full moon. It is auspicious time because she is the goddess of healing and longevity. On this day, we light butter lamps, read prayers and avoid eating meat. (October 2018)

  • 28 Buddhist monasteries (Kalm. hurul) and lay Buddhist centres that I visited in Kalmykia also perform (...)
  • 29 For a tangka depicting Lhamo together with Saravatī, White Tārā and Green Tārā in the upper registe (...)

19The citation underlines the importance of the goddess, and her two Tārā forms, for calendar practices. Not only the full moon, but also the days of the half and new moon (i.e. the days of the Buddhist fast) are closely associated with the three female deities, particularly among non-monastic Buddhists and certain new religious groups. Thus, a group of older women who have been regularly gathering on the days of the fast since the Soviet era recite prayers to Green Tārā on the 8th lunar day, to White Tārā on the 15th and to Okon Tengri on the 30th (personal communication, September 2012, Arshan)28. Although White Tārā is described in the cited excerpt as a militant form of Green Tārā, which coincides with some of her popular mythology in Mongolia (Humphrey 1997), Buddhist paintings and statues typically represent her as a gentle goddess with light skin, two arms and seated in the crossed-leg posture of meditation (fig. 6)29. A distinctive iconographic attribute of White Tārā as known in Mongolia and Tibet is the possession of seven eyes: three eyes on her face, one on the palm of each hand and one on the sole of each foot. With her seven eyes, she is believed to be able to see the suffering in the seven realms of the cyclical existence in Buddhist cosmology and is ready to heal all sentient beings from their pain. It is precisely the ascribed ability to heal and grant long life, on the one hand, and a strong correlation with royalty, rulership and even war, on the other, that constitute an important ground for the identification of Okon Tengri with White Tārā in the popular culture of Mongol groups. In what follows, I shall focus on distinctive developments in Kalmyk iconography and ritual centred on the worship of Okon Tengri which are based foremost on her popularly ascribed militancy and healing faculties.

Figure 6. White Tārā, painting on cloth, early 20th century, Pal’mov Natinoal Museum, Elista

Figure 6. White Tārā, painting on cloth, early 20th century, Pal’mov Natinoal Museum, Elista

The tangka can be attributed to the Gelugpa monastic tradition. Tsongkhapa, flanked by two fully-ordained monks of the Gelugpa order, is depicted in the position of the patron deity. The breasts of White Tārā are modestly obscured, and her shoulders and upper arms are also discreetly covered by a green shawl, all of which is intended to understate the sexuality typical of Tantric goddesses.

© photo by Valeria Gazizova, oral permission has been given

Supports of military power: Lhamo in the iconography of Kalmyk battle banners

20Until the Soviet period, Okon Tengri could be found portrayed in the form of Magzor Gyalmo on Kalmyk battle banners (Kalm. tug) that were carried before the army during military campaigns. One example having survived the Soviet era is the standard of the Third Don Kalmyk cavalry regiment. Attributed by regional scholars to the first quarter of the 20th century, it now belongs to the Museum of the History of the Don Cossacks in the city of Novocherkassk in Rostov Oblast (for the illustrations of the banner, see Batyreva 1991, ills 31-39). Embroidered in silk and brocade, with some elements appliquéd, the banner is about one metre square. Its wooden pole is topped with eight Buddhist symbols. In the centre of the banner is a large depiction of Okon Tengri – dark blue in colour, she rides on a white mule amidst dark billowing smoke. Her distinctive iconographic attributes (e.g. a crown of five skulls, a parasol of peacock feathers, a garland of severed heads, five “magical weapons”, an eye on the left rump of her mule, etc.) are clearly visible. On either side of Okon Tengri are her constant animal-faced attendants. The words dmag zor rgyal mo are written in Tibetan on the green hills under the mule. In contrast to the folkish naivety of the tangkas considered earlier, this representation of the wrathful goddess appears much more detailed.

  • 30 These are garuḍa (Tib. ’khyung; Kalm. härd shovun), snow lion (Tib. seng; Kalm. arslng), dragon (Ti (...)
  • 31 When fluttering in the wind, the prayers on the “wind horse” flags are imagined as being recited, a (...)

21Instead of the four queens of the seasons typically accompanying Lhamo in Tibeto-Mongolian art, four animals from Buddhist mythology known as guardians of the four directions are depicted in the corners of the banner, with Tibetan terms written underneath30. In the foreground is the horse carrying the wish-fulfilling jewel on its back, known as “wind horse” (Tib. rlung rta; Kalm. ki mörn), and surrounded with prayers in the Tibetan script, including those to Mañjuśrī, White Tārā, Avalokiteśvara, Amitāyus, and Vajrapāṇi (Kukeev 2010). The depiction and positions of the five animals parallel those of the Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags, also referred to as “wind horse”, one common pattern of which displays the horse carrying the wish-fulfilling jewel at the centre and the four mythical creatures in the corners. An oft-cited legend attributes the origin of the prayer flags to Buddha Śākyamuni, who allegedly gave prayers to gods to be written on their battle flags in order to stop the long struggle of the asuras against the gods (Beer 1999, pp. 60-61)31.

22To the left of Okon Tengri is a much smaller image of a mounted warrior in full armour with the Tibetan expression dgra lha written underneath. Literally meaning “enemy god”, the name dgra lha (Mo./Kalm. dalha) denotes a class of protective equestrian deities with martial appearance whose principal tasks include defending from enemies, helping warriors on the battle field and bringing prosperity by increasing herds (Heissig 1980, p. 84; Nebesky-Wojkowitz [1956] 1975, p. 318; Berounský 2009). Scholars describe different equestrian warrior gods venerated as distinct anthropomorphic entities among Mongol groups, e.g. Sülde Tngri, Dayičing Tngri, Dalha, Geser Khan, etc. (Heissig 1980, pp. 84-101; Birtalan 2013). Local traditions, however, tend to interchange various names in relation to them. Among the Kalmyks, for instance, the name Dayičing Tngri (Kalm. Dääch Tenggr) seems to have been more common.

23An inscription in the so-called “clear script” (Kalm. tod bichg), the script created for the Oirat language by Zaya Pandita, reads: “In the year of the earth horse, the Lama of the Don Kalmyks M. Bormanzhinov empowered the standard of the Third Don Kalmyk cavalry regiment”. This gives us an important reference to the historical context in which the standard was made and deployed. The Don or Cossack Kalmyks, also called Buzava, had become a culturally differentiated subgroup already by the beginning of the 19th century. Their monasteries were headed by the Lama of the Don Kalmyks and not by the Shadjin Lama of Kalmykia. Mönke Bormanzhinov (b. 1855) was the head lama of the Don Kalmyks from 1903 until his death in 1919. In the 1890s, he made several pilgrimages to Mongolia, where he is said to have met with the future Bogdo Khan, the 8th Jebtsundamba Khutughtu. He is also remembered for supporting the White movement in their fight with the Bolsheviks, himself allegedly taking part in the battles in the south of Russia during the Civil War. The inscription on the banner attests that it was made and consecrated in 1918 (i.e. the year of the earth horse), most evidently for the coming struggle. According to one account, Mönke Lama received “divine orders” to have this standard made in a vision from none other than Mañjuśrī himself, the bodhisattva of wisdom and consort of Sarasvatī, who ordered to depict the fierce form of his consort on the banner.

  • 32 Korneev 2018.
  • 33 Ataman was a title of military commanders of the Cossack troops.

24In 1918-1919, the settlements of the Cossack Kalmyks became a scene of fierce battles; their monasteries were virtually razed to the ground, with Buddhist images desecrated, scriptures used for rolling cigarettes and tangkas for making footwraps for the Red Army soldiers. In the autumn of 1919, over 3000 Kalmyks fled Russia with the defeated White Army soldiers. The first wave of Kalmyk immigrants settled predominantly in Slavic countries, while a small number came to France. The famous Okon Tengri standard made on the orders of Lama Mönke Bormanzhinov had been kept in Prague until it was confiscated by the Soviets in 1946. Another military banner of the Don Kalmyks with an image of Okon Tengri has been kept in France as a sacred relic in a Kalmyk family descending from two noble clans32. Rectangular in shape, the banner is divided into three equal parts – blue, yellow and white. The upper blue part has a large image of the rising sun with golden beams. A painted tangka of Lhamo is sewn on in the middle of the banner next to a large depiction of the horse carrying the wish-fulfilling jewel on its back. An inscription at the bottom reads “The first Kalmyk Partisan Detachment of Ataman Balzanov”33. The banner was allegedly given by Ataman Balzanov to his daughter, who fled to Europe after the Civil War, and remained in her family now living in France.

  • 34 Routinely described as representing the victory of the Buddha’s enlightenment, such canopy flags we (...)
  • 35 Here I transliterate the names of the identified deities as given in the author’s text.

25Depicting Lhamo on military banners was not limited to the Kalmyks living on the Don and appears much earlier than the turn of the 20th century. The 19th-century Kalmyk historian Efim Chonov documents that the First Astrakhan Kalmyk regiment, which participated in the war with Napoleon and consisted predominantly of Dörvöd Kalmyks, had an image of Okon Tengri on their standard. The author defines the deity as an ancient protector specifically of the Dörvöd that brings them victories in military campaigns (Chonov [1912] 2006, pp. 58-59). The Russian scholar Grigorii Prozritelev (1849-1933) gives a detailed description of two battle standards of the Second Astrakhan Kalmyk regiment, headed by Prince Serbedzhab Tiumen, which also fought in the war with Napoleon, known in Russian history as the Patriotic War of 1812. After the war, the standards of the Second Kalmyk regiment were kept in Hosheutovskii hurul, built in remembrance of the war of 1812 and remaining the only Kalmyk monastery to have partly survived the Soviet era. In the summer of 1912, Prozritelev visited it and saw the two banners. He writes that they were very old and must have dated back to the time when the Kalmyks came to Russia, i.e. to at least the middle of the 17th century (Prozritelev [1912] 1990, p. 90). One of the banners had depictions of two warrior deities. Dark in colour and made of silk, it was approximately 1 metre in length and 1,5 metres in width. Its flagpole was over six metres long, decorated with silk ribbons and topped by a gilded spearhead, beneath which was attached “a large tassel made of ribbons the size of almost the entire banner” (Prozritelev [1912] 1990, p. 91, note 1). The large tassel must have been what is known in Buddhism as “the victory banner” (Tib. rgyal mtshan; Skt. dhvaja)34. The banner had an embroidered depiction of two mounted deities, whom the author identifies as “Daichin-Tengri” and “Okon-Tengri”35. Let me quote from his description at some length:

The holy horseman [Daichin-Tengri] holds a flagpole inscribed with holy words and topped by a golden trident. Sky and earth partake in his campaign. Clouds of dust from under the hooves of his horse testify that he rides on the ground. Below the rider are beasts of all kinds. One can see a tiger, a bear, a wolf, a dog, etc. Birds fly above his head. The rider’s face is handsome and completely calm, his entire figure manifests serenity […] [He is] a symbol of fearlessness and self-control in times of danger. The rider does not have a sword, and arrows are inside his quiver. Next to the saint Daichin-Tengri is another holy warrior, Okon-Tengri. This is the exact opposite of the former. [Okon Tengri is] a symbol of destruction and merciless revenge. Okon-Tengri is a patron of the Derbets. [Her name is] translated as ‘maiden angel’. She is also portrayed on a white horse. She grasps a newborn in her teeth, holds a huge sword in the right hand and has a smaller sword, or a dagger, by the saddle. The bridle [of her mount] is made of snakes. The rider’s path is a river of blood surrounded with flashes of lightning. (Prozritelev [1912] 1990, pp. 90-91)

  • 36 According to another explanation, Okon Tengri is the protectress of the Dörvöd, while Dayičing Tngr (...)

26The given description of Okon Tengri seems to correspond with the Tibetan Buddhist iconography of Magzor Gyalmo. The author describes the banner by juxtaposing the two deities portrayed on it. One is male, handsome, calm, fearless, virtually not armed, riding on the ground and accompanied by beings of the middle and sky realms (animals and birds); the other is female, ugly, fierce, merciless, brandishing a huge sword, riding across a river of blood and adorned with snakes (i.e. representing the underworld). This contradistinction can be explained as attesting to the moral ambivalence and duality integral to military activity, with the triumph of military victory being impossible without the destruction of the enemy. In the context of the iconography of the given banner, these distinct aspects are attributed to and embodied in two different deities. In other words, battle standards were held to perform diverse functions, both horrifying and productive, but ultimately aimed at ensuring the continuity of the community36.

  • 37 For instance, in the famous epic recounting an attack of the Halh Khan Ubasi Qong Tayiji on the Dör (...)
  • 38 Besides the Dörvöd, the Kalmyk Zungars and certain lineages of the Tugtun and Don Kalmyks have also (...)

27Similarly to other Mongols, the Kalmyks regarded their standards as material supports of military power. Losing or damaging the standard was treated as defeat, entailing a significant moral humiliation. Conversely, capturing or destroying the standard of the enemy was seen as determining the outcome of the battle in favour of those who had captured it (Sharaeva 2012). The veneration of standards was also connected with their essential practical functions on the battlefield, one of which was serving as the rallying point for troops between and after attacks; the enemy could also use the captured standard to attract and destroy soldiers of the opposing side. Isabelle Charleux (2021) justly compares the veneration of standards among the Mongols with the worship of ongon (Kalm. onghn), the term simultaneously designating protective spirits and objects or places they are believed to abide. The same holds true for the term burhan, indicating both a deity and its image. In other words, a standard is also identified with the energy seen as abiding in it and is itself worshipped as a protective deity. Moreover, various sources indicate that Mongols sacrificed animals and even prisoners of war to their standards (Wallace 2015, pp. 212-213)37. As we have seen, depicting Palden Lhamo in the form of Magzor Gyalmo on military banners was far from uncommon in Kalmykia, at least from around the early 19th century, particularly among the subethnic groups that considered her their main deity-protector38. Since the Kalmyks (in common with other Mongols) regarded their battle standards as embodiments and abodes of their protective warrior deities, Okon Tengri was identified with certain standards, at least those bearing her image, as her material receptacles. My interlocutors, including people of different age and social background – be it herders, librarians, native researchers of regional history and culture, artists, religious specialists, etc. – tend to talk about Kalmyk military standards and victories of the past when asked about the goddess. In fact, Okon Tengri remains an important symbol of the Kalmyk participation in the war of 1812, which is also reflected in contemporary art (fig. 7).

Figure 7. a. Nikolai Shiniaev, The year 1812. Awakened steppe, 2012, oil on canvas, 95 х 120 cm; b. Detail from Nikolai Shiniaev, The year 1812. Awakened steppe

Figure 7. a. Nikolai Shiniaev, The year 1812. Awakened steppe, 2012, oil on canvas, 95 х 120 cm; b. Detail from Nikolai Shiniaev, The year 1812. Awakened steppe

The protectress Okon Tengri is depicted with a blue skin, bright red hair and mounted on a mule at the top of the painting in the position of the patron deity to the right of Prince Serbedzhab Tiumen, the commander of the Second Astrakhan Kalmyk regiment. Hosheutovskii Hurul is portrayed in the top right corner above the cavalrymen (from the interview with the artist, October 2018, Elista)

© photo by Valeria Gazizova, oral permission has been given

Sülde, gender and the military cult of Okon Tengri: three tentative approaches

  • 39 Humphrey & Ujeed (2013, p. 186) suggest that the idea of sülde underlies the very understanding of (...)

28When considering the veneration of military standards among the Mongols, one is faced with the idea of sülde, a difficult politico-religious notion which perhaps constitutes the essence of the Mongol cult of ancestors and hero spirits, including that of Chinggis Khan. Routinely defined as protective spirit (Heissig 1980, pp. 84-85), it has foremost come to be understood as a collective vital force and fortune of a clan or even entire nation, perceived as emanating from great ancestors (Zhukovskaia 1977, pp. 109-110; Skrynnikova 1992-1993). In other words, the fortune and triumph of important ancestors are personified and envisioned as a guardian deity of the state and its people to whom is ascribed protection from enemies, assistance in military campaigns and enhancing economic prosperity39. As a deity of martial power, it received the characteristics of equestrian warrior gods of the aforementioned dgra lha class in the Tibeto-Mongolian iconography. Although the worship of sülde takes different forms and can be manifested in various objects (Skrynnikova 1992-1993), its main receptacle is traditionally the battle standard (Mo. tug or tug süld) (Humphrey & Ujeed 2013, pp. 185-186). The latter is in fact a pole topped by a metal trident or spearhead, beneath which is attached a ring of horse or yak hair. These “authentic Mongol standards”, as referred to by my interlocutors (i.e. without a banner attached to the pole), are obviously quite different from the Kalmyk military standards considered earlier in this paper.

  • 40 The “great enemy goddess” (Tib. dgra lha chen mo) and “queen of enemy gods” (Tib. dgra lha’i rgyal (...)
  • 41 There are certain exceptions in the medieval period (Nicola 2011).

29Although the Kalmyks have historically shared the deification of their standards typical of the other Mongols, my material attests to certain distinctive developments in the local cult and iconography of their military flags, including the central role of the wrathful protectress Okon Tengri. In this capacity, the goddess not only has come closest to the class of equestrian enemy gods (Tib. dgra lha)40, she has also received the key functions of the sülde deity. On the one hand, it may come as no surprise that Magzorma, admired as a paragon of heroism and venerated as a patroness of warriors, should be depicted on military banners. Nevertheless, the questions of gender and inversion of traditional gendered structures of power come to the fore. Largely beyond the scope of this paper, these issues require to be at least briefly outlined as they are closely connected with the local appropriation of the cult and iconography of Lhamo. The Mongol idea of sülde as the energy of military might and triumph, as well as its various manifestations – deities, standards, tridents, weapons, etc. – is inseparable from the masculine, with women historically considered inimical to these objects and notions. Women have been for the most part excluded from the sphere of warfare in Mongol societies41, which has been regulated by numerous avoidance customs. Among the Kalmyks, for instance, women were prohibited from stepping over or merely touching the weapons of their husband or male in-laws and were strictly forbidden from even approaching the battle standards. Considered equivalent with an act of sexual intercourse, such actions are believed to render military weapons inefficient (personal communication). Although the gender ideas have been changing during socialist and postsocialist eras, women are still prohibited from making the ritual fire, killing sacrificial animals, or ascending sacred heights. These prohibitions are linked to the religious and ritual exclusion of women in the Buddhist societies of Mongolia, Kalmykia and Tibet, being governed by a discourse of female physical pollution. Female fertility renders women “impure” and hence “dangerous” to men and objects imagined as vessels of masculine power, including battle standards.

  • 42 Such amulets are typically small metal or wooden boxes of different shape containing an image of a (...)
  • 43 Menstruating women are still commonly prohibited from visiting temples, circumambulating stupas or (...)

30For the Kalmyks, as is also the case in Mongolia and Tibet, battlefields and military campaigns have been sites of religion and ritual. Buddhist monks followed Kalmyks troops and consecrated their standards and weapons. Soldiers consulted with monks and received their blessings before going into battles. Of special importance was wearing protective amulets (Kalm. mird; Tib. mtshon srung). Prepared and consecrated by Buddhist monks, they were believed to protect against all sorts of danger in battle and even make one bullet-proof42. This custom largely obtains today. Female pollution was greatly feared on the battlefield as it was held to not only destroy one’s protective amulets, but also contaminate and hence weaken the military might and fortune contained in the battle standard. While blood in general is considered polluting, menstruation and the blood associated with childbirth and miscarriage are considered particularly dangerous forms of contamination, functioning as powerful/polluted in the classic sense proposed by Mary Douglas ([1966] 2001, p. 95)43.

31However, it is an unambiguously female deity, albeit in a terrifying form, that has largely come to dominate the iconography of Kalmyk military standards, being perceived as abiding in them. Not only did Okon Tengri acquire significant functions of the sülde deity, but she replaced the male warrior gods altogether in certain contexts (e.g. on the Don Kalmyk banner described earlier). The questions of why and how a female deity, whose functions also include those of the fertility goddess, develops into the focus of the military cult, or whether she is deemed to have any kind of special powers that allowed her to supersede male deities, are as fascinating as they are complicated. It seems neither helpful nor possible to compile a comprehensive range of local theories in this regard or provide any conclusive answers. At this point and only for heuristic purposes, I suggest grouping diverse opinions encountered in the field into three broader approaches (none of which is necessarily exclusive of the others) to the understanding of the military cult of Okon Tengri and her role in the iconography of Kalmyk battle banners. These may be tentatively termed the mythological, the Buddhisization and the geo-political, or Eurasian, theses.

  • 44 It is held that an image of a deity, even if it is not made and consecrated according to the canon, (...)

32What I call the mythological, or literal, approach emphasizes the explicit martial functions of the goddess that dominate her mythology. An invincible warrior, she fights with and eliminates the demonic entities which have caused a universal crisis. Her wrathful image on standards is deemed able to instil her ascribed innate strength and courage to the soldiers worshipping her, while also frightening and destroying their enemies44. Akin to the Hindu warrior goddesses, such as Durgā or Kālī (often regarded as her Indian prototypes), Okon Tengri is associated in popular imagination with power, battle and blood. It is this correlation, together with a paradoxical combination of violence and self-sacrifice integral to her mythology, that constructs the goddess as particularly efficient in the role of the standard deity. As explained by a 50-year-old herder from Yashkul:

Okon Tengri is an important protectress of Kalmykia. She was portrayed on military banners of many Kalmyk tribes. Before the revolution, we (the Zungars) had a big white standard with a depiction of Okon Tengri in the centre. It was taken to the USA after the Civil War. She saved the world from cannibal demons, but during this fight she developed a taste for blood. Like the Indian goddess Kālī, she became addicted to blood and demands regular sacrifices. Battles and wars could be used to satisfy her thirst. (interview, November 2018)

  • 45 According to McGranahan (2010, p. 781), the lake of blood atop of which Palden Lhamo is portrayed i (...)

33In this interpretation, enemies killed in battles are imagined as offerings demanded by the wrathful goddess depicted on and envisioned as abiding in the standard. The relationship between Okon Tengri and warriors venerating her is understood as that of reciprocity. Perceived as assisting in battles, the goddess received sacrifices in the form of killed enemies, which in its turn renourished her powers, making her protection stronger and her assistance more efficient. The envisioned transmutation of blood into military triumph is reminiscent of the inversion of pollution into power found in Tantric practices45.

34The literal approach to the Kalmyk military cult of Okon Tengri, largely based on gory legends about her fighting with demons and killing her own son, contradicts the Buddhist principal of non-violence and is therefore often contested, if not rejected altogether, by many of the present-day Buddhists who see Lhamo foremost as an enlightened deity – in contrast to the warrior gods (Tib. dgra lha), who are for the most part oath-bound mundane protectors – and therefore prefer talking about her military cult within what can be regarded as the Buddhicization framework. According to this approach, it is the Buddhisization of Kalmyk society, including the sphere of warfare, that is used to account for Palden Lhamo replacing the male sülde deities. The material considered in this paper suggests that by the early 19th century Kalmyk battle standards had been subjected to a considerable Buddhist influence, if not entirely absorbed into religion. This is evident in the abundance of Buddhist elements (prayers in Tibetan, the victory banner, depiction of Buddhist deities and auspicious symbols, iconography of Tibetan prayer flags, etc.), and also in the key role of monks in their consecration. In this context of Buddhist values intertwining with military values, an important function of Kalmyk standards was also to protect the Dharma. Hence, it is not the gender of the wrathful goddess, but her key role as a powerful defender of Buddhism and her connection with the Dalai Lama lineage that is emphasized in this case.

35Rob Linrothe (2004, pp. 4-6) justly argues that Tibetan Buddhist wrathful deities manifest a crucial paradox of what he calls the “demonic divine”, which consists in the fact that compassion can take gruesome forms. The visual violence of fierce deities – their dangerous weapons, threatening gestures, exaggerated features, etc. – is not to be understood literally as harmful to humans. On the contrary, their exterior embodies the power to eradicate diverse obstacles on one’s way to enlightenment. Such obstacles include not only illness and misfortune, but also what is regarded in Buddhism as destructive mental states and patterns of behavior, like envy, lust, hate, ignorance, or selfishness. The more terrifying the form that these deities adopt, the more powerful the obstacles that can be destroyed. In this way, despite her horrifying appearance, deadly weapons and appalling ritual implements, Okon Tengri as the Mongol variant of Palden Lhamo is an emanation of the Buddha’s compassion. And it is precisely out of great compassion for living beings, and humans in particular, that she assumes her terrifying appearance and fiercely fights to protect the Dharma. In the words of Andja Gelüng from the Central hurul in Elista, the Golden Abode of Buddha Śākyamuni (Kalm. Burhan bagshin altn süm):

Palden Lhamo, or Okon Tengri in Kalmyk, is an embodiment of active compassion, or compassionate struggle by means of her wrath with everything that prevents people from spiritual development and enlightenment… particularly with one’s dual perception of reality and egocentric desires. You see, the most valuable rebirth is human life, because only in human incarnation one can achieve enlightenment. (interview, November 2018)

  • 46 Gushri Khan (1582-1655) was the leader of the Khoshot, one of the Oirat confederations, and the fou (...)
  • 47 The “red and black protectors” are said to be symbolized by the red and dark blue stripes of the Ti (...)

36As mentioned earlier, Palden Lhamo is historically an important source from which the institute of Dalai Lamas has derived its political power. Since the Fifth Dalai Lama, a key responsibility of Palden Lhamo has also been to safeguard his government, established in 1642 largely with the military support of the Oirat Gushri Khan46. The Oirat military campaign in Tibet had a far-reaching impact not only on the political history of Tibet, but also on the history of Buddhism in Mongolia. Gushri Khan’s victory asserted the dominance of the Gelugpa order and maintained the power of the Dalai Lama as both the religious and political leader of Tibet. The Fifth Dalai Lama is known to have introduced a number of ceremonies of a distinctively martial character in recognition of the assistance of Gushri Khan in defeating his enemies. Hugh Richardson documents that on the 23rd day of the first lunar month, two military standards were solemnly carried before a cavalry that annually gathered in Lhasa (at Lubu, Tib. kLu sbug) for a parade-like event to demonstrate their prowess in weaponry and horsemanship. According to Richardson, the two standards resembled, or in fact were, those of Gushri Khan’s forces; they consisted of a tall lance topped by a trident and wrapped in a painted banner illustrating the “Red and Black Guardians” (Tib. srung ma dmar nag), the main protective deities of the Dalai Lamas and Tibetan government (Richardson 1993, p. 34). While different opinions regarding the identity of the red guardian are known, all Tibetan Buddhist schools recognize Palden Lhamo as the black protector (Heller 1992, p. 483)47. In this connection, the Oirat troops are imagined as a “holy army” headed by the wrathful goddess, whose campaigns are inseparable from the mission of defending the Dalai Lamas, the Gelugpas and the Buddha’s teaching by means of military power. Battle banners illustrating Lhamo are therefore regarded as evidencing the historical connection between the Kalmyks and Oirats, and also their veneration and loyalty to the Dalai Lamas, all of which are integral to the Kalmyk identity.

  • 48 One popular version, albeit contested by historians, states that it was the empress Elizabeth (r. 1 (...)

37This perceived historical connection with the Dalai Lamas is also partly constitutive of what I call the “geo-political” or “Eurasian” approach to the military cult of Okon Tengri. Perhaps not as widespread at present as the others, it lays emphasis on the complex allegiances of the Oirats, and later Kalmyks, in their locale on the Volga steppes. The identification of Okon Tengri with White Tārā, representative of the popular appropriation of Palden Lhamo, is brought here to the fore. Historically, White Tārā is thought by the Mongols to have been reincarnated in the line of Russian monarchs, who were therefore referred to as the White Tsars (Prozritelev [1912] 1990, p. 62; Kochetov 1973, p. 55). Although the origins of this identification are not clear, scholars tend to connect it with the fact that the rulers of Russia during the 17th and 18th centuries were often women (Prozritelev [1912] 1990, pp. 62-63; Humphrey 1997, pp. 35-36), and also with the special role attributed to the empresses Elizabeth Petrovna and Catherine the Great in legitimizing Buddhism in Russia (Tsyrempilov 2020, p. 17)48.

  • 49 I thank Isabelle Charleux for this observation.
  • 50 Andreeva (2013). Commenting on the Russian aggression against Ukraine in February 2022, Lama Aiushe (...)

38The 19th-century Russian researcher Potanin cites several Mongol legends relating the origin of the Russian Imperial line in mythical terms. For example, one tale identifies Russian empresses as reincarnations of one of Chinggis Khan’s daughters, herself considered a reincarnation of White Tārā, who ran away with her father’s white battle standard and became the first White Khan of Russia (Potanin 1883, pp. 324-325). The legend therefore not only connects the origin of Russian monarchs with the goddess, but also portrays their political power as derived from the heavenly white standard of Chinggis Khan, thereby providing a dual sacralization of the Russian Imperial line. Significantly, the duality and opposition of White Tārā and Okon Tengri as the peaceful and wrathful forms of the same divinity parallel the opposition of the white standard (the emblem of the state) and the black standard of war for Mongols49. Hence, it comes as no surprise that it is the wrathful form of the goddess that should be depicted on the battle banners. The identification of the Russian rulers, whether male or female, with White Tārā continued through the 19th century, and was resumed in 2009, when president Dmitrii Medvedev was declared a rebirth of White Tārā by the Buryat Khambo Lama Damba Aiusheev. Furthermore, Lama Aiusheev has repeated in several interviews that he also considers President Putin to be the current reincarnation of the goddess and that as the incumbent Khambo Lama of Buryatia he would never go against the Russian president or condemn any of his decisions50. However, the historical identification of the heads of the Russian state with either White Tārā or Palden Lhamo is no longer popular in Kalmykia.

39In this line of thought, images of Okon Tengri on pre-Soviet military banners can be regarded as an important connecting link or integrating principle that reflected the complicated religious and political belonging of the Kalmyks. A people of Mongolian descent and adherents of Buddhism, they were nevertheless also subjects of Russia and participated in Russian military campaigns. In other words, the wrathful protectress Palden Lhamo is seen in this framework as having represented the historical and religio-cultural connection of the Kalmyks with the Dalai Lama and Inner Asia, and at the same time their military commitment to the White Tsars. The association of Lhamo with royalty and ruling monarchs has not been restricted to her worship among the Mongols. For example, the British Queen Victoria (r. 1837-1901) was believed by the Tibetans to be a reincarnation of Palden Lhamo (Beasley 1927).

40Accordingly, Kalmyk military standards existed for centuries as an important locus of Okon Tengri representing some of the core qualities of Palden Lhamo in her appropriation by the Kalmyks, and yet in present-day religious practice and popular imagination they give rise to divergent interpretations. As is largely the case with equestrian warrior gods in Inner Asia and the popular cult of Chinggis Khan in Mongolia, a Buddhist overlay and typical translation of the wrathful aspects of the goddess into Buddhist values do not override the worship of military power itself. The fact that it is a female deity that has been illustrated on battle standards and in certain cases ousted the traditional male gods may itself be seen as a critical refusal, at least implicit, to simply reproduce the patriarchal views of gender. There has developed yet another meaningful dimension of deploying the perceived warrior qualities of Okon Tengri, with women being largely the principal actors. It is the sphere of folk healing and popular ritual, to which I shall turn before finishing this article.

Fighting illness and opening the way: the war goddess as a source of healing power

41An important movement in the appropriation of Palden Lhamo by the popular imagination of the Kalmyks to which her widespread local worship in the form of Okon Tengri has been subject evokes her as a sacred source of healing power. Offerings and ceremonies devoted the goddess, conducted either in Buddhist monasteries or by folk religious specialists, are said to reinstate the balance of life forces in one’s body and in this way restore the person’s health. The functions of healing and prolonging life are not uncommon for protective warrior gods across Inner Asia as they are usually held to defend not only against adversaries on the battlefield, but also from diseases, including those caused by demonic entities (Wallace 2015). In Mongolia as in Tibet, Lhamo is connected with divination, including for making a diagnosis, and also with herbology, this being reflected in her traditional iconography (Mullin & Watt 2003, pp. 182-185). Regarding Kalmyk popular worship, it is precisely the fierce aspect of Okon Tengri and her military might of a war goddess that are often imagined as constituting the valuable potentiality that can be ritually appropriated for healing purposes. I shall end this article with two accounts illustrating how the military potency of Okon Tengri, associated foremost with (her means of) destruction, can be transmuted into blessing and life-giving agency.

  • 51 Since Okon Tengri is an important patron-deity of the Dörvöd, it does not seem surprising.
  • 52 Ataman Danzan Tundutov (1888-1923) was a great-grandson of the famous commander of the First Kalmyk (...)

42I met Nina during one of my first research trips to Kalmykia back in 2010. A woman then in her late 60s, she was the founder of what she herself defined as a centre and charity foundation of Kalmyk history and culture. The mission of her centre is grounded in the narrative of an eclipse of Kalmyk intellectual heritage and painful history of ethnic and religious suppression during the Soviet era. Partly resembling a library, partly an ethnographic museum and partly a prayer house, it was situated in a two-room office in the building of a former cinema in the centre of the capital Elista. Of all objects in her centre, she was particularly proud to show me (sic) “the top of the Okon Tengri standard”. About 25 cm long, it was leaf-shaped with a pointed top, made of metal and gilded (fig. 8). According to Nina, the standard it used to surmount belonged to the Dörvöd lineage of princes Tundutov51 and was deployed by the Astrakhan Cossack Cavalry troops headed by Ataman Danzan Tundutov in the Civil War52. While it is unknown what happened to the rest of the standard, its remaining top had been secretly kept in Nina’s family for decades.

Figure 8. The flagpole top of reportedly the Okon Tengri standard

Figure 8. The flagpole top of reportedly the Okon Tengri standard

© photo by Valeria Gazizova, July 2010

43As we were talking, a middle-aged woman came in with her son, a man in his early 30s. She bowed before Nina and handed her a green ritual scarf (Kalm. hadg; Tib. kha btags). Her son had recently found a job in a big city outside Kalmykia and they came to Nina “to have his road opened” for success in his new undertaking or, as the woman put it, “so that everything works out for him in the new place”. What is known in Kalmykia and Buryatia as “opening the road” refers to diverse ritual procedures intended to remove impediments between a person and whichever they wish to achieve – from reciting a short Tibetan text by a monk to an extensive folk ritual involving animal sacrifice. In the nomadic vision of the Kalmyks, life is basically equated with happiness through the trope of the “road”. Ritually cleansing one’s life (imagined as a road) of impediments purportedly returns it to its original state of happiness. This idea is also reflected in the Kalmyk word jirhl, which designates both life and happiness, or fortune (Muniev 1977, p. 230). As a Kalmyk acquaintance explained, “Life means happiness in Kalmyk”. At the same time, an outer road as a new undertaking or journey is held to be potentially dangerous and therefore a ritual intervention is required.

  • 53 As Nina explained after the ritual, it was a prayer to Okon Tengri. She confessed that she recited (...)
  • 54 In the Soviet Union, school children around the age of nine were accepted into so-called “pioneers” (...)

44Nina was excited to show me her “Okon Tengri standard in action”, although she emphasized that she did not regard herself as a ritual specialist of any kind. She seated the young man on a chair in front of the altar, covered his head with a white handkerchief, placed the top of the standard on the crown of his head and chanted in what seemed like a mixture of Tibetan, Kalmyk and perhaps also Russian, with some Sanskrit terms discernable53. Silent, immobile and crowned by the glittering spearhead, the young man looked as if he was also magically transforming into a battle standard. Some of my interlocutors were in fact deeply sceptical about the actual historical value of the standard – or rather its remaining part – from Nina’s centre, some going as far as saying that it had come from “a typical pioneer flag that every Soviet school used to have”54. Be that as may, Nina regarded it not only as an object of historical significance, but also as a potent Buddhist relic invested with the might of Okon Tengri. Hence, a direct physical contact with it, especially in a proper ritual context, could purportedly bestow a wide range of benefits, including protection from illness and obstacles. “Just as Okon Tengri defeated all demons and cannibals, so can her standard destroy all impediments, problems and misfortune”, she explained after the ritual.

45As discussed earlier, the Kalmyks venerated their military standards and banners as material embodiments of protective deities, akin to shamanic ongod, or perhaps rather to Buddhist images (Kalm/Mo. burhan). As is the case with consecrated images, the top of the flagpole is envisioned (at least by Nina) as containing the presence of Okon Tengri and is therefore considered a repository of “blessing” (Kalm. ädis; Tib. byin rlabs; Skt. adhiṣṭāna), understood in Buddhist terms as miraculous protective power transmitted from a deity, in our case from Okon Tengri. Furthermore, it is the fierce martial power of the warrior goddess that is considered particularly valuable since it can purportedly eradicate even the most powerful impediments. Nina underlined that even the smallest fraction of a sacred relic or consecrated substance contains the potency of the whole, for this reason the top of the flagpole is as ritually efficient as the entire standard. Based on a form of metonymy, this perception of the sacra is not uncommon across the wider Tibetan Buddhist world (Gayley 2007). Nina also compared a flagpole with the central channel or spine in the human body, both containing the “life-force” – either individual as in the spine or collective as in the war standard. Placed on the crown of the patient’s head, the top of the standard is envisioned as connected with the spine through the top chakra, and in this way the might and invincibility of the fierce Okon Tengri invigorate the person. This is how the healing is achieved. The idea that the fontanel is where the invisible entrance, or exit, for such vitality principles is located is common across Inner Asia (Schrempf 2015).

46What I found surprising in this case was Nina insisting that the same procedure involving the part of the flagpole from her centre was potent for treating female infertility. On the one hand, in her functions as the deity of fire and fertility Okon Tengri is commonly considered a sacred authority to ask for children. Among the aims of conducting the “offering to the fire”, whose important recipient is Okon Tengri, has traditionally been and remains soliciting fertility when a women cannot conceive. On the other hand, the battle standard, its flagpole and spearhead, as well as Okon Tengri in her capacity of the war goddess perceived as contained in the standard, represent the means of destruction of life. This constitutes an important paradox of the goddess in Kalmyk popular culture and ritual, her being the source of simultaneously destruction and healing, death and life. As aptly summed up by a Kalmyk religious specialist from the village Arshan known for curing infertility:

Okon Tengri killed her own child. She sacrificed her son for the good of all people and she is also the goddess who gives children. She is the source of female health and power. When you pray to Okon Tengri, you connect with all female deities. When reciting prayers to her, you receive blessings from twenty-one Tārā, Sarasvatī, Vajrayoginī, and all other goddesses. (September 2012)

47This popular construction of Okon Tengri as an intermedium or connecting link with other female Buddhist figures can perhaps be explained by the fact that she is historically considered a wrathful emanation of several important female members of the pantheon. What seems more paradoxical is that it is killing her own child, albeit for saving humanity, that is imagined as somehow connected with her becoming a sacred source of female fertility granting children and restoring “female health”. One possible way to explain this paradox is a wide range of functions and amalgamation of contradictory motifs that has come to be attributed to this female deity in the local perception and popular worship, with Okon Tengri being at once the deity of fire and hence fertility, who initiates spring, and the saviour of humanity who sacrifices her own son. The latter motif, as I have shown earlier, makes her also comparable in popular imagination to Christian Mother Mary, traditionally regarded in Russia not only as a patroness of children, but also an important holy source to pray to for having children.

48It does not seem uncommon for Kalmyk popular worship to perceive one’s military experience as a valuable (although a-moral) potentiality which can be converted into specific curing faculties. On the contrary, the ability to treat certain illnesses is sometimes held to derive from an individual military experience of a certain type. One example is a time-honoured Kalmyk method of healing shingles, or herpes zoster, a disease caused by a viral infection of the nerve endings and producing a painful skin rash. Before obtaining the necessary faculties to be able to cure this illness one is traditionally required to have participated in wars and – importantly – to have killed a certain number of enemies in battles (personal communication with Shantaev, October 2018). Sometimes, one’s military experience that can be rechannelled for healing is imagined as having been accumulated over several lifetimes as in the following example.

49Raisa, a Kalmyk woman aged around 60 now living in Elista, claims to remember six of her previous lives, in all of which she was a man and warrior. She explains that it is the military past of her previous incarnations that simultaneously enabled and compelled her to be a ritual healer in her current lifetime, which she also describes as a battle. She defines herself as a “warrior of fire and light” and compares herself to Okon Tengri, who fights darkness and brings sunlight. Darkness and illness become equated in this case, both perceived as the enemy to be destroyed. Raisa believes that her fierce militant nature, allegedly inherited from previous births, has been transmuted into her present extraordinary healing abilities. Moreover, having killed many people in her past lives, she now sees herself as being forced – or rather (sic) “karmically predestined” – to serve those in need as a way of atoning.

50When she was about seven years old, she was struck by a ball lightning and nearly died. Her granduncle, a former gelüng (Tib. dge slong, a fully ordained Buddhist monk) who secretly conducted Buddhist rituals during the Soviet era, interpreted this incident as an important sign from the deity of fire Okon Tengri. “He said that I had been marked, that Okon Tengri had left her mark”, Raisa recalled. Already in childhood she would sometimes have what she describes as “an unexplainable excess of fiery energy”, when she could allegedly heat up or even boil a bathtub full of cold water with her bare hands: “It felt as if all of a sudden, my arms and legs would start burning. I did not know what to do with it. My body was just radiating heat.” However, it was very difficult, if not impossible, to combine an atheist education and religious predestination during the Soviet era, and therefore Raisa gave no importance to her unusual powers. Having graduated from the faculty of law, she worked in the court of the capital Elista. She attributes her numerous illnesses and medical surgeries she had to her not applying her special talent.

51Raisa’s first encounter with her guardian goddess occurred when she was already over forty years of age. It happened shortly after a car accident that had virtually left her bedridden. One early morning, an unfamiliar young woman knocked on her door. She said that she had been sent to help Raisa. The woman gave her an apple and said to cut it in half – one half had to be rubbed on Raisa’s injured back and then taken to the steppe to feed birds or animals, while the other she had to eat herself. The girl also said that Raisa had to recite the Kalmyk prayers that were supposedly hidden on a bottom shelf in her old wardrobe. Much to her surprise, Raisa did find an old notebook filled with short Kalmyk texts in the Cyrillic script. She remembered later that she had written them down herself when travelling around Kalmyk villages and talking to older locals. She was certain that it was none other than Okon Tengri herself who had come to her in the form of a 17-year-old Kalmyk woman. Let us see what Raisa says about her special talents and how they developed after this miraculous encounter:

  • 55 Here, we have an implicit allusion to the form of Okon Tengri in her role of the deity of music and (...)

After this vision, I was able to walk again. I started reading the old prayers, but it was very difficult for me. Kalmyks words were hard to pronounce. Suddenly, I started singing them instead, and it changed everything. It was as if Okon Tengri wanted me to sing55. I began healing others by singing the prayers, and doing this also helped me to see so much more. I would look at a person and know from the first glance what is hurting them. You see, each of us has a kind of circle above the head. I do not really know what it is, but I call it information field as it helps me see if there are any problems with the person’s health. Suddenly, I also understood that I knew how to massage, although no one had taught me this. (November 2018)

  • 56 In the Tibetan idiom, the personal warrior deity, or “enemy god” (Tib. dgra lha), is also usually i (...)

52These narratives conjure up an individual endowed with curing and visionary powers innately, rather than having gained these faculties and knowledge through training or a more traditional transmission from teacher to student. Raisa obviously feels the invisible presence within her of something beyond her ordinary self, which she connects with her previous lifetimes and, importantly, with the agency of Okon Tengri, the principal source of her ritual knowledge. Every morning she lights a butter lamp (Kalm. zul) in front of a framed picture of Lhamo (in the form of Magzor Gyalmo) on her home altar. Raisa purportedly cures people of different diseases mainly by stroking or massaging their bodies, while singing prayers. Sometimes, she sings prayers over a jar of water that the patient has to drink afterwards (usually on certain lunar days), variations of this method by means of water being common in Kalmykia. She confided to me that Okon Tengri is constantly at her right shoulder, protecting and guiding Raisa in her ritual and healing practice56, whereas White Tārā (the benevolent form of Lhamo) is imagined as being inside her body and hence “lighting up and purifying the soul from within” (interview, November 2018). In other words, the two goddesses are again perceived as inseparable forms of one female divine, whose martial and healing faculties are manifest in this particular case through a human vehicle.

Conclusion

53In Tibet, Palden Lhamo has existed for centuries at the intersection of the religio-cultural and political realms, functioning as an important source from which the political power of the Dalai Lama institute derived its strength and legitimation. This position was largely retained in her appropriation by the Buddhist society of the Kalmyks, albeit with a greater emphasis on her function as the wrathful protectress of warriors who could destroy the enemies of not only the Kalmyks, the Dharma and the Dalai Lama, but also of the Russian Empire. Before the Soviet era, Okon Tengri was an important focus of the Kalmyk military cult, having been depicted on and virtually identified with military banners as her abodes. Mongol and Kalmyk culture is historically suffused with a martial ethos, with Okon Tengri functioning as the epitome of valour and heroism. During the Soviet era (particularly after the WWII), when religious expression was suppressed and the Kalmyks no longer had their own troops, the terrifying goddess of war evolved into a source of healing and a focus of visionary experience by means of which curing talents can be acquired. Nevertheless, even in ritual healing it is precisely the martial might associated with the goddess, her ascribed ferocity, strength and invincibility that are imagined as rechannelled and appropriated for healing purposes. Vessels or vehicles of these martial-healing powers allegedly deriving from the goddess can take the form of a material object (e.g. standard, image or text) or even a human practitioner whose identity and social roles are closely tied to their participation in this genre of ritual activity.

54In contrast to most other members of the Buddhist pantheon, Okon Tengri occupies a rather special place in the popular worship and imagination of the Kalmyks. Recognized by the Buddhist establishment across Inner Asia as an enlightened deity (virtually not distinguished from Palden Lhamo), she has nevertheless a somewhat folkish character, with some of my interlocutors going as far as defining her as a “shamanic goddess”. In any case, this female deity is seen as a constitutive part of the local religiosity and, importantly, an icon of the ethnic history and military past. The popularity of Okon Tengri among the Kalmyks at large, including different levels of society, can be partly explained by her profound integration into folk legends as a paradigmatic figure of valour and heroism – and ultimately as a rescuer of the world. With the advent of the post-Soviet era of ethnic reconstitution, the tales relating the heroic deeds of Okon Tengri have somewhat functioned as national mythology. Furthermore, as is also largely the case with Palden Lhamo in Tibetan and Himalayan societies, Okon Tengri appears as a multidimensional figure, constructed as meaningful for different cultural and historical contexts. This adaptability of the goddess is revealed in her numerous and seemingly incompatible functions, including those of the fire deity securing the annual revival of nature, an enlightened protector of Buddhism, a fierce and bloodthirsty goddess of war, a deity of fertility providing life, the owner of the hearth insuring a continuity of the family line, the queen of the underworld, a deity of karmic judgment, the owner of time, the progenitor of living beings and the saviour of the entire world. In other words, the deity functions as a conglomerate of diverse potentialities, efficacious for religious and political intervention and prone to further creative transformations. The goddess herself becomes an intriguing powerscape, or a space of intersection and negotiation between diverse functions and types of power, e.g. political, military, therapeutic, royal, visionary, artistic, etc.

  • 57 Humphrey (1992) discusses how throughout Mongolian history women have in fact had more autonomy and (...)

55One can also argue, as least as my material suggests, that what makes the goddess particularly important and special is her intrinsic paradoxical, if not antistructural, nature. While functioning as an invincible protectress of the world who systematically restores the universal order and maintains the cosmic rhythms, she simultaneously challenges and subverts certain normative aspects of traditional Inner Asian societies, including foremost the prescribed normative role for females. Not only does she excel at what is historically a male prerogative, i.e. fighting in battles and commanding troops, but she becomes the military standard deity. In this capacity, she is not subordinate to any male deity because her powers and invincibility do not derive from her male consorts. Moreover, it is precisely by destroying her spouse that she restores the cosmic order and rescues people. She enshrines the ideology of women’s autonomy that was in fact inherent in Inner Asian Buddhist societies, while being simultaneously in tension with the patrilineal ideology of male dominance. Humphrey (1992) suggests that it is military and mobile ethos, on the one hand, and also the role of certain Tibetan Buddhist female deities whose significance and power do not depend on their male consorts that can be used to explain the attitude to gender in societies of the Inner Asian periphery, such as Mongolia and Kalmykia57. In other words, remaining a paradigmatic ideal of heroism and manifesting the values of Kalmyk and Mongol traditional society, the goddess Okon Tengri as an anti-structural powerscsape inevitably transcends them.

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Notes

1 The class of the wrathful defenders of Buddhism largely consists of male deities.

2 I transliterate Kalmyk terms in parenthesis in accordance with their normative dictionary spelling (Muniev 1977) and also follow the EMSCAT guidelines of transliteration for the Cyrillic alphabet. However, the dictionary spelling does not always render the pronunciation of the Kalmyk names exactly. For this reason, I prefer to write the name of the goddess as Okon Tengri throughout the article as it is the most frequent contemporary transcription of the Kalmyk name, being also used in academic and popular literature published in Russian.

3 For more on the deity’s role in Mongolian Buddhism and vernacular religion, see Kollmar-Paulenz (2002) and Birtalan (2001).

4 Tangka (Tib. thang ka) is a depiction of a Buddhist deity, painted, embroidered or appliquéd on cotton or silk.

5 In Kalmyk and Mongol mythology, Okon Tengri is often portrayed as married to the lord of the underworld, which is routinely explained as her self-sacrifice. In Buddhism, the lord of the underworld Erlig Khan has received the iconographic attributes of Yama, the buffalo-headed deity of death from Hindu and Buddhist mythology. As the spouse of the lord of the death, Lhamo is conceived of as presiding in infernal court and is therefore also called the “keeper of secrets of life and death”. Another popular interpretation depicts her as the wife of Yamāntaka, a wrathful manifestation of the bodhisattva of wisdom Mañjuśrī (cf. Humphrey & Ujeed 2013, pp. 120-121).

6 Parallels in other traditions are numerous, the Greek goddess Persephone immediately coming to mind.

7 The deity of fire, at least in its older form, was often perceived across Siberia and Central Asia as female, one common explanation being the life-giving properties of the sun and fire associated with female nature (Heissig 1980, pp. 70-71; Van Deusen 1996, p. 55).

8 Conversations with monks in the Central hurul in Elista, the Golden Abode of Buddha Śākyamuni (Kalm. Burhan bagshin altn süm) and lamas of Orgakin hurul, September-October 2018.

9 While some variants of the legend state that she was commissioned to save the world by the Buddha, others narrate that she was abducted by demons. The range of narratives about Okon Tengri as circulated in Kalmykia is indeed remarkable. This diversity in her local mythology is perhaps another indication of different sources of origin of the goddess and an amalgamation of several distinct figures into one female deity.

10 Fantastic beings are often portrayed in fairy tales of different peoples as having their life-force detached from the body and concealed away, which makes them invincible until their hidden life-force is found.

11 In Mongolia, Lhamo is also held to be a sister (or consort) of Begtse (Tib. Beg tse), a protective deity of Mongolia and Tibet, also known as Jamsran (Tib. lCam sring) (Berger et al. 1995, p. 84; Wallace 2015, pp. 210-211).

12 Besides books on Buddhist art and popular legends, her sources of information include her own upbringing (conversation with the author, September 2011).

13 For the “magical weapons” of Paldem Lhamo in Tibetan iconography, see Róna-Tas (1965) and Beer (1999, pp. 305-310).

14 In fact, cartomancy using a deck of standard playing cards is proliferated across Russia.

15 Robert Beer describes Lhamo’s bag of diseases as a representation of an early example of a bacteriological siege weapon that was used in India to spread pestilence in a besieged settlement (Beer 1999, p. 306).

16 For the iconography of Tibetan Buddhist terrifying deities, see Linrothe (2004).

17 In the top left-hand corner, the queen of summer (Tib. dByar gyi rgyal mo) is depicted with red skin and mounted on a blue, or water, bull. The yellow queen of autumn (Tib. sTon gyi rgyal mo) occupies the top right corner; she rides on a stag and brandishes a sickle. In the lower right-hand corner, the dark-blue queen of winter (Tib. dGun gyi rgyal mo) is depicted mounted on a camel and waving a magic club in her right hand. The bottom left corner is occupied by the queen of spring (Tib. dPyid kyi rgyal mo). Also having a blue body, she rides on a white-yellow mule and brandishes a sabre. Of the four deities of the seasons, the queen of winter appears particularly popular in Mongolia, having developed her separate iconography (Meinert 2011, pp. 554-555; Tsultem 1986, ill. 159).

18 This is the Tibetan Buddhist version of the Indian goddess of arts, wisdom and poetic inspiration, who is closely associated with the god Brahmā as either his daughter or wife (Kinsley 1988, pp. 55-64).

19 To be precise, Palden Lhamo in her four-armed form is considered the wrathful emanation of the goddess Śrī-Lakṣmī, while the two-armed Magzor Gyalmo, the ferocious form of Sarasvatī (Linrothe 2004, p. 275). Miranda Shaw traces the association between Sarasvatī and Palden Lhamo in Tibetan Buddhism to Indic connections between Sarasvatī and Durgā (Shaw 2006, pp. 240-241).

20 Researchers of Tibetan societies have also traced a close connection between the vertical axis in cosmological representations and the theme of fertility. Charles Ramble (1996, p. 150) proposes that it is the vertical axis as such, rather than any particular deity, that is linked with the idea of fertility. The Buryat historian of religion Natalia Zhukovskaia (1977, p. 82) argues (making perhaps too general a conclusion) that in mythologies of different ethnic groups, including the Mongols, the world tree as a vertical model of the universe is a principal representation of Mother Goddess.

21 The bright yellow landscape in Kalmyk tangkas must have been inspired by the dry summer steppe and semi-desert (Ivanov 2009, p. 31; Batyreva 1991, ills 17 and 24).

22 Other specific landscape features found in pre-Soviet Kalmyk Buddhist art, which are not represented in the two paintings of Okon Tengri considered here, are wildflowers and tulips, depicted either across the background terrain or around the central deity, and also characteristic small bushes consisting of three or more thin branches reminiscent of tumbleweed.

23 For Buryat Buddhist art, see Ashencaen & Leonov (1996).

24 A similar composition was in fact not uncommon in Buryatia, Mongolia and Tibet (Ashencaen & Leonov 1996, pp. 28-29; Meinert 2011, pp. 552-553; Himalayan Art Resources Inc. 2022), being a simplified visual construction of the wrathful goddess and her principal manifestations.

25 There are variants of the famous legend about cannibal demons associated in Kalmykia with Tsagan Sar that involve both Green Tārā and Okon Tengri as distinct figures whose functions are strictly divided. While Tārā marries the khan of demons and discovers his hidden life-force, it is Okon Tengri who kills the son of Green Tārā born from the evil khan (Basaev 2007, pp. 76-77).

26 In Tibet as in Mongolia, Green Tārā is usually depicted with peaceful appearance, emerald green skin and seated on a moon disc or a lotus flower base with her right foot extended forward on a smaller lotus.

27 A similar understanding of Tārā as a kind of “Buddhist Madonna” is shared by some scholars (Shaw 2006, p. 307).

28 Buddhist monasteries (Kalm. hurul) and lay Buddhist centres that I visited in Kalmykia also perform rituals for either form of the goddess Tārā either on the day of the full moon or the 8th lunar day of every month.

29 For a tangka depicting Lhamo together with Saravatī, White Tārā and Green Tārā in the upper register as her three main patron deities, see Fleming & Lkhagvademchig Shastri (2011, pp. 816-817).

30 These are garuḍa (Tib. ’khyung; Kalm. härd shovun), snow lion (Tib. seng; Kalm. arslng), dragon (Tib. ’brug; Kalm. lu), and tiger (Tib. stag; Kalm. bars). The mythical animals should correspond to the four cardinal directions of the universe, with each direction being associated with a particular element, colour, centre in the human body, part of the stupa, etc.

31 When fluttering in the wind, the prayers on the “wind horse” flags are imagined as being recited, and in this way transmitting compassion and eliminating misfortune.

32 Korneev 2018.

33 Ataman was a title of military commanders of the Cossack troops.

34 Routinely described as representing the victory of the Buddha’s enlightenment, such canopy flags were also used as elements of Kalmyk military standards (Sharaeva 2012).

35 Here I transliterate the names of the identified deities as given in the author’s text.

36 According to another explanation, Okon Tengri is the protectress of the Dörvöd, while Dayičing Tngri/Dääch Tenggr is the guardian deity of the Torghut, two largest Kalmyk groups (personal communication with Lama Balzhi Nima and locals in Tsagan Aman, September 2018; see also Prozritelev [1912] 1990, p. 91). That the two deities were portrayed on the same banner reportedly represented their unified forces against a common enemy.

37 For instance, in the famous epic recounting an attack of the Halh Khan Ubasi Qong Tayiji on the Dörvöd at the end of the 16th century, a seven-year-old boy was to be sacrificed to the Halh battle standard. The final victory of the Oirats is attributed to their protective deity, who had assumed the form of a young boy. Captured by the Halh, the boy was to be sacrificed to their standard. Before the execution, however, he pronounced a curse, which led to the inevitable defeat of the Halh (Basaev 2007, pp. 333-363).

38 Besides the Dörvöd, the Kalmyk Zungars and certain lineages of the Tugtun and Don Kalmyks have also regarded Okon Tengri as their main protector (Sharaeva 2017, p. 196).

39 Humphrey & Ujeed (2013, p. 186) suggest that the idea of sülde underlies the very understanding of statehood in Mongolia, based on “ancestral-aristocratic relations”.

40 The “great enemy goddess” (Tib. dgra lha chen mo) and “queen of enemy gods” (Tib. dgra lha’i rgyal mo) are among the titles of certain forms of Palden Lhamo (Nebesky-Wojkowitz [1956] 1975, p. 24).

41 There are certain exceptions in the medieval period (Nicola 2011).

42 Such amulets are typically small metal or wooden boxes of different shape containing an image of a deity and blessed substances. Lhamo is among the main deities whose image is enclosed.

43 Menstruating women are still commonly prohibited from visiting temples, circumambulating stupas or coming to lamas for rituals in Buddhist societies. McGranahan (2010, p. 772) documents that Tibetans believe that a bullet dipped in menstrual blood eliminates all powers of protective amulets.

44 It is held that an image of a deity, even if it is not made and consecrated according to the canon, conveys and transmits some qualities of this deity.

45 According to McGranahan (2010, p. 781), the lake of blood atop of which Palden Lhamo is portrayed is commonly understood as menstrual blood from which her power, including that of the soteriological quality, emanates.

46 Gushri Khan (1582-1655) was the leader of the Khoshot, one of the Oirat confederations, and the founder of the Khoshot Khanate.

47 The “red and black protectors” are said to be symbolized by the red and dark blue stripes of the Tibetan flag, introduced by the 13th Dalai Lama in 1912 as a flag of the military of Tibet (Heller 1992, pp. 490-491).

48 One popular version, albeit contested by historians, states that it was the empress Elizabeth (r. 1741-1762) who was proclaimed the first Russian reincarnation of White Tārā for recognizing Buddhism as a legitimate religion of the Russian Empire. Catherine the Great (r. 1762-1796) is also said to have been recognized by Buryats as an emanation of White Tārā for legitimating in 1764 the institution of the Pandito Khambo Lama, the supreme head of Buddhism in Russia.

49 I thank Isabelle Charleux for this observation.

50 Andreeva (2013). Commenting on the Russian aggression against Ukraine in February 2022, Lama Aiusheev said that he was praying for the wellbeing of Russian soldiers and their safe return home (Lama Aiusheev 2022). By contrast, the incumbent head of the Kalmyk Sangha, Telo Tulku Rinpoche, openly condemned the war, becoming the first religious leader in Russia to make such a statement (Telo Tulku Rinpoche 2022; Whitaker 2022).

51 Since Okon Tengri is an important patron-deity of the Dörvöd, it does not seem surprising.

52 Ataman Danzan Tundutov (1888-1923) was a great-grandson of the famous commander of the First Kalmyk Regiment Dzhamba Taishi Tundutov.

53 As Nina explained after the ritual, it was a prayer to Okon Tengri. She confessed that she recited it every morning at sunrise. However, I did not see any images of this female deity in Nina’s centre.

54 In the Soviet Union, school children around the age of nine were accepted into so-called “pioneers” by joining the Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization, founded in 1922.

55 Here, we have an implicit allusion to the form of Okon Tengri in her role of the deity of music and eloquence.

56 In the Tibetan idiom, the personal warrior deity, or “enemy god” (Tib. dgra lha), is also usually imagined at one’s right shoulder.

57 Humphrey (1992) discusses how throughout Mongolian history women have in fact had more autonomy and power during periods of war.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. Aleksandr Povaev, Okon-Tengri, 2001, oil on canvas, 120 х 130 cm
Crédits © photo by Valeria Gazizova, oral permission has been given
URL http://journals.openedition.org/emscat/docannexe/image/5684/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 923k
Titre Figure 2. Aleksandr Povaev, Meeting, 2006, oil on canvas, 100 х 110 cm
Crédits © photo by Valeria Gazizova, oral permission has been given
URL http://journals.openedition.org/emscat/docannexe/image/5684/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 705k
Titre Figure 3. Okon Tengri Devi Lhamo, mineral pigments on cotton, app. 19th century, Pal’mov National Museum of Kalmykia, Elista
Crédits © photo by Valeria Gazizova, oral permission has been given
URL http://journals.openedition.org/emscat/docannexe/image/5684/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,2M
Titre Figure 4. Lhamo, mineral pigments on cotton, 19th century, Pal’mov National Museum, Elista
Crédits © photo by Valeria Gazizova, oral permission has been given
URL http://journals.openedition.org/emscat/docannexe/image/5684/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 617k
Titre Figure 5. Buddha Maitreya, painting on cloth, 19th century, Pal’mov National Museum, Elista
Légende Adorned with a jewelled crown and a small stupa on his head, the future Buddha Maitreya sits on a throne. His feet rest on a moon disk and his hands are in the dharmacakra mudrā. Two lotus flowers bloom at his shoulders, supporting a dharma wheel on the right and a ritual water pot on the left. His two disciples sit cross-legged on either side. Above is Tsongkhapa, flanked by two fully-ordained monks of the Gelugpa order. In the bottom centre is Mahākāla, flanked by Yama to the right and Lhamo to the left.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/emscat/docannexe/image/5684/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,3M
Titre Figure 6. White Tārā, painting on cloth, early 20th century, Pal’mov Natinoal Museum, Elista
Légende The tangka can be attributed to the Gelugpa monastic tradition. Tsongkhapa, flanked by two fully-ordained monks of the Gelugpa order, is depicted in the position of the patron deity. The breasts of White Tārā are modestly obscured, and her shoulders and upper arms are also discreetly covered by a green shawl, all of which is intended to understate the sexuality typical of Tantric goddesses.
Crédits © photo by Valeria Gazizova, oral permission has been given
URL http://journals.openedition.org/emscat/docannexe/image/5684/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 977k
Titre Figure 7. a. Nikolai Shiniaev, The year 1812. Awakened steppe, 2012, oil on canvas, 95 х 120 cm; b. Detail from Nikolai Shiniaev, The year 1812. Awakened steppe
Légende The protectress Okon Tengri is depicted with a blue skin, bright red hair and mounted on a mule at the top of the painting in the position of the patron deity to the right of Prince Serbedzhab Tiumen, the commander of the Second Astrakhan Kalmyk regiment. Hosheutovskii Hurul is portrayed in the top right corner above the cavalrymen (from the interview with the artist, October 2018, Elista)
Crédits © photo by Valeria Gazizova, oral permission has been given
URL http://journals.openedition.org/emscat/docannexe/image/5684/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 682k
Titre Figure 8. The flagpole top of reportedly the Okon Tengri standard
Crédits © photo by Valeria Gazizova, July 2010
URL http://journals.openedition.org/emscat/docannexe/image/5684/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 609k
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Valeria Gazizova, « Military might and healing power. Appropriation and representations of the goddess Palden Lhamo in Kalmykia »Études mongoles et sibériennes, centrasiatiques et tibétaines [En ligne], 53 | 2022, mis en ligne le 23 décembre 2022, consulté le 23 mai 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/emscat/5684

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Auteur

Valeria Gazizova

Valeria Gazizova is a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer at the South Asia Institute (the Department of Cultural and Religious History of South Asia) at Heidelberg University. She is a scholar of Mongol and Tibetan religions, specializing in the history and anthropology of Buddhism and forms of popular worship among the Mongols of Russia in late modern and contemporary times. Prior to her appointment at Heidelberg University, she was a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Cambridge, the Department of Social Anthropology (Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit). The research and writing of this article were assisted by DAAD Prime fellowship and undertaken during her research stay at GSRL in Paris.
valeriya.gazizova@sai.uni-heidelberg.de

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