The Kalmyks and Tibet: A Relationship that Started as an Occupation and Developed into a Friendship



Mendit Yakhalaba readers!

As a Kalmyk you may have noticed many cultural similarities between Kalmyk and Tibetan people including our religion, clothing, art, nomadic lifestyle, and so many other aspects of our culture. Communication and relationships between Mongols and Tibetans date back to Genghis Khan’s grandson Koten, becoming the first Mongol patron of Tibetan Buddhism. To understand the Kalmyks direct link to Tibet we must delve into the history of Genghis Khan’s grandson Koten. We must also consider Altan Khan’s relationship with His Holiness the third Dalai Lama and how this shaped our ability to identify as a Buddhist people instead of as a Shamanistic people.

Authors Thomas Laird and John Man describe Koten (spelling in John Man’s text) or Godan (spelling in Thomas Laird’s text) as sending a small army into Tibet in the year 1240, killing five hundred Tibetans in an attack on one monastery, and looting several other monasteries. Koten developed an interest in Buddhism and heard about the spiritual powers of one monk, Sakya Pandita and is said to have sent him a letter in 1244.

“I, the most powerful and prosperous Prince Godan, wish to inform the Sakya Pandita, Kunga Gyaltsen, that we need a lama to advise my ignorant people on how to conduct themselves morally and spiritually, I need someone to pray for the welfare of my deceased parents… I have decided that you are the only person suitable for the task…I will not accept any excuse on account of your age or the rigors of the journey…It would, of course, be easy for me to send a large body of troops to bring you here.”

Sakya Pandita left Tibet with two of his young nephews, including ten-year-old Phagpa Gyaltsen, and a Mongol escort. Sakya Pandita is said to have written to various Tibetan leaders suggesting they co-operate. “There is only one way out, which is to submit to the Mongols.” To seal the pact between the Mongols and the Tibetans, the lama’s seven year old nephew was married to Koten’s daughter and this agreement laid the foundations of Mongol influence in Tibet. Sakya Pandita offered the prince religious teachings, including to refrain from harming any living creature. After some time the Mongol prince appointed Sakya Pandita as the Mongol’s viceroy for Central Tibet, though the eastern provinces of the old Tibetan empire- Kham and Amdo-were under direct Mongol rule.

In 1578 when Altan Khan met His Holiness Sonam Gyatso the third Dalai Lama of Tibet it is believed that the third Dalai Lama converted Altan to Buddhism. Altan Khan had sent an invitation for His Holiness to visit Mongolia and travel more than 1,500 miles where he translated the name Sonam Gyatso. Gyatso meaning “ocean” to Mongolian Dalai meaning “ocean” or “oceanic virtue.” Altan’s devotion to Buddhism encouraged other princes to convert as well. When Altan Khan sent presents back to monasteries in Tibet and financed the printing and translation of Buddhist texts, other princes followed in his example. Altan allowed His Holiness to burn all the wooden carvings his family had kept as shamanic totems. Altan ordered all his subjects to burn their totems and to renounce shamanism as well as banning blood sacrifices or to face execution and the other Mongol princes followed. Buddhist monks were afforded the same status Mongol laws gave the nobility whereas active shamans were now subject to execution.

It is also interesting to note that His Holiness the fourth Dalai Lama, Yonten Gyatso, was born in 1589 in Mongolia to the Chokar chieftain Tsultrim Choeje, grandson of Altan Khan. The abbot of Ganden Monastery recognized him as the reincarnation of the third Dalai Lama but his parents refused to let him leave Mongolia until he was older so he received religious education from Tibetan lamas in Mongolia.

From my readings the Kalmyks are noted as living in Tibet as early as the year 1900 in the Russian Buddhist colony in Lhasa, consisting of only 47 Buryats and one Kalmyk from the Astrakhan Province. Four years later there were twenty-two Astrakhan and Stavropol Kalmyk students residing in Lhasa. Most of the Buryat and Kalmyk monks who came to Lhasa for educational purposes entered the Gomang Datsan at Drepung. As Lhasa became accessible for Russian Buddhists a large number of Buryats and Kalmyks were able to visit freely either as pilgrims or for educational purposes.

In 1905 thousands of Buryat and Kalmyk pilgrims flocked to Urga in Outer Mongolia to pay homage to His Holiness during a visit. While in Urga, His Holiness was approached by several Buryat and Kalmyk delegations and granted his blessings to a group of Astrakhan Kalmyks for establishing a religious school the first school in the Kalmyk steppes.


Closer to the present day, Kalmyks have shown solidarity with Tibetans in their fight for freedom and independence from China. The photo above was taken in 1959 when Kalmyks protested for Tibetan freedom outside the United Nations in New York. I have also come across a foundation in Moscow called Save Tibet which has an objective to provide information on the current situation in Tibet, the Tibetan community in exile, and the development of Tibetan Buddhism in Russia. The Venerable Professor Samdhong Rinpoche recently visited Elista, the capital of Kalmykia, in June 2014 where he gave public teachings from the “Commentary on Nagarjuna’s Letter to a Friend.” During his visit he met with the local Tibet Support Group and Friends of Tibet Society based in Elista.

I hope that you enjoyed my short article on the relationship between Kalmyks and Tibetans and how much it has changed since 1240 and the invasion by Koten.


If you are interested in taking action for Tibet please consider donating towards my Birthday Causes Wish which raises funds for the non profit organization Students for a Free Tibet (SFT). SFT works in solidarity with the Tibetan people in their struggle for freedom and independence. It is a chapter based organization that I have been a part of for many years, since middle school in fact, and it has taught me how to use nonviolent grassroots organizing to campaign for human rights inside of Tibet. An example of this kind of campaigning is lobbying with U.S. representatives in an effort to bring attention to the self immolations inside of Tibet. As someone who is of both Kalmyk and Tibetan descent I see so much cross-over between our cultures. As a Kalmyk I believe we must maintain our relationship with Tibetans by supporting human rights inside of Tibet. Tibetans are fighting for basic human rights such as the right to learn the Tibetan language in schools, the right to have freedom of speech, and the right to preserve their own culture.

If you are interested in standing in solidarity with Tibetans in Kardze please submit your photo like the example below holding a sign that says “American Kalmyks in Solidarity with Kardze Tibetans” but please feel free to write Russian Kalmyks or whichever country you are from.

Submit your photo to with a subject that says Kardze Tibet. 


Click here to learn how you can become involved in Students for a Free Tibet

Hanjanav and Thank you for reading!

Written by: Young Turquoise Bee


I. Andreyev, Alexander. Russian Buddhists in Tibet, from the End of the Nineteenth Century-1930. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Third Series, Vol. 11, No. 3 (Nov., 2001), pp. 349-362.

II. Laird, Thomas. The Story of Tibet: Conversations with the Dalai Lama. New York: Grove Press, 2006.

III. Man, John. Kublai Khan: The Mongol King who remade China. London: Bantam Press, 2006.

IV. Weatherford, Jack. The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire. New York: Broadway Paperbacks, 2010.



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With performances by Exiled Prophet of the MOAMENT Crew and comedian Nicholas Mongolian Beef Balsirow. Guest speakers will include Kunsang Kelden, contributor to Lhakar Diaries, a blog dedicated to fighting for the survival of the Tibetan nation and identity. Guest speakers will also include alumni Dechen Kelden, director and creator of a documentary which honors the oral histories of the Kalmyk Mongolians. 

This event is the first of its kind and is presented by APICAD (ASIAN PACIFIC ISLANDER COALITION FOR ACTION AND DIVERSITY). Showcased activists and artists will describe their efforts to reaffirm their identities as a form of activism. 

"Compassion without attachment is possible. Therefore, we need to clarify the distinctions between compassion and attachment. True compassion is not just an emotional response but a firm commitment founded on reason. Because of this firm foundation, a truly compassionate attitude toward others does not change even if they behave negatively. Genuine compassion is based not on our own projections and expectations, but rather on the needs of the other: irrespective of whether another person is a close friend or an enemy, as long as that person wishes for peace and happiness and wishes to overcome suffering, then on that basis we develop genuine concern for their problem. This is genuine compassion.
For a Buddhist practitioner, the goal is to develop this genuine compassion, this genuine wish for the well-being of another, in fact for every living being throughout the universe."

-His Holiness the Dalai Lama, from The Compassionate Life 
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Lhasa, Tibet; every step is a prayer- prostration pilgrimage over vast distances to the Jokhang, the holiest temple in Tibetan Buddhism ©Douglas MacRae

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Teaching Kalmyks literacy, Elista, undated. Photo by Arkady Shaikhet.


Teaching Kalmyks literacy, Elista, undated. Photo by Arkady Shaikhet.

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English reciting of Praise To The 21 Taras Mantra by Karma Thinlay Thome.

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1 year ago

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18 сентября на Пагоде Семи дней в рамках празднования своего двухлетия организация “ИТКЛ” впервые провела флешмоб - МАССОВЫЙ КАЛМЫЦКИЙ ТАНЕЦ в центре родной столицы.
Спасибо всем, кто поддержал это доброе дело во благо всех жителей Калмыкии!
Ик ханлт өргҗәнәвидн! Хальмгуд, Уррралан!!!


On September 18, ITKL held a flashmob- mass kalmyk dancing- in the center of the city. 

"Thank you to everyone who supported this project for the benefit of all the citizens of Kalmykia!

ik hanlt өrgҗәnәvidn! Halmgud, Urrralan!”

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Does anyone know of anyone teaching Kalmyk language classes?

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1 year ago

What Belongs To Us

Telo Tulku Rinpoche recently visited New York City on Saturday, February 2nd to speak at an event hosted by the Kalmyk Project, formerly known as the Ulan Zalata organization at the Best Western Gregory Hotel. The room was filled with over fifty people, families and individuals who came to hear Telo Rinpoche’s unique message. I knew that Rinpoche travelled often and that his time was quite precious so I attended the event with my partner because I felt a strong desire to attend.

I have heard Rinpoche address the Kalmyk community of New Jersey on several occasions and was always very impressed by the way he questioned the social norms and human behaviors of the world in which we live.  The importance of compassion was a major theme in his message. He said, “money is easily lost but investment in compassion and your happiness cannot be lost. We are born with all of these great qualities but we don’t use them. We don’t use our compassion and whose fault is that?” He stressed the importance of accepting and loving oneself because then we will be able to love others. He said that if you hate yourself, you will hate others.

A reoccurring message in his speeches amongst the Kalmyk community has been the importance of cultural preservation and knowledge of Buddhist philosophy. During my education at Sarah Lawrence College I studied psychology, in particular the psychology of immigration and cultural genocide and I am now at a stage in my life where I am looking for employment. I find myself in a tough situation where people are suggesting to me that I should change my name in an effort to make my name sound more American. Other suggestions have included not wearing any “tribal” jewelry and not spending time trying to learn my ethnic languages because they will not help me in the job market.

I was so drawn to Rinpoche’s teaching because it was the complete opposite of what these suggestions were. Rinpoche urged Kalmyks to protect and preserve what belongs to us, Kalmyk culture, which he explains as a nonviolent culture based on compassion teachings of the Buddha.

He said, I don’t want you to feel embarrassed but I want you to feel embarrassed if you do not know the aspects of your culture because that is the only way we will protect it.

During the event Rinpoche asked how many people in the room knew how to do prostrations, a kind of bowing movement one does in an effort to show respect to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. He drew his palms together in prayer, starting at the top of his forehead, his throat, then his heart, then knelt down and touched his forehead to floor pointed towards the alter and outstretched his hands towards the Buddha thangkas. He described these movements as symbolizing letting go of one’s ego to show respect and lift oneself from the lower realms of rebirth.

Rinpoche also took quite a bit of time to explain the importance of utilizing the resources we have in our Kalmyk community of New Jersey. He says the local monks in Howell, NJ have given their services not for personal gain but because they care. They are here as a resource because if we have a question about the Buddhist religion, we have someone to consult with. He continued to thank the monks for their service to the Kalmyk community of New Jersey. The monks who did attend the event were Geshe Tenpa who has been serving the community in Howell for thirteen years, Geshe Samdhu who done so for five years, and Lobsang Tenpa for twelve years.  

The evening ended with the breaking of bourtzich (traditional Kalmyk bread), piroshky (Russian potato fried pastry), Kalmyk Tsa, (Kalmyk tea) and the beginning of many new conversations amongst the guests.







*Photos taken by Oleg Katalaev
Written by the Young Turquoise Bee



DECEMBER 31 2012
8:00 PM TO 1:00 AM




Close to public transportation

For Tickets or more info, please contact:

Sara Andreyev
Tsagan Sanderson
Natalie Schneider

Visit for internet sales

I have received a submission from a current Columbia University student seeking references (specifically Kalmyk organizations for recent immigrants) in the New York City area for a project.   

If you know of any or wish to help this student, submit your inquiry/reference and a mode of contact 

Thanks guys!

Tschon Ombadykow’s Services Update

Friday, December 14 at 4 pm at Nitsan Temple in Howell, New Jersey
  • prayer services coordinated with the cremation
Thursday, December 27 at 12 noon at Nitsan Temple in Howell, NJ
  • The Buyin
All are welcome to join in helping Tschon move forward peacefully toward a quick upward rebirth.


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