In Mongolia, Undur Gegeen Zanabazar is revered on par with how Michelangelo is cherished elsewhere: if Michelangelo’s masterpiece is David, Zanabazar’s masterpiece is rightly considered as Nogoon Dari Ekh (Green Tara), one of the female embodiments of Buddha.
Zanabazar was both a spiritual leader and a skilled artisan who, in addition to overseeing the construction of celebrated Buddhist temples in Mongolia, is credited with conceiving some of the most symbolic art works in the country today. He invented the Soyombo script in 1686, and published “Creating Incantations,” and “Descriptions of Janlavtsogzol.” He is also well-known for creating physical interpretations of prominent Buddhist deities: Green Tara, White Tara and Ayush, as well as sculpting the Five Founding Divines, the Seven Relics, and Guardian of Noyon’s Faith. Zanabazar had triumphantly transformed esteemed divines of Buddhism into physical forms with Mongolian features and splendor, creating inimitable works of art.
Today, his one-of-a-kind relics have since become foremost attractions at prestigious exhibition establishments worldwide, delivering the public a unique window into Buddhism and the past.
Namely in Ulaanbaatar, the twenty-one Tara divines along with the principal divine Green Tara are on display at the Bogd Khan Palace Museum while the White Tara and its affiliated divines are exhibited at the Fine Arts Zanabazar Museum. Zanabazar’s physical presentation of Maidar (Maitreya in Sanskrit) and its associated divines are enshrined at the Choijin Lama Temple. All of the sculptures have become quintessential models of perfection and magnificence. One may experience the full display of his works at the dedicated Fine Arts Zanabazar Museum in Ulaanbaatar.
Mongolians venerate Zanabazar as Undur Gegeen, or High Saint, a title bestowed upon him from the people who worshipped his intellect and enlightenment. On the other hand, this title might have also been attributed to his physique; it is said Zanabazar was a man of tall stature.
382 years ago, Undur Gegeen Zanabazar was born at a place called Mandai Tolgoi (also known as Takhilga) in Yusunzuil sum of Uvurkhangai Province. His father Gombodorj was a direct descendant of Chinggis Khaan through the great ruler’s youngest son Tului. In the 17th century Mongolia, Zanabazar was known as a descendant of Chinggis Khaan, a renowned political and spiritual leader of Mongolia.
The three primordial Buddha leaders of Mongolian Gelugpa (yellow hat) lineage of Tibetan Buddhism are Dalai Lama, Banchin Bogd and Javzandamba. At present, there have been 14 reincarnations of Dalai Lamas, 11 of Banchin Lama, and 9 of Javzandamba Khutagt. The first reincarnation of Javzandamba was Zanabazar. He was invited by the Khalkha tribes of Mongolia to Shireet Tsagaan Lake by the Ikh Mongol Mountains to be formally recognized and enthroned as the first reincarnation of Javzandamba Khutagt.
His superior intellect, linguistic abilities and religious devotion was recognized, studying Buddhist teachings at an early age. He also studied Indian and Tibetan traditional medicine, and even took interest in astronomy. While working to improve social and spiritual state of his subjects, he modified his learnings to accommodate culture, tradition and the Mongolian peoples’ way of thinking.
Zanabazar was an innovator who individually defined customs for Buddhist ceremonies and rites, and even redesigned the apparels of Buddhist disciples by fully forming today’s understanding of Mongolian Buddhism. He pioneered the writing, translating, publishing, copying and distributing of Buddhist sudars (sutra in Sanskrit). Zanabazar also brought the sacred texts of Ganjur Sutra and decorated it with relics and treasures. The ceremonial song Prayers of Mahagal (Mahakala in Sanskrit) was written and composed by Zanabazar.
Undur Gegeen Zanabazar is also credited for designing temples and monasteries of Mongolia, combining Mongolian ger designs with architectural works of the East. He made innovations on each one of his endeavors, and explicitly fused Mongolian tradition and culture in every one of them. The largest temple he built is the Sardigyn Khiid in Khan Khentii Mountains.
After its discovery, the expedition surveyed Sardigyn Khiid to find over 1,300 artifacts, including the Five Founding Divines, an unfinished sculpture of a colossal divine, smaller, half-cast models of other divines, brass armor, helmet, swords, flintlock rifles, a goblet made of white china, silver, gold, and precious gems designated for ceremonies and offerings.
He sent a number of envoys to establish diplomatic relationship with the Russian Empire in a political effort to protect territories in Selenge Province. Due to conflicts with the Oirats (four-tribe confederation of western Mongols), Zanabazar, who ruled over the Khalkha Mongols, fled southward with his people and submitted to the king of Qing Dynasty in 1691. This move opened the doors for the Manchu conquest of the entire Mongol population.
In hindsight, he could have done what he did to buy time, and confront the inevitable Manchu invasion in the best possible way he deemed.