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For the dinosaur, see Zanabazar (dinosaur). For the novel, see Zanabazar (novel).
Thangka depicting Zanabazar
His Holiness the First Jebtsundamba Khutughtu
Personal details
Born 1635
Yesönzüil, Övörkhangai, Mongolia
Died 1723
Beijing, China
Occupation Spiritual head of Mongolia
Statue of Zanabazar (Mongolia, 18th century)

Öndör Gegeen Zanabazar (Mongolian: Өндөр Гэгээн Занабазар, IPA: [ɵntr keγeɴ tsanβatsr] "High Saint Zanabazar"; 1635–1723[1]), born Eshidorji (Ишдорж Išdorž),[citation needed] was the first Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, the spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism for the Khalkha Mongols in Outer Mongolia.

His name is the Mongolian rendition of Sanskrit Jñānavajra "Vajra of Wisdom".[2]


Named Eshidorji at birth, Zanabazar was born in 1635 in present-day Yesönzüil, Övörkhangai, Mongolia, the son of the Tüsheet khan Gombodorj (1594-1655) – at that time one of the three khans of the Khalkha Mongols, the last remnant of the Yuan Dynasty, who could trace his lineage directly back to Genghis Khan – and his wife, Khandojamtso. He was also great grandson of Altan Khan, who had first established ties between Mongolia and the religious leaders of the Tibetan Gelug order. It was Altan Khan who had encouraged the spread of Tibetan Buddhism in present-day Mongolia and who had, in 1578, bestowed the name "Dalai Lama" on the Gelug leader Sonam Gyatso. From an early age, Zanabazar showed signs of advanced intelligence, linguistic abilities, and religious devotion. According to tradition, miraculous occurrences took place during his youth and he was able to recite the Jambaltsanjod (praise of Manjusri) at age three.[3] In 1640, a convocation of Khalkha nobles at Erdene Zuu monastery recognized Zanabazar as an Öndör Gegeen (high saint) and named him spiritual head of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia.[4] The “Monastery of the West” (Baruun Khüree), a traveling ger camp, was established in 1647 as the region's religious center and Zanabazar's primary residence.

In 1649, Zanabazar was sent to Tibet to receive personal instruction from the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama. The 5th Dalai Lama identified Zanabazar as the reincarnation of the scholar Taranatha (1575–1634), who had led the rival Jonang school of Tibetan Buddhism until his death one year before Zanabazar was born.[5] Taranatha's followers and monasteries were thus forcibly absorbed into the Dalai Lama's Gelug school. and Taranatha was believed to be the 15th reincarnation (Khutuktu) of a being known as Jebtsundamba, making Zanabazar the 16th reincarnation of a man who was one of the Buddha's first 500 disciples. The spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia would thereafter be referred to as Jebtsundamba Khutuktu. So impressed were the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy with Zanabazar's knowledge and spiritual devotion, that they granted him the additional title Bogd Gegeen, or "Highest Enlightened Saint", the top-ranking Lama in Mongolia.[6]

Zanabazar was instrumental in replacing the prevailing Sakya school of Buddhism in Mongolia with that of the Gelug school, as practiced by the 5th Dalai Lama. After his return to Khalkha in 1651, Zanabazar refused to settle at the Erdene Zuu monastery, founded by Abtai Khan in 1586, and the center of the Sakya school. Only towards the end of his life, over 50 years later, did he first visit Erdene Zuu. Instead, with the help of his retinue of Tibetan lamas, Zanabazar established a series of Gelug-influenced monasteries and Buddhist shrines, including a stupa to house Taranatha's remains, and portable temples which contained paintings, sculptures, wall hangings and ritual objects either imported from Tibet or influenced by the Tibetan-Nepalese style.[7] Over time, Gelug artistic styles, rituals and liturgy became interwoven with that of Sakya school traditions. Zanabazar also founded his ambulatory palace Örgöö (later called Urga by the Russians, it eventually became the Mongolian capital Ulaanbaatar) and founded seven aimags (monastic departments);the Department of the Treasury, Department of Administration, Department of Meals, Department of the Honored Doctor, Department of Amdo, Department of Orlog and the Department of Khuukhen Noyon.

Although Zanabazar was by this point the undisputed spiritual leader of the Kalkha, his influence could not overcome the traditional tribalism of the Mongols. Conflicts between the various Khalkha-Mongol tribes continued unabated even as tensions with the Dzungar Mongols, a confederation of Oriat Mongol tribes in the west, grew. From the 1670s onward, the Dzungar leader Galdan Boshugtu Khan, endeavored to re-establish the great Mongol empire through conquests in Central Asia. An uneasy peace existed between Dzungar and Khalkha Mongols due in part to the provisions of the Mongol-Oirat code.[8] Skirmishes and vendettas soon led to all out war as Galdan allied with the Russians and then swept into eastern Khalka territory in 1688. The Khalkha nation looked to Zanabazar for guidance and leadership. In the face of the Dzungar's genocidal advance, the Khalkha were left with little choice but to flee south and seek the protection of the Kangxi Emperor of the Qing Empire. Nearly 20,000 Khalkha refugees crossed the Gobi Desert. Under Zanabazar's authority, the Khalkha rulers declared themselves Qing vassals at Dolon Nor (the site of Shangdu, the pleasure palace of the Yuan Emperors) in 1691, a politically decisive step that officially ended the last remnants of the Yuan dynasty. It also allowed the Qing to assume the mantle of the Genghisid khans, merging the Khalkha forces into the Qing army.[9]

The Manchus were interested in defeating both Mongolian states, and this gave them an incredible chance to accomplish that goal. The Manchu army went to war with the Oirat, Zanabazar's goal. After the battle at Zuun Mod (near present-day Ulan Bator) the Oirats were defeated and went back to the west. Zanabazar became a religious leader in Mongolia while his native land (Eastern Mongolia) fell to and became a vessel of the Manchus.


In 1640 Zanabazar was recognized by the Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama as being a "reincarnate lama", and he received his seat at Örgöö, then located in Övörkhangai – 400 miles from the present site of Ulan Bator – as head of the Gelug tradition in Mongolia. Miraculous occurrences allegedly took place during his youth, and in 1647 (aged 12) he founded the Shankh Monastery.

"He is said to have pioneered in such widely diverse fields as medicine, literature, philosophy, art and architecture" [10]

Contribution to arts[edit]

Name of Öndör Gegeen Zanabazar spelled out in Soyombo script, which he developed

Zanabazar has been called the "Michelangelo of Asia" for bringing to the region a renaissance in matters related to spirituality (including theology), language, art, medicine, and astronomy.[11][12] He composed sacred music and mastered the sacred arts of bronze casting and painting. He created a new design for monastic robes, and he invented the Soyombo alphabet in 1686- based on the Ranjana alphabet, which served as the alphabet for Buddhism in Mongolia.[13] He also created the Quadratic Script- based on the Tibetan and 'Phags-pa scripts.

Zanabazar personally created thangkas and bronze statues of Buddha. His personal works are mostly kept in museums. He also founded a school of Buddhist art. The talented monks of his school created many figures of Buddha continuing well into the 19th and 20th centuries.

The scholar Ragchaagiin Byambaa has suggested that both of the scripts invented by Zanabazar were combined to write in a tripartite "Dharma" language composed of Tibetan, Mongolian and Sanskrit, because, he says, the two scripts were specifically designed to better accommodate the phonetics of all three languages. At present, they are mainly used for sacred and ornamental Buddhist inscriptions and among learned Buddhist scholars in Mongolia.



  1. ^ "Zanabazar, Aristocrat, Patriarch and Artist (1635-1723)," pp. 70-80 in The Dancing Demons of Mongolia, Jan Fontein; John Vrieze, ed.; V+K Publishng: Immerc. [1999]
  2. ^ Avery, Martha. The Tea Road: China and Russia Meet across the Steppe. China Intercontinental Press. ISBN 9787508503806. 
  3. ^ Wisotzki, Marion; von Waldenfels, Ernst; Käppeli, Erna (2014). -Unterwegs im Land der Nomaden. Trescher Verlag. p. 144. ISBN 3897942682. 
  4. ^ Sanders, Alan J. K. (2010). Historical Dictionary of Mongolia (3, illustrated ed.). Scarecrow Press,. p. 769. ISBN 0810874520. 
  5. ^ Sanders, Alan J. K. (2010). Historical Dictionary of Mongolia (3, illustrated ed.). Scarecrow Press,. p. 405. ISBN 0810874520. 
  6. ^ Wisotzki, Marion; von Waldenfels, Ernst; Käppeli, Erna (2014). -Unterwegs im Land der Nomaden. Trescher Verlag. p. 144. ISBN 3897942682. 
  7. ^ Berger, Patricia Ann (2003). Empire of Emptiness: Buddhist Art and Political Authority in Qing China (Illustrated ed.). University of Hawaii Press. p. 24. ISBN 0824825632. 
  8. ^ David Sneath-The headless state, p.183
  9. ^ J. Millward, Eurasian Crossroads:A history of Xinjiang, pg. 91
  10. ^ Vrieze [1999], p. 70.
  11. ^ Michael Kohn-Mongolia, p.142
  12. ^ Tibetan Mongolian Museum Society Tibetan Mongolian Museum Society
  13. ^ Michael K. Jerryson, (2007), Mongolian Buddhism: The Rise and Fall of the Sangha, Silkworm Books, p. 23.

External links[edit]

Media related to Zanabazar at Wikimedia Commons