Endangered archives blog

News about the projects saving vulnerable material from around the world

21 April 2016

Disappearing book heritage of Siberian Buddhists

Dr Nikolay Tsyrempilov from Buryat State University is currently locating and digitising Buddhist texts as part of EAP813. This is his account of a trip he took to try and find some manuscripts.

Portrait of the six team members Members of the expedition crew

Last month we got information from a reliable source that in the western mountainous part of Buryatia, in a hard-to-reach area, a collection of rare Mongolian and Tibetan manuscripts had been detected. We organised an expedition to that area. Oka district of the Republic of Buryatia in the East Sayan range is home to a small group of people called Soyots who are hunters as well as yak and reindeer breeders.

Our destination was a remote Soyot place named Khonishon which is accessible only in March. There is no road to Khonishon and we had to drive on the icy surface of rivers – Yakshob, Bolshaya Belaya and others. During wintertime the rivers are under thick cover of snow whereas in summertime one has to go for a few days on horseback to reach the place. We were told that the manuscripts were hidden inside a pyramid made of stones on top of Khonishon hill. To reach Oka district we had to cover 700km from Ulan-Ude.

A prayer pole in the foreground. Mountains and the steppe in the distance.Entering the Oka district

Having reached Orlik settlement, an administrative centre of Oka district, we met Bair Sharastepanov, the principal of a local school, who rendered every kind of assistance to us and joined us in our trip to Khonishon. Our guide was a local Soyot Badma Kharluevich. Next day we took the school’s expedition vehicle and with blessings from the local lama set out to Khonishon.

A monk stands in the middle of two team members. He rubs his hands together to keep warm. The abbot of the local Buddhist monastery, a Mongol from Khubsugul aimak wishes the members of the expedition good luck and safe return. The road to Khonishon is considered dangerous not so much because of the landscape peculiarities as due to the might of local spirits.

It took a whole day of dangerous driving before we reached our destination.

A camper van drives on the frozen river.
During March the rivers in the mountains have no snow on the icy surface. The upper layers of ice are fragile which makes driving very unsafe.

On the way we visited a few Soyot shepherd camps, met a pack of wolves, saw a few yaks killed by them and enjoyed fascinating sceneries. On the top of the Khonishon hill we found the stone pyramid with a few Buddhist religious utensils inside.

A pile of slate stones in a snowy landscape.Such kind of stone pyramids are usually built by faithful on top of hills to honor local spirits

No Manuscripts! We surveyed the hill, searched every corner and small cave but with no result. As our guide confessed, local Soyots knew about the expedition as rumours somehow leaked out. They could have secretly removed the manuscripts and hidden them in other places. They were anxious and thought our plans had been to take the manuscripts away. This, they believed, would mean that their good fortune would leave them along with the books.

Two team members crouch down in the snowy landscape.Disappointed and sad

Alas! The expedition turned out to be a failure. But we don’t regret it. This beautiful and austere land is worth visiting. Just look at these pictures.

View of the frozen river.Turquoise rivers of Easter Sayan


Tibetan prayer flags.Buddhist prayer flags are usually exposed on the mountain passes

Prayer flags and scarves tied to trees. A conical hut is also visible among the pine and snow.One of the many sacred sites of the local Soyots who have an eclectic belief system combining Shamanism with Tibetan Buddhism

Two team members make a fire in the snowy landscapeAccording to local customs it is mandatory to perform sacrifice rituals on the passes. Badma Kharluevich, our guide, is pouring milk on fire to propitiate spirits guarding this pass.

Close up of a stone mound with fragments of manuscriptsOur guide saw the books inside this pyramid a few months ago. As he told us, they were kept here from 1930s

Items found including a small votive stupa.We have found only a Bumpa, or a ritual copper vessel and a mandala, or a ceremonial model of the universe.

A frozen stream in a wooded area.The weather is getting worse

1EAP813_25Wintry landscape

A wide riverNext sunny morning

Three long haired yaks graze Grazing yaks

A young yak buts his head through the legs of a boy.A child with a yak calf

A rickety bridge with tyre tracks through the snow.
A dangerous bridge

A snowy landscape with trees and mountains in the distance.The austere land of Oka