Elista is home to the Kalmyks, a western arm of the Mongols, who settled in the plains North of the Caucasus in the 17th century. They’ve had a complex history, including wholesale exile to Siberia under Stalin, and a subsequent slow return under Khruschev. Since 1991 there has been a major revival of Tibetan Buddhism, including visits from the Dalai Lama.
The city has strange juxtapositions. In many ways it feels like a typical, mundane, post-Soviet city, with decaying industry, drab Soviet apartment blocks, and rickety infrastructure. But then suddenly there’s an unexpected Buddhist shrine.
The centerpiece is the Golden Temple, built in 2005, an extremely flamboyant structure, with concrete columns, elaborate decorations and much gold leaf. Inside is a giant golden statue of the Buddha, complete with pink fingernails, and many Tibetan Buddhist murals.
Unfortunately, the temple comes across in some ways as an alien implant, using external designs and motifs, with no evidence of local Kalmyk influence on the art or construction. The Kalmyks had followed a branch of Tibetan Buddhism, but I suspect they must have developed their own styles and traditions. So I am curious as to how well this wholesale import of a pre-fabricated Buddhist tradition is being accepted by local society.
When I was there the temple was very quiet, with only an occasional worshiper. There were a tiny handful of Russian tourists, but no other Westerners.
What more could you ask for? A statue of Lenin? Yes, he’s here too, lurking with a rather disapproving expression in the shadow of the Pagoda.
|I came in by bus from Astrakhan (5 hours) and I’ll be heading out on another 5 hour bus ride to Stavropol. To help other travellers, here’s an image of the Elista bus timetable. But note that many services are marked “закрыт” (“cancelled”).|