Author: enkhzul
February 23, 2017

Mongolian History Simplified:


Mongolia has had a “love - hate” relationship with Tibet throughout its history. In the 13th century, Tibet, then known as Tangut, was Genghis Khan’s worst enemy whereas later in the 16th century, Genghis Khan’s descendants formed a strong religious tie with Tibet. Although it was not the first time Mongolia imported Tibetan Buddhism, since the 16th century, majority of Mongolians have been transformed into Tibetan Buddhism which still has a significant impact on the country.

Mongolians were so famous in the 13th-14th centuries that its glory still persisted in the 15th- 16th century, despite its internal turmoil, even in Tibetan plateau. By the 14th century, Mongolian Empire grew so much that it was hard to maintain the political order. Hence, many self-declared khans, besides those widely accepted, were emerging in different parts of the empire. One of whom was Altan Khan.


“In the mid-sixteenth century, Altan Khan of the Tumed tribe on the south of the Gobi carried out a military campaign in Tibetan territory and re-established intimate ties between Mongolia and Tibet.”* Such intimate ties meant a marriage between Tibetan religious leaders and Mongolian political/military leaders. On the one hand, Tibetans needed military back-up to protect them from external threats and, on the other hand, Mongolian political leaders needed soft power, namely religious doctrine, to soften the hard power which was going out of control in their homeland.

Altan Khan held a couple of high-level meetings with the Tibetan religious leaders in the late 1500s. During one of those meetings, he bestowed a title to the Tibetan religious master ‘Dalai’ which can be translated as oceanic, meaning supreme and vast. In return, the Tibetan master conferred Altai Khan a title which he could use to prove his supremacy and international acceptance to people back home.

According to Glenn Mullin, “The Dalai Lama incarnation lineage was not, of course, known by the name “Dalai” at the time. Rather, both at home and abroad he was known as Jey Tamchey Khyenpa, or “The Omniscient Master.” The Third carried the ordination name of Sonam Gyatso. When he arrived in Hohhot, the then southern capital of Mongolia, the king Altan Khan translated the “Gyatso” part of his name in Mongolian. Thus Gyatso became Dalai, and Jey Tamchey Khyenpa became “The Dalai Lama Dorjechang.”**

Xilituzhao Palace Temple, built in CE 1585 for the Dalai Lama, and the largest Lama temple in Hohhot; Source: Pinterest

As mentioned earlier, Mongolia did not have very friendly and warm relations with Tibet during Genghis Khan’s time. Because Tangut leaders did not keep their words to Genghis Khan, he made taking revenge on Tangut his life’s goal. In fact, Genghis Khan’s very last battle was with Tangut in which “the Great Khan ordered the execution of the entire Tangut royal family as punishment for their defiance.”***

Ironically, Tangut or Tibet became Mongolia’s “best friend” centuries later. According to different sources, Mongolian khans travelled all the way to Tibetan plateau in search for religious or spiritual guidance because their closer neighbors like Chinese had very different lifestyle, and thus, mentality from Mongols. Yet, Tibetans had a lot in common with Mongols at the time; cultural similarity and common religious practices were among the top on the list.

The most notable outcome of Mongolia’s love-hate relationship with Tibet is its adoption of Tibetan Buddhism which is still a dominant religion in Mongolia. In the multilateral environment, the fact that Dalai Lama is a Mongolian title bestowed by a Mongolian king to the Tibetan religious leader, centuries ago, might strike many.

Gandan Monastery is one of the many Tibetan Buddhist temples that can be found throughout Mongolia.

There are many other striking religious facts and findings that can be discovered by lay public in Mongolia. If you would like to embark on a journey to discover some of them, we suggest you tour with us on Discover Mongolia tour!

* Tibetan Buddhism, The Mongolian Religion, Sechin Jagchid

** History of Buddhism in Mongolia, Glenn Mullin