One of our numerous excursions took us to Aninski Datsan, which was located about 30 km from Khorinsk, which was a main Buryatian settlement. Aninski Datsan was built in 1775 and was a major center of Buddhism and Tibetan medicine. While driving there, we were all surprised that it was apparently in the middle of nowhere, but when it was built it was very close to the main center of local government.
Aninsky Datsan occupied a huge complex throughout the 19th century and served as a home for nearly 1000 lamas and hundreds of students, bringing the average population to 1500. The university at Aninsky was highly respected throughout the region.
Aninsky Datsan was destroyed by the Soviets in 1931 by cannons. The majority of the lamas and students were sent into the GULag, many of them to their deaths. The site remained abandoned throughout the Soviet era and was only reinhabited in the last 10 years.
The site appeared very empty to us. None of the original buildings remained standing except for part of the stucture of the central temple. A small working temple in a corner of the walled settlement has been rebuilt. The lama who was giving us a tour of the place pointed to the huge field past the walled square and explained that before there stood hundreds of buildings, but all their remains had been cleared out.
The Datsan is planning to begin reconstruction in the month of June, so were were some of the last to see it in its destroyed state. The plans consist of several new temples and a soccer field (one of the lamas informed us that in order to recieve government funds the site had to provide a benefit to the general population, so they included the soccer field which will likely just be a field, that one could play soccer on if one so desired).
While at Aninsky we met one of the lamas, who gave us a tour around the datsan and answered our questions. One of the more interesting questions asked came from Shane, who asked why various holy sites are considered "holy." We were told that one can feel the holiness when standing at that place, which was a very shamanist idea. We were also told that Buddhist lamas take a position very similar to that of psychiatrists in the US: many people go to visit the lamas for advice. He also told us that many young Russians are now joining Buryats at Buddhist services, so they are able to reach out to several nationalities.
Following our visit to the datsan we climbed up one of the hills next to it, at the top of which was a sacred place. It provided a beautiful overlook of the area that the datsan used to occupy and will occupy as it is rebuilt during the next few years. Several students in the group expressed a desire to return when it is finished, so maybe sometime we'll get to return and see Aninsky in its pre-Soviet splendor!