A case of allegoresis: A Buddhist painter and his patron in Mongolia

The Green Palace

Art as material evidence of “Dharma deed”

The cosmopolitan Qing Empire (1644-1911), ruled by the ethnically non-Chinese Manchus, disintegrated in the early twentieth century, ending China’s millennial dynastic history. One of the empire’s vassal states, Mongolia, once home to the largest Eurasian empire in history, seized the opportunity to proclaim its independence in the winter of 1911. Landlocked and sandwiched between China and Russia, Mongolia became a pawn in the political maneuverings of competing warlords, Communists (Bolsheviks), and Chinese Republicans. At this time, an extraordinary painting was made for the Mongol ruler who was destined to be the last king of the Mongols before the Soviet takeover in 1921.

The Mongol leader in 1911 was the Bogd Gegeen (1870-1924), the eight reincarnation of the Tibetian Jebtsundampa lineage that had held political and religious power in Mongolia since the seventeenth century. He was fascinated by visual images, and especially paintings, evidenced by his avid collecting and commissioning activities. Known as the Bogd Gegeen (literally, Holy Saint) and after the fall of the Qing as the Bogd Khan (Holy Khan), the Eighth Jebtsundamba resided in his monastery Ikh Khuree, the center of Mongolian Buddhism, which also served as the capital of the new state. The Bogd Gegeen’s painting, created in Ikh Khuree, went beyond thangka, Tibetian-style religious icons, to include scenes that are often witty but also quite preserve. One such painting is The Green Palace, attributed to the painter Balduugin Sharav (1869-1939), which portrays the Bogd Gegeen’s private residence and his summer meditation retreat, Biligiig Khogjuulen Badraagch Sume, or Temple for Prosperity of Mind, commonly known as the Green Palace. (fig. 1)

B. Sharav, The Green Palace
Fig. 1 Attributed to B.Sharav, The Green Palace

The colorful compound stretches north-south at the center of numerous and varied activities. The palace is depicted as a pilgrimage site, with many devotees shown approaching the structure or camping nearby. There are pilgrims on foot and nobles on horseback or in sedan chairs, arriving and dismounting in the northern sector. This seemingly idyllic picture of devotion and pilgrimage is subverted by a military garrison to the west filled with disturbing scenes of men standing alone or in groups of two or three, with exposed and exaggerated genitals. (fig. 2, 3)

Fig. 2 Attributed to B.Sharav, The Green Palace, detail showing military garrison.

In Vajrayana Buddhism, which was the official state religion of Mongolia, Buddhist images were often used to assert political power and legitimization. China’s Qing dynasty was particularly versatile in this area, especially in the eighteenth century, and The Green Palace follows suit in certain respects. The Qing emperors were Vajrayana Buddhist converts and had Mongol lamas as their allies and personal teachers. However, none of their Buddhist images contained scenes of violence and naked sexuality among the common people in the vicinity of a Buddhist ruler’s residence. Many juxtapositions in the Green Palace do not relate to any liturgical texts and rites and therefore generate questions about the imagery’s meaning and the underlying intentions of both the artist and the patron.

Fig. 3 Attributed to B.Sharav, The Green Palace, detail showing military garrison.

The Eighth Jebtsundamba (full name, Ngawang Lobsang Chokyi Nyima Tenzin Wangchuk) was born near Lhase in 1870 to Gonchog Tsering, a well-to-do financial assistant to the Twelfth Dalai Lama. In 1874, soon after he was identified as the Eighth Jebtsundampa, the child was taken to Ikh Khuree in Mongolia. Unlike the case with the previous Jebtsundampas, hagiographies of the Eighth are scarce; however, details of his life provide a unique and rich biography.

The Bogd Gegeen had a volatile character and, as will be discussed later, a notorious sex life, but he was also a prominent political figure who addressed increasing conflict between linguistic and ethnic communities in Ikh Khuree, as well as aggressive intrusions by Russians and Chinese farmers and merchants into Mongolian territory. Moreover, the Bogd Gegeen was the only one of the eight Jebtsundampa reincarnations to receive the gavj rank of learned monkhood. The complexity of the ruler’s character, reputation, and abilities renders him enigmatic. He seems to have relished his reputation for inscrutability, stating, “Some people say I wandered about having fun. I have a secret by which I helped the state and the religion. The result will be known in future days. Keeping the secret is a Dharma deed.”

The Green Palace
The Green Palace

Recent studies have shown that the Bogd Gegeen kept many of his deeds secret in an attempt to protect his nation from foreign exploitation and to cope with political power games that affected Mongolia in the early twentieth century, when this painting was made. In China, imperial history ended in 1912, and in Russia the Bolshevik Revolution overthrew imperial rule in 1917. Although occupied with their own radical social and political changes, these neighbors did not lose interest in Mongolia. China refused to recognize Mongolian political independence. Yuan Shikai, the first president of the Republic of China (1912-16), sought to bring Mongolia back under Chinese control through military force.

Xu Shuzheng, (1880-1925), a Chinese general of the Anhui Clique, and commander in chief of the Northwest Frontier Defense Army, mounted a successful attack against Ikh Khuree in October 1919. In the process, the Bogd Gegeen was imprisoned in the Green Palace and on February 20, 1920, forced to prostrate himself before a photograph of the Chinese president and the Chinese flag. These actions, coupled with massive Chinese immigration (which had been traditionally forbidden) and the return of Outer Mongolia to Chinese control did much to inflame Mongolian outrage toward China, resulting in a drastically pro-Russian attitude, and several delegations were dispatched to Russia with requests for military aid. The Bogd Gegeen and his palace were at the center of all these turbulent events that rapidly changed Inner Asian politics, shaped new borders, and led to the suppression of Buddhism in Mongolia. Was art, then, one of the Bogd Khan’s secret ways to express his concern about his people and the fate of dharma? How might we apprehend the execution of this work by a Buddhist monk, at the behest of a Buddhist ruler, against the backdrop of the country’s struggle for political sovereignty and nationhood?

In the context of European sociopolitical change and upheaval, the historian Francis Haskell has ascribed to art a type of “prophetic” function attributed to the genius and (perhaps unconscious) foresight of the artists themselves. For Haskell, among many artists, an instance of this extraordinary sensibility and artistic genius is Albrecht Durer in his Apocalypse. Allegories and prophecies offered possibilities of different levels of readings of high and low, implicit and explicit meanings in medieval-era paintings as well as in Buddhist art. In Mongolia specifically, Alger, or allegories, were often used in textual and visual narratives to aid the comprehension of Buddhist teachings in an accessible and readable manner. In Western paintings, allegoresis, or a medieval European notion of multiple levels of reading, produced diverse techniques in which images were meant to be read variously as content, ethical statements, paths to God, and so forth. The scholar of comparative literature Zhang Longxi has shown how allegoresis, initially rooted in Christian literature and later in medieval European art, has been appropriated cross-culturally as means for exploring the interpretative power of texts and the exchange between author and reader. Zhang focused on allegoresis as a reading and interpretative practice in diverse cultural and political settings in Europe and East Asia.

This article shows how similar allegorical associations of art and prophecy can seen in The Green Palace. To my knowledge, documentation on the pursuits of the Bogd Gegeen and his artists, including Sharav, has not yet been found or published. Given this absence, I take the painting itself and the visual complexity of the style and pictorial details as the principal material evidence that demonstrates a rather complicated allegoresis: the artist’s views of samsara, references to the Bogd Gegeen’s prophetic vision of the end of dharma (i.e., Buddhism as a state religion and the disappearance of Buddhist beliefs and teachings), and a vision for Buddhist liberation (i.e., realization of samsara, faith in the Teacher, and selftransromation).

The Green Palace demands various layers of reading and a broader vision of artistic production and Buddhist visual culture, especially at a time of decline. Therefore, I discuss the painting in relation to original sources from the period, mainly the Bogd Gegeen’s own writings, oral legends, memories of Ikh Khuree residents, and historical scholarship to analyze the intricate web of agency and levels of meaning generated. I consider the conditions and aims of the patron (the Bogd Gegeen), the ambitions of the artist speaking to his potential audience (which, of course, also includes his patron), the artist’s and patron’s unique collaboration to address the wishes and needs of the wider monastic and lay communities, and the multivalent levels of meanings through allegories of desire, misery, and transformation communicated in the different scenes. I argue that the painting constitutes an instance of a mutually informing, creative collaboration of both the presumed artist, Sharav, and the patron, whose vision of a tragic future, as we shall see, provides insight into the unusual nature of the work. Unlike Haskell’s, however, this analysis does not see the role of the artist as “prophetic genius”; the role of the artist should be neither overly exaggerated nor underestimated at the expense of a patron’s vision.

While Soviet-era scholars such as I.Lomakina, L.Sonomtseren, and N.Tsultem have maded brief mention of the The Green Palace, they did not seriously explore the work itself within these intersecting nexuses (patron, artist, and wider community). The unusual and disturbing imagery of this painting clearly was not to Socialist tastes, and consequently the painting remained unexamined, effectively vanishing for many years. Even in a recent publication (2009) about Sharav, the Mongolian art historian L.Batchuluun chose not to discuss these uneasy scenes of torture and open promiscuity.

In The Green Palace, attention is focused on chaos and power, satire and pain, but the painting still presupposes the penetrating and transformative ability of the meditative process as envisaged in Tantric practice, only in unexpected ways. That is, the process operates not in terms of the standard conception of the image as an aid for the individual transformation of the practitioner into a deity but, rather, as visual reflection on Buddhist soteriology as a collective mode of broader social and political transformation. In this article, I discuss The Green Palace in the context of both external and internal samsara, as well as in conjunction with Lunden, prophesies, and other texts. Next, I analyze The Green Palace as a visual strategy to convey the Bogd Gegeen’s apocalyptic vision of the need for awakening in his efforts to protect his people and a way of grappling with the imminent chaos, destruction, and revolution that would ultimately bring to his nation the demise of Buddhist culture and religion. I will discuss in detail how the visual language of shock and discordance constituted new ways of translating Buddhist ideas into a composite narrative at a time of political unrest and catastrophic change in Mongolia cultural and religious life.

The Samsara

The Green Palace was located in Ikh Khuree, a major Mongolian monastery, that the First Jebtsundampa, Zanabazar (1635-1723) had it built as a private ger (yurt) residential compound in 1639. Each Jebtsundampa strategically developed Ikh Khuree until it became the largest and most significant monastic and political center in Mongolia by the late 1800s, when the Bogd Gegeen came to power. He soon built his summer meditation retreat, known as the Green Palace, in 1893. Ikh Khuree remained the principal seat of all eight Jebtsundampa reincarnate rulers from its conception until its demise in the 1930s.

In The Green Palace, the palace compound, though nearly empty, is neatly structured and organized along the north-south axis following both nomadic and Chinese planning traditions (fig. 1). Here the artist chose a limited palette of maroon and green, and the compound prominently stands out as a colorful, vibrant structure. The contrast between the central palace with its annexed northern enclosure (storage area) and the crowds of people, horses, chariots, the military garrison, and the zoo, is startling, as all appear gray, undersized, and insignificant, thereby elevating the superiority, power, and glory of the palace. The palace is not only a site of supreme authority but also a major pilgrimage destination, seen also in the artist Jugder’s map (fig 3). A few pilgrims are circumambulating the compound on foot, and others are seen in full-body prostration. At the main gates in the south, a couple of pilgrims kneel in front of the palace as they worship.

Fig. 3 Jugder, The Capital Ikh Khuree, 1912-13, 50×96 cm, mineral paints on cotton.

The horsemen (fig. 1) and sedan chairs are shown to be arriving from the east (right), and more gers and pitched tents are located in the west (left) portion of the painting, creating an illusion that the dynamic of movement toward the palace is from right to left. The right part of the painting is sparsely populated, and a riverbed that stretches vertically from north to south and branches out toward the west side enhances the right-to-left dynamic.

The bird’s-eye perspective reveals a scattered and seemingly disorganized space, until close observation reveals important details; what catches the eye immediately is the Bogd Gegeen’s major achievement, the new palace of Ikh Khuree. Even closer examination shows that Sharav depicted the palace in detail, thus presenting the entire complex historically. Built initially as a summer retreat temple, the Green Palace gradually expanded by the time of Sharav to include several temples, gers, and a two-storey, white, Russian-style building with glass windows that was built in 1905.

According to some sources, this building was based on the design sent to the Bogd Gegeen by Russian Tsar Nikolai II, while others suggest that it followed the architecture of the Russian consul building in Ikh Khuree. This building served as a winter residence for the Bogd Gegeen and his consort, Dondogdulam, and spawned a new appellation for the complex, the Winter Palace, while the green Chinese tiles account for its more popular name, the Green Palace.

The central entrance is to the south. It features a three-fold yampai protection wall, three-fold ceremonial arcade gates, and a three-fold ceremonial “peace” gate, all constructed in 1912-19 and intended to serve only the ruler. The compound impressed the visitor with its architectural internationalism: Chinese-style architecture dominated the complex, which also included several Mongolian gers in each courtyard; a Tibetan-style building in the back (the tallest in the complex); and a large Russian-style building right at the entrance.

Beyond detailing the palace architecture, Sharav provides a clear sense of what went on there. The compound next to the palace is the scene of riveting and shocking events, where couples engage in sexual intercourse and men appear with exposed genitals, all near the Buddhist meditation temple. At a more basic level, Sharav’s revelation of life outside the palace brings attention to violence and human suffering visualized in traumatic ways. According to Jacob Dalton, violence was not uncommon in Tibetan Buddhism from early times. Whereas some ritual tests detail “liberation” rites with human sacrifice, Dalton also points to myths and legends that constantly refer to the presence of demons and their subjugation by the righteous. Despite the distinction between ritual and actual forms of violence, all deal with presence of blood ad death, either symbolic or real. The scenes of explicit violence in The Green Palace do not relate, at least visually, to any liturgical rites; instead, they are combined with overt nudity and copulation, among other activities typically inconceivable in any monastery.

The men engaged in acts of torture inflict pain and suffering on themselves and others, while seemingly enjoying it (fig. 2). In addition to the aforementioned pulling of genitals, their victims ill treatment includes being poked with sharp instruments and even being burned with red-hot tools. A man watching one of these scenes of torture on the right appears to be enjoying the suffering and pain of his colleague, since he claps his hands with what can only be described as glee. In another scene, the victim whose penis is being pulled by four men appears to be in extreme pain, as he wipes away tears (fig. 3). Such unconventional grotesquerie conveys an acute sense of disturbing realities of the time.

The painting was produced about 1911-12, that is, around the time that the Eighth Jebtsundampa was proclaimed as the Sun-Lit, All-Inaugurated Mahasammata (The Great Elect) Bogd Khan of independent Mongolia on December 29, 1911. Even before the Chinese Wuchang uprising in October 1911, the Bogd Gegeen approved the Mongolian nobles’ aspirations to request military assistance from tsarist Russia to further their own nationalist goals. Russia played what B.Baabar has referred to as “the double game,” that is, signing treaties in Ikh Khuree that would allow them to pursue formal trade agreements with the new Mongolian state in 1912, while also entering into a secret treaty with Republican China in 1913 that recognized China’s sovereignty over Outer Mongolia and Inner Mongolia’s integral status as part of China. In a secret treaty with Japan, Russia acknowledged Mongolia and Manchuria as territories in the “Russian and Japanese spheres of influence.” In 1915 the tripartite Kyakhta treaty was signed by China, Mongolia, and Russia to rectify Chinese suzerainty over Outer Mongolia.

Tibet’s leader, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama (1876-1933), who was in Mongolia in 1904-7, continued to maintain his holdings in Khuree banks and in 1913 sent his representative to sign an important treaty with the Bogd Khan’s government. Signed in 1913, a Mongol-Tibetan treaty was the only document that formally recognized the sovereignty of both nations. Ikh Khuree appears in numerous documents as the locus of machinations involving politically diverse groups from the Chinese, Russian, Tibetan, and Mongolia communities. It is also in Ikh Khuree that the Bogd Khan wrote his letters to foreign governments, such as Japan and the United States, requesting support and military aid to protect Mongolia’s fragile independence.

This was the samsaric milieu during which The Green Palace was most likely painted by Sharav for his patron, The Bogd Khan. The Green Palace bears no inscription or signatures. The painting is deemed to be Sharav’s work by certain Mongolian art historians, such as L.Batchuluun, who based their attributions on visual analysis and witty details in the painting. Because no source were located to identify artist, in this article I refer to Sharav as the probable creator, yet I also agree with N.Tsultem that this work is markedly different from Sharav’s other works known to us.

Daily events B. Sharav
Fig. 4 B. Sharav, Daily Events, 1912. 135 x 173 cm

Sharav worked on several projects for the khan. Nyam-Osoryn Tsultem published the memories of the former Ikh Khuree’s monk-artist D.Damdinsuren in 1995, who identifies Sharav as one of the four artists whom the Bogd Khan selected to paint the famed Daily Events (fig. 4). Sharav is also known to have made the portrait of the Bogd Gegeen and his consort, Dondogdulam, in which he captures the royal couple’s physiognomies in a realistic, even photographic style that is unique for the time (fig. 5). The humorous details that he frequently included in Daily Events, such as, a woman’s basket breaking, making the water spill out while her naked toddler clings onto her hands, or folks outing to collect dung for fuel run into snakes and run away with funny grimaces on their faces, as well as the later political propaganda and caricatures he was ordered to produce at the behest of the post-1921 revolutionary regime after his forced departure from monastic life, earned Sharav the nickname “Funny Sharav” (Mong. Marzan Sharav). Sharav’s Daily Events painting reveals him to have been an open-minded and brave monk, eager to experiment with new style, innovative themes, and unusual subject matter, yet all still within the parameters of a Buddhist exegetical framework, and under the auspices of his powerful patron. Given the boldness of the shocking details in The Green Palace, should we assume that the artist was simply the ruler’s passive follower, a “brush substitute”? The compositional arrangement that creates a contrast between color and drabness, the shame of public disclosure of what is typically hidden, and details of suffering, all suggest a strong artist’s voice that was selective and independent. As accounts of the Bogd Gegeen’s bisexuality and his eventual diagnosis with terminal syphilis were well known throughout Ikh Khuree, this painting might also be taken as the artist’s exposure of the harmful types of behavior that need awakening. In what follows, I discuss how the perspectives of both artist and patron can be seen in The Green Palace in quite distinctive and unique ways.

The Bogd Gegeen
Fig. 5 B. Sharav, The Bogd Gegeen, 113 x 83 cm

Internal Samsara: The Notorious Patron and The Artist’s Agency

While the political unrest in Ikh Khuree was the main reason for the decline of Buddhism and its gradual obliteration by pro-Bolshevik groups, the Bogd Gegeen experienced his own internal samsara filled with human struggle and psychological distress. Future Mongolian revolutionary heroes as well as monks and lamas visited him to discuss important matter of the time. At the onset of the new century and the proclamation of Mongolian independence, there was a real possibility that a nobleman of Mongol royal pedigree from the Chinggis Khaan lineage (c. 1162-1227) might be installed as ruler.

According to the Bogd Gegeen’s assistant Jambal, his early affair with the noblewoman Norov, wife of Duke (Gun) Tserendorj, became mired in complications, including the birth of a daughter. The affair resulted in long-lasting hostility directly affected the building of the Green Palace, as it was Tserendorj who was to supply the building materials for the Bogd’s project. Tserendorj objected to the building of the palace and refused to transport supplies, thereby deliberately delaying construction.

Norov was replaced in the Bogd’s affection by another, Dondogdulam (1874-1923). After the relationship became known, the Bogd Gegeen married Dondogdulam, who was soon presented as an emanation of White Tara, a popular savioress for Ikh Khuree through the Jebtsundampa’s lineage connection with the Tibetan scholar-historian and Tara devotee Taranatha (1575-1634), and, as such, provided legitimacy for his union. This marriage, however, was not his only one; after Dondogdulam’s death in 1923, the Bogd Gegeen married the Lady Genenpil (1905-1938). In other words, in addition to the wider political instability of the time, samsara and human misery also meant, in the Bogd Gegeen’s case, his incredibly convoluted private life, which was neither exemplary nor a secret in the Ikh Khuree community. Given this context and Sharav’s inclusion of provocative details that construct a narrative of pleasure and pain in The Green Palace, the artist’s agency may have exceeded his patron’s expectations. Sharav’s other paintings show a similar courageous approach to respond creatively to the Bogd Gegeen’s quest to see the world as it truly was.

In the case of Daily Events, to take another example, Sharav was one of the four artists sent to the countryside with the mission to observe and depict secular life outside Ikh Khuree that the khan had only rarely seen (fig. 4). As a southerner who had moved to the northern city, Sharav was well able to capture visually the diverse geographic zones in central Mongolia, the region inhabited by the Khalkha; the forest depicted at the top refers to the northern part of the country, known for rich stands of trees; the west is prominent with significant mountain ranges and rocky hills; and the east is rather topographically flat. The southern Gobi region is signaled by camels, and a large scene with felt-making is placed in the southwest sector.

D.Damdinsuren reports that Daily Events was publicly displayed, suggesting that it satisfied the Bogd Gegeen’s quest to learn about the world and orient himself in it. Not only was the painting a window through which the ruler could observe and study life outside Ikh Khuree in detail, but it was also an example of anthropological fieldwork, as understood at the time. Some texts mention how the Bogd Gegeen gathered artists and instructed them to go in all four directions and depict “everything they see on their way,” that is, to collect ethnographic knowledge about ordinary people’s lives in a manner similar to the production of the ethnographic Miao albums under the Qing.

Daily Events, detail showing felt making scene
Fig. 6 B. Sharav, Daily Events, detail showing felt making scene

Right in the center of Daily Events, Sharav depicts a lama seated in a tent mourning the dead, and surrounding him are numerous scenes of everyday life, including marriage, sexual intercourse, childbearing, a family starting a new ger, felt making (fig. 6), harvesting, forestry, mountain worshipping, and so forth. This central scene of death, with skulls and human bones scattered in front of the ritual space (fig. 7), eloquently reminds viewers of the Buddhist concept of the impermanence and illusory nature of life. The scenes produce a continuous narrative that inevitably brings to mind the Bhavacakra, the Buddhist Wheel of Life. The Green Palace also conveys Buddhist concepts through the allegoresis of desire and pain that offer the promise of eventual survival in times of decline.

B. Sharav, Daily Events, detail showing lama's ritual
Fig. 7 B. Sharav, Daily Events, detail showing lama’s ritual

These acts of translating Buddhist ideas into visual images in the secular, mundane world recall suggestions put forward by the Zhangjia Khutugtu Rolpay Dorje (Icang skya rol pa’I rdo rje, (1717-1786), the translator and national preceptor of the Qing Qianlong emperor (1711-1799). The Bogd Gegeen’s interest in novel images and collecting and translating texts, as well as his appreciation of the creative role of translators, recalls the Qianlong emperor’s deeds.

In creative translation, Rolpay Dorje specifically mentioned that in capturing subtle nuances, the translator needs to use “Stylic effects” to “make up for the lack of strict equivalence” (my emphasis). He further suggested that the vocabulary or emotional words, such as “admiration, abuse, wonder, and happiness, sorrow, fear, and all the like expressions must all be translated […]  [to] show the same degree of power, capture the same attention, and take the same time” (my emphasis). This creative translation elicits an interactive exchange between author and reader which is how the modern scholar Zhang Longxi defines allegoresis – to read behind the surface. Evidence of such stylistic effects is seen in Sharav’s works, especially in The Green Palace, where he, the artist (translator), chose unusual motifs to relay the “degree of power, capture the same attention.”

In The Green Palace, Sharav, a talented and courageous artist, resorts to the language of visually shocking allegories to convey the internal chaos and pain created by self-destructive behavior that also ultimately generates social calamity. His graphic details of the irrepressible, erect organ (lust) was a depiction of how lust could be forcefully managed and painfully treated. For the Buddhist reincarnate ruler, whose careless violation of Vinaya (monastic) norms was to his own and others’ detriment, the artist uses the grotesque depiction of that “root,” or “that source of all evil […] the penis,” and depicts the ways in which virile energy could be cut off and turned into the opposite of gratification. The imagery here suggests violation of the viewer’s expectations. With reference to desire, pleasure, and suffering, the Bogd Gegeen himself wrote:

There are many sufferings for a layman. The disasters of fire, water, weapons, war, robbery, poisonous snakes, wolves and tigers, fierce rain, hunger and starvation, separation from parents, and couples separating without meeting again […]

When desire increases, ethics and morality (sila) decrease […]

At the times of getting infectious disease in a marriage

Get recovered with the help of Three Jewels […]

Why are you obsessed with worldly joys?

There is no end to ignorant greed

What will you say to the Lord of Death [Yama] who comes to torture [you]?

In a clear mirror, observe and analyze your faces and your physiognomy. In the pure […] dharma mirror, observe critically your own deeds.

The Green Palace may effectively be read as the artist presenting a visual “dharma mirror” to complement the Bogd Gegeen’s textual admonitions in numerous prophesies and instructions, some of which are discussed in the next section. Samsara, in other words, for both artist and patron, included not only sociopolitical turmoil in the present and future but also self-destructive behavior. It is not surprising, then, that the Green Palace, the most visible and physically imposing accomplishment of the Bogd Gegeen’s wordly success, is the central focus of the painting. The very construction of this meditation retreat represented a triumph over obstacles laid by his longtime adversary Tserendorj, cuckolded husband of the Lady Norov.

The Green Palace is ingeniously rendered by Sharav as a visual meditation for the Bogd to reflect on negative karmic deeds and their consequences. Sharav seems to be warning viewers of future desolation, caused in part by the karmic seeds already sown in the foundations of the Green Palace itself, whose very construction was complicated by the Jebtsundampa’s debauchery. Indeed, Duke Tserendorj was to exercise his animosity toward the Bogd by forming a crucial alliance with the Manchu ambassador (amban) in Ikh Khuree.

The paintings Daily Events, The Green Palace, and The Capital Ikh Khuree are few of many unusual images made for the Bogd Gegeen. He was a patron who accepted the creativity of his artists in that he destroyed neither the paintings nor the artist who exposed various unsavory dimensions of life in the capital as well as in the countryside. The relation between emperor and artist known elsewhere in East Asia was different in Ikh Khuree. Sharav and other artists, including Jugder, are explicitly mentioned as affiliated with an aimag (monastic regional house): Sharav belonged to Bizya, one of thirty aimags of Ikh Khuree, while Jugder was from the Zoogai aimag. Similar to Tibetan regional houses known as khantsen, aimags represented monastic communities, each one a financially independent administrative unit in its own right, with its own abbot, temple, and rituals. Each artist, in other words, had his own affiliation in Ikh Khuree, and the khan’s court did not include artists, in contrast to the situation in China and Japan. This structure suggests that subordination of the artist to the khan was not like a servant’s relation to the king. The documents that mention the names of artists typically list their community (aimag) affiliation and say that they were chosen by the khan as the most qualified artists for specific projects. We may deduce that this relationship was grounded on the khan’s respect for artists, further corroborating the high probability of some degree of artistic freedom or creative license the artists enjoyed in realizing projects for the ruler.

In the production of The Green Palace, both the artist and the patron were monks, and thus both knew the potential efficacy of imaged in Buddhist practice. The Bogd Gegeen was aware that the demise of Ikh Khuree was fast approaching and the painting would soon be public; during his lifetime he kept The Green Palace in his private chambers. In contrast, Daily Events was put on public view outside the Green Palace under a roofed structure specially built for its display. The Green Palace, having never been seen in such a way, may have been intended primarily for the Bogd Gegeen’s private reflection on his own deeds and the deeds or others in his proximity. The current Bogd Khan Museum curator, D.Altannavch, has reported that the painting was found in the Bogd Gegeen’s lavran (“lama’s estate,” Tib. Bla brang), located immediately to the east of the Green Palace.

Several recent publications have convincingly shown the critical role played by the Bogd Gegeen in the politics of his country. Surviving memoirs and oral histories provide a picture of a beloved ruler whose word was respected and honored, while at the same time he was a notorious debauchee. Although the innovative style and subject matter of The Green Palace must have their source in the artist, likely as a monastic voice of admonition regarding patterns of self-destructive behavior, the khan nonetheless endorsed the artist if only because his rendering of Buddhist concepts referred to all sentient beings, the khan included.

Decline of Faith

In The Green Palace, a large crowd is gathered in the rear quarter of the compound, far from the main gates, as if captured by the artist in the moment of arriving and deciding where to go – join the tents, military garrison, empty undefined space at the right, or the Bogd Gegeen. Indeed, little activity is seen at the front gates or even near the palace itself. Instead, the crowd gathers to the left of the palace, where the new arrivals have comfortably settled themselves in tents. A Russian visitor to Ikh Khuree, Aleksei Pozdneev, describes the frequent appearance of the Bogd Gegeen in front of his devotees:

The people can see him now only at celebrations and also when worshipping. […] As far as […] worshipping the Gegeen by the common people is concerned, it is performed in the square in front of the Gegeen’s palace […] every other day. […] Crowds of worshippers find seats in long rows directly out from the gates of the Gegeen’s palace, and in that positions they await his appearance. One may be surprised by the veneration with which they look in the direction whence the Gegeen is to appear. […] And finally the Gegeen appears carried on a yellow litter by eight gelongs [Tib. dge slong; ordained monks]. […] Having passed around the lines, the Khutugtu [reincarnate] hides himself accompanied by the sounds of […] instruments, and the people wait reverently. […] The second worshipping, in which a mandala is presented is performed daily and even several times a day, by various persons; it takes place, not in a temple, but the reception hall of the Khutugtu’s own residence.

The Green Palace illustrate a very different pilgrimage site: the tent scenes with naked coupling bodies and drunk and vomiting strangers seem discordant, as they suggest lengthy stays near the palace. These visitors seem to have forgotten their principal reason for being there, which was to pay homage to the ruler by prostrating themselves and worshipping. Instead, they are indulging in debauchery – a clear indicator of the decline of faith – and indeed Buddhism was soon to be all but wiped out, just as the Bogd Gegeen himself knew better than anyone.

In this dreary worldliness, the painting further suggests, the displays of pain, suffering, torture, and military training and preparedness in the garrison are part of a visual trope of distress that surrounds the tranquil palace of the Bogd Gegeen, where the ruler sees just a few loyal people paying him devotion, and even fewer prostrating themselves. To the patron-ruler, this would demonstrate the transgressions that permeated all layers of Ikh Khuree and how very few remained truly devout.

The scenes of torture and sexual pursuits are omitted from discussions about The Green Palace by earlier writers, such as the Mongolian art historians L.Sonomtseren and Nyam-Osoryn Tsultem and the Soviet writer-journalist I.Lomakina. The obvious sexual and sadistic nature of the imagery explains the silence of these Socialist-period authors. Lomakina cautiously hints at the blatant frankness of Sharav’s intimate scenes with only one sentence: “There was no other Urga painter than Marzan (Funny) Sharav who would have allowed himself to show the decadence of the Khan’s favorites; in this picture, he does it with sufficient straightforwardness.” Tsultem, who in 1988 was the first and only scholar thus far to discuss The Green Palace in its entirety, suggested that the imagery reflected the decadent reality of military officers coping with tedium.

These Socialist-period writers were not allowed to read the painting from a Buddhist perspective. The scenes of distress and the absence of faith were Sharav’s visual strategies to recall and complement the Bogd Gegeen’s own writings on decline and tragic tsevuun tsag, “savage times”. Not only did the Bogd Gegeen write about the decline of faith, but more significantly, he highlighted the activities that cause such decline:

B. Sharav The Green Palace

Ordained monks (gelongs and getsul)! You leave the temples for engagements in trade, obsessed with feasts, being mocked by women and children . […] The times are coming when the smoke of your cigars will obscure the sun and the moon, and the alcohol you drink is vast as the ocean. […] The Yellow Faith [the Gelug Order of Tibetan Buddhism] will become obscured by a shadow of clouds. Your misconduct and evil behavior of these thevuun tsag are as clear as the mirror of the Lord of Death held in your right and left palms.

The activities leading to decline of faith are outlined in canonical Buddhist texts and include acceptance of women in a monastic setting, lack of respect toward Buddhis traditions, lack of diligence in meditation practice, and excessive association with secular society, all of which we see here depicted by Sharav.

While the political circumstances of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were overly alarming, existing texts suggest that the Jebtsundampa rulers were familiar with the Mahayana prophetic literature on the decay of dharma and, specifically, the prophecy found in the Questions of (the Bodhisattva) Candragabha (Skt. Candragarbha-pariprccha- sutra), for which there are Mongolian translations. In the early literature of decline, as Jan Nattier has shown, this sutra was most popular in East and Inner Asia, with its primary theme of the time and causes for the decline of Buddhist teachings. Other scholars, such as Alice Sarkozi, Walter Heissing, and A. G. Sazykin, inform us about prophetic texts translated into Mongolian from Sanskrit and Tibetan, currently housed in St. Petersburg, Budapest, Ulaanbaatar, and elsewhere, and which include Buddha Sakyamuni’s prophetic sermons, prophecies attributed to Nagarjuna, Padmasambhava, Tsokgkhapa, and various writings by Dalai and Panchen Lamas.

The genre of prophetic literature was not new in East and Inner Asia, and the Mongols used sources from China and Tibet in their translations, inscriptions, and writings of new texts. In Tibet, prophesies were a widely spread genre from early times, as evidenced by findings from Dunhuang, and many were included in canonical compilations of texts known as Kangyur and Tangyur. An example of an early engagement with prophecies is the Mongol inscription quoted from the Kutagara sutra on the Juyong Gate in Beijing during the imperial period in the fourteenth century that mentions such calamities as disease, war (“kalpa of knives”), and natural disasters leading to decline.

Nattier cited Vinaya teachings as saying that one of the major causes of Buddhist decline is the admission of women to monastic orders. In the Candragarbha sutra, the duration for Buddhist dharma is specified as two thousand years, which in turn is divided into four segments of five hundred years, each segment seen as a specific stage in the process of decline. The sutra specified the causes and signs of decline, which include loss of faith and practice, illness, famine, and warfare, and, at a later period, monks’ misconduct and their engagement in various worldly activities.

While these are the signs of decline that the Bogd Gegeen wrote extensively about and that are illustrated in The Green Palace, the Bogd Gegeen’s predecessors, the First Jebtsundampa, Zanabazar, and the Fifth Jebtsundampa (1815-42) in particular, were also inspirational writers. All these rulers wrote prophetic texts composed in poignant verse predicting the coming of “savage times” that would precede the ultimate demise of the dharma. In his notable work, A prayer for the Three Times: Bestowing the Supreme Blessings, known in simply as Janlavtsogzol, composed in 1696, a text still widely used in Mongolian temples to this day, Zanabazar put forward this powerful appeal:

When the great darkness of great dark ages falls,

Purify all the darkness of the ignorance of all beings;

Transmit illuminating omniscient wisdom.

With compassion, help us get through these evil times.

If Zanabazar’s activities and writings reflected on his struggles with the Dzungars, evil times were also continuously prophesied in many lung bstan prophetic writings by the Fifth Jebtsundampa, whose times were relatively peaceful. Moreover, the Fifth reincarnate lists the calamities that would befall Mongolia year after year, projecting into the tumultuous times of his heir, the Eighth Jebtsundampa, with stunning accuracy:

From the Metal Monkey Year [1860; 1920] will hardships begin […]

In those bad times, in the Metal Rooster Year [1861, 1921],

Cattle will be slaughtered

And eaten by the military;

All kinds of illnesses will spread […]

The sun of the Dharma will darken in Mongolia

And temples and monasteries will turn into military barracks […]

Men will be eaten by wolves and beasts;

Fathers and sons will fight;

And human bones will pile up like mountains. […]

The Bogd Gegeen reminds his people about prophesies by starting:

People of Khalkha, in my many reincarnations as the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Bogd Gegeen I gave you my admonitions. You heard but behave as if you have not; you saw them, but behave […] carelessly as if you have not.

Very similar ideas were expressed in Tibetan prophesies translated into Mongolian beginning in the seventeenth century. For instance, in the Mongolian translation of the Decree of the Bogd Panchen Lama, among a list of ten transgressions heralding decline were the following:

They do not believe in the Buddha and guardian spirits, and live according to false ideas;

They do not honor their lamas, teachers, mothers and fathers, but cause them sufferings in different ways. […]

The same translation mentions dates and instructions: “Especially from the Blue Rat Year [1864; 1924], the sufferings of people will become very severe. […] Copy this order many times and spread it among many living beings.

Dalai Lamas are also known for prophecies. The Thirteenth Dalai Lama, who met the Bogd Gegeen in Ikh Khuree in 1904, predicted hardships for Tibet as well. The theme of such prophecies, written in a time already prophesied by his previous incarnations to be one of demise and tragedy, continued in the writings of the Bogd Gegeen at the turn of the new century. As in The Green Palace painting, where the lack of faith is visually emphasized, in his writings the Bogd Gegeen repeatedly refers to persistence of faith in times of hardship, such as in the following:

Evil is coming. All over the world the time for the accumulation of evil is about to come. My fellow Mongolians, aspire for good through your faith and remove evil. From the Year of the Rat (1924) [our] suffering and disaster will be even greater. (my emphasis)

The Year of the Rat to which the Bogd Gegeen refers here recalls the Panchen Lama’s reference to the “Blue Rat Year” previously quoted. That year, 1924, turned out to be the year of the Bogd khan’s death. This date suggests that the khan was predicting the upcoming years of destruction that would indeed be particularly harsh, as his death made way for the establishment of a new Socialist government intolerant of religious practice. Not only in his writings but also with Sharav’s help in The Green Palace, the Bogd Gegeen visualizes the evils of the “great darkness of the great dark age” (to paraphrase Zanabazar), in which he found himself at the center of “savage times.”

In his many writings, the Bogd Gegeen reiterates the idea of Buddhist awakening. As discussed here, the khan projected these far- reaching thoughts into the future in The Green Palace: for him, the ruler and his artist’s collaborative acts assisted in maintaining the Bogd Gegeen’s irreproachable authority during times of increasing menace in Mongolia and Inner Asia. It was also instrumental for the ruler to show his people where the potential for cessation of suffering was and how to survive “savage times.”

The Exit Path From Suffering

In the new that Sharav provides, the palace was the apex of authority as well as a major pilgrimage site, just as it was in other contemporaneous paintings and maps, such as Jugder’s map of Ikh Khuree (fig. 3). Like The Green Palace, Jugder’s map was specially ordered by the ruler in 1912-13. As the map shows, the Green Palace was a brilliant new addition to Ikh Khuree.

Ikh Khuree contained the monastic and secular authorities, noble families, merchants, and foreign residents and diplomats, and, as the artist implies, all within the Bogd Gegeen’s immediate sphere of influence and power. Like Jugder, Sharaw, uses a variable perspectival view to highlight the diversity of architectural style within a single palatial complex, where all buildings are represented via different scales and perspectives, with the central temple visually exaggerated in size.

The Bogd Gegeen emulated the Qinq imperial simultaneity manifested in distinct internationalism of styled and cultural idioms. The Manchu emperors presented themselves to various constituencies as a Daoist sage, a Confucian scholar, a Buddhist monk, and even as a European prince in architecturally appropriate spaces, whereas the Bogd’s new temple exemplifies what Patricia Berger termed a “quotation of styles.” The Chinese-style temples, Tibetan- and Russian-style buildings, and several nomadic gers are all located near each other in different parts of the compound, recalling the various ethnic communities who lived in Ikh Khuree. Given that the diversity and international quality of Ikh Khuree developed over many years during the rule of several Jebtsundampas, the Green Palace was the Bogd Gegeen’s singular masterpiece, an excellent example of the Bogd’s “simultaneous” but transcendent rule in the wake of the Qing emperors.

As mentioned previously, Ikh Khuree became a key locale for political power games among Russia, China, and the new Mongolian state. During the Bogd Gegeen’s rule, foreign visitors were numerous. Following are few such visitors: The Thirteenth Dalai Lama; Russian diplomats and travelers, including Ivan Korostovets (1862-1933), Aleksei Pozdneev (1851-1920), and Piotr Kozlov (1863-1935); several Americans, such as a young engineer and future president Herbert Hoover (1874-1964), the statesman William W. Rockhill, and the paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews (1884-1960); the Swede Frans August Larson (1870-1957), who spent forty-six years in Mongolia; and the Dane Henning Halund-Christensen (1896-1948). Hoover later wrote about the Bogd Gegeen in his memoir: “The Living Buddha – Hutuktu Lama – was riding a bicycle madly around an inner court in the great Tibetan Lamasery. He entertained us with a phonograph supplied with Russian records.”

For the Bogd Gegeen, who had to stand and present himself as the centerpiece in the ongoing aggressive struggle among the Chinese, Mongolian, Tibetan, and Russian populations, the new architecture of the Green Palace provided the means to convey his engagement with each party through his deliberate knowledge of the international styles employed by his architects. It is here, within the walls of the compound, with its complex and multifaceted architectural and artistic styles, that the Bogd Gegeen’s private audiences with foreigners took place. The cosmopolitan mix of architectural styles in his new compound displayed and celebrated his knowledge and association with each party on seemingly equal terms.

Among the Bogd Gegeen’s writings, we also find numerous written regulations that suggest his since efforts to bring order and discipline to his country. These efforts are also captured in The Green Palace, as Sharav shows in the fenced compound. Here, the garrison and the men represent a select corps of guards who were specifically detached from the military battalion created by the Bogd Gegeen a few years after his investiture. From this battalion, the Bogd Gegeen instructed that healthy young males between sixteen and thirty years of age, who “do not have a monastic education, are not mixed up with girls and women, [and who] are not bound by monastic laws” were to be selected for induction into the military, where they were taught everything from forming ranks to shooting. Such training is what we see in the military compound (fig. 2), in both its literal and allegorical sense. It is the training of soldiers, as well as a type of military “exercise” designed to suppress sexual desire in an army that had no access to women. However, the training is also aimed at restoring order and serves as an indicator of the need to restore order, an artist’s reminder of a sinful present requiring awakening and liberation. The imagery is deeply ambivalent and polysemic. This pattern of repetition and the striking contrast between order and perversity are artistic devices to remind the viewer that everyone has the option to choose one or the other.

The Green Palace was another maneuver on the part of the Bogd Gegeen to legitimize his deeds for the sake of his own and his people’s ultimate enlightenment. Despite, or even in the midst of, his licentiousness and violation of monastic precepts, The Green Palace illustrates and highlights the Bogd Gegeen’s great accomplishment, the colorful new temple in Ikh Khuree, while the disturbing facts of his life are blurred as part of a larger samsaric universe. It is the palace, the painting suggests, that validates, endorses, and justifies the ruler’s theocratic prominence above all else.

Thus, the Bogd Gegeen wrote about construction of the Green Palace as follows:

I built the new building with two storeys, put glass windows in all directions, representing both those foreign and domestic, and decorated it with ornaments in golden paints. I established a wonderful palace and placed likenesses of yidam [tutelary deity] protectors at the four directions not just for me to reside there, nor merely for my own usage and enjoyment. Rather, I did it solely with the aim of leading my disciples in the northern land of tranquility. Therefore, for that purpose, I founded it to put in place all the conditions [conducive to my disciples’ enlightenment].

These lines from the Bogd Gegeen sound like self-aggrandizement, suggesting again the ways in which The Green Palace was likely a part of the ultimate sanction for his projects, interests, and deeds. Yet, these lines simultaneously express his deep concern for peace, to “lead [… his] disciple in the northern land of tranquility,” for whom he “founded it [the Green Palace] to put in place all the conditions” conductive to enlightenment. And likely in this desire of protecting and leading his people toward peace, he composed his prophetic and didactic writings, as well as produced paintings with the efficacious power for manifesting the true nature of samsara and suffering. This realization must come via the viewer’s active involvement with the painting in multiple ways: a panoramic view of the liberation path as well as a close reading of intricate details that remind the viewer of the dire need for awakening to highlight the idea of transformation.

Fig. 8 Attributed to B. Sharav, The Green Palave, detail showing intercourse

Returning once more to the painting, in one scene where a woman is lying down and a man leans into her, apparently touching her body, there are clear signs of surface wear, as if the area where her naked body is exposed to the male touch was indeed literally touched and the paint rubbed off (fig. 8). While other parts of the painting do not show such explicit signs of wear, it seems evident that this scene was indeed actively viewed. In the other scene of copulation, the couples are male, and the male organ is clearly depicted. In this area of the painting, we see very few women, as intercourse, fighting, drinking, and vomiting all become the domain of the male sex (fig. 9). This explicit depiction of gender disappears at the top of the painting, which is filled with pilgrims, tents, where Sharav leaves the genders of the naked couple undefined. Here the exposure of privacy is forcefully apparent as the artist transforms “a private history into a public form [of bliss].”

Fig. 9 Attributed to B. Sharav, The Green Palace, detail showing male couples

Sharav gestures toward gender as a site of potentiality and transformation, from cross-sex to same sex coupling, to a human with no clear gender identity, to a naked layperson. In addition, by displaying men’s ultimate fragility when naked, and thus equipped with nothing but his or her own flesh, he or she becomes an inseparable part of a dreary worldliness, a visual trope of distress that surrounds the tranquil palace of the Bogd Gegeen.

Sharav’s dengder mutations also point at forceful identities and imposed divisions: political and spiritual, monastic and Tantric, Tibetan and Mongolian, hetero- and homosexual, all concentrated in the ambivalent nature of his ruler. Arising from ethnic and gender awareness, as the painting implies, there is a transformation to an ultimate egoless body. Thus the artist includes a dynamic scene of a Tantric Cho (literally “cutting” or “severing”) ceremony at the top, above the naked copulating couple. In this scene, the two lamas in red hats – the … practitioners – are drumming and blowing a thigh-bone trumpet, known as a kang ling, to demonstrate that the ritual is in progress. C.. is an old Tantric practice in Tibetan Buddhism that refers to “cutting through the ego,” cutting through one’s defilements and obscurations of self-delusion, and visualizing the offering of one’s own body. It is conducted outdoors, oftentimes in graveyards, to impress on the practitioner the key concepts of “emptiness,” impermanence, and the egoless body. As Sarah Harding has put it, C.. practice, “with a stunning array of visualizations, song, music, and prayer […] engages every aspect of one’s being and effects a powerful transformation of the interior landscape,” aiming at a complete severing of attachment to the ego. The artist’s layered composition that places the Tantric scene precisely above the genderless bodies suggests that transformation and the Buddhist renunciation of the ego are part of an ongoing process, which could potentially permeate all layers of Ikh Khuree’s diverse community.

The spatial arrangement and composition that mark the palace as the center highlight the patron’s vision that is to be seen as a single point of necessary redemption. By virtue of the composition and the dramatic effect of compare-and-contrast, the palace appears as the Bogd’s own ‘mandalic space’ that sacralizes the world and offers a path of liberation – that is, a path of devotion and service to him as ruler – and, through him, connection to the transcendent. The scattered scenes of torture and sadism reveal a suppressed dissatisfaction with reality by mimicking a literal representation of graveyards in a mandala. The artist thus places the crowd scenes on the left side of the painting, leaving the right side sparsely populated to reinforce the clockwise viewing of the painting. If the charnel grounds in the mandala indicate the impermanence and illusory nature of the world, the anguish of human existence enmeshed in chaos suggests the increasing sufferings and hardships of the Mongols at this unstable time. It is not only the authority of the khan that extends “like the light of ten thousand suns radiating in ten directions” (as he himself put it in an earlier mentioned verse) but also that of the artist, who covertly but successfully renders the very essence of samsara in visual terms that would be legible to any viewer in Ikh Khuree at the time, including the ruler himself. Meanwhile, the viewer is invariably drawn from these peripheral scenes around the palace’s enclosure toward the center, where the exit path from suffering resides, (dis)embodied in the invisible but implied figure or the Bogd Gegeen himself.

The Bogd Gegeen’s writings suggest his desire to be remembered as the leader, teacher, and protector of his people. For instance, he wrote:

If the lake does not dry out, thousands of birds will not stop to gather. So, as in this allegory, may my life and health and [the health] of those who adhere to the faith be firm and steady. May I rejoice with you, my many disciples, at the dharma celebration!


If faith is firm, no danger will arise.


All sentient beings, big and small, listen to the Bogd Gegeen’s instructions


If [you] write [them] down with devotion and worship, it will be good.

All my disciples, disseminate the Bogd Gegeen’s instructions,

My instructions!

During this time of hardship

[I am] the bright light irradiating the gloomy day. […]

As a true monk of Ikh Khuree, even possibly a favorite, according to the Bogd Gegeen’s biographer Jamsranjav, Sharav (and all pilgrims) would have understood that the ruler is he who leads devotees to the awakening and exit from suffering; this is why the pilgrims gather at the palace. To emphasize this trust, Sharav accentuates the palace where a living Buddha, the Bogd Gegeen, invisible here in the painting, resides. The shining palace, which both the artist and the ruler command, is the site for enlightenment in and of itself.


In The Green Palace, allegories, grotesqueness, and the language of shock demonstrate the artist’s wish for visual engagement by an audience that extends far beyond his powerful patron. The scenes of pilgrimage and central focus on the temple-palace illustrate Buddhist concepts creatively translated by the artist for his patron. The artist is the active translator, as Walter Benjamin would have put it, the one who is vigorously involved in reformulating conventional forms into a message that imparts his own agenda. This language is the interactive product of both artist and patron where different interests resolve into the multivalent allegoresis. The artist, familiar with the didactic nature of images and their role in meditation and ritual, was able to craft a new kind of visualization appropriate for his dire time, his patron, and his potential viewers.

The extremely of the subject matter in The Green Palace is triggered by the extreme conditions of samsara. The Bogd Gegeen undoubtedly witnessed human misery at every level in a particularly acute and disturbing way, confronted as he was in such a short space of time with the radical overthrow of centuries-old traditions of rule in Mongolia, China, and Russia. In addition to the referential images of internal causes of decline in The Green Palace, there are also hints of external causes of decline, inasmuch as the invasion of Ikh Khuree by the Russian and Chinese armies was certainly the other key factor in the final destruction of theocratic rule. The Bogd Gegeen’s struggle reminds us of earlier cases elsewhere – in India, for example – in which foreign invasion contributed to the demise of Buddhism, alongside divisions within the monastic community and the willful choice by many people to go their own way. In Mongolia, the tragic consequences of the story are well known, as many victims of the purges, still alive in the 1960s and 1970s, witnessed widespread killing and the mass destruction of 1050 Mongolian monasteries were spared – Gandan and Erdene-Zuu – and they remain standing to this day.

The Green Palace is constructed with visual contrast between chaos and tranquil temple-palace, recalling the structure of a mandala as it expresses the khan’s wish to demonstrate the exit path from suffering. The Bogd Gegeen likely endorsed his artist’s choice of the visual language of sexuality and violence to represent the all-too-human world of samsara, in which the Bogd Gegeen himself was enmeshed. His artist delivers the idea of samsara in a manner reflective of the khan’s internal samsara and extendable to all sentient beings. Sharav’s other painting, Daily Events, is another example of Buddhist teachings and concepts conveyed by weaving doctrine (e.g., the suffering of samsara, karmic causes and outcomes, etc.) into the fabric of the mundane.

In addition to the exceptional sensitivities of artistic genius that enable artworks to herald war and revolution, as Haskell has shown, Sharav also depicted the ruler’s vision of the future and the protection of his people as revealed in the Bogd Gegeen’s own writings. While it is not uncommon to use parables with secular scenes in teaching the dharma- avadana and jatakana stories are good examples – in The Green Palace the didactic functions of Buddhist images took an unusual form during a modern period of political turmoil. Here the dramatic departure from the Tibetan Buddhist painting tradition and iconography, and the acceptance – and even encouragement – of stylistic innovation made the painting accessible to multiple readings, facilitating viewers’ active engagement. The painting became public to reach broader audiences as the Green Palace was transformed into a museum in 1926, only two years after the khan’s death in 1924. In the Bogd Gegeen’s own words, the paintings, including The Green Palace, were meant to be “an offering for the prosperity of the Buddha’s religion, my own long life, your success and your thriving in happiness.”

The Bogd Gegeen often used allegories in his writings; hence in this first comprehensive analysis of The Green Palace, I have considered this painting as a case of allegoresis that is based on interpretative power and suggests polysemy. Consequently, future discoveries will likely generate other perspectives and new ways of reading.

The Bogd Gegeen’s prophetic vision of “savage times” and his efforts to highlight the need for faith and transformation continued to resonate in the hearts and minds of his people long after his death. Throughout the years of destruction and beyond, the khan continued to lead his people and to navigate the way through samsara with his numerous writings and the extraordinary works of art he produced with hist artists.

Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the following institutions: Inner Asia and Altaic Studies at Harward University, February 2011; Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, Stanford University, November 2011; and Townsend Group of Asia Art and Visual Culture, University of California-Berkley, January 2012. The final draft was competed at the john W. Kluge Center, Library of Congress, in the spring of 2013. I thank all comments and questions received during these presentations and my special thanks go to the staff at Library of Congress.

Resource: Articles of Mongolian fine art studies, Ulaanbaatar 2018.

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