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I'm standing in the middle of a large plain - a bowl surrounded on all sides by rolling hills. To the west the deep pine forests of Siberia, stretching back thousands of miles to the east, pour down the hillsides intertwining with and giving way to the vast grass steppes that blanket this valley and stretch west to Mongolia and beyond.
Paralleled by the tracks of the Trans-Siberian railroad, in the near distance a river winds its way through the center of the plain. A small village of low wooded houses lies along its wooded banks - a village where Pandito Khambo Lama Itigelov, the 12th Khambo Lama of all Russia and the reincarnation of the first Khambo Lama was born and raised. Nearly sixty volunteers from this village, from sixteen to seventy-five years of age, are working to build a stupa--a memorial and place where holy relics will be laid--to mark the birthplace of the Khambo Lama.
Men and boys are laying brick, mixing mortar, and carrying water--some from a recently unearthed spring used by the Khambo Lama and his family--one of twenty-four springs considered sacred in this valley.
The work is urgent. The stupa must be finished by September 5th for a special ceremony that will include the blessing and encasing of objects to be stored within--two days before September 7th, the day the remains of the 12th Khambo Lama were unearthed nearly three years ago. As part of the ceremony on the 5th there will be traditional Buryat games of archery, wrestling and horse riding along with music, food, prayer and ritual.
Pandito Khambo Lama Itigelov has captured the hearts and imagination of Buddhists and non-Buddhists near and far, and done much to spur the already rapid growth and rebirth of Buddhism in this region. His body, after being buried for seventy-five years, was found to be in remarkable shape--the skin still soft and flexible to the touch, the joints movable, the hair and fingernails have not grown, the weight the same--all without any physical modifications done to the body before or since burial. It is believed that he reached nirvana--the perfect state. The spreading word of the miracle, confirmed by tests conducted by the Russian Academy of Science, attracted over 50,000 pilgrims to the last public unveiling.
This now largely barren valley contained a large datsan until 1956--a monastery and place of learning that included temples, schools, hospitals and housing for its thousands of residents. Now nothing exists--no ragged ruin--nothing but an empty plain. The Communist government leveled the buildings. All materials were removed or burned, and the people scattered. Soon, however, a brilliant white stupa will stand not far from where that datsan once existed. Perhaps it too will return.
Of special significance was the uncovering of an ancient well used by the Khambo Lama's family. It, lined up with a distant Russian Orthodox chapel, helped the lamas determine the exact spot where the Khambo Lama once lived and where now to build the Stupa. Indeed evidence found digging the foundation confirmed the location. The setting near the chapel was significant as Lama Itigelov, who was the Khambo Lama of all Russia, had a strong relationship with the Russian Orthodox faith and with Russians. Indeed, of the nearly 1,000 Tartar cavalrymen he blessed who went into World War I, it is said that not one died. The regiment honored him decades after his death.
I am here today speaking with Yanzhima Vasilieva, director of the Institute of Pandito Khambo Lama Itigelov and Valery Migitovich, the supervisor of the stupa's construction.
2005 North Country Public Radio, St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York 13617-1475