Religious Beliefs. The religion of the Kalmyks is Tibetan Buddhism, or Lamaism, which they adopted in the late sixteenth century. As a result of the growing isolation from Tibet since the late eighteenth century, the Kalmyk lamaist hierarchy developed somewhat differently from that of the Mongols and the Oirats. The most important holiday was Tsahan Sara or "White Month," which took place around the time of the vernal equinox. The holiday marked the beginning of the New Year according to the Kalmyk lunar calendar. Until the 1917 Revolution many Kalmyks chose to convert to Russian Orthodoxy. The Soviet government made a sustained effort to eradicate religion. Today, most of the Kalmyks are atheists, and although some of the traditional holidays are celebrated, they are no longer associated with the religious ceremonies.
A pan-Mongol deity, Tsahan Avga (White Elder), was the most popular. He was believed to have resided at the shamanistic temples ( obo ) located along the migratory routes of the Kalmyks. The obo, a heap of stones honoring the local spirits, often served as a site for performing various rituals, which usually ended in traditional contests of horse racing, wrestling, and arrow shooting. Superstitions, intended to deceive the evil spirits, were elaborate and extremely numerous.
Religious Practitioners. Lamaism places particular importance on the role of the lama, a monk-preceptor. The Kalmyk chief lama was appointed by the Dalai Lama. The clergy was divided into three basic groups: manji (apprentices who kept 10 precepts), getsul (novitiate monks who kept 36 rules), and gelüng (fully ordained monks who kept 253 rules). In the eighteenth century there was one gelüng for each 150 to 200 tents. The local elite supported the khurul (lamaist monastery) and donated herds and people for its upkeep. In the early nineteenth century there were about 200 khuruls, of which only 62 remained by the end of the century. Despite the laws forbidding shamanistic practices, the medicine men ( emci ) remained influential.
Arts. Singing and dancing were always popular. They were commonly accompanied by a khuur, an instrument similar to a rebec with strings made out of horse gut, and by a yatkh, a type of psaltery with a separate base for each string, which the performer plucked with plectra. Oral epic poetry glorifying military feats and bravery is particularly well known. It was traditionally recited by a bard ( jangarchi ) , with an accompanying dombr (a two-stringed lute). In the early twentieth century these songs were collected into the Kalmyk epic Janggar.
Medicine. Hospitals and physicians are now available to the population, although medical facilites are inadequate. The limited water supply, traditionally poor hygiene, inadequate diet, and high consumption of alcohol have contributed to high infant mortality, low life expectancy, and persistence of infectious diseases, particularly tuberculosis. There was an outbreak of AIDS in Elista in 1989.
Death and Afterlife. Kalmyks traditionally believed that death occurred at the moment when the soul left the body. Accordingly, the deceased were left in the steppes to be eaten by wild animals, so as to facilitate the release of the soul from the body. For several days after the death a lama read on the departed's behalf from the Book of the Dead. The deceased was expected to be awakened by a light: it was to be an encounter with one's own self, which was at the same time the ultimate reality.