Founded in 1586 by Altai Khaan, Erdene Zuu (Hundred Treasures) was the first Buddhist monastery to be built in Mongolia. Many Mongolians and foreigners consider it as the most important monastery in the country.
At its peak, it had almost 100 temples, around 300 gers inside the walls, and up to 1,000 monks in residence. All but three of the temples in Erdene Zuu were destroyed during political purges and an unknown number of monks were either killed or sent to Siberian gulags. A surprising number of statues, tsam masks and thangkas (painting with embroidery depicting a Buddhist deity, famous scene, or a mandala) were saved. The items were buried in nearby mountains and secretly hidden in nearby homes despite the great risk to the residents.
The monastery was shut down in 1937 until it was reopened in 1965 as a museum, not as a place of worship. It was only with the collapse of communism in 1990 that the monastery became active again.
The monastery is an easy two-kilometer walk from the center of Kharkhorin town in Uvurkhangai Province and it’s free to walk around the monastery grounds. But you’ll need to buy a ticket if you want to enter the main temple. A guided tour of the site is available with an English-speaking guide.
The main temples date back to the 16th century. Most of the artifacts such as wall paintings, thangkas, and masks are from the 18th century and many of them are in excellent condition.
Erdene Zuu is enclosed in an immense walled compound and has 108 stupas spaced evenly along each wall, about every 15 meters. The three temples in the compound, Zuu of Buddha, Zuun Zuu and Baruun Zuu, signify the three stages of Buddha’s life: childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Each of the temples display statues of Buddhist deities, figurines, and other sacred artifacts.
As you walk north from the eastern temple, Zuun Zuu, you will pass the Golden Prayer Stupa, built in 1799. The small locked temple next to it, with a blue-tiled roof, is believed to have been built around 200 years before the monastery was established.
Apart from the main temples, there are several other interesting things to see. The gravestones of Abtai Khaan (1554–1588) and his grandson Tushet Khaan Gombodorj (the father of Zanabazar) stand in front of the Dalai Lama Sum where ceremonies are held every morning and are inscribed in Mongol, Tibetan and Arabic scripts. At the northeast of the monastery, you will find the base stones of a gigantic ger, now called the Square of Happiness and Prosperity. It was set up in 1639 to commemorate Zanabazar’s birthday. The ger is 15 meters tall, 45 meters in diameter, has 35 walls and is said to have fitted around 300 khaans and lords for important meetings.