Mongolia has an extremely rich history when it comes to its religious beliefs. Historically the native religion of the people was shamanism. Shamans would go into trances, dance, and pray to the spirits of the land for luck and health. Major beliefs in the religion included balance in the world, respect for the earth and living things, and personal responsibility. Shamanism isn’t really practiced any longer in the majority of the country, except for some isolated pockets in the far northwestern areas.
In the 4th century AD, Tibetan Buddhism was introduced but it wasn’t until around 1548 that it really caught on. The third incarnation of the Buddha visited Altai Kahn, and it was there that the title of Dalli Lama was born. Dalli is Mongolian for ocean, and Lama is Tibetan for wisdom. This visit was responsible for the switch from shamanism to Buddhism. In fact, the fourth Dalli Lama was the great grandson of Altai Khan of Mongolia. The only non-Tibetan Dalli Lama, he was first recognized as the reincarnation of Sonam Gyatso by Mongol leaders, who had no true jurisdiction to do so. He was deemed the Fourth Dalli Lama only after a long, contentious debate among a delegation from the three great monasteries of central Tibet.
However, the influence of shamanism never left the culture. Mongols still believe in the power of the land and animals. This is mostly visible in the “Ovoo”, or a pile of rocks and sticks placed at spiritually important places. Ovoos combine the blue streamers and prayer flags of Buddhism with the earthiness of shamanism. Usually they are found at the tops of mountain peaks, and often you’ll find offerings of anything from money, to crutches, to vodka bottles. The ones that most tourists see are on the four holy peaks that surround the capital of Ulaan Baator.
In 1937 the communists from the Soviet Union had taken over Mongolia in every way except for formally annexing the country. They launched a campaign to exterminate Buddhism in Mongolia, and very nearly succeeded. Over 27,000 monks were executed, nearly one third of the population. One monastery was allowed to stay open, only under the condition that it became a museum, and conducted no ceremonies. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, the religion quickly came back in force. Monasteries are being rebuilt, and many Mongols are training as monks.