- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2002

ULAN-UDE, Russia — Thousands of Buddhists greeted the lunar new year in the Russian republic of Buryatia on Wednesday by cleansing their sins in fire under the icy Siberian sky and then sharing a traditional meal.

The day was a public holiday in this isolated territory between Lake Baikal and the Mongolian border, where Buddhism is practiced by the ethnic Mongolian Buryats who compose about 27 percent of the 1 million population.

Repressed under Stalinism, Buddhism now is the official religion in Buryatia, which has been visited five times by the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

On the festive table, only white-colored wares symbolizing purity were served: cheese, cream, large raviolis stuffed with meat and dairy-based vodka home-brewed in Buryat villages.

"It's light to drink. The head stays clear but the feet give way. It's better to stay seated," said Sasha, a taxi driver in Ulan-Ude, capital of Buryatia.

To mark the start of the year of the horse, two ice sculptures of the animals stood on the main square in Ulan-Ude, next to what was said to be the world's largest bust of Soviet founder Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.

Russians and Buryats, showing their Mongolian roots with slanted eyes and high cheekbones, attended a folk performance on Wednesday.

As soon as night fell Tuesday, the Buryats headed for the three temples of Ulan-Ude to make their prayers and offerings of butter or milk after circling around a stupa (Buddhist monument) in the direction of the sun.

For the arrival of the new year, the brightly colored pagoda-shaped temples stayed open all night.

In each temple is an empty throne that of the Dalai Lama, who alone is permitted to sit there. The Buryats consider the Dalai Lama to be their spiritual leader and the lamas (Buddhist priests) in Buryatia pray in Tibetan.

All of Wednesday, the youngest visited their elders to offer them festive greetings. The most enthusiastic rose at dawn to meet the new year and go to the temple.

"We are leaving behind the year of the snake, generally bad for Russia, for that of the horse, a masculine year marked by harmony and balance," explained Damba Ayusheyev, head of Russia's 1 million-strong Buddhist community.

"During the year of the horse, you reap the harvest of what has been sown before. It's a year when it's difficult to brake and to stop like a galloping animal," added the religious leader, draped in traditional burgundy-colored Buddhist robes.

To prepare for the lunar new year, "the feast of the crescent," several thousand Buryats went late Monday to Buryatia's main Buddhist center in Ivolginsk to throw their sins into a brazier under nighttime temperatures of 5 degrees Fahrenheit.

This symbolic rite requires that the faithful wash their bodies carefully at home before drying themselves with a sheet that they burn in front of the temple as a sign of purification.

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