Guarding Genghis Khan’s spirit

In Malawi, sacred sites and shrines have been in existence since 1500 A.D.

Scattered across the country, the shrines were used by ancestors in offering sacrifices to their Mphambe (god), mostly in times of drought or any calamities.

One popular sacred shrine is Khulubvi in Nsanje a revered spiritual place among the Mang’anja tribe. The tribe, worships the spirit of a legendary figure blessed with super human powers called Mbona.

According to Mang’anja oral tradition, Mbona is believed to have had magic powers of bringing rain, creating forests where they did not exist, creating wells of water on sandy lands as well as hiding from enemies by turning into other creatures such as guinea fowls.

After Mbona’s death, his head was cut and placed at a sacred furrow, where today, a traditional hut stands as a shrine and people worship at the site, within Khulubvi natural grove.

Actually, it is believed that where the head of Mbona laid thus where the Khulubvi pool starts.

Tourists walk out of the mausoleum which is currently under renovations

For Mang’anja people, everything positive that happens in the realm of nature is attributed to Mbona.

To maintain the sacredness of the site and its relics, guards are present all the time, to protect and watch over the shrine.

Again, at Khulubvi, there is strict code of conduct that is observed.

“The dress code involving anyone entering the shrine is black cloth only.

“No shoes. No cameras are allowed,” said in an interview ethnomusicologist Waliko Makhala, who has visited the shrine.

He says the spirit of Mbona does manifest itself and all the elders are able to know.

In the east, the Mang’anjas share a common belief with some people in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia -—respecting and revering their ancestral leaders.

For that reason, most of the inhabitants of the province worship Genghis Khan—warrior, military leader and most importantly, founder of the Mongol empire.

Though no one knows exactly where the great Khan was buried, the Mongols built up a mausoleum which houses some of his lifetime belongings.

Considered by the Mongols to be one of the world’s most sacred places, the mausoleum doubles up as a shrine where people worship, perform dozens of rites and burn sacrifices for the great Khan.

Similar rituals are also conducted by the Mang’anjas. “They conduct libation and offer Nsembe [sacrifice] to Mbona through their ancestors.”

Three grand halls shaped like typical Mongolian yurts form the main structures of the mausoleum.

The east hall houses coffins of one of Khan’s wives and his fourth son while the western structure exhibits the leader’s arms. The corridor walls are decorated with murals depicting the life of Khan and the great deeds of his grandson; Kubla, who was as great as his grandfather.

The tradition is the same for the Darkhad people, who are the descendants of Bo’orchu and Muqali, two renowned Mongol generals who guarded Khan in life. They continue to protect his mausoleum after his death in 1227.

Ji Ran Ba Ya Er, 54, is one of about 30 full-time guardians of the temple. For nearly 800 years, different generations, all descendants of the late warrior’s trusted army generals, have and continue to guard the spirit of the greatest Mongol emperor.

For them it is more than an honour. It is a calling.

“Growing up, my father used to remind me of my role as a Darkhad. He always spoke of what it meant to be from this tribe as well as the importance of carrying on the sacred duty our forefathers bequeathed us: guarding the house of the Great Khan’s relics.

“I have been working here for the past 10 years. I have no regrets for spending my time here. Already, my son is geared up to take over from me, once I retire,” said the guardian through a translator.

For Ya Er, every day looks the same, but is equally solemn and sacred.

He starts his mornings with chanting of eulogies to his ‘Emperor Lord’ in the mist of burning incense inside the Mausoleum of Genghis Khan.

The guardians work seems simple but in truth, it is very delicate and challenging at the same time.

“Our main duty is to fan a lamp bestowed to us by our forefathers so that it never goes out. Secondly, we also protect Genghis Khan’s relics and historical books. Subordinate roles include ensuring that visitors do not sing or take pictures inside the temple. Making noise in the shrine will not allow his [Khan’s] soul to be in peace,” explained Ya Er.

The pool at Khulubvi does not run dry and similarly, the Darkhads have meticulously kept an oil lamp burning uninterruptedly for nearly 800 years in the mausoleum as part of their sacred duties.

In return, Ya Er and fellow guardians are each paid 4 000 Yuan which is about K424 000 (to the rate of 1 Yuan to K106) per month by the Chinese government. Of course, the guardians only started getting paid in 1984.

The mausoleum guard does not regret heeding the call to serve a great leader at all.

“I am happy with what I am doing. This is my full time work. In my work life, I face a small challenge which is little time to be with my family as mostly, I am working at the mausoleum,” he stated.

Just like the Mang’anjas, for Mongols, every good deed comes from Genghis Khan.

While many people have always been curious about where Genghis Khan’s final resting place is located as his tomb remains a secret, lost to history, the Darkhads value guarding many of his belongings, which also include spear-shaped totems called sulde, a sacred relic to all Mongolians.

According to Qaqi, on average, the mausoleum receives 200 and 8 000 visitors daily during low and peak periods, respectively.

Khulubvi is more than just a shrine. It is a complex spiritual system that needs more time to critically analyse just like Genghis Khan’s temple. n

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