The Festival of Maidari


Horse’s Head for a Maidari Processional Chariot
Wood covered with green velvet, glass, horse’s hair
By the monk Damdinsüren (1868-1938)
Museum of Fine Arts, Ulaan Baatar

This horse’s head was mounted on the processional chariot on which a gilt bronze statue of Maidari (Maitreya, Buddha of the Future) was carried in procession around the city of Urga during a ceremony that marked the conclusion of the New Year’s festivities. The painting of the procession by G. Dorj shows that a green horse’s head of this type was used not only in Urga but also in monasteries far outside the capital. In Inner Mongolia and in Buryatia the horse’s head was sometimes replaced by an elephant made of papier-mâché, placed on a flat, four-wheeled cart, which was pulled by the lamas of the monastery.

The festival of Maidari (the Mongolian for Maitreya, Buddha of the Future) was first held in Tibet in 1049 and introduced into Mongolia by in 1656. It came to be held as a day-long event at each monastery, often at the lunar New Year, and sometimes more frequently. Like the Tsam festivals, it provided an opportunity for the usually dispersed Mongols to congregate not only in order to receive religious blessings, but also to engage in trade through the temporary markets that sprang up.

The culmination of the festival was a huge procession involving thousands of monks and lay people. It is recorded that as many as thirty thousand lamas participated one held at Urga in 1877. A statue of Maidari was placed in an enormous chariot laden with scriptures and festooned with flags and banners which was pulled by the lamas in a clockwise direction around the encampment or monastery. A sculpture of a horse’s head was also mounted on the front of the chariot, giving the impression that it was actually a horse doing the pulling.

While the lamas and important personages marched or were carried in the center of the procession, commoners would flank the convoy. During the procession it was believed that Maitreya descended from heaven to manifest himself in the statue.
Those who participated in the procession believed that by paying homage to Maitreya in this way, they could ensure their rebirth as one of his disciples when in the future Maitreya would appear on earth.

During the repression of religion in the 1930s the processional chariot used at Urga was destroyed. A new chariot built in the Netherlands according to old photographs has recently been consecrated by the Dalai Lama and returned to Mongolia for use in the revived Maidari festivals.