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Oirat (Oirads, Oyirads, Oirots) is the common name of several pastoral nomadic tribes of Mongolian origin whose ancestral home is in the Dzungaria and Amdo regions of western China and also western Mongolia. Although the Oirats originated in the eastern parts of Central Asia, the most prominent group today is located in the Republic of Kalmykia, a federal subject of the Russian Federation, where they are called Kalmyks. The Kalmyks migrated from Dzungaria to the southeastern European part of the Russian Federation nearly 400 years ago. An estimated 139,000 Oirats still live in the Xinjiang and Tsinghai regions of northwest China, and another 205,000 live in the western portions of the Mongolian People's Republic. The Oirat speak western dialects of the Mongol language group.
From the thirteenth to eighteenth centuries the Kalmyk-Oirats numbered approximately two million and were one of the most formidable tribes of Central Asia. They opposed the eastern Mongols under Genghis Khan, but eventually allied with them and became a loyal and formidable faction of the Mongol war machine. After the dissolution of Genghis Khan's empire, they conquered the plains of Central Asia. Among the Oirats' enemies were the Chinese Manchu dynasty and the neighboring Turkic Kyrgyz, Kazakh, and Altai tribes. Part of the Oirats remained in their homeland, northern Xinjiang, or Dzungaria, and western Mongolia. Another part moved across southern Siberia to the southern Urals and then to the lower Volga, where they lived as nomads until 1771, when the Russian Tsarina Catherine II integrated the Khanate into the Russian Empire. Those on the east bank of the Volga then returned to China. The Oirats accepted Gelugpa Tibetan Buddhism in the sixteenth century. Oirat scholar Zaya Pandita (1599-1662) created a written script, known as clear script, Todoo Bichg, for use by the Oirat people.
The Oirats are the ancestors of the Kalmyks, the only Buddhist people in Europe and the third and last nomadic Asian tribe that moved from Central Asia and settled in Europe. Oirats migrated to the Volga River area during the early seventeenth century, and those on the western side of the Volga were integrated into Russia in 1771. The Kalmyks suffered a tragic history; they were almost entirely wiped out in death camps by Stalin, who believed they opposed communism.
Oirats share some history, geography, culture and language with the Eastern Mongols and were at various times united with a larger Mongol entity under the same leader.
The name Oirat may derive from a corruption of the group's original name Dörvn Öörd, meaning "The Allied Four." Perhaps inspired by the designation Dörvn Öörd, other Mongols at times called themselves "Döchin Mongols" ("Döchin" meaning forty), but the degree of unity among larger numbers of tribes was rarely as great as among the Oirats.
Historically, the Oirats comprised the Khoshut (Хошууд Hošuud), Choros or Ölöt (Өөлд Ööld), Torghut (Торгууд Torguud), and Dörbet (Дөрвөд Dörvöd) tribes. The minor tribes include Khoit, Bayid, Mangit, Zakhachin, and Darkhat. They were dubbed Kalmak or Kalmyk, which means "remnant" or "to remain," by their western Turkic neighbors. Various sources list the Bargut, Buzav, Kerait, and Naiman tribes as comprising part of the Dörvn Öörd; some tribes may have joined the original four only in later years. This name may reflect the Kalmyks' remaining Buddhist rather than converting to Islam; or the Kalmyks' remaining on Altay region when the Turkic people migrated to the West.
One of the earliest mentions of the Oirat people in a historical text can be found in the Secret History of the Mongols, the 13th century chronicle of Genghis Khan's rise to power. In the Secret History, the Oirats are counted among the "forest people" and are said to live under the rule of a shaman-chief known as bäki around Lake Baikal. In one famous passage the Oirat chief, Quduqa Bäki, uses a yada or "thunder stone" to unleash a powerful storm on Genghis' army. The magical ploy backfires when an unexpected wind blows the storm back at Quduqa. Although they initially oppose Genghis' rule with his rival Jamukha, the Oirats eventually ally themselves with the khan and distinguish themselves as a loyal and formidable faction of the Mongol war machine.
In 1207, Jochi, the eldest son of Genghis, subjugated forest tribes including Oirats and Kyrgyzs. Great Khan placed these peoples under the rule of his son and had one of his daughters, Chichigen, married to the Oirat leader Khutug-bekhi. Notable Oirats such as Arghun Agha and Nawruz were part of the Mongol Empire. In 1256, a contingent of Oirats under Bukha-Temur joined Hulegu and fought against Hashshashins, Abbasids and others in Persia. The Ilkhans Hulegu and Abagha appointed Oirats at Asia Minor in Turkey. They participated in the Second Battle of Homs, fought on October 29, 1281, between the armies of the Mamluk dynasty of Egypt and the Ilkhanate (Mongolian: Ил Хан улс Il Khan uls; Persian: سلسله ایلخانی), a Mongol khanate established in Persia in the thirteenth century, considered one of four descendant empires of the Mongol Empire. While serving under the Ilkhans, Oirats supported Arik Boke against Kublai in 1246, during the succession war that ended the unified Mongol empire. When Arik Boke was defeated, they joined the victorious side.
In 1295, more than 10,000 Oirats under Targhai Khurgen (son-in-law of Golden Kin) fled Syria, then under the Mamluks, because they were despised by Muslim mongols and local Turks. Oirat Ali Padsah, the governor of Baghdad, killed Arpa Ke’un. The Oirats had strong ties with both the Chagatai Khanate and Golden Horde, the Muslim-Mongol khanate that flourished from the mid-thirteenth century to the end of the fourteenth century in the western part of the Mongol Empire.
After the collapse of the Yuan dynasty in Mongolia and China around 1368, the Oirats reemerged in history as a loose alliance of the four major West Mongolian tribes (Dörben Oirat). The alliance grew to power in the remote region of the Altai Mountains, northwest of the Hami oasis. Gradually they spread eastward, annexing territories then under control by the East Mongols and hoping to re-establish a unified nomadic rule under their banner.
The greatest ruler of the Dörben Oirat was Esen Tayisi who led the Dörben Oirat from 1439 to 1454, and unified Mongolia (both Inner and Outer) under his rule. In 1449, Esen Tayisi mobilized his cavalry along the Chinese border and invaded the Ming Empire, defeating and destroying the Ming defenses at the Great Wall and the reinforcements sent to intercept his cavalry. In the process, the Zhengtong Emperor was captured at Tumu.
The following year, Esen returned the emperor. After claiming the title of khan, which only lineal descendants of Genghis Khan could claim, Esen was deposed. Shortly afterwards, Oirat power declined. From the fourteenth until the middle of the eighteenth century, the Oirats were often at war with the East Mongols. The Oirat epic song, The Rout of Mongolian Shulum Ubushi Khong Tayiji, tells about the war between the Oirats and the first Altan Khan of the Khalkha.
The Kalmyk Khanate
In the early part of seventeenth century, the Torghuts, a West Mongolian tribe, began to migrate westwards under Kho Orlök, tayishi of the Torghuts, and Dalai Batur, tayishi of a small group of Derbets. Some historians attribute this move to internal divisions or by the Khoshot tribe; other historians believe it more likely that the migrating clans were seeking pastureland for their herds, scarce in the Central Asian highlands. Part of the Khoshot and Ölöt tribes joined the migration almost a century later. They reached the lower Volga region and established a small empire called the Kalmyk Khanate, a large part of which is in the area of present-day Kalmykia.
The Kalmyk migration had reached as far as the steppes of southeast Europe by 1630. At the time, that area was inhabited by the Nogai Horde, a confederation of Turkic nomads that had occupied the Pontic-Caspian steppe from about 1500. Under pressure from Kalmyk warriors, the Nogai fled to the Crimea and the Kuban River. All other nomadic peoples in the European steppes subsequently became vassals of the Kalmyk Khanate. The Kalmyks became nominal subjects of the Russian Tsar, agreeing to protect the southern borders of Russia from Turkic tribes in exchange for the support of the White Khan (Russian Tsar) of the Kalmyk Khanate.
The Kalmyk Khanate reached its height under Ayuka Khan (1669-1724), who engaged in many military expeditions against the Muslim tribes of Central Asia, the North Caucasus and Crimea. After his rule, internal feuds weakened the Kalmyks and Russian interference increased. In 1771, the Russian Tsarina Catherine II abolished Kalmyk self-government and integrated the Khanate into the Russian Empire. Most of the Torgoud branch of the Kalmyks moved back to Dzungaria in 1775, and are now known as the Torgouds (Mongols) of Xinjiang in China.
The Khoshut Khanate
The Oirats converted to Tibetan Buddhism around 1615, and soon became involved in the conflict between the Gelug and Karma Kagyu schools. At the request of the Gelug school, in 1637, Güshi Khan (1582-1655), the leader of the Khoshuts in Koko Nor, defeated Choghtu Khong Tayiji (Tsogt Khun Taij), the Khalkha prince who supported the Karma Kagyu school, and conquered Amdo (present-day Qinghai).
After the unification of Tibet in 1641, Lozang Gyatso, the Fifth Dalai Lama, proclaimed Güshi Khan the Khan of Tibet. Amdo, became home to the Khoshuts. In 1717, the Dzungars invaded Tibet and killed Lha-bzang Khan (or Khoshut Khan), a great-grandson of Güshi Khan and the fourth Khan of Tibet.
In 1723, Lobzang Danjin, another descendant of Güshi Khan, defended Amdo against the Qing dynasty’s attempts to extend its rule into Tibet, but the following year his forces were crushed and Amdo fell under the domination of Qing.
The Dzungar Empire
During the seventeenth century, another Oirat empire arose in the north-central part of Central Asia, known as the Khanate of Dzungaria. The last Empire of the Great Nomads of Asia, it stretched from the Great Wall of China to present-day eastern Kazakhstan, and from the present-day northern Kyrgyzstan to the Siberian rivers of Ob and Irtysh in southern Siberia.
The Qing (or Manchu) conquered China in the mid-17th century and sought to protect its northern border by continuing the divide-and-rule policy their Ming predecessors had instituted successfully against the Mongols. The Manchu consolidated their rule over the East Mongols of Manchuria, and persuaded the East Mongols of Inner Mongolia to submit themselves as vassals. Finally, the East Mongols of Outer Mongolia sought the protection of the Manchu against the Dzungars.
Bordering Gansu and west of Irgay River is called Alshaa, and Mongols moved there are called the Alshaa Mongols.
Törbaih Güüsh Khan’s fourth son, Ayush, was brother to Baibagas Khan. Ayush’s eldest son was Baatar Erkh Jonon Khoroli. After the battle between Galdan Boshigt Khan and Ochir Setsen, Khoroli moved to Tsaidam with his 10,000 households. The Fifth Dalai Lama requested land for them from the Qing government, and in 1686, the Emperor permitted them to reside in Alshaa, an area west of the Irgay River, bordering Gansu.
In 1697, Khoroli was appointed Beil (governor), and a khoshuu (banner, an official Manchu administrative division) with eight sums (lesser divions of a khoshuu) was created. In spite of this official re-organization, Alshaa Mongols retained their traditional Mongol structure of government. When Khoroli died in 1707, he was succeeded by his son Abuu. From his youth, Abuu had lived in Beijing as a political "hostage;" he served as a bodyguard for the Emperor, and was given a princess in marriage, making him a Khoshoi Tavnan, or "Emperor’s groom." In 1793, Abuu was given the posthumous name Jün Wang.
The Mongols living along the Ejine River originated from Ravjir, a grandson of the Torguud Ayush Khan from the Ijil (Volga) River. In 1678, Ravjir made a holy pilgrimage to Tibet with his mother, younger sister and 500 followers. When he returned by way of Beijing in 1704, Enkh Amgalan Khan (the Kangxi Emperor) let him stay there for some years and later organized a khoshuu in a place called Sertei, and made Ravjir the governor.
In 1716, the Emperor sent him to Hami, near the Qing and Dzungar border, to gather intelligence about the Oirats. Ravjir’s eldest son and successor Denzen feared the Dzungars and requested that the Qing government allow him to move far from the border. He was settled in Dalan Uul–Altan, and upon his death in 1740, his son Lubsandarjaa succeeded him as Beil (governor). In 1753, they were settled on the banks of the Ejine River and the Ejine River Torguud khoshuu was formed.
In the seventeenth century, Zaya Pandita or Namkhaijantsan (1599–1662), a Gelug monk of the Khoshut tribe, devised a new writing system called Todo Bichig (Mongolian: Тодо бичиг, clear script) for use by the Oirat people. The Khoshut (Kalmyk: Хошут) is one of the four major tribes of the Oirat people. Todo Bichig, based on the older Mongolian script, was intended to bring the written language closer to the actual pronunciation, and to make it easier to transcribe Tibetan and Sanskrit. It had a more developed system of diacritics to exclude misreading, and reflected some lexic and grammar differences of the Oirat language from Mongolian.
The script was used by Kalmyks of Russia until 1924, when it was replaced by the Cyrillic alphabet. It was replaced by the Cyrillic alphabet in Mongolia in 1941. In Xinjiang, China some Oirat people still use Todo Bichig as their primary writing system, although today Mongolian education is taught in Chahar Mongolian all across China.
- Kalmyk people
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