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Writer's Digest 91st Annual Competition Nonfiction Essay or Article First Place Winner: "Blessings of a Mother: Eej Khad, the Mother Rock of Mongolia"

Congratulations to Angela Waldron, first place winner in the Nonfiction Essay or Article category of the 91st Annual Writer's Digest Writing Competition. Here's her winning article, "Blessings of a Mother: Eej Khad, the Mother Rock of Mongolia."

Congratulations to Angela Waldron, first place winner in the Nonfiction Essay or Article category of the 91st Annual Writer's Digest Writing Competition. Here's her winning article, "Blessings of a Mother: Eej Khad, the Mother Rock of Mongolia."

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Blessings of a Mother: Eej Khad, the Mother Rock of Mongolia

According to Mongolian legend, once long ago there lived a virtuous woman of exemplary character. Young and old alike came to her for advice and consul, and she was much beloved in the community for her wisdom. Her husband, however, was a mean and jealous man who resented her power and influence over the people. One day, he abandoned her, old and frail, on the steppe to die alone. After her death her soul left her body and was transformed into Mother Rock. Word quickly spread of the miracle, and people came from all over to seek her blessings and have their prayers answered.

Today, one of Mongolia’s most seminal religious sites is located on a barren plateau two hundred kilometers south of the capital Ulan Bator. “Eej Khad”, known as Mother Rock, is an ancient shrine of unknown origins that people make a pilgrimage to and pray for their dreams to come true. For centuries, Mother Rock and the hallowed territory she inhabits has been revered by Mongolians from all walks of life—lay, shaman, and lama alike. At this sacred spot, there is no better place to witness the paradox that is modern Mongolia: the syncretism of ancient and modern religious beliefs and the dichotomy of tradition and modernity. Part of that paradox is that over the centuries, her cult has endured, and, despite the odds, even thrived. What is the story behind this enigmatic shrine? Let us travel to Mongolia and explore the spiritual phenomenon known as Mother Rock.

Since time immortal the vast Mongolian landscape has fostered reverence for Mother earth and Father sky as symbiotically, they command every waking moment of a transhumant nation perpetually on the move in search of pastures for their flocks. Reverence of nature and belief in the power of natural healing are intrinsic components of classic Mongolian beliefs, a combination of animism, shamanism, and since the late sixteenth century, Buddhism. Intrinsic in those beliefs is that all things in nature are alive, connected, inhabited, and animated by spirits of land, water, and the heavens.

Mongolia is a country known more for its desolate steppe vista than for its abundance of rock—particularly rock outcrops and natural formations that are few and far between, and that is what makes the shrine of Mother Rock so powerful. It is believed that certain rocks and stones, especially natural formations such as Mother Rock that appear human in form, embody not only the powerful energy of the earth but are repositories for the souls of shamans, and are particularly effective in the mental and physical healing of the afflicted.

Nestled at the base of Avdar Bayan Uul, a mountain possessing great power that is her special protector, Mother Rock herself is believed to be at the sacred axis linking heaven and earth. Herself already protected, she in turn protects the defenseless, both people and their livestock, and all the wild animals in her realm. Among her stockpile of reputed powers is her human-like compassion recognizing genuine need and rewarding sincerity, loyalty, goodwill, and honesty. Lest you be deceived, Mother Rock has a reputation for exacting vengeance on those who disrespect her or the vulnerable she protects.

According to the legend, Mother Rock was once a married woman, so she is also known by her original name, “Avgai Eej”, befitting her status as “Honored Mother”. She treats those who come to her as her own children, therefore, pilgrims who visit her seek a variety of things such as only a mother can give, like maternal comfort and support, or something very specific, such as forgiveness (hence her popularity with criminals) or assistance in finding a lost horse. Prayers for happiness, love, and marriage are very common, as are prayers for children, material possessions, and prosperity. However, it is important to remember that all the prayers in the world will not help a person who does not believe in her.

To receive her blessings, of which she grants three, a person must perform the pilgrimage with a sincere heart three times over a three-year period. Her powers of intercession know a vast network, as evidenced by the scores of pilgrims—men, women, and children alike—who make the long and arduous journey in hopes she will bestow on them some of her powerful spiritual and physical energy. Given the distance, the terrain, and total lack of facilities, even one trip constitutes a hardship for most. However, on weekends and holidays in the summer months there is enough demand for an established minibus run from Ulan Bator, crammed full of eager pilgrims undaunted by the two-hundred-kilometer overland journey.

Once the last of Ulan Bator’s suburban yurt sprawl in seen in the rearview mirror, signs of civilization are few and far between. Bold (pronounced Bot), our intrepid driver with his own inner compass worked his navigational magic and commanded the jeep south, through mountainous terrain and over a series of meandering washboard tracks that went quite rapidly from bad to worse. Occasionally, we’d see an “ovoo,” a pyramidal cairn of stone seen all over Mongolia used to establish and mark spiritual sites and road junctures in a land with few obvious boundaries.

The sky was vast and the horizon so infinite and we were all so small in the scheme of such an environment that it was easy, despite the constant lurching of the jeep, to fall into a meditative reverie. Three hours later, my reverie was broken by the sudden halt of the jeep in a rocky basin near several scattered outbuildings and an assortment of parked off-road vehicles that flanked an incongruous circular wall. One got a good sense of the scale of the site by watching the few people wandering around, so bundled up it was hard to determine if they were men or women. I glanced at Bold, and he grinned and said, “Eej Khad!” We had arrived.

Stepping out from the jeep into the elements was like getting sucked into a vortex and then rudely deposited in a frigid lunar landscape where the only sounds were the shrieking wind accompanied by hundreds of synchronized prayer scarves snapping in the wind, providing a soundtrack to our experience. Over the years, pilgrims have prayed and expressed their gratitude for fulfilled wishes by draping, tying, and twisting “khtag”, brilliant blue prayer scarves, over the iron gates, lending it a Christo-like effect. Today, there are so many layers of prayer scarves the interior is completely concealed, only adding to the suspense and mystery of what lay concealed inside.

Writer's Digest 91st Annual Competition Nonfiction Essay or Article First Place Winner: "Blessings of a Mother: Eej Khad, the Mother Rock of Mongolia"

Standing in the doorway, I saw before me the mother goddess known as Mother Rock. Her life-size anthropomorphic form appeared sprung from the earth she sits on, resplendently garbed in brocade robe and fur-lined cap, her waist thickly swathed in layers of blue prayer scarves. A long chain made from countless hair ornaments left by female pilgrims snaked down her back, reminiscent of a braided tress. The heady smell of incense wafted from the Buddhist altar and hung thick in the dense air, and the ground around her was icy with frozen libations. In front of her stood a table heavily laden with rock-hard milk curd “cookies”, store-bought sweets, and some money. A small stray dog lay asleep at her base, roused from his ennui only when the prospect of food beckoned.

Rituals change over time and place, and Mother Rock is no exception. There is no right or wrong way to pray, but it helps to know what she expects to please her. As Bold explained the basic rituals performed in this sacred space, we watched it unfold as a group of pilgrims circled around Mother Rock three times, lit incense, and offered generous libations of milk and vodka in her honor and to the resident spirits of the four cardinal directions. Finally, millet was tossed in the air for the resident pigeons.

Pilgrims in the know arrive early, as the peak of her power is at sunrise. An unwritten protocol dictates removal of hat and gloves as a sign of respect. One at a time, women go to her left side to pray and men to her right side. As you pray, you rest your head against her shoulder and whisper your prayers into her ear. It is important to lean in and make skin-to-stone contact. Defying the day’s below-freezing temperatures, her cheek against mine felt warm and soft. After prayers, she is circled three times clockwise, and a prayer scarf is tied around her waist or tucked in her voluminous sleeves. Some pilgrims slip money or personal notes in her belt or in her sleeves.

After prayers, we placed our food offerings in the bowl and as instructed, took a piece of cookie from the bowl, and ate it. Given the alcohol, food, and money left around one might expect theft to be a problem. To the contrary. Mother Rock’s reputation for retribution upon being wronged is legend, and theft for the most part is unusual. Perhaps potential thieves remember the vivid stories of people stealing from her then experiencing some sort of personal crisis. However, people in genuine financial need can “borrow” money from her if they can pay her back; and intriguingly enough, it is acceptable if an alcoholic “borrows” liquor if the amount imbibed is replaced.

Just outside the enclosure, the vast open landscape literally crackles with a low frequency humming. Some people believe it is due to the accumulated energy over the centuries from the veneration of Mother, the shrines around her, and her entourage of stone companions, including a dog, camel, lion, and frog. Although said to be a recent phenomenon, pilgrims seeking Mother Rock’s compassion do well to pay respect to her animal charges, as each one, like her, is endowed with special healing powers. For example, it is customary for women to rub an afflicted body part against the dog, or the whole body for general healing. To assure good health, women slide their bodies from one end of the camel to the other.

The Communist era was not kind to Mother Rock. Because of the belief that a rock that looked human in form contained the souls of shamans; the Communists believed destroying the rock would destroy the shaman. Therefore, heads from all such rocks were toppled or destroyed. Despite literally losing her head, Mother Rock seemed impervious to destruction, and those who tried to harm her suffered greatly.

More recent controversy has surrounded the site since a monk who purchased the property built the circular enclosure around her in 1996, replacing a much lower one made of brick tea (once a form of currency) left as offerings by pilgrims. After much complaining by locals, the roof was removed but the structure remained. Even then, Mother Rock could no longer gaze out at the horizon, and the springs dried up and severed the symbiotic axis. According to locals, she has not been happy since. On our way out, after we circled the enclosure in the jeep three times clockwise, we passed a long wall, about two foot high, built of brick tea, seeming to inch its way back toward Mother.

Despite the physical changes to both the shrine and surroundings, what has not changed is the human desire for hope and solace in time of need, as well as guidance and love. If the testimony of pilgrims and the offerings left behind in gratitude are any indication, it is evident that Mother Rock’s powers of intercession enjoy a success rate that any medical professional would envy.

If you are a foreigner and only able to visit her once, do not despair. One must try to return, but it is believed that if you remember her often and keep her in your heart, she will not forsake you. Intent goes a long way. With her reputation for understanding and compassion toward her children regardless of their beliefs, the worship of Mother Rock truly transcends all religions.  

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