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This article deals with the Oirat ethnic group. For the obsolete term for the Turkic Altays, see Altay people.
Total population
518,500 [1]
Regions with significant populations
 Mongolia 205,000
 Russia 174,000
 China 139,000



Tibetan Buddhism, Tengrism, Atheism

Related ethnic groups


Oirat (Oirads, Oyirads, Oirots; Mongolian: Ойрд; in the past, also Eleuths[1]) is the common name of several pastoral nomadic tribes of Mongolian origin whose ancestral home is in the Dzungaria and Amdo regions of western Mongolia and also western China. 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.

Historically, the Oirats were composed of four major tribes: Choros or Ölöt, Torghut, Dörbet, and Khoshut. The minor tribes include: Khoid, Bayid, Mangit, Zakhachin, Baatud, Barga and Darkhad.


Writing system

See main articles: Zaya Pandita and Todo Bichig
History of Mongolia
Mongol dominions1.jpg
Before Genghis Khan
Mongol Empire
- Chagatai Khanate
- Golden Horde
- Ilkhanate
- Yuan Dynasty
Northern Yuan
Timurid Empire
Mughal Empire
Crimean Khanate
Khanate of Sibir
Zunghar Khanate
Qing Dynasty (Mongolia during Qing)
Republic of China
Mongolian People's Republic (Outer Mongolia)
Modern Mongolia
Mengjiang (Inner Mongolia)
People's Republic of China (Inner Mongolia)
Buryat Mongolia
Kalmyk Mongolia
Hazara Mongols
Aimak Mongols
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In the 17th century, Zaya Pandita,[2] a Gelug monk of the Khoshut tribe, devised a new writing system called Todo Bichig (clear script) for use by the Oirat people. This system was developed on the basis of the older Mongolian script, but had a more developed system of diacritics to exclude misreading, and reflected some lexic and grammar differences of the Oirat language from Mongolian.

The Todo Bichig writing system remained in use in Kalmykia (Russia) until the mid-1920s when it was replaced by a Latin-based script, and later the Cyrillic alphabet. It can be seen in some public signs in the Kalmyk capital, Elista, and is superficially taught in schools. In Mongolia it was likewise replaced by the Cyrillic alphabet in 1941. Some Oirats in China still use Todo Bichig as their primary writing system, as well as Mongolian script.


The Oirats or Western Mongols share some history, geography, culture and language with the Eastern Mongols, and were at various times united under the same leader as a larger Mongol entity — whether that ruler was of Oirat or Eastern Mongolian descent.

The name Oirat may derive from a corruption of the group's original name Dörben Öörd, meaning "The Allied Four." Perhaps inspired by the designation Dörben Öörd, other Mongols at times used the term "Döchin Mongols" for themselves ("Döchin" meaning forty), but there was rarely as great a degree of unity among larger numbers of tribes as among the Oirats.

Comprising the Khoshut (Хошууд Hošuud), Choros or Ölöt (Өөлд Ööld), Torghut (Торгууд Torguud), and Dörbet (Дөрвөд Dörvöd) tribes, they were dubbed Kalmyk or Kalmak, which means "remnant" or "to remain," by their western Turkic neighbors. Various sources also list the Bargut, Buzav, Kerait, and Naiman tribes as comprising part of the Dörben Öörd; some tribes may have joined the original four only in later years. This name may however reflect the Kalmyks' remaining Buddhist rather than converting to Islam; or the Kalmyks' remaining in then Altay region when the Turkic peoples migrated to the West.


Early history

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. 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 however, when an unexpected wind blows the storm back at Quduqa. Although they initially oppose Genghis' rule with his rival/friend 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 the forest tribes including the Oirats and the Kyrgyzs. The Great Khan gave those people to his son, Jochi, and had one of his daughters, Checheygen, married the Oirat chief Khutug-bekhi or his son. There were notable Oirats in the Mongol Empire such as Arghun Agha and his son Nowruz. In 1256, a body of the Oirats under Bukha-Temur joined Hulegu's expedition to Iran and fought against Hashshashins, Abbasids in Persia. The Ilkhan Hulegu and his successor Abagha resettled them in Turkey. And they took part in the Second Battle of Homs where the Mongols were defeated.[3] The majority of the Oirats, who were left behind, supported Arik Boke against Kublai. Kublai defeated his younger brother and they entered the service of the victor. In 1295, more than 10,000 Oirats under Targhai Khurgen (son-in-law of the Borjigin family) fled Syria, then under the Mamluks because they were despised by both Muslim Mongols and local Turks. They were well received by the Egyptian Sultan Al-Adil Kitbugha of Oirat origin.[4] Ali Pasha, who was the governor of Baghdad, head of an Oirat ruling family, killed Ilkhan Arpa Keun, resulting in the disintegration of Mongol Persia. Due to the fact that the Oirats were near both the Chagatai Khanate and the Golden Horde, they had strong ties with them and many Mongol khans had Oirat wives.

After the expulsion of the Yuan dynasty from China, the Oirats revived in history as a loose alliance of the four major West Mongolian tribes (Dörben Oirad). The alliance grew, taking power in the remote region of the Altai Mountains, northwest of Hami oasis. Gradually they spread eastward, annexing territories then under the control of the Eastern Mongols, and hoping to reestablish a unified nomadic rule under their banner.

The Tumens of Mongolia Proper and relict states of the Mongol Empire by 1500

The greatest ruler of the Four Oirats (Mongolian: Дөрвөн Ойрд) was Esen Tayisi who led the Four Oirats from 1438 to 1454, during which time he 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, to which only lineal descendants of Genghis Khan could claim, Esen was deposed. Shortly afterwards, Oirat power declined.

From the 14th until the middle of the 18th century, the Oirats were often at war with the Eastern Mongols. Illustrative of this history is the Oirat epic song, 'The Rout of Mongolian Shulum Ubushi Khong Tayiji', about the war between the Oirats and the first Altan Khan of the Khalkha.

The Khoshut Khanate

The Oirats converted to Tibetan Buddhism around 1615, and it was not long before they became involved in the conflict between the Gelug and Karma Kagyu schools. At the request of the Gelug school, in 1637, Güshi Khan, the leader of the Khoshuts in Koko Nor, defeated Choghtu Khong Tayiji, the Khalkha prince who supported the Karma Kagyu school, and conquered Amdo (present-day Qinghai). The unification of Tibet followed in 1641, with Güshi Khan proclaimed Khan of Tibet by the Fifth Dalai Lama. The title "Dalai Lama" itself was bestowed upon the third lama of the Gelug tulku lineage by Altan Khan (not to be confused with the Altan Khans of the Khalkha), and means, in Mongolian, "Ocean of Wisdom."

Amdo, meanwhile, became home to the Khoshuts. In 1717, the Dzungars invaded Tibet and killed Lha-bzang Khan (or Khoshut Khan), a grandson of Güshi Khan and the fourth Khan of Tibet.

In 1723 Lobzang Danjin, another descendant of Güshi Khan, defended Amdo against attempts to extend Qing rule into Tibet, but was crushed in the following year. Thus, Amdo fell under the domination of Qing.

The Dzungar Khanate at 1750 (light-blue color)

The Dzungar Empire

The 17th century saw the rise in power of another Oirat empire in the east, known as the Khanate of Zungaria, which stretched from the Great Wall of China to present-day eastern Kazakhstan, and from present-day northern Kyrgyzstan to southern Siberia. It was the last Empire of the Great Nomads of Asia, which was ruled by the Choros noblemen.

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 successfully instituted against the Mongols. The Manchu consolidated their rule over the East Mongols of Manchuria. They then 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.

About 80% of the Dzungar population were annihilated during the Qing conquest of Zungaria in 1755-1757.[5]


Main article: Kalmyks

The Kalmyk Khanate

Kho Orlök, tayishi of the Torghuts, and Dalai Batur, tayishi of a small group of Derbets, led their people westward at the beginning of the 17th century. By some accounts this move was precipitated by internal divisions or by the Khoshot tribe; other historians believe it more likely the migrating clans were seeking pastureland for their herds, scarce in the Central Asian highlands. Part of the Khoshot and Ölöt tribes would join the migration almost a century later.

Kalmyk horsemen

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. But under pressure from Kalmyk warriors, the Nogais fled to the Crimea and the Kuban River. Many other nomadic peoples in the Eurasian steppes subsequently became vassals of the Kalmyk Khanate, part of which is in the area of present-day Kalmykia.[6] Later they became nominal, then full subjects of the Russian Tsar. Following the Russian revolution their settlement was accelerated, Buddhism stamped out and herds collectivised. In 1944 all Kalmyks were expelled to Siberia by Stalin, accused of supporting invading Axis armies attacking Stalingrad (Volgograd). Only two-thirds of them survived to return and re-establish Kalmykia in 1957. Now they are trying to revive their language and religion.

Xinjiang Mongols

The Mongols of Xinjiang form a minority, principally in the northern part of the region.[7] They are primarily descendants of the surviving Torghuds and Khoshuds who fled from Kalmykia, and of the Chakhar stationed there as garrison soldiers in 18th century. The emperor had sent messages asking the Kalmyks to return, and erected a smaller copy of the Potala in Jehol (the country residence of the Manchu Emperors) to mark their arrival. A model copy of that "Little Potala" was made in China for the Swedish explorer Sven Hedin, and was erected at the Great Exhibition of Chicago. It is now in storage in Sweden, where there are plans to re-erect it. Some of the returnees did not come that far and still live, now as Muslims, at the South-western end of Lake Issyk-kul in present-day Kirghizia.

Alshaa Mongols

Fragment of the map called Great Tatar («Carte de Tartarie», Guillaume de L’Isle (1675—1726))

Bordering Gansu and west of Irgay River is called Alshaa, and Mongols who moved there are called the Alshaa Mongols.

Törbaih Güshi Khan’s 4th son Ayush was opposed to the Khan’s brother Baibagas. Ayush’s eldest son is Baatar Erkh Jonon Khoroli. After the battle between Galdan Boshigt Khan and Ochir Setsen, Khoroli moved to Tsaidam with his 10,000 households. The 5th Dalai Lama wanted land for them from the Qing government, thus in 1686, the Emperor permitted them to reside in Alshaa.

In 1697, Alshaa Mongols were administered in 'khoshuu' and 'sum' units. A khoshuu with eight sums was created, Khoroli was appointed to Beil, and Alshaa was thus a 'zasag-khoshuu'. Alshaa was however like an 'aimag' and never administered under a 'chuulgan'.

In 1707, when Khoroli died, his son Abuu succeeded him. He was in Beijing from his youth, served as bodyguard of the Emperor, and a princess (of the Emperor) was given to him, thus making him a 'Khoshoi Tavnan', i.e. Emperor’s groom. In 1793, Abuu became Jün Wang. There are several thousand Muslim Alshaa Mongols.[8]

Ejine Mongols

Mongols who lived along the Ejine River descended from Ravjir, a grandson of Torguud Ayush Khan from the Ijil (Volga) River.

In 1678, Ravjir - with his mother, younger sister and 500 people - went to Tibet to pray. While they were returning via Beijing in 1704, Enkh Amgalan Khan (Kangxi Emperor) let them stay there for some years and later organized a 'khoshuu' for them in a place called Sertei, and made Ravjir the governor.

In 1716, the Emperor sent him with his people to Hami, near the Qing and Dzungar border, for intelligence-gathering purposes against the Oirats. When Ravjir died his eldest son Denzen succeeded him. He was afraid of the Dzungar and wanted the Qing government to allow them to move away from the border. They were settled in Dalan Uul – Altan. When Denzen was died in 1740, his son Lubsan Darjaa succeeded him and became Beil.

In 1753, they were settled on the banks of the Ejine River and the Ejine River Torguud 'khoshuu' was thus formed.[9]

See also


  1. ^ Owen Lattimore, The Desert Road to Turkestan. (For Lattimore, Euleuths are "the great western group of tribes which marks in all probability a primitive racial cleavage" (p. 101 in the ca. 1929 edition). Lattimore further (p. 139 refers to Samuel Couling of Encyclopaedia Sinica (1917), according to whom the spelling "Eleuth" was due to French missionaries, representing the sound of something like Ölöt. Into Chinese, the same name was transcribed as 厄鲁特 (Pinyin: Elute; Mongolian: Olot).)
  2. ^ N. Yakhontova, The Mongolian and Oirat Translations of the Sutra of Golden Light, 2006
  3. ^ Reuven Amitai Press-The Mongols and the Mamluks, p.94
  4. ^ James Waterson, John Man-The Knights of Islam, p.205
  5. ^ Michael Edmund Clarke, In the Eye of Power (doctoral thesis), Brisbane 2004, p37
  6. ^ René Grousset-The Empire of the Steppes, p.521
  7. ^ James A. Millward - Eurasian crossroads: a history of Xinjiang‎, p.89
  8. ^ James Stuart Olson-An ethnohistorical dictionary of China, p.242
  9. ^ Xiaoyuan Liu-Reins of liberation, p.36

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