The Oirat Mongols was a Mongolian tribal federation. It became the most powerful federation of Mongols in the 15th century during the Northern Yuan Dynasty. In the 16th century, there was a marked loss of power.

Traditionally, the Oirats were divided into four tribes: Dörbet, Torgut, Khoshut, and Dzhungars, which were recognizable as separate political entities beginning in the 16th century. From the late 17th century until 1757, the Dzhungars were still the only independent Mongolian power in Central Asia. There is no reliable data on the number of Mongols present in the 21st century that can trace their ancestry back to that of the Oirats.

The Oirat Mongols were originally a forest people who lived in the areas west of Lake Baikal. Their name may be based on the Mongolian Oi meaning forest.The main means of livelihood for the Oirat were hunting and fishing. Pastoral nomadism did not occur among them during this period. To the north and south of their territory lived Turkic-speaking peoples such as the Kyrgyz and the Naimans. To the east and west of the Oirats lived Mongolian groups such as the Merkid and the Tumad.

The Oirats formed a clearly distinguishable group with a completely different dialect from that of neighboring other Mongolian groups. The political power of the Oirat shamans was great. The term Beki (shaman) indicates, that their main chief around 1200, Khudukha-Beki, was also the leading shaman.

The first time mention was made of the Oirats is in the Jami al-Tawarikh a work by the Persian historian Rashīd al-Dīn Tabīb (1247-1318) that deals, among other things, with the rise of Dzhengis Khan. The knowledge that the Oirats fiercely resisted Dzhengis Khan in the early 13th century comes primarily from that document. After a defeat in 1208, the Oirats surrendered to Dzhengis Khan. In 1217, the Oirats were part of a campaign by Jochi (1185-1226), a son of Dzhengis Khan, to subdue the other forest peoples.

After the death of Dzhengis Khan, the territory of the Oirats came to be in a very strategic location: at the intersection of four huge apanages that belonged to his sons. The area of Tolui Khan lay southeast of the Oirats; the area of Ögedei to the southwest; the area of Chagatai Khan to the west and that of Jochi to the northwest. This division formed the basis for the establishment of the four major khanates of the Yuan, Il-kanaat, the Kipchak-kanaat and the Khanate of Chagatai.

In 1260, the Oirats sided with Ariq Boke in his conflict with Kublai Khan. After Ariq Boke”s defeat, they remained more or less loyal to Koeblai Khan”s successors until the end of the Yuan Dynasty in 1368.

After the fall of that dynasty and the establishment of the Chinese Ming dynasty, most Mongols returned to their original habitats.The dynasty continued in the Northern Yuan dynasty. The right to bear the title emperor (khagan) of that dynasty was formally reserved only for direct descendants of Gengis Khan in the male line. These could only be found in the tribal federations of the eastern Mongols. Among the chiefs of the Oirats, a western tribal federation, that lineage was absent.

The group, which would later be referred to as Chahar Mongols settled – roughly – in the area that is now the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. The largest group, the Khalkha-Mongols in the area that is now – roughly – the Republic of Mongolia. The Oirat Mongols settled to the west of that, roughly in the area west of the Altaj Mountains and north of the Tianshan Mountains. The only exception was the group of Mongols who had already settled in the vicinity of Kokonor in Amdo during the period of Gengis Khan and around the middle of the 13th century. This area fell outside the borders of the Ming dynasty and this is where the Mongols settled.

At the end of the 14th century, major conflicts arose between the Oirat and the Eastern Mongols. In 1399, Elbeg Nigülesügchi Khan, the fifth emperor of the Northern Yuan dynasty was defeated and killed by Ugetchi Khashikha and Batula, the then chiefs of the Oirat.This event marked the beginning of the balance of power between the Mongol tribal federations in the 15th century, with the Oirat having a clear predominance over the Eastern tribal federations in that century.

In the first half of the 15th century, Esen tayisi (?-1455) managed to make the Oirat into a powerful federation. He created an empire from the north of Korea in the east to the area around the oasis Hami on the Silk Road. The westernmost border of the area was formed by the Irtysh River.In 1449, Esen led an invasion of northern China. In the process, the emperor Zhengtong (1427-1464) was captured. However, the Chinese government refused to pay the requested ransom and a brother of Zhentong became the new emperor. Esen”s troops managed to advance as far as the walls of Beijing, but were eventually forced to retreat.

In 1451, Esen reached the height of his power when he defeated the emperor of the Northern Yuan Dynasty Tayisung Khan Toghtoa Bukha. The latter was assassinated in 1452. In 1453 he had himself proclaimed khagan of the dynasty and already intended to transfer that title to his son Amasanj. This was unacceptable to a large majority of Mongolians. Esen could not claim direct descent from Genghis Khan. This eventually led to a revolt by some of his generals and to the assassination of Esen in 1455.

After his death, the empire he created fell apart again. The eastern Mongols under Dayan Khan inflicted several heavy defeats on the Oirats in the early 16th century. It would take until the 17th century before one of the Oirats” tribes, the Dzhungars, became a factor of significance again.From 1600 onwards, the Oirats fought a battle of over half a century with the Altyn Khan.

Traditionally, the Oirats were divided into four tribes: Dörbet, Torgut, Khoshut and Dzhungars. All four tribes converted to Tibetan Buddhism during the 16th century.

From that time on, it became the custom among Mongolian nobility to send at least one son for study to Tibet and perhaps become a monk. Several decades later, one of those sons was Zaya Pandita (1599-1662), a prince from the tribe of the Khoshut. After studying in Tibet, he left again for the Mongolian area.

He had been one of the initiators of the last great meeting of virtually all Mongolian tribes in 1640. The purpose of the meeting was to create a great pan-Mongol federation that would present a united front against external enemies such as Russia and the Manchus. It was the last time the idea of the renewed creation of one great Mongolian nation was discussed. The eternal tribal conflict between the various Mongolian tribal federations made the attempt unrealistic beforehand.

After 1640, Zaya Pandita focused primarily on missionary work among the Oirats. He developed a system of writing for them, the Oiratic script, and managed to translate about 200 more canonical writings into Oiratic before his death.

In the first half of the 17th century there was a decades-long civil war in Tibet. In it, the Dalai Lama”s gelug tradition was several times on the verge of almost total elimination. With the help of military intervention by Güshri Khan of the Khoshut Mongols, the gelug finally managed to achieve victory in that civil war around 1642. That was the start of the period of gelug dominance, which would last in historic Tibet until 1950. As a result of that intervention and the role that the Khoshut would then play in Tibet, in the decades following 1642 about 100,000 Khoshut migrated to the Kokonor area.

In the early 18th century, Tibet became a battleground for internal strife among the tribes of the Oirat Federation. A period of rule by Lhabzang of the Khoshut over Tibet was violently ended by Tsewang Rabtan of the Dzhungars. At the point when the Chinese emperor began to see this as a threat to the security of the empire, it resulted in Tibet effectively becoming a Chinese protectorate from 1720.

However, the four tribes of the Oirats also had major rivalries among themselves earlier, for example over ownership and use of grazing land.

In 1630, almost the entire tribe of the Torgut under the leadership of Kho Urluk (?-1644) decided to migrate to the area of the Volga Delta and was followed by a considerable part of the Dörbet. There was evident dissatisfaction among the Oirat tribes with the attempts by Khara Khula of the tribe of the Dzhungars to gain complete political and military control of the tribal federation.

An important reason probably also lay in the desire to obtain uncontested grazing land. The territory of the Torgut was increasingly hemmed in by increasing influence of Russians to the north, Kazakhs to the south, and that of Dzhungars to the east. It is also possible that the Torgut, in particular, were no longer willing to participate in the ongoing military power struggle between eastern and western Mongols that had resurfaced in the early 17th century.

Most settled in the area that originally belonged to the Nogai Horde, which was expelled. In the 18th century, under their greatest leader Ayuki Khan (1669-1724), they controlled a territory of over 600,000 km² in the steppes north of the Caspian Sea.

The migrants first had a not unfavorable status of autonomy there. Because of the decline of that autonomous status, increasing pressure from German settlers on their grazing lands, and pressure from the Russian Orthodox Church to convert them, over 200,000 people undertook the journey back to their original habitat in 1771. About half of them died during this journey.

Only the Oirats who stayed behind in Russia are called Kalmukken.

The son of Khara Khula, Erdeni Batuur, but especially his grandson Galdan (1644-1697), the leaders of the Dzhungars in the 17th century, managed to establish a large empire in Central Asia with the area that is now the Chinese province of Sinkiang at its core. The eldest brother of Galdan,Sengge, managed to inflict a decisive defeat on the canard of the Altyn Khan in 1662. In 1687, Galdan invaded the territory of the Khalka-Mongols and carried out a massacre of the Khalkhas. Virtually the entire Khalkha people crossed the Gobi Desert and put themselves under the protection of the Qing Emperor Kangxi.

This led to the acceptance of their formal submission to the emperor in 1691. As a result, the area that is now the Republic of Mongolia would be part of the Chinese Empire until 1911.

In 1689, China and Russia concluded the Treaty of Kerchinsk. This prevented Kangxi from ever allowing Galdan to form a military alliance with the Russians. In 1690, Galdan invaded the Khalka area one more time. Indeed, the Russians appeared to refuse any support. That was also the moment when Kangxi decided to take up the military battle with Galdan himself. Five military campaigns followed against Galdan, who was assassinated by one of his own generals during the last one in 1697.

However, Galdan”s successors were still seen as a threat to the empire by the Chinese emperors, also because they continued to intervene in Tibet. Finally, in 1755, this led to the last military campaign against the Dzhungars. For some years thereafter, a policy was carried out aimed at the elimination of the Dzhungars as a people. From the middle of 1757 this was somewhat moderated. The remaining Dzhungars in the Sinkiang area were hereafter called Oolods. A 1999 census in that province cites a figure of 25,000 Oolods.

In the area that is now the Altaj republic in Russia, a new religious movement known as Burkhanism emerged in the early 20th century. (Burkhan is the Mongolian word for Buddha, but can also designate the word god more generally.)

It was a movement whose undercurrent was opposition to the arrival of more and more Russian settlers in the area. In 1904, a certain Chet Chelpan claimed to have received visions of a rider dressed in white on a white horse. This person, whom he called Ak-Burkhan (White Burkhan) announced the very imminent arrival of a messiah named Oirat Khan. Chet Chelpan managed to organize thousands of people, who prayed in meetings for the coming of Oirat Khan. The meetings were suppressed by Russian settlers. Chet Chelpan was arrested, but released after a year when the tsarist government was convinced that the movement posed no threat to security.

In 1926, Russian painter Nikolay Ryorich traveled through the Altaj. He then painted Oirat-Messenger of the White Burkhan, based on his interpretation of Burkhanism.

In 1918, some leaders in the Altaj founded the “Karakorum Regional Committee” with the intention of creating an independent republic of Oirat. With the arrival of the Bolsheviks in the area in 1922, the movement was dissolved.


  1. Oirat-Mongolen
  2. Oirats