By Lindsay Beck
KHARKHORIN, Mongolia (Reuters) - When Gendenjav Choijamts thinks of praying, he thinks of vodka.
The 62-year-old monk at Mongolia's oldest Buddhist monastery remembers when his father and his friends had to pretend they were gathering for a drinking session to hide the fact they were gathering in prayer.
"My father was a monk but because people were persecuted for that; it wasn't widely known," he said in the lush green grounds of Erdene Zuu, which dates from the 16th century.
"He was a herder. He hid his shrine and would chant in secret in the evening," he said.
Monastic life, which took hold in Mongolia in the 1500s, was nearly wiped out within 15 years of communist rule, mostly during Stalinist purges in the 1930s when an estimated 17,000 lamas were executed.
But since the country emerged from decades of Soviet dominance, the Yellow Hat sect of Buddhism -- also practiced in Tibet -- is making a comeback.
In 1990, three monasteries were allowed to reopen. The number quickly mushroomed to 170 across the country.
Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, has visited Mongolia five times since the early 1990s, most recently in 2002, when he delivered religious discourses to thousands of followers.
The word 'dalai' itself means 'ocean' in Mongolian, and the title of Dalai Lama, or "Ocean of Wisdom" was bestowed in the 1500s by Genghis Khan descendant Altan Khan, who ordered Mongols to practice Buddhism.
Traditionally many Mongolians have practiced Shamanism, which still has a strong following in the north of the country.
Erdene Zuu monastery, in the grasslands on the edge of the ancient capital of Kharkhorin, some 230 miles southwest of Ulan Bator, housed 1,500 lamas before it was destroyed in 1936.
But on the vast plains and valleys of the world's most sparsely populated country, the traditions survived.
"We used to hide the shrine in a big chest. When it was dark we would light the butter lamps," said Baasan-Suren Khandsuren.
At 27, he is head lama at the monastery, whose grounds are marked out from the surrounding grasslands by a border of 108 stupas, which managed to survive the purges.
When he came to the monastery in 1991, shortly after it reopened, there were just 17 monks. Now there are 65.
At the time, Baasan-Suren was 12 years old.
"In Mongolia, there are very old monks and very young monks," he said, alluding to the generation raised during the communist era, when gatherings of prayer were replaced by meetings of the state cooperative.
When Baasan-Suren entered the monastery he was following the footsteps of his grandfather, who managed to salvage religious artifacts from the grounds after it was closed.
"When I visited my grandfather's home, I looked at the Buddhist statues and had a very warm feeling about those items," he said, interrupting an interview to fish into his robes to answer his mobile phone. "It took a lot of courage to keep all those things during communist times."
At 12, Baasan-Suren had to forsake standard education for religious teachings. Now, he has established a religious school to allow the 33 boys currently taught there the privilege of both.
As he speaks from his office, housed in a ger, the traditional round tent of herders, little boys run wild around the grounds, playing and pushing and hiking up their maroon robes to show off on a chin-up bar as they wait for the morning chanting to begin.
Among the tourists milling around the grounds are visitors from Ulan Bator, some are also devoted Buddhists.
"I always have my prayer beads with me," said 50-year-old Tserendulam Tserennad-mid, her sunhat and sweatsuit marking her out as a city-dweller in the country where nearly half the 2.7 million population are nomadic herders.
Next to the monastery's main shrine, a monk staffs a small table where adherents come to order chantings.
As the sun burns off the night chill, a boy blows a conch shell and the monks begin their morning prayers.
Gendenjav Choijamts is glad to be among them.
"This is a good change," he said of the renewed traditions.
"When you don't have religion, you lose your compassion."