Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Mongolia | Dambijantsan

Amarbayasgalant Monastery, located 137 miles northwest of Ulaan Baatar, the capital of Mongolia, was built by order of the Qing Emperor Kangxi (r.1661-1722) to house the remains of Zanabazar (1635-1723), the first Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia.
Amarbayasgalant Monastery
Completed in 1736, during the reign of Kangxi’s grandson Qianlong, Amarbayasgalant became one of the main pilgrimage destinations in Mongolia and by the end of the nineteenth century was home to over 2000 monks. Like most monasteries in Mongolia Amarbayasgalant was heavily damaged during the communist anti-religion campaigns of the late 1930s, but the outer wall of the complex and the shells of most of the temples remained intact, and starting in 1990 an extensive restoration project was initiated by Tibetan lama Lobsang Tenzin Gyatso Pal Sangpo. The monastery was officially reopened in 1993, and in 1996 the complex was nominated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Currently there are about sixty novices and ordained monks in residence. The monastery also hosts a fair amount of pilgrims and sightseers from other parts of Mongolia and has became a standard stop for tourist groups headed farther west to the popular destination of Lake Khövsgol. Still, after the pilgrims, sightseers and tourists have left for the day and monks have finished their evening services the monastery is often completely deserted, the silent broken only by the cooing of pigeons and the soughing of the wind through the empty courtyards.

Amarbayasgalant was a much busier place when the Russian ethnologist A. M. Pozdneev visited here in 1892. Pozdneev , the son of an archpriest in the Russian city of Orel, had studied at the School of Oriental Languages at the University of St. Petersburg and in 1876 had embarked to Mongolia with the famous Russian explorer G. N. Potanin on a three-year expedition sponsored by the Imperial Russian Geographic Society. After returning to Russia he continued to hone his fluency in Chinese, Manchu, and Mongolian and was eventually appointed as a professor at the University of St. Petersburg. In 1892 the Russian Foreign Ministry commissioned him to make what turned out to be a thirteen-month expedition in what is now the country of Mongolia and the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. On May 27, 1892, accompanied by his wife, a scholarly assistant, and various factotums, he crossed the Mongolian border at the trading post of Khyakhta, and on June 2 he arrived at Amarbayasgalant Monastery.

An indefatigable researcher, he immediately began interviewing people and perusing written documents. He first meet with the two head lamas of the monastery. He found them “very learned about Buddhism,” but “ignorant, not only of the history of their own country, but even of their own monastery.” Interviewing two elderly monks, Pozdneev asked them how many temples were located within the original imperial wall. The monks had no idea, even though they had lived at the monastery for over forty years. “Just think how many years we have lived here but yet do not know; I guess we don’t have to!” one of the monks ingenuously explained.

The next evening Pozdneev was visited in his quarters by the secretary of the monastery administration, a man named Yondon, who turned out to be “an elegant or rather cultivated, or at least experienced lama,” in Pozdneev’s words, who had earlier served in the administration of a monastery in Urga (Ulaan Baatar) and who had been at Amarbayasgalant for the last seven years. The conversation soon turned to politics:
Yondon bicheechi [bicheech = writer or scribe) asked me mysterously whether I had heard anything concerning Dambi Jantsan and in this connection explained to me that a certain famous lama by this name, who was about thirty or forty years old, had passed through Mongolia in the autumn of last year. He had entered Mongolia at the Dzindzik guard post, had passed through Uliyasutai, then had gone by the post road to Urga, and then again by post road to Kyakhta. He had told the Mongols that he was the grandson of Amursana. The latter had supposedly had a son, Temüsanu by name, and he was the parent of the aforementioned Dambi Jantsan, who later let it be known everywhere that he was going to free the Mongols from the rule of China and that he would soon return from the north with troops for this purpose. The bicheechi earnestly begged me not to conceal anything from him but to tell him even in confidence where or not I had seen any such troops on the march or at least where or not I had heard that they were getting ready for a campaign. I answered the bicheechi that I had heard nothing of the sort. Indeed, considering the circumstances chronologically, I doubted that this as really the grandson of Amursana, as it would have been difficult to imagine that that Amursana, who died in 1755, would have a thirty-year-old grandson.
Statue of Amursana in Khovd City, Khovd Aimag
Yondon bicheechi listened to me attentively but with a shade of melancholy and a sort of doubt, and from a further chat it became quite clear to me that he and all other Mongols believe implicitedly to this day in the real existence of this son of Amursana and in the veracity of all that he said, and, as an irrefutable argument to the truth of both of these things, they point out that this lama possessed a cap to which a golden ochir was affixed instead of a button.

I, of course, could not throw doubt on such an argument, and for at least an hour I listened to stories of how, during Dambi Jantsan's journey over the post road, the people, with secret fear and hope, had greeted him everywhere, paid him the most heartfelt obeisance, and brought him rich offerings. Others told me that Dambi Jantsan himself had scattered gold among the poorer Mongols, and there was no end of entirely legendary tales. From certain details of this story I guessed that the Mongol was talking about a certain charlatan, a Russian Kalmyk from the Little Dörbet ulus of the Astrakhan gouvernment, who, upon his arrival in Urga had been arrested by the Urga consulate and after interrrogation had been sent under guard back across the Russian border. The latter circumstance, while it had been been known to the people, had at the time considerably aided in quelling the natural alarm of the local Chinese and Mongol authorities.
One of the few known photos of Dambijantsan, the False Lama. Dambijantsan first claimed to the grandson of Amursana, and later his reincarnation.
This was probably the first written account of Dambijantsan, also known variously as the False Lama, Ja Lama, Toushegun Lama, Avenger Lama, Dambija. etc, who for the next thirty years was to play an enigmatic role on the stage of Mongolian history before he was finally assassinated by the Bolsheviks. Later many would write about Dambijantsan, including the famous Polish Adventurer Ferdinand Ossendowski, who claimed to have met him, Mystic Artist Nicholas Roerich and his Tibetologist-translator son George, Swedish explorer Sven “The Desert Wanderer” Hedin, Danish author Henning Haslund, and many more, but none really answered the questions of who Dambijantsan actually was, where he came from, what he was trying to accomplish, and what changed him from a freedom fighter dedicated to the cause of Mongolian liberty and independence to bandit, warlord, sadistic torturer and psychopathic murderer. To be continued . . .