Mongolia | Gov-Altai Aimag | More Accounts of Dambijantsan
After riding through the Otgon Mountains we enter a vast expanse of level desert covered with saxual bushes. Soon we stop for lunch and make tea. I brew up a a large pot of Lapsang Souchong. Tsogoo was right; the water from Otgonii Bulag is excellent. Very soft, with no mineralization at all. At first Tsogoo and Sükhee had told me that they had of course heard of Dambijantsan but that they knew very little if anything about his activities in the Gov-Altai region. But slowly, as we drink tea around the campfire, they start to remember a few things.
Sükhee was born near Maikhan Uul, twenty-five or so miles west of here. He says that there is a well there known on maps as Maikhany Khudag. Some local people, however, call it Dambijantsan’s Well. Some old people in the area say that Dambijantsan either dug this well or enlarged the already existing well. We also discussed caravan routes. As Shukhee in Shinejinst had told me, there used to be several caravan routes from the village of Tsogt, which we had driven through earlier, to Dambijantsan’s fortress at Gongpochuan in China. One of the routes, Tsogoo now thinks, went past Maikhan Well, then south pass Atas Bogd Uul and on to Gongpochuan. There was also a more easterly caravan route from Tsogt to Shar Khuls, then past Ülzii Bilegt and on to Gongpochuan. This is the route we are now on.
Autobiography he includes an entire chapter on him, the only individual to warrant such attention, and yet even to him the Ja Lama remained an enigma. “He called himself a lama, but nobody knew if he really was one,” the Diluv Khutagt noted, “No one knew his real age. No one knew the real truth about him.”
The Russian I. M. Maiskii visited Mongolia in 1919, traveled to Khovd and Uvs aimags when Dambijantsan was still alive—at this time probably living at his fortress at Gongpochuan in Gansu Province, China—and interviewed several people who knew the mysterious lama. Maiskii then inserted an entire chapter about Dambijantsan into his report about of the mission, Sovremenennaia Mongoliia (Contemporary Mongolia), which was otherwise a mundane collection of economical statistics, census reports, and brief essays on the then-current political situation. As in the Diluv Khutagt’s Autobiography, Dambijantsan was the only individual to merit his own chapter. “The story of his man is obscure in many details so that to construct his complete biography is hardly possible at the moment, but I have managed to learn the following facts about him,” Maiskii begins.
As mentioned, at this time Dambijantsan was holed up in his fortress at Gongpochuan, and Maiskii was unable to get any information about his current activities. Maiskii suspected, however, that the lack of news was just the lull before the storm.
“But there is hardly a doubt that this is only a temporary stage in the stormy career of the ambitious monk. No one in Mongolia believes that his inactivity will last long. But he is keeping out of sight, like a cat, waiting for the right moment to make his leap. Who knows, we may very well hear about this man again. Who knows what role he is destined yet to play in Mongolian history.”If the Diluv Khutagt, who actually knew Dambijantsan, and Maiskii, researching while he was still alive, were unable to unravel the enigma surrounding him, then those who came later, after his death, and tried to make an account of Dambijantsan’s life had an much harder task. George Roerich, son of famous artist, mystic, and Shambhalist Nicholas Roerich, attempted to gather information about Dambijantsan during his travels through Mongolia and China in 1927, and noted:
“His life is veiled in mystery and no one knows exactly where he came from or what his ambitions were. It is extremely difficult to piece together all the existing information about his life, so varied were his activities and so extensive were his travels. The arena of his activity was the whole of Asia, from Astrakhan to Peking and from Urga to distant India. I succeeded in collecting information about him and his life from Mongolian and Tibetan lamas and laymen whom fate brought into contact with the dreaded warrior-priest. This singular personality for some thirty-five years hypnotized the whole of Greater Mongolia. At present, some six years after the death of the man, Mongols feel an unholy dread of him, and worship him as a militant incarnation of one of their national leaders.“George Roerich’s arguably more famous father Nicholas noted in his own book about the expedition: “Ja-Lama was no ordinary bandit . . . What thoughts and dreams fretted the gray head of Ja-Lama? . . . All through the Central Gobi, the legend of Ja-Lama will persist for a long time. What a scenario for a moving picture!”
Indeed, a movie was eventually made about Dambijantsan, and it is still occasionally shown on the Mongolian State TV.
The famous Mongolist Owen Lattimore also tried to gather information on Dambijantsan’s life. In 1926 he journeyed on the so-called Winding Road caravan route which went past Dambijantsan’s Fortress at Gongpochuan. In The Desert Road to Turkestan, his book about the trip, he included an entire chapter about Dambijantsan. As in the books of Diluv Khutagt, Maiskii, and George Roerich, Dambijantsan was the only individual to merit such attention. Lattimore noted:
“Already the legend of the False Lama has been elaborated beside the tent fires into many versions, but from the choice of details it is possible to throw together a picture with life in it, of an adventurer who, during those years when Mongolia echoed again with the drums and tramplings of its mediaeval turbulence, proved himself a valiant heir in his day to all the Asiatic soldiers of fortune from Jenghis Khan to Yakub Beg of Kashgar.”Lattimore intended to write a full length biography of Dambijantsan, but for reasons unclear this project never materialized. His chapter about Dambijantsan in The Desert Road to Turkestan, entitled “The House of the False Lama,” has served as the inspiration for a recent book, Beyond the House of the False Lama, by George Crane.