Later in life, when he was living in Mongolia, Dambijantsan regaled A. V. Burdukov with tales of his earlier travels, including sojourns in India. Maisky and Roerich also heard tell of these Indian travels. It is never quite clear when he went to India, but we might surmise that after killing his roommate he might have found it wise to remove himself to the Indian subcontinent and thereby escape severe punishment for the crime of murder from the monastic and perhaps civil authorities in Tibet. Dambijantsan, already deeply steeped in metaphysics and tantric teachings, would have found himself at home among the various yogis, fakirs, magicians, and itinerant savants of India, and would have ample opportunities for learning and expanding the wide variety of talents he would exhibit in later life. He would become legendary for his skills at hypnosis, clairvoyance, mind-reading, fortune telling and other arcane arts which were the stock and trade of India’s holy men. What talents he may have had in these areas would have been further honed during his stay on the subcontinent. By the early 1930s, almost a decade after his death, these Indian adventures had became an accepted part of his curriculum vitae. Henning Haslund at that time picked up the story circulating around the campfires of Mongolia that Dambijantsan “himself asserted that he acquired in India the supernatural qualities of the fakirs.” Beyond this we can add nothing about Dambijantsan’s alleged Indian interlude.
At some point in time in the early 1880s Dambijantsan may have gone back to Russia. In any event, he somehow managed to attach himself to the 1883–85 Inner Asian Expedition of Russian explorer and zoologist N. M. Przhevalsky (1839-1888). Przhevalsky’s earlier 1870–1873 expedition had been first serious Russian attempt to penetrate the maidenhead of virginal—at least from the Russian viewpoint—Tibet. On this first try he reached the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau and the vicinity of the headwaters of the Yangtze River before being forced to turn back. A later expedition in 1879-80, this one authorized by the Czar and backed up by a formidable detachment of armed-to-the-teeth Cossacks, got to within 150 miles of Lhasa before encountering a large contingent of the Tibetan army. In the ensuing stand-off Przhevalsky finally backed down. “Let someone else, a luckier traveler than me, proceed farther into Asia. I have done everything I could do and that was possible to do,” pouted the disheartened explorer. Russians, unlike the English a few decades later, were not yet ready to shoot their way into Lhasa.
Interestingly, upon his return to Russia Przhevalsky prepared a memorandum in which he proposed pushing the Russian border with Mongolia down to about the latitude of Örgöö, now Ulaan Baatar. Russian geographers, it seems, had opined that the mountains and mixed forest-steppe from the vicinity of Örgöö northward were really a continuation of Siberia, and thus based on landforms the border should run along the crest of Bogd Khan Uul (mountain) just south of Örgöö, beyond which lies the treeless steppe, desert steppe, and deserts of Mongolia proper. Thus Örgöö would then be in Russia. Przhevalsky had a religio-political motive for this proposal:
In future, should the English want to penetrate into Tibet from India, it is very likely that the Dalai Lama would move his residence to Urga, towards his most ardent believers there, the Mongols. Then, by, possessing Urga and patronizing the Dalai Lama, we would be able to influence the entire Buddhist world.Przhevalsky was surprisingly prescient here. As already mentioned, in 1904 the English Younghusband Expedition did invade Tibet and the 13th Dalai Lama Did Flee to Örgöö. Of course Przhevalsky’s proposal to move the border south had not been taken serious and at the time Örgöö was still the capital of Mongolia and not a Russian city.
Przhevalsky’s 1883–1885 expedition started at Kyakhta, the entrepôt on the Russian-Mongolian border, proceeded south, presumably through Örgöö, to the Gobi Desert and then westward to the eastern spurs of the Tian Shan Mountains in Xinjiang. The expedition then veered off to the sources of Yangtze River and Qinghai Lake in modern-day Qinghai Province, China, continued on westwards to Khotan, on the southern edge of the Takhlimakan Desert, and finally northward to the huge lake of Issyk Kol in modern-day Kyrgyzstan. Thus the three-year-long expedition traversed a huge swatch of Inner Asia but did not enter Tibet proper.
In 1998 I made a pilgrimage to Przhevalsky’s Memorial Complex and Grave at the east end of Lake Issyk Kol in Kyrgyzstan.
Monument to N. M. Przhevalsky at the eastern end of Lake Issyk Kol
The Grave of N. M. Przhevalsky (1839-1888)
The Grave of N. M. Przhevalsky (1839-1888)
Dambijantsan reportedly accompanied the expedition as one of its eighteen armed escorts. At this time he was traveling under the Russian alias Irinchinov. A photograph of the escorts showing Dambijantsan at the far left is, according to one researcher, “the first pictorial record of the charismatic adventurer that can be traced hitherto.” Dambijantsan was already familiar with Inner Mongolia from his stay at Dolonuur, and assuming that he joined the expedition at its beginning in Khyakhta he now would have had ample opportunities to spy out the land of the Khalkh, the current-day country of Mongolia. At this time, however, he was just a hired-hand traveling under an alias and had not yet assumed the role of Ja Lama, the descendant/incarnation of Amursana come to free the Mongols from the yoke of the Manchus. Yet we may assume that the ambitious adventurer had his eyes wide open, and was even at this point plotting his dramatic reappearance in Mongolia as the leader of a liberation movement.
There are unsubstaniated rumors that Dambijantsan had earlier accompanied the expedition of Russian explorer Grigory Nikolayaevich Potanin (1836–1920), who traveled through western Mongolia in the years 1876–77, with stays in the towns of Khovd and Uliastai (Potanin Glacier, which flows off Khuiten Uul, the highest peak in Mongolia, in Bayan-Ölgii Aimag, is named after the Russian explorer). This claim is part of Dambijantsan lore repeated to this day in Khovd Aimag, although there does not appear to be any written documentation to support it. In any case, Khovd City and Uliastai would later play important roles in the Dambijantsan saga, and it is quite possible that he visited them before he assumed the role of Ja Lama.
While it is easy to imagine a gun-toting Dambijantsan as part of an armed escort on expeditions to the remote fastnesses of Inner Asia, it is a bit more difficult to picture him as a lawyer with a briefcase stalking the halls of a courthouse. Yet while in Mongolia in 1927 painter, mystic, and Shambhalist Nicholas Roerich, father of already mentioned George Roerich, would hear that Dambijantsan, “no ordinary bandit,” was ”a graduate of law from Petrograd University.” For a moment a vision rises before us of Dambijantsan, a Kalmyk Mongol from the sun-drenched Caspian Steppes, striding the cobblestone streets of Peter the Great’s gray, gloomy city by the Gulf of Finland. Irina Lomakina, Dambijantsan’s indefatigable Russian biographer, took the time to track down even this flimsy lead and came away with a different picture:
I couldn’t believe it at all [that Dambijantsan had studied law in St. Petersburg], so I decided to consult the historical archives of St. Petersburg, where the records of the university is stored, in order to check on whether this information was true or not. Fortunately, there was the card index of all the students who studied at that university before the revolution. I searched very carefully for any of the names which the Ja Lama may have used but didn’t find any. Moreover, I looked through all the personal files of students, entrance application forms, graduation certificates of the gymnasium, college graduation diplomas, exam papers, course papers, application forms for the higher education courses, etc. . . .She found nothing and by the end must have seriously regretted Roerich’s off-hand comment about Dambijantsan’s studies in St. Petersburg. Thus whatever else Dambijantsan was guilty of in his long and storied life he cannot be accused of being a lawyer.
Dambijantsan himself claimed that he “served as one of the Ta Lamas or Heads of Department in the Chang-skya Khutughtu [Jangjya Khutagt) yamen at Peking, a learned ecclesiastical institution entrusted with the fixing of the calendar and other astronomical and metaphysical questions.” The Jangjya Khutagts were as we have seen incarnate lamas connected with the Monasteries in Dolonnuur where Dambijantsan may have studied as a boy. The fourth Jangjya Khutagt, who would have been alive at the time in question, was very seldom in attendance at Dolonnuur and lived almost full-time in Beijing.
The Songzhu Monastery in the old Imperial city was his full time residence in the capital. This ancient Chinese monastery, which specialized in printing sutras during the Ming Dynasty, was converted into a Tibetan monastery in 1712 by the Kangxi emperor. In 1724 it was given to Rölpé Dorjé, the second Jangjya Khutagt, and served as the residence of the subsequent Jangjya Khutagts. It did not appear, however, to have been a “learned ecclesiastical institution” of the kind where Dambijantsan supposedly served. The Yonghe Gong was the main academic monastery of Beijing, with various colleges that dealt with astronomy and calendar making, medicine, and various esoteric studies, and this may be the institution of which Dambijantsan made mention. Whether he was actually one of the Ta (or Da) Lamas there is another question altogether. Since the position would have acquired considerable academic credentials he could have held the post only after his studies at Drepung. But after his stay at Drepung he was wanted for murder in Tibet, and this would seem to preclude him from holding a high position in a Tibeto-Mongolian Buddhist institution in Beijing. Either officials in Beijing were unaware of his past, or he had just made up this episode about being a Da Lama in Beijing to further burnish his reputation after he began a famous man in Mongolia.
We have covered most everything known about the first three decades of Dambijantsan’s life. At the age of about thirty, Dambijantsan was, like Jesus at the same age, ready to begin his life in earnest. He was about to assume a new persona: the descendant of Amursana returning to the land of the Mongols in order to free them from their Qing oppressors. Up until now 1890 he had, in effect, been in training. Now he was ready to become the Ja Lama.