They called him the Avenging Lama or the False Lama, and said he had no navel.
A number of weird characters – adventurers, maverick scientists, bona fide gods – ran footloose in that area comprised between China, Russia, Tibet and Mongolia, in the final years of 19th century and in the early 20th. Their lives and adventurea have long been one of my interests.
Among the gods – or at least demi-gods – Ja Lama is one of the least famous, and most colorful.
Ja Lama was a Mongolian adventurer – even if in all likelihood he was actually a Russian, from the Volga region.
His true name was probably Dambijatsan – which was contracted in Ja by his Mongolian followers.
To the Chinese, Ja was a contraction of Chia – false.
And because he was a holy man of sorts, he became Ja Lama… the False Lama.
As for the Avenging bit, well, it came from the fact tha Dambijantsan fought on the side of Mongolia, for the independence of its people.
Sometimes he claimed to be a Buddhist priest, sometimes he claimed to be the reincarnation of Amursana, an 18th century Mongolian hero.
Rumors were rife about this character.
Some said he was invulnerable – and even explorer Sven Hedin tells of a supposed demonstration of Ja Lama’s imperviousness to blades.
Some said he was immortal, and did not get old – both according to other sources he was in fact one of a long line of Ja Lamas1.
Some believed he was the son of a mortal woman and a demon of the air, and that he had no navel.
Maybe he was a renegade Tibetan monk, escaped from his monastery in Lhasa after he had killed another monk in a fit of rage.
Maybe he had been a law student in Saint Petersburg.
Maybe he had been a rebel and a prisoner of the Russians.
People said he had come to Lhasa, at the turn of the century, claiming to be a shabrong (a low level mystical entity), and carrying a load of gold of unknown provenance.
But whatever his deals with the Tibetans, they did not come to a good end, and Ja Lama disappeared from Tibet to reappear, a few years later, in Mongolia.
His plan was easy – throw the Chinese out of Mongolia.
In 1911 he gathered a force of 5000 Mongolian warriors, and caused enough trouble for the Chinese forces to acquire legendary status.
Among the Chinese forces it was common knowledge that the False Lama was liable to rip the heart still beating from the chest of his living prisoners.
A mix of luck, strategy and propaganda led to a string of victories – and by 1912 Ja Lama had liberated a number of Mongolian cities, and acquired the status of Living Buddha.
Ja Lama was so successful, in fact, that the Mongolian princelings and clan leaders decided he was a little too successful, and asked the Russians to take care of him.
Ja Lama was arrested by Russian forces in 1914.
Dambijantsan lived as an exile in Astrakan for a few years, only to make a high profile comeback in 1918.
He collected an army of a few hundred like-minded individuals, took possession of the Gangpochuan fortress, on the road between Xinjan and Gansu, and set himself up as highwayman lord of those lands.
Caravans were expected to pay to pass through unmolested.
A stern opponent of alcohol and other forms of intoxication, the Avenging Lama also set up a brief operation against the opium growers of Shar Khul – he attacked their valley, set the opium fields ablaze, killed all the growers, and let the bodies exposed to the elements.
No longer just a political menace for Mongolians and Chinese, but an all-around pain in the neck for any form of commerce and communication along the eastern tract of the Silk Road, Ja Lama became the recipient of a rich reward – dead or alive, better if dead.
He was the target of uncounted attempts on his life.
Finally, in 1922, he was approached by emissaries of the Mongolian Bogd Khan, to discuss an alliance.
It was a trap – Ja Lama was trapped, and beheaded.
His head was delivered to the authorities.
Already in 1926, when American sinologist Owen Lattimore visited the remains of the fortress of Ja Lama, popular belief claimed the ghost of the enraged Avenging Lama rode the night winds, looking for vengeance.
Dambijantsan had departed the material world, and fully entered the world of legend of which he had always been a part-time citizen.
- a little like The Phantom. ↩