Sunday, November 27, 2022

Mongolia | False Lama of Mongolia: The Life and Death of Dambijantsan

Who was Dambijantsan?

A Buddhist monk; a freedom fighter for Mongolian independence; the descendant of Amursanaa (1723–1757), the Western Mongol who led the last great uprising against the Qing Dynasty of China; the incarnation of Mahakala, the Buddhist god of war; bandit, torturer, murderer, or evil incarnate? During his lifetime no one was sure who he really was, and even today the controversy about his life continues.

Born in what is now the Republic of Kalmykia, part of the Russian Federation, Dambijantsen traveled throughout Tibet, India, and China before arriving in Mongolia in 1890 where he tossed gold coins to bystanders and announced to one and all that he had come to free Mongolia from the yoke of the Qing Dynasty of China. After disappearing almost twenty years he returned to lead the attack on Khovd City, the last Chinese outpost in Mongolia. Honored by the Eighth Bogd Gegeen, the theocratic leader of Mongolia, for his efforts in achieving Mongolian independence, he went on to establish his own mini-state in western Mongolia, which he hoped to use as a base for establishing a Mongol-led Buddhist khanate in Inner Asia. His dictatorial nature and unbridled sadism soon came to the fore and he was finally arrested and imprisoned in Russia. After the Russian Revolution he returned to Mongolia, gathered new followers around him, and established a stronghold at the nexus of old caravan routes in Gansu Province, China. He robbed caravans, grew opium, and once again dreamed of creating a new Mongolian khanate in Inner Asia. Finally the new Bolshevik government in Mongolia, fearful of his rising power, issued orders for his assassination. Dambijantsan died in 1922, but in Mongolia legends persist to this day that his spirit still rides on the winds of the Gobi and continues to haunt his former lairs.



Monday, November 7, 2022

Zanabazar | First Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia


Zanabazar (1635–1723) was, according to most reckonings, the sixteenth incarnation of Javsandamba. The first incarnation is believed to have appeared around the time of the Buddha. As a small boy he was recognized as the spiritual leader of Mongolia and awarded the title of Bogd Gegeen. He would go on to play a role in the religious and political life of Mongolia analogous to that of the Dalai Lamas of Tibet. Zanabazar built temples and established monasteries, including one at what is now the site of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, and was a polymath who invented new scripts for writing the Mongolian language, designed new clothes for monks, studied the medical properties of hot springs, and much else. He is most famous for his bronze statues which are now the centerpieces of three museums in Ulaanbaatar. “During his lifetime, he was the greatest Buddhist sculptor in Asia,” opines art historian K. Youso about Zanabazar.” Indeed, he is often called the Michelangelo of Mongolia. Zanabazar was the first of Mongolia’s nine Bogd Gegeens. The Ninth Bogd Gegeen transmigrated on March 1, 2012. During a visit to Mongolia on November 23, 2016, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama announced that the 10th Bogd Gegeen had been born in Mongolia and that attempts were being made to identify him. As of early 2022 he has not yet been named. 


See The Life of Zanabazar

Friday, October 14, 2022

Uzbekistan | Seven Saints of Bukhara



According to the thirteen-century Persian historian Ata-Malik Juvaini, Bukhara, the city in what is now the country of Uzbekistan, “is the cupola of Islam and is in those regions like unto the City of Peace [Baghdad] . . . Since ancient times it has in every age been the place of assembly of the great savants of every religion.”


In the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries seven remarkable men lived in Bukhara and the surrounding Bukhara Oasis. These men were known as the Khwajagan, or Masters of Wisdom. The Seven Khwajagan are: Abd al-Khaliq al-Ghujdawani (1103–1179); Arif ar-Riwakri (1136-1239); Mahmud al-Injir al-Faghnawi (d.1317);Ali ar-Ramitani (d.1315/1321); Muhammad Baba as-Sammasi (d.1354); Sayyid Amir Kulal (1287?–d.1370); Bahauddin Shah Naqshband (1318–1388?)

The Khwajagan remain to this day revered as the Seven Saints of Bukhara, and their mausoleum complexes continue to be visited by pilgrims and travelers from all over the world.

Chingis Khan Rides West



Since the time of the Xiongnu two thousand years ago the nomads of the Mongolian Plateau traditionally looked south toward China for both plunder and trade. In 1215 Chingis Khan turned his attention westward and by 1219 he had decided to invade the Islamic realms of Inner Asia, unleashing a sequence of events that would result in the sack of Baghdad in 1258 by his grandson Khülegü and the fall of the 508 year-old Abbasid Caliphate. The dissolution of the Caliphate by Khülegü dealt a blow to the Islamic world from which some might argue it has never fully recovered. We are still to this day living with the consequences of the Mongol invasion.  

Chingis Khan Rides West examines the motivation behind Chingis Khan’s ride westward to attack the Islamic world and recounts the fall of the great Silk Road cities of Bukhara, Samarkand, Termez, Gurganj, and others.

Monday, August 1, 2022

Mongolia | Wanders in Northern Mongolia

Excerpts from Wanders in Northern Mongolia:

Zagastai Pass is also of some geographical interest, marking as it does the Continental Divide of Inner Asia. Little Khatarch Creek, which we had followed toward the pass, flows into a river system draining westward into one of the salt lakes of the Great Lakes Depression, none of which have an outlet to the ocean. On the north side of the pass begins Zagastai Creek which flows into the river systems eventually draining into the Arctic Ocean thousands of miles to the north. To find the source of the greatest of these river systems, the Yenisei-Angara-Selenge-Ider, is of course the raison d’être of this trip.
from Part 1, The Source of the Ider

The little boy born here in 1635 on the steppe of this broad valley bottom would later be named the Bogd Gegeen at Shireet Tsagaan Nuur; he would travel to Tibet and study with the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama; he would become the most revered leader in all of Khalkh Mongolia, founding many monasteries and creating great works of art; he would spend over a decade of his life in the Chinese capital of Beijing as a guest of the great Kangxi emperor of the Qing Dynasty, and his fame as miracle worker would spread throughout China; he would eventually die in Beijing and later the magnificent monastery of Amarbayasgalant would be built in his honor and serve as the final resting place of his remains; and in 1937 those remains would be destroyed in a bonfire by Mongolian and Soviet soldiers under the orders of a communist government goaded on by Joseph Stalin.
from Part 11, In Search of Zanabazar

According to the thirteenth-century chronicle entitled The Secret History of the Mongols the people now known as Mongols first appeared at the headwaters of the Onon River just north of a mountain called Burkhan Khaldun in the latter half of the eighth century. These people, then still just one tribe among the many which inhabited what is now Mongolia, soon expanded into the valleys of the nearly Kherlen and Tuul rivers. The upper basins of these three rivers—the Onon, the Kherlen, and the Tuul—make up the so-called Three Rivers Region considered to be the traditional homeland of the Mongols. Also, the mountain known as Burkhan Khaldun, located between the headwaters of the Onon and Kherlen, figured in several episodes recounted in the Secret History and was the scene of a crucial event in the life of Chingis Khan himself. As a result he worshipped this mountain, and he gave specific instructions that it should be honored by his descendants’ descendants forever. As I would learn, modern-day Mongolians have not forgotten this injunction.
from Part 111, The Birthplace of the Mongols

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Mongolia | Lama Gombo | Kalachakra | Shambhala | Roerich Expedition

At one point I got a call from Lama Gombo, who at the time was ninety-three years old. He said he had something he wanted to talk about and that I should met him at Lamrim Khiid, a temple complex just outside Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar. It turned out he had a CD full of photos of a Tibetan language scripture known as the Condensed Kalachakra Tantra, also known as the Kalachakra Laghutantra, or Shri Kalachakra, which according to tradition had been compiled by Manjushri Yashas, the first of the Twenty-Five Kalki Kings of Shambhala, probably some time in the second century b.c.
Lama Gombo (click on photos for enlargements)

As best I could make out, given the sometimes non-linear mode of Lama Gombo's mind, prior to 1938 the book had been kept in the Kalachakra Temple, which at that time was located in Zuun Khuree, part of the huge monastic complex that dominated what is now the city of Ulaanbaatar. In 1938 the Kalachakra Temple (Düinkhor Datsan in Mongolian) had been destroyed by the communists, but a monk at the temple rescued the book and gave it to a man in Nailakh, the coal-mining town just east of Ulaanbaatar, for safe keeping. Apparently the man in Nailakh died and the book was passed on to a relative. In 1996 the relative gave the book to a lama at Gandan Monastery. A lama at Erdene Khamba Monastery in Bulgan Aimag then asked to borrow for the book because his monastery did not have a copy. Apparently this was viewed by both parties as a loan, but the first lama at Gandan transmigrated, and now the lama at Erdene Khamba says that the book was actually given to him, and by extension to his monastery, and he refused to return it to Gandan. So the physical book remained in Bulgan, according to Lama Gombo. That’s why he sent someone to Bulgan to take photos of the entire book.

Sample pages from Lama Gombo’s Condensed Kalachakra Tantra

The book in Bulgan contains many illustrations of tantric deities and what look like kings of Shambhala.  According to Lama Gombo the illustrations first consisted of black and white line drawings and were later colored in by Luvsantüvdenvanchug, the Fourth Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia (1775–1813) himself. If this was true—I was never able to confirm it independently— it would certainly add to the bibliographical interest of the book. The Fourth Bogd Gegeen had traveled to Tibet in the late 1790s and attended a Kalachakra Initiation in Lhasa. He apparently brought back with him a copy of the Condensed Kalachakra Tantra when he returned to Mongolia. The book now in Bulgan Aimag is probably a copy of this book, or, just conceivable, the actual copy the Fourth Bogd Gegeen brought back to Mongolia from Tibet. In 1800 the Fourth Bogd Gegeen initiated the construction of the Kalachakra Temple and it was finally completed in 1806. Previous Bogd Gegeens seemed to have shown little interest in the Kalachakra, and thus it was the Fourth Bogd Gegeen who introduced, or at least popularized, these teachings in Mongolia. The original Kalachakra Temple burned down in 1892 and a new one was subsequently built. As mentioned, this new version was destroyed by the communists in 1938. In 1992 a new Kalachakra Temple was built within the confines of Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar. 
New Kalachakra Temple at Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar


At any case, Lama Gombo wanted to know if it was possible to make a facsimile edition of the book from the photos (402 of them, most showing two pages of the book). Given the low resolution and poor quality of the digital photos I had to tell him I did not think this was possible. While I had his attention, however, I asked him what he knew about the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s stay in Ulaanbaatar. He said that the Dalai Lama had stayed in the Didan Lavran Temple within the confines of Gandan Monastery, but other than that he did not know much about his activities. I doubted he would know anything about the Roeriches but I decided to ask him anyhow. I was in for a surprise. Lama Gombo was twenty years old when the Roerichs arrived in Ulaanbaatar and at the time living at Shankh Monastery, near the more famous Erdene Zuu Monastery in Övörkhangai Aimag, 190 miles east-southeast of Ulaanbaatar.

Main temple of Shankh Monastery

Lama Gombo at Shankh Monastery. The Kalachakra diety is shown on the thangka to the left. Shambhala is depicted on the thangka behind the Buddha.

Later he came to the city and heard much talk among other monks about the famous Russian and his family who was doing a khora around Shambhala. This was news to me. A khora is a clockwise circumnavigation of a sacred place or object done on foot, by horse, yak, camel, or some other means of locomotion. One of the most famous khoras is the thirty-two mile-long trek, usually done on foot, around 22,028-foot Mt. Kailash in Tibet. I had completed this khora a few years before, along with several thousand Tibetans and a smattering of pilgrims and adventure tourists from outside Tibet. It took me two and half days. I have been told that in the nineteenth-century there was a khora route around Bogd Khan Uul, the huge massif that dominates the skyline south of Ulaanbaatar, although admittedly I have never been able to ascertain it exact route. Before the communist era pilgrims would routinely do khoras when visiting Erdene Zuu, the monastery founded in 1585-86 by Avtai Khan (1554–1588), the great-grandfather of Zanabazar, the First Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia (now a museum located on the outskirts of Kharkhorin, in Övörkhangai Aimag.

Erden Zuu. A Khora path can still be seen around the monastery.

First they would circumambulate the wall surrounding the monastery, which measures roughly 1350 feet on each side.  Then they would circumambulate the three Zuu Temples at the southwest corner of the monastery complex. Entering the Central Zuu Temple, they would then circumambulate the famous Jowo statue, the centerpiece of the temple, passing behind it via a corridor along the back wall. Mini-khoras are also often done around ovoos, or stone cairns, that mark passes on highways and other auspicious places. Many drivers, passing such an ovoo, will stop and circumambulate it three times.

Mini-khora path around an ovoo

Just the year before I had done an 84.6-mile Khora by Horse around Burkhan Khaldun, the mountain worshipped by Chingis Khan and now the focus of ceremonies dedicated to his memory. 


Now Lama Gombo was suggesting that the entire Roerich Expedition, which took three years and had covered thousands of miles by horse, yak, camel, horse-drawn cart, boat, railroad, and motor car, was actually one long khora

Route of the Roeriches’ khora through Inner Asia

Apparently the Roerichs believed that some manifestation of the legendary kingdom of Shambhala was somewhere within the bounds of their khora. I knew the Roerichs were obsessed with Shambhala. The several books Nicholas had written about the expedition and the voluminous collection of letters and other writing by his wife Helena all return again and again to the theme of Shambhala. So what else do you know about Roerichs? I asked Lama Gombo. “Well, he replied, “some said Nicholas Roerich was an incarnation of the Fifth Dalai Lama.” I must say I was amazed by this. As we shall see, Nicholas Roerich and his circle did claim he was a reincarnation of the Great Fifth, as Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso  (1617–1682), the Fifth Dalai Lama was called, but I had no idea this belief had permeated into Mongolia, perhaps as far  back in the late 1920s. Elsewhere Roerich wrote:

Every century the Arhats make an effort to enlighten the world. But until now not one of these efforts has been successful. Failure has followed failure. It is said that until the day when a lama will be born in a western body and appear as a spiritual conqueror for the destruction of the century-old ignorance, until then there will be little success in dissolving the snares of the West.

Eventually Roerich came to believe that he himself, the reincarnation of the Fifth Dalai Lama, was the “spiritual conqueror” the world was waiting for. He soon came up with a quixotic scheme to create, with the connivance of the new Bolshevik regime in Moscow, a  New Shambhala, an earthly realm which he, the reincarnated Fifth Dalai, would play a leading role. 

Lama Gombo added it was only natural that the Roerichs turned up in Ulaanbaatar, since the city is intimately connected with Shambhala. How so? I wondered. “As you know the city used to be called Örgöö, or Ikh Khüree (Big Monastery), he explained. “After the communists took over they decided to change the name. They were still trying cooperate with the monasteries at the time so they went to some important lamas and asked for their advice in renaming the city. The lamas suggested the name Ulaanbaatar, Red Warrior. The Bolsheviks thought they were referring to Sükhebaatar, the hero of the Bolshevik (red) revolution and the lamas allowed them to believe this. Actually they were referring to the deity Jamsran, also known as the Red Warrior, or Red Protector (Ulaan Sakhuis). So the name Ulaanbaatar has both an exoteric meaning and an esoteric meaning.


Mask of Jamsran (Ulaan Sakhuis) now in the Choigin Lama Museum

Jamsran, said Lama Gombo,  is believed guard the portals to Shambhala. Is the city actually a portal to Shambhala? I asked. Lama Gombo shrugged. “It could be, there are many portals to Shambhala,” he said. But where is Shambhala? I wondered. “In the seventh dimension,” he replied. This was the first time I had heard about the Seventh Dimension business, but I would subsequently hear about it from several very well-informed lamas in Ulaanbaatar.  They seemed serious, but at times I could not help but wander if they were making up tales to feed my interest in the Shambhala mythologem, which I was was examining strictly from an historical point-of-view. In any case, none could or would elaborate on what exactly was meant by the Seventh Dimension, or how to enter it.


Nicholas Roerich did not believe Shambhala existed only in some other dimension. In his book Shambhala the Resplendent, written in 1928, Nicholas Roerich wrote, “Lama, tell me of Shambhala!”:

The Lama studies us with his piercing glance. Then he says: “Great Shambhala is far beyond the ocean. It is the mighty heavenly domain. It has nothing to do with our earth. How and why do you earthly people take interest in it? Only in some places, in the Far North, can you discern the resplendent rays of Shambhala . . .” 

Roerich was not satisfied with this explanation:

Lama, we know the greatness of Shambhala. We know the reality of this indescribable realm. But we also know about the reality of the earthly Shambhala. We know how some high lamas went to Shambhala, how along their way they saw the customary physical things. We know the stories of the Buryat lama, of how he was accompanied through a very narrow secret passage. We know how another visitor saw a caravan of hill-people with salt from the lakes, on the very borders of Shambhala. Moreover, we ourselves have seen a white frontier post of one of the three outposts of Shambhala. So, do not speak to me about the heavenly Shambhala only, but also about the one on earth; because you know as well as I, that on earth Shambhala is connected with the heavenly one. And in this link, the two worlds are unified.

From this it would appear that the Roeriches were indeed looking for a physical Shambhala here on earth. They would see signs of it in numerous places while doing their enormous khora through Inner Asia but apparently had not been able to locate and enter the legendary kingdom. But it was not for want of trying. 


Lama Gombo

Friday, June 24, 2022

Mongolia | Xinjiang | Khotan | Rawak Stupa

The Roerich Expedition arrived in Ulaanbaatar on September 12, 1926. 

House where the Roeriches stayed while in Ulaanbaatar, Nicholas Roerich on the right. (Click on photos for enlargements)

House where the Roeriches stayed while in Ulaanbaatar, before it was turned into a museum

While in Ulaanbaatar Nicholas Roerich heard tales about the celebrated Rawak Stupa near Khotan, a city on the southern edge of the Tarim Basin in what is now Xinjiang Province, China, which the expedition had visited earlier: “Many other similar wonders were related to us by educated Buriats and Mongols. They spoke about a mysterious light which shines above the Khotan stupa; about the coming re-appearance of the lost Chalice of Buddha . . . He adds, “ The celebrated Suburghan near Khotan must be the place of one of the manifestations of the New Era. Khotan is the path of Buddha,” and “Khotan remembers the Signs of Maitreya [the future Buddha] over the ancient Stupa.”

The Roerich Expedition had passed through Khotan earlier. It had left the city of Leh, in Ladakh, now administered by India, on September 9, 1925, and after crossing seven high-altitude passes through the Karakorum and Kun Lun Mountains—including18,379-foot Kardong Pass, 17,753-foot Sasser Pass, 18,176-foot Karakorum Pass, 17687-foot Suget Pass, and 17,598-foot Sanju Pass—finally reached the southern edge of the Tarim Basin and the Taklamakan Desert. Nicholas wrote:

Descending the mountains to the sands of Taklamakan, where you meet only Moslems, Sarts, and Chinese, and where you see the mosques and Chinese temples of Khotan, one would not expect to see anything about Shambhala. And yet, just there we again came upon valuable information. Not far from Khotan, are many ruins of old Buddhist temples and stupas. One of these stupas is identified with the legend, that in the time of Shambhala, a mysterious light will shine from it. It is said that this light has already been seen. 

They finally arrived in Khotan October 14. The  Chinese Taotai (senior official) of the city, a man named Ma Darin, and the Amban (representative of the Chinese government) Chang Fu were friendly at first and George was eager to begin explorations:


Having established our headquarters, we began to plan our scientific and artistic activities in Khotan and its vicinity. The ancient site of Khotan, where from time to time landslides revealed miscellaneous objects and remains of old structures had to be explored. We also planned for a brief expedition to . . . the site of the Rawak stupa where shifting sands had uncovered interesting new remains.


Relations between the expedition and local officials quickly soured. Suspicious of the paintings Nicholas was making and the photographs that members of the expedition were taking, the Taotai accused them all of being spies. Their firearms were seized and the expedition was put under what amounted to house arrest. Nicholas was allowed to continue painting, but only with the confines of the house where the expedition was being held. After interminable arguments with the Taotai and other officials, detailed at length in George’s Trails to Inmost Asia and Nicholas’s Altai-Himalaya, on 27 January 27, 1926. the expedition was allowed to leave Khotan and to proceed to Kashgar, at the western edge of the Tarim Basin. Although they been in Khotan over three months they apparently never got the chance to visit the Rawak Stupa as George had hoped. 


Naturally I wanted to see the celebrated Rawak Stupa for myself, so I flew from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing, caught a flight to Urumqi in Xinjiang, and from there took another flight 615 miles southwest to Khotan. It was a perfectly clear day and halfway across the Tarim Basin, at an altitude of 35,000 feet, I was treated to spectacular views of the Tian Shan, the mountain range to the north, with peaks of up to 24,406 feet, and the Kun Lun Mountains to the south, with peaks of up to 23,514 feet. The Kun Lun mountain range is one of the longest in Asia, stretching for almost 1,900 miles along the southern edge of the Tarim and areas to the east. Although the terrain extending from eastern end of the Tarim Basin is relatively low, from the perspective of 35,000 feet it looked like the two mountain ranges completely encircled the Tarim Basin. I could not help but think of Shambhala, which is said to be surrounded by a ring high snowy mountains. Indeed, the Tarim Basin has often been associated with Shambhala.


Shambhala in the Tarim Basin

Well into the twentieth century scholars were still trying to identify Shambhala with some  actual place now known by a different name. Notes one:

There is a very good chance that Shambhala lies hidden time rather than space—as an ancient kingdom that passed long ago into myth. A number of Western scholars agree with the Dalai Lama's opinion that the Kalacakra teachings must have had an actual place of origin: They think that the teachings probably did come to India in the tenth century from a country somewhere in Central Asia.

Writing the beginning of the twentieth, Sir Charles Eliot (1862–1931), author of Hinduism and Buddhism: An Historical Sketch, wrote:

Pending the publication of the Kâlacakra Tantra [it was not available in English at the time], it is not easy to make definite statements about this school which presumably marks the extreme point of development . . . in Buddhism, but a persistent tradition connects it with a country called Śambhala or Zhambhala, translated in Tibetan as bDe-ḥbyuṇ or source of happiness. This country is seen only through a haze of myth: it may have been in India or it may have been somewhere in Central Asia.

Helmet Hoffman, writing in the 1960s, refined this idea:

The land of Shambhala is undoubtedly somewhere outside India, and originally it was in all probability a real area, whereas as time went on it faded into the idea of a purely mythical kingdom . . . Some of the magically embellished descriptions of the way to this mysterious Shambhala rather suggest Tarim [Basin] in East Turkestan [Xinjiang Province, China] . . . Shambhala is described as being surrounded by snow-capped mountains . . . The connection of the Kâlacakra tradition with a strange Central-Asian land, from which . . . the teachings are said to have been introduced into India, is highly significant. There is also at least a probability that the Kâlacakra existed in areas outside India before it penetrated into the land of Buddha.

According to Ur-Shambhalist Edwin Bernbaum, writing in the early 1980s:

Of all the regions of Central Asia, the Tarim Basin . . . comes closest in size and shape to Tibetan descriptions of Shambhala. A huge oval-shaped area enclosed by the Kun Lun, Pamir, and Tian Shan ranges, it could be viewed as an enormous lotus blossom surrounded by a ring of snow mountains. The small kingdoms that have existed side by side in the numerous oases sprinkled around the fringes of the basin may well have provided the model for the ninety-six principalities of the outer region of Shambhala. These small kingdoms included Kashgar, Yarkand, Loulan, Karashahr, Kucha, the kingdom of Qocho, near Turpan, and Khotan. 

Bernbaum continues:

Until shortly before the Kalacakra reached India and Tibet, Buddhism had been flourishing in the Tarim Basin for nearly eight hundred years. During part of that time, caravans following the silk route to China had brought the outside influences of Manichaeism and Nestorian Christianity to bear on the development of Buddhist art and thought in the area. Shambhala may have corresponded historically to the Tarim Basin as a whole or to one of the major oases such as Yarkand, Kashgar, or Khotan. Some scholars have singled out Khotan, the largest and most fertile oasis on the southern rim of the basin. Watered by melting snows of the Kunlun Mountains, it supported a thriving center of Buddhist learning, a people who loved music and culture, and a school of painting that impressed the Chinese and influence Tibetan art. 

Among the productions of this flourishing Buddhist culture was the Rawak Stupa.


Guidebooks to Khotan suggested visiting the Khotan Museum and I thought that this might be a good place to inquire about the stupa. But I could not find the museum. People in the street from whom I tried to get directions were either indifferent or surly. One Uighur woman shouted at me in English: “Go back to England!” I could take the abuse, but being mistaken for an Englishman was downright insulting. Then I was approached by a tall, thin Uighur man in his mid-twenties with shoulder-length black hair, thick mustache, and aviator sunglasses who spoke good English. “How can I help you?” he asked. At first I thought he might be a pimp, but decided to ask about the Rawak Stupa anyhow. He  knew about it and said it was in the desert about twenty miles north of Khotan. I told him I wanted to visit it. “Ah,” he said, “that is a problem. The Rawak Stupa is a Class A Historical Monument and no one is allowed to go there without a guide from the local museum to make sure they don’t damage or steal anything.” And where is the museum I wondered, explaining that I had been unable to find it. The museum, it turns out, had just moved to a brand-new building in a different part of town from the old museum, the one mentioned in my guidebook.  Anyhow, could he arrange a visit to the stupa? He called the museum, talked to the curator, who as it turned out also served as the guide to restricted sites, and found out that he was free at the moment and would be able to accompany me to Rawak Stupa that day. I would, of course, have to pay a fee to the museum. He could also arrange for a four-wheel drive vehicle to drive to the site.  He added that we would have to walk the final two miles or so to the stupa.


The curator is a Uighur man in his mid-thirties. He had studied for several years in Canada and spoke almost perfect English. As we drive northward from Khotan I discovered that he had read in English the accounts of many of the great Occidental explorers of the region, including Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin. He had not, however, read anything by the Roeriches. About ten miles north of the city center the Khotan oasis, lush fields of corn, wheat, rice, cotton, and melons divided by rows of poplar trees, abruptly ends. After a couple of miles of gravelly flats the sand dunes of the Taklamakan Desert begin.


Sand dunes of the Taklamakan Desert

A mile or so into the desert is a checkpoint with a chain across the road to stop unauthorized access to the stupa site. The curator has a key to the lock. From here there is only a track in the sand.  After five or so more miles the track ends and we set off on foot around the sand dunes.


Proceeding to the Rawak Stupa on foot

Sand dunes of the Taklamakan Desert

Sand dunes of the Taklamakan Desert

Sand dunes of the Taklamakan Desert

After about two miles we come to the stupa. The curator says that it was built circa 150 A.D. (Aurel Stein dated the stupa to the late third to early fourth century). It was probably abandoned around the time of the the arrival of the Islamic Turks in the late tenth century. The Hungarian-born archeologist Aurel Stein rediscovered the stupa half buried in the drifting sands in 1901, as he describes in his Sand-Buried Ruins of Khotan.

The Rawak Stupa

The Rawak Stupa

The Rawak Stupa

I had brought a copy of Nicholas Roerich’s Shambhala with me and I read a passage to the curator:

In Khotan, the sands cover the remains of Buddhism and yet, in this place, is the great ancient Suburgan, the hope of all Buddhists; because on this spot the Age of Maitreya shall be acclaimed by a mysterious light over the ancient Stupa. 

The curator was unaware of any legends about lights appearing over the stupa or any other unusual phenomenon connected with the site. I asked him what he knew about Shambhala. “You mean the song by Three Dog Night back in the 1970s?” he replied. It turned out he was a big collector of Occidental pop music. In 1973 Shambala had reached Number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. The lyrics read in part:


Everyone is helpful, everyone is kind

On the road to Shambala

Everyone is lucky, everyone is so kind

On the road to Shambala . . . 

How does your light shine

In the halls of Shambala?


Were the Roerichs aware that Khotan had been singled out by historians as one of the possible sites of Shambhala? Probably. George was a world-class scholar and translator who had studied Asian history, religions, and languages, including Sanskrit and Tibetan, at London University, the Sorbonne in Paris, and Harvard in the USA and would have no doubt been cognizant of research done about the Kalachakra and Shambhala. Thus it was not surprising that Khotan turned up on the itinerary of the expedition. It was just one of the stops on their khora around Shambhala.

Thursday, June 9, 2022

Xinjiang | Roerich Expedition | Mahatmas

 In his book Trails to Inmost Asia George Roerich ends Chapter VI with, “On June 1 [1926] we sailed on the Lobkov '[a river boat plying the Irtysh River] from Zaisan [Zaisan Lake in what is now Kazakhstan] to Semipalatinsk and Omsk on the Siberian Railroad.” Chapter VII opens with them arriving in Verkhneudinsk, a city on the Siberian Railroad, during the first week of September. Verkhneudinsk (now Ulaan-Ude) is located 1415 miles ATCF east of Omsk and just  east of Lake Baikal in what is now the Autonomous Republic of Buryatia in the Russian Federation. What had happening in the intervening three months? What is not shown on the official map of the expedition and not mentioned by George Roerich in Trails to Inmost Asia or in any of Nicholas’s books is a detour they made to Moscow. Here they would have detailed discussions with Bolshevik officials about launching a Shambhala War and creating a New Shambhala in Inner Asia. 

It may have appeared that the Roeriches had made a spur-of-the-moment to interrupt their khora by making a detour to Moscow, but actually the trip been in the planning for a couple a years. In early 1924, a year before the expedition began, Elena had been in touch with Master Morya, who declared, “Now business needs to be done with the Bolsheviks.” M.M. laid out the agenda: “A trip to Moscow, where the one who will come from the East [Nicholas] will be received with honors. From there, he will travel to Mongolia. In the middle of 1926, you can be in Mongolia in the center of the Orient, since, from now on, this country is the center.” After receiving these revelations Elena was ecstatic. “Now everything has changed. Lenin is with us,” she wrote in her diary. Meanwhile Nicholas was putting out feelers to Moscow. In December of 1924, while still in New York, he had contacted the Soviet embassy in Berlin, Germany. According to one historian, “In exchange for Soviet support of his new expedition, the painter offered to monitor British activities in the area and to trumpet the Bolshevik agenda by highlighting similarities between Buddhism and Communism.” It is not clear if Roerich mentioned to Soviet officials that the expedition was actually being funded by American capitalists, including industrialist Charles Crane and Wall Street tycoon Louis Horch. 

The plans for the Moscow trip picked up steam by March of 1926 when the Roerich Expedition reached the northern rim of the Tarim Basin. Here the Mahatmas began bombarding Elena with messages. While in Aksu, on March 10, she received  from them a ““decree’ (Ukase)” apparently meant to be passed on to officials in Moscow imploring them to recognize the union of communism and Buddhism. If the officials  did not heed the plea, then they will pass “all threads into other people’s hands,” the Mahatmas concluded somewhat enigmatically. On March 17, near Kucha, Elena received a message meant for the Panchen Lama. “‘The Sword of the Buddha is blazing and the time of Maitreya has come,’” read the message for the Panchen Lama. He was apparently being prepped for the role he was supposed to play in the Shambhala War. One historian notes: “A question inevitably comes to mind at this point: why did the mahatmas not appeal to the Lama directly instead of sending him their instructions through the Roeriches, but no explanation can be offered.” The very next day, in Kucha, the Mahatmas dropped on Elena a nine-point proposal for the future cooperation of communism and Buddhism. This proposal was to be presented to communist officials if and when the Roeriches reached Moscow.

By then the Mahatmas had gone into overdrive. On April 5, while on route to Urumqi, Elena received from them yet another message intended for Georgi Chicherin, a career diplomat who had been a close friend of Lenin and  was now serving as  Soviet Union’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs. Now all they had to do was get to Moscow so they could deliver these missives. But first they needed visas to proceed to the Soviet Union. These, they hoped, could be acquired in Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang Province, China.

The Roeriches reached Urumqi on April 11. That same day they met with Alexander Efimovich Bystrov, the Soviet Consulate-General, who recorded the meeting in his diary:

Roerich came to me for a confidential talk; he said he had already been travelling with his wife and son for three years. They have travelled all over India, Little Tibet and a part of China and were willing now to traverse Soviet Russia. He has many materials collected during his journey, which he thinks, may be of use to the USSR. He also said that he was carrying a casket with the earth from the tombs of India’s great men for the tomb of V.I. Lenin—it’s a gift from the mahatmas (mahatmas are learned men, who have attained spiritual perfection and who dwell in the depths of the Himalaya Mountains).

The Roerich’s met again with Bystrov on September 16. Bystrov also made a note of this meeting:

Today Roerich along with his wife and son visited me and mentioned many interesting details of their journeys. They say they study Buddhism and are in touch with mahatmas, from whom they often receive guidelines about their future plans. By the way, they stated they are carrying letters from these mahatmas to Comrades Chicherin and Stalin. They say the goal of these mahatmas is the unification of Buddhism and Communism and the creation of the Great Eastern Union of Republics. The Roeriches told me that Tibetans and Hindu Buddhists share a popular prophecy that their liberation from foreign yoke will come from Russia, from the Reds (Red Northern Shambhala). The Roeriches carry to Moscow several of these prophecies. According to the Roeriches, their trips to India, Tibet, and Western China are the fulfillment of an assignment given by the mahatmas, who supposedly also instructed them to go to the USSR and then to Mongolia, where they should get in touch with Panchen Lama (Dalai Lama's assistant responsible for spiritual life who escaped from Tibet to China) and bring him to Mongolia. From Mongolia the Roeriches plan to organize a spiritual march to Tibet to free it from the English yoke.

In subsequent meetings the Roeriches read to Bystrov extracts from a book  they were working on called New Era Community. Much of it was messages from the Mahatmas. “Lenin is action. He sensed the necessity of new construction,” intoned Master Morya, adding “The appearance of Lenin should be accepted as a sign of sensitivity of the Cosmos.”


Artist’s depiction of Master Morya

Then the Roeriches dropped a real bombshell. Master Morya and the other Mahatmas had sent messengers to Karl Marx in London and Lenin in Switzerland with news of the Shambhala prophesies and both had replied, “‘Let Shambhala come soon!’” Marx had died back in 1883 so apparently the Mahatmas were involved in Shambhalic intrigues as far back as then. Lenin had died in 1924 but he had been in Bern and Zurich, in Switzerland, in 1916. Presumably this was when the Mahatmas’ messengers caught up with him. The voluminous writings of both Marx and Lenin remain silent on the subject of Shambhala, however. 


George Roerich, Nicholas Roerich, and Alexander Bystrov in Urumqi

Bystrov was understandably taken back by these revelations the Roeriches had dropped on him. “All this is rather obscure for the time being,” he wrote in his diary, adding. “I still cannot grasp what kind of man Roerich is.” He wrote the Soviet consul  in Kashgar  asking what he know about the enigmatic Russians who had turned up on his doorstep, but he got no reply. The Roeriches turned on their charm, however, and as the meetings with Bystrov progressed he fell more and more under their sway. Soon they managed to “magnetize” the Russian consul, just as they had done with Horch, the Lichtmans, and many others. Before long he asked them if they would become his spiritual gurus. This would need the approval of the Mahatmas, whom Elena consulted. It turned out that Bystrov had in a previous life-time been one of the bodyguards of Akbar the Great (1542-1605, third Emperor of the Mughal Empire in India), and had actually saved the Emperor’s life when he had been bit by a black cobra. As we have seen, Elena believed that her uncle Evgeny Ivanovich Shaposhnikov (b. 1814), the one who never came back from an expedition to Inner Asia and was rumored to be living with the “Himalayan Brotherhood”, had in one of his former lives been Abu’l-Fazl, author of the Akbarnama, a biography of Akbar. Now another reincarnation from the time of Akbar had popped up in the lives of the Roeriches. Anyhow, the meritorious act of saving Akbar’s life by one of his previous incarnations seemed to resound in Bystrov’s favor and he was duly admitted into the “Maitreya Sangha”, apparently a newly coined term for followers of the Roeriches. Like many inductees into a cult he was also given a new name—Ravinchar. 


Now a confirmed follower of the Roeriches, he was  let in on some of the details of the Great Plan. The Panchen Lama was going initiate a Shambhala War which would result in the combined forces of communism and Buddhism initiating a New Era in Asia.  Nicholas Roerich, operating under the nom-de-guerre Ak-Dorje, would be the Panchen Lama’s general or at least aide-de-camp in this war. It might be noted  here that back in 1924 Nicholas and his son George met with the Bolshevik ambassador to Germany, Nikolai Krestinsky, while on a trip to Berlin. Nicholas had been in touch with Krestinsky earlier, while still back in New York. Nicholas outlined the expedition he had planned through Inner Asia and offered to provide intelligence briefs on what he discovered to Soviet officials, including Georgi Chicherin, Commissar of Foreign Affairs in Moscow. In short, he would be spying for the Soviet Union. These briefs would be signed with the code name Ak-Dorje, which apparently meant “White Hard Arrow” or “White Hard Lightning” in Tibetan. 


Earlier in the expedition, while still in Darjeeling, Nicholas had already assumed the same name, Ak-Dorje, while Elena styled herself either a messenger or an emanation of White Tara, a Buddhist deity who countless eons before had vowed to always be reborn in a woman’s body. George went by the name of Narukhan, who was said to be a Mongolian prince. As they proceeded on the expedition they handed out flyers in Tibetan which read:

Thus the prophecies of ancestors and the wise ones come true. Behold what is predestined when in the fifth year [1925] the messengers of northern Shambhala warriors appear. Meet them and accept the new glory of Tibet and Mongolia. I will give Thee my sign of lightning. May all remember: where one receives Tara's blessing, there will be the ray of Maitreya, where one hears the name of Ak-Dorje, there will be a wheel of justice, and where the name of Narukhan appears, there will be the sword of Buddha. Shambhala will show the galloping horse and give arrows to all loyal sons of Buddhism. Behold and wait. 

The message to be deciphered from this was that the Roeriches—here Ak-Dorj, White Tara, and Narukhan—were heralds of the Shambhala War which would usher in the New Age in the East. Nicholas even managed to have some of these flyers smuggled into the Panchen Lama’s home monastery of Tashi Lhunpo in Shigatse, Tibet. 

All the while the Roeriches had been pestering Bystrov for Soviet visas so they could proceed on to Moscow. Finally in early May the Soviet Union’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, Georgi Chicherin, wired Bystrov permission to grant the visas. Before leaving Urumqi Nicholas drew up a new Will in which be bequeathed basically everything to his wife Elena. He nominated as executors of his estate Alexander Bystrov, the newly minted Ravinchar; Georgi Chicherin, the Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs; and Joseph Stalin, leader of the Communist Party. On May 14 they departed from Urumqi on horse-drawn cart. The party crossed into Russia at the Kuzeun border post on May 29 and proceeded to Topolev Mys, the port on Lake Zaisan, in what is now Kazakhstan. They continued by boat on down the Irtysh River to Omsk, where they planned to catch a train to Moscow. According to Roerich, “The train arrived at midnight. An OGPU [secret police] agent passed by, giving me a wink that all goes well. We are traveling sub rosa…”