Showing posts with label Nicholas Roerich. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Nicholas Roerich. Show all posts

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…”

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Mongolia | Early Life of Nicholas Roerich

Nikolai Konstantinovich Roerich was born in St Petersburg, Russia, on October 9, 1874. His father Konstantin was a notary serving the city’s courts, a fairly important position at the time. The family was well-to-do and lived in a comfortable apartment on the embankment of the Neva River, in close proximity to the homes of the Russian nobility. The Winter Palace of the Czar, on the other side of the Neva, was visible from the windows of the Roerich residence. Later in life Roerich would assert that his own family, the Roerichs, could trace their roots back to Vikings from Scandinavia. He also asserted, perhaps playing on the similarity of their names, that his family were descendants, or at least had some connection with, Rurik, the Scandinavian chieftain who in the year 862 was invited to Novgorod, in Russia, where he founded the Rurik Dynasty, which ruled what was known as Kievan Rus, centered first on what is now Ukraine and later Russia, until the beginning of the seventeenth century (the last member of the Rurik Dynasty  Vasiliy IV, ruled as Czar until 1612). 


Years later, after he had been admitted to the Russian Academy of Arts  and held the prestigious post of director of the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, Roerich was still harping on the Rurik connection. Prince Sergei Aleksandrovitch Stcherbatov, a painter and patron of the arts who came into contact with Roerich around this time, noted, “He was of northern—Norwegian type and he rather clearly alluded that his family name Roerich was connected with the name Rurik. It was not quite clear though in what way . . .”  One of Roerich’s hagiographers asserts, on the other hand, that Roerich means “rich in glory,” although no one else seems to agree with her. A Latvian researcher and linguist maintains, however, that the name Roerich is derived from either the German word das Röhricht (reed scrub) or the family name Roderich and has no connection whatsoever to the Scandinavian Rurik.


Roerich also liked to point to his family’s coat-of-arms, which included palm leaves, often an indication that members of the family had been involved in diplomacy, and a turban, a symbol often found on the coat-of-arms of Crusaders who had fought against Muslims in the Middle East. All this spoke to a long and distinguished family, a theme often repeated in the voluminous semi-hagiographical literature about the Roerichs. According to one such account:

Wealthy and politically influential, Nikolai’s father, Konstantin Fedorovitch Roerich, was a prominent notary and attorney born in Riga, Latvia. Throughout the centuries, many of the Roerich men had devoted their lives to service as political leaders, military figures, and members of secret societies like the Knights Templar and the Masons.

Most of this is not true. The first Roerich we know about is Nicholas’s great-grandfather, Johann Heinrich Röerich (1763–1820), who was born in Vetzieskate, a small town in the the Duchy of Courland, probably in what is now Latvia.  By profession he was a shoe-maker. Nicholas grandfather Friedrich (1806–1905) moved up a bit in the world and served as the steward on the estate of the Baron Johann von der Ropp and his wife Laura. Friedrich Roerich was an employee of aristocrats and not, of course, an aristocrat himself. Nicholas’s father Konstantin (1837–1900) was the illegitimate son of Eduard von der Ropp, scion of the von der Ropp family, and Charlotte Constantia Schuhschel, a house-maid attached to the family estate. Eduard von der Ropp was a captain in the Engineer Corps in St. Petersburg and he had apparently seduced the young maid while on vacation at his family’s estate. Nicholas Roerich’s later rhapsodizing about the illustrious Roerich family was completely beside the point. By blood he was not a Roerich at all. 


Nicholas’s father Konstantin was entered into the parish records under the family name of the house maid, but his baptismal records gave his name as  Konstantin Christoph Traugott Glaubert. It is not quite clear who Glaubert was. In any case, both names were an attempt by von der Ropp family to hide the child’s true paternity. Eduard von der Ropp did eventually take some interest on the child, however, and when Konstantin was twelve years old his father brought him to St. Petersburg and had him enrolled in the Technological Institute. There was a catch, however. On his admission papers the boy’s father’s name as listed Friedrich Roerich and his own name as Konstantin Roerich. A Latvian researcher has concluded that by this point Friedrich Roerich had adopted the boy and gave him the Roerich family name “‘to cover Edward’s [Eduard von der Ropp’s] sin.’” Friedrich Roerich may not have taken the boy under his wing solely out of the goodness of his heart. Anxious to be rid of the illegitimate child, a stain on the illustrious family’s honor, the von der Ropps apparently gave Friedrich Roerich a considerable sum of money to take the boy off their hands and make him a member of the Roerich family. 


Around this time, Friedrich Roerich, formerly a steward on the von der Ropp estate, rented two estates of his own, peerhaps with the payoff money he had received from the von der Ropps. This branching out into the management of rental properties perhaps marks the beginning of the rise to social prominence of the Roerich family, hitherto a rather undistinguished group, and not at all the descendants of the Rurik Dynasty and other distinguished figures as Roerich was wont to claim. Ironically, Nicholas Roerich’s actual paternal line, the aristocratic von der Ropps, were illustrious. The lineage had been founded by in the thirteen-century by Theodoricus de Raupena, whose brother Albert founded the city of Riga, current-day capital of Latvia in 1201, and in 1202 organized the Livonian Order of Warriors of Christ (Fratres militiae Christi Livoniae), a Christian crusading order dedicated to battling pagans in what is now Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia. This was just the kind of prestigious background Nicholas would have liked to claim for himself, but of course he couldn’t. Indeed, he probably did not even know that his father had been an illegitimate child and a von der Ropp by blood. The whole matter had been kept very hush-hush.


For someone who began life as an an illegitimate child from the countryside Konstantin Roerich did quite well for himself in St. Petersburg. Eduard von der Ropp, although he had refused to give the boy his name, worked behind the scenes as his sponsor in the capital. Konstantin was employed first as an accountant in a military uniform factor and then in the Directorate of the Russian Railways. In 1867 he became a notary for the city courts. A 25,000 ruble security was required to take the post, 10,000 of which had to be paid up front.  His sponsors in St. Petersburg helped him come up with the money.  Serving as a notary in Russia at the time was a well-paying and prestigious job, and by 1872, two years before Nicholas was born, Konstantin was able to buy a 3,780 acre estate, complete with house, fifty miles southwest St. Petersburg (the house on the property is now a museum dedicated to the Roerichs). The country estate was known as Isvara. According to one account, the previous owner of the estate, the Russian diplomat Semyon Vorontsov, had given the estate its name after traveling through India, where he had apparently learned the Sanskrit word isvara. Later in life, when he came into contact with Indians from the sub-continent, Nicholas Roerich was told that Isvara was a corruption of the Sanskrit word Ishvara, the Lord. One of Roerich‘s hagiographers, on the other hand, maintains that Isvara means “sacred dwelling” or “ashram” in Sanskrit. The Sanskrit story is repeated in various Roerich biographies, for example:

During the winter holidays, or when mosquitoes and cholera began to cloud the stifling hot, long “white nights” of summer, the family happily moved to their country estate . . . Its name, given by the previous owner, was Isvara, Sanskrit for “Lord” or “sacred spirit.”

Russian linguists have claimed, however, that isvara is a word from the language of the indigenous people who originally lived in the area. It means simply “big hill” and refers to a conspicuous promontory in the area, and has nothing to do with the Sanskrit isvara


Nicholas spent considerable time at Isvara while growing up. Early on he took and interest in archeology and at the age of nine took undertook the excavation of burial mounds on the estate under the guidance of a professional archeologist. Another archeologist, A.A. Spitsyn, a member of the Imperial Archeological Committee, got Nicholas permission to conduct further archeological research on the property. Nicholas’s findings were the beginning of what would become a near-museum quality collection of artifacts. While at Isvara he also learned the finer points of horse-back riding and spent a considerable amount of his time hunting wildlife. Essays about his hunting adventures, accompanied by his own pencil drawings, may have been among his first literary productions. 


Nicholas Roerich as a young man

In 1893, at the age of nineteen, Nicholas graduated from an exclusive private secondary school ran by progressive educator Karl Ivanovich Mai, the motto of which was “First love, then teach”. The liberal atmosphere at the school, unusual for the  time and place, made it very popular with the intelligentsia of St. Petersburg. Attending the school at the same time as Roerich was Alexander Benois (1870–1960), the artist and set designer who, like Nicholas himself, would later collaborate with Sergei Diaghilev, the celebrated director of the dance troupe Ballets Russes. Benois would remember Nicholas as “. . . a pretty boy with pink cheeks, very affectionate, a little shy with his older schoolmates. By no means was he influenced by our group, as well as after graduation he remained an outsider for many years.”


After secondary school Nicholas’s father, hoping that one day his son would became pursue a career in law himself,  insisted that he enroll in the law department of St. Petersburg University. Nicholas agreed, but also somehow convinced his father to allow him to also audit classes at the Imperial Academy Arts at the same time. Roerich wanted to study under the realist painter Ilia Repin (1844–1930), the most highly regarded painter at the Academy, but his classes were already full and Nicholas was turned away. Instead he joined the landscape studio of Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi (1841–1910). It was a fateful decision. In a chapter entitled “Guru—The Master” in his book Shambhala the Resplendent Roerich would write:

I recall the most uplifting memories of my teacher, Professor Kuinjy [Kuindzhi], the famous Russian artist. His life story could fill the most inspiring pages of a biography for the young generation. He was a simple shepherd boy in the Crimea [actually he was born near Mariupol, in the Donetsk District to the northeast of Crimea in what is now Ukraine]. Only by incessant, ardent effort towards art, was he able to conquer all obstacles and finally become not only a highly esteemed artist and a man of great means, but also a real Guru for his pupils in the high Hindu conception.

Kuindzhi became Roerich’s guru, at least in the artistic field.  He certainly seemed to have focused Nicholas’s attention on painting and perhaps provided the inspiration he needed to pursue a career as an artist. (In March of 2022 the Kuindzhi Art Museum in Mariupol was destroyed by the Russian military during the invasion of Ukraine. His paintings in the museum may have been removed beforehand, but their fate remains unclear.) Nicholas’ final painting  submitted to the  Academy to fulfill his graduation requirements, “The Messenger: Tribe Has Risen against Tribe”, was heavily influenced by Kuindzhi’s style. The painting was immediately bought by Pavel Mikchailovich Tretyakov (1832–1898), one of the leading art collectors of the day. Overnight Nicholas was catapulted into the ranks of up-and-coming young artists in Russia. 


In 1898 Nicholas Roerich finished law school, having successfully defending his thesis “Legal Rights of Artists in Ancient Russ,” and also completed his courses at the Art Academy. By then it had become clear that he was not going to pursue a career in law. One of the leading art critics of the day, Vladimir Vasilievich Stasov (1824–1906), took the promising young artist Roerich under his wing and helped him obtain the position of assistant secretary for the prestigious Society for the Encouragement of the Arts. The Society enjoyed the patronage of Csar Nicholas II and his wife, and its honorary President was Princess Eugenia Maksimilianovna Oldenburgskaya, wife of Prince Alexandre Petrovich Oldenburgsky. Nicholas was soon hobnobbing with the very highest levels of Russian society. 


Nicholas also had other irons in the fire. He was still interested in archeology and in 1899 the Imperial Archaeological Society engaged him to investigate various sites in the provinces of Pskov, Tversk, and Novgorod. While traveling to the sites he stopped for the night at the house of one Prince Putyatin, a fellow archaeologist. It so happened that Prince Putyatin’s wife’s sister, Ekaterina Vassilievna Shaposhnikova, was also visiting the family at the time. The sister had a daughter, Elena Ivanovna, who was five years younger than Nicholas. Nicholas and Elena hit it off, and after a sometimes tempestuous courtship the couple would get married. She would accompany him on the 1925–28 khora through Inner Asia.