- See also: Roman Ungern von Sternberg
Ja Lama (Dža Lama) (Mongolian: Жа Лама, also known as Dambiijantsan, Mongolian: Дамбийжанцан or Dambiijaa, Mongolian: Дамбийжаа, (1862–1922)) was an adventurer of unknown birth and background who posed as a Buddhist lama, though it is not clear whether he actually was one. He claimed to be a grandson and later the reincarnation of Amursana, the Khoit-Oirat prince who led the Dzungar Khanate to its extermination in 1757. He participated as one of the commanders of Monglian force that liberated Khovd city from Manj Chinese control.
Early life & career
Even though Ja Lama claimed on numerous occasions both Russian citizenship and Kalmyk origin, his true identity is not known. It is, however, widely accepted that his real name was Dambiijantsan and that he was born in or around 1862 in a Baga Dörbet ulus somewhere in the Astrakhan region.
It is believed that Ja Lama first arrived in Mongolia sometime in 1890. By the summer of that year, he was arrested by Chinese authorities for starting a campaign against Chinese rule but avoided imprisonment after the Russian counsul in Urga identified him as "Amur Sanaev," a Russian citizen of Kalmyk origin from the Astrakhan province, and secured his release and expulsion to Russia.
By autumn of 1891, Ja Lama was back in Mongolia spreading his anti-Chinese propaganda for which he would be twice arrested. After each arrest, Ja Lama was deported to Russia. Where he remained after his second arrest is unclear, but in 1910 he reappeared among the Torghut-Oirat tribe of the Xinjiang province of China.
Mongolia's struggle for independence
In 1911, the Khalkha Mongols declared their independence from the Qing Dynasty. But western Mongolia remained under Manchu control. By spring of 1912, Ja Lama returned to Mongolia; this time he made his way to Khovd in northwest Mongolia.
Ja Lama let it be known everywhere that he was going to free the Mongols from the rule of China. The Mongols noted that Ja Lama possessed a cap to which a golden Kalacakran vajra was affixed, instead of a button as common among Mongols. He quickly mobilized his own force and joined the 5,000 Mongols from the Khovd Province. This force, led by Ja Lama, the Generals Magsarjav and Damdinsüren, and the Jalkhanz Khutagt, liberated the town of Uliastai, in May the town of Ulaangom, and in August Khovd, where Chinese garrisons were stationed, declaring their unity with the newly founded Mongolian state.
After the capture of Khovd, Ja Lama inflicted savage reprisal against the Chinese military prisoners and civilian population. His acts of cruelty included slaughtering most of the Chinese troops he captured. It was rumored that Ja Lama stabbed the prisoners in the chest with a knife and tore their hearts out with his left hand. He then laid the hearts together with parts of the brain and some entrails in skull bowls so as to offer them up as bali sacrifices to the Tibetan terror gods and hung on the walls of his yurt the peeled skins of his enemies.
Falling from grace
For his role in a number of noteworthy military victories, Ja Lama was conferred the high religious and noble titles of Nom-un Khan Khutukhtu and khoshuu prince Tüshe Gün, respectively, from the Eighth Jebtsundamba Khutukhtu. Moreover, the victories sealed Ja Lama’s reputation as a warlord and as a militant Buddhist monk, thereby enabling him to install himself as the military governor of western Mongolia. As the military governor, Ja Lama conducted himself like an autocrat, tyrannizing a huge territory with a reign of fear and violence beyond all reason and measure.
In February 1914, Ja Lama was arrested by Siberian Cossacks on the orders of the Russian consular officials in Khovd. The consulate had received numerous complaints from nobles in the Khovd region who disapproved of Ja Lama's autocratic behavior and despotic practices. Ja Lama was imprisoned in Tomsk for about a year and later moved to Irkutsk. In 1916, Ja Lama returned to his native Lower Volga region where he would remain until 1918.
In the summer of 1918, Ja Lama returned to Mongolia whose government immediately issued a warrant for his arrest. Ja Lama, however, managed to evade Mongolian authorities, and established himself in a retreat in the Black Gobi, on the border between Mongolia and the Chinese provinces of Xinjiang and Gansu. From there, he recruited followers and extorted or robbed passing caravans.
After the re-establishment of Mongolia's independence in 1921, Ja Lama continued to operate independently from his hideout. After the experience with Baron Ungern, the new communist government considered that it could not tolerate another separatist rebellious leader with several hundred loyal and armed followers. In early 1922, the government sent out several parties to find and kill him. One of those succeeded in infiltrating his camp by posing as envoys from the Bogd Khan, shot him and brought his head to Niislel Khüree as proof that he would pose no further danger.