Ja Lama

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Ja Lama

Ja Lama (Mongolian: Жа Лама, also known as Dambiijantsan, Mongolian: Дамбийжанцан or Dambiijaa, Mongolian: Дамбийжаа, (1862–1922)) was an adventurer and warlord of unknown birth and background who fought successive campaigns against Chinese rule in western Mongolia between 1890 and 1922. He claimed to be a Buddhist lama, though it is not clear whether he actually was one, as well as a grandson and later the reincarnation of Amursana, the Khoit-Oirat prince who lead the last great Mongol uprising against the Qing dynasty in 1757. He was one of the commanders of Mongolian forces that liberated Khovd city from Chinese control in 1912.

Early life and career[edit]

Although Ja Lama claimed on numerous occasions both Russian citizenship and Kalmyk origin, his true identity is not known but it is 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 campaigning against Chinese rule but avoided imprisonment after the Russian consul in Ikh Khüree 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 more 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[edit]

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 Khatanbaatar 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 and his troops inflicted savage reprisals against the Chinese military prisoners and the civilian population. His acts of cruelty included slaughtering most Chinese prisoners of war. It was rumored that he tore out the hearts of prisoners with his left hand and then placed them together with bits of the brain and entrails in skull bowls as offerings to the Tibetan terror gods. He then allegedly hung the peeled skins of his enemies on the walls of his yurt.

Fall from grace[edit]

For his role in a number of noteworthy military victories, Ja Lama was given the high religious and noble titles of Nom-un Khan Khutukhtu and khoshuu prince Tüshe Gün, respectively, by the Eighth Jebtsundamba Khutukhtu. Moreover, the victories sealed Ja Lama's reputation as a warlord and as a militant Buddhist monk. He installed himself as the military governor of western Mongolia, tyrannizing a huge territory through a reign of fear and violence.

In February 1914, Ja Lama was arrested by Siberian Cossacks on the orders of 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 then reentered Mongolia in the summer of 1918. Ja Lama refused to recognize the authority of the Bogd Khan and the 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. The new communist government was intent on stamping out insurrections and set its sights Ja Lama and his forces. In early 1922, Mongolia's military leader Damdin Sükhbaatar ordered Ja Lama's arrest. Niislel Khüree's police chief Baldandorj was dispatch to arrest him. Baldandorj succeeded in infiltrating his camp by posing as envoys from the Bogd Khan and shot him dead. Ja Lama's forces scattered and his head was displayed first in Uliastai and then Niislel Khüree. Later, Ja Lama's head was brought to Saint Petersburg and put on display at Kunstkammer of the Hermitage.


  • Bawden, Charles R. THE MODERN HISTORY OF MONGOLIA, The Praeger Asia-Africa Series, Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, New York, NY (1968).
  • Bormanshinov, Arash. A Notorious West Mongol Adventurer of the Twentieth Century, p. 148, Opuscula Altaica: Essays Presented In Honor of Henry Schwarz; Edward H. Kaplan and Donald W. Whisenhunt, Editors, Center for East Asian Studies, Western Washington University, Bellingham, WA (1994).
  • Lattimore, Owen. The Desert Road to Turkestan, Little, Brown and Company, Inc., New York, NY (1929).
  • Ossendowski, Ferdinand A. Beasts, Men and Gods, E.P. Dutton & Company, Inc., New York, NY (1922).
  • Znamenski, Andrei. Red Shambhala: Magic, Prophecy, and Geopolitics in the Heart of Asia. Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2011. ISBN 978-0-8356-0891-6

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