The Lamas of Mongolia
I WRITE this at evening time, by candlelight, seated on the floor in a white felt yurta. I am a guest in the encampment of a Mongolian family whom I have known for many years. My yurta is next in line above the ‘god’s tent,’ and my low writing table vibrates with the throb of moaning lama drums. Above the drums I hear the alto chant of lama priests repeating Tibetan prayers.
Chactar, my old friend, has not been well for many months, and priests have been called from a temple to hold a week of special prayer for his health. Chactar himself is a lama priest. So are his nephew and his grandnephew. The first-born sons of three generations — three males from a family that numbers but five males in all! That leaves one grown man and one small boy of three summers to fulfill the material duties of life.
An alarming percentage of the male population of Mongolia are lama priests. Custom requires that every first-born son shall be given to the priesthood, and as many more sons thereafter as possible. This is a great drain on a family, for it leaves so very few to carry on the work of caring for the herds and the flocks. But the more lama priests given by a family, the greater the virtue of that family. According to the religion which holds Mongolia in an iron grip, health, wealth, and happiness are dependent upon the dedication of many sons to the temple.
By strict regulations, lama priests are forbidden to marry. This has played an important part in the depopulation of the country — although not all priests observe this rule. Dempsi, for instance, a lama priest related to the head of this family, was married a few months ago with much ceremony. Demp-si has always liked the ladies. His fondness for them has led him in past years to give away as gifts some of the best horses from the family herds, in addition to many cows, goats, and sheep, as well as felt and other trifles. The family have found this continuous drain an annoyance, so in council they decided that the best thing was for Demp-si to marry. His wife is a very pretty girl, who seems practical and sensible and likely to keep him in order.
Buddhism first came into Mongolia through the conversion of the wife of Kublai Khan by a priest from Tibet. The Mongols look upon Tibet as their spiritual home, and when traveling through Mongolia I continually come upon pilgrims either on route to Tibet or returning from there. Lamaism is a compound of black magic, nature worship, and Buddhism. It is the national religion of Mongolia, and numbers among its adherents almost the entire population. Lama temples dot the whole country, from the borders of Russia to China. The maintenance of these lamaseries is a heavy tax on Mongolia. Not only are the building, furnishing, and keeping in repair of the temples expensive; but more than one third of the male population of Mongolia is drawn into them as lama priests and must be supported by the lay population.
Lamaseries are the only religious buildings in Mongolia, except for a few Christian mission houses. Some of the lamaseries number their inmates by the thousand. Others have a resident population of below a hundred, with a number of adherent priests who spend a part of the year in their homes in the country.
Children destined for the religious life are sent to the temple any time up to their eighth year. I have often seen children as young as two or three already inmates of a monastery. According to the regulations, a child entered for the priesthood should not have any physical blemish. There is no real medical examination, as we understand it, but it is called such in the book of rules. It simply means that a child with bodily disfigurement or an impediment of speech is not considered a suitable candidate.
In certain monasteries only novices from good families are admitted — that is, families whose reputation has been excellent for generations.
The child, after he has been accepted by the monastery, is handed over to the care of a senior priest, who is held responsible for the education, discipline, and morals of his pupil. If possible, a senior priest who is a relative of the child is selected; but if this cannot be arranged the matter is decided by consulting the child’s horoscope. The teacher of a boy is presented with gifts by the child’s parents at the time that he is taken over; these vary in accordance with the wealth of the family.
After a short period the senior priest takes his pupil before the assembled priests of the monastery and seeks their sanction for his protégé to enter the order. The boy is now classed as a novice — a probationer. After this, if he is small, he has one guardian who looks after his food and material needs and another who teaches him his religious texts. In return for their care he must perform for them such menial services as he can. When the boy has learned a certain number of Tibetan prayers by rote, — none of which he understands, as Tibetan is not his native language, — he is sent up for examination before the priests again. If he repeats smoothly and well what he is supposed to know, he moves up one step further. He is now supposed to be ready for higher education.
The tutor approaches the abbot of the monastery about this, sending in to him at the same time as valuable gifts as the boy’s parents can afford to make. Provided all things are in order, the names of the pupil and his tutor are now entered in a higher register. Opposite their names their thumb impressions are put, and below the thumb impressions the seals of two citizens who vouch for them.
Until now the budding lama has worn his ordinary lay clothes. During the ceremony of entrance upon his higher education he has been dressed in all the finery that he could possibly afford — the most gorgeous robes of a layman; but at the end of the ceremony he is stripped of all his gay raiment and clad in the sombre attire of a priest, and a scarf is knotted about his throat. This signifies his renunciation of all material things and his entry into the serious world of religion. Many monks never pass beyond this stage, either because they do not have the necessary funds or because they are too dull to learn any more prayers. In the case of a rich student, bribery often makes up for dullness.
Once a monk has donned his priestly robes and equipment, he must dress in them; he cannot again garb himself in lay clothes. These priestly robes consist of a voluminous skirt, a sleeveless waistcoat, a large serge scarf for covering the shoulders, and a cap. The color is either crimson or yellow, depending upon the sect of Lamaism the temple belongs to. Each priest also wears a rosary.
The next step is for the novice to apply to the abbot for permission to take part in the temple services, accompanying his request with gifts according to his means. If his prayer is granted, a favorable day is fixed for the ceremony. Early in the morning a brother priest shaves his head, leaving only a small tuft of hair on the top of the skull. At the hour of service in the temple, led by his tutor, he presents himself clad in beggar’s rags to the assembled monks and says that he accepts the holy priesthood as his career by his own choice. The head lama of the monastery then cuts off the remaining tuft of hair.
Now the applicant is given a religious name by which he is henceforth known. The ceremony is concluded by the repetition of the formula, ’I take refuge in Buddha, in the law, and in the priesthood.’
The next celebration of service is called the ceremony of marriage with the Church. The young priest enters the temple holding a bundle of incense sticks and led by a monk who is called the ‘companion of the bride.’ The young priest places his incense sticks before the altar, lights them, and prostrates himself, promising never to make an earthly marriage, but to live in union with religion.
From this time on the novitiate enjoys many of the privileges of a fully ordained monk. After three or four years, according to his progress in his studies, he is given better quarters in
his hostel, regardless of how thin his purse may be. Now he must memorize volume after volume of sacred books. If he slackens in his work his tutor does not hesitate to inflict corporal punishment, for should he fail in his examination the tutor is in danger of a beating himself by order of the higher priests.
From now on the novice may continue to pass periodical examinations, take part in public disputations, and commit books to memory as long as he cares to do so. It takes twelve years or more for a boy to become a fullfledged lama. No monk can reach this rank before the age of twenty, and in actual practice few ever attain it before forty. After this he has an opportunity to study metaphysics and the more abstruse works of Tibetan religious literature. Some novices take up the study of magic and leave their monastery with a degree which authorizes them to practise this art publicly. Others feel inclined toward care of the sick and learn how to treat illnesses according to the weird and wonderful lama theories. A few of these are really wise in the use of herbs and are very successful in treating diseases with the healing roots and leaves that they gather from the surrounding country.
The treatment of the sick, whether by magic or weird prayer or herbs, is the most lucrative profession in the priesthood. In time of bad health people will part with all their wealth to be restored to normal physical condition again. Unscrupulous priests take advantage of this: often after an epidemic all the good horses, camels, cattle, sheep, and goats from the surrounding families are the property either of a lamasery or of individual lamas.
At the head of each temple are an abbot and a lama of a high order in whose body dwells the spirit of a Buddhist saint.
When one of these lamas dies, the spirit of the saint that has dwelt in him enters the body of a child who is born at the instant the lama dies. After the death, a deputation consisting of other such lamas and learned lamas of rank search for the child in whom this spirit has been reborn. They are guided by the advice of astrologers, and proceed to the district indicated. Here the committee inquire for any newborn child whose entrance into the world his been marked by such omens as showers of shooting stars or the herds showing signs of unusual restlessness. Four or five such children may be discovered, and the names of all of them are written down.
Then, when the children are a few months old, the priests come again to each yurta where such a baby is and lay before him articles that belonged to the dead lama. If a child turns away from these things, the lamas go on to the next baby. And so on until they find one that greets the articles with pleasure. This they think is a sign that the reincarnated saint recognizes his own possessions. One meets such committees continually in Mongolia. I have talked with them many times, and their methods have not changed in the least since I first came to Mongolia.
When a person dies in Mongolia the lamas are sent, for immediately. First they read prayers for the repose of the dead spirit, and then a priest versed in black magic selects a suitable place to lay the body. The priests mark out a plot with a rope and place the body there entirely nude, covered only with a white cloth. The lamas repeat prayers over it and it is left for three days.
During these three days the lamas feast in a yurta prepared for them by the deceased’s relatives, reading prayers and holding services for the benefit of the spirit. No one goes near the place where the body has been left until the morning of the third day. Then, if the eagles and the wolves have devoured it, the Mongols are satisfied that the spirit has passed into Heaven. They consider the quickness with which the earthly body disappears an indication of the degree of virtue of the deceased person.
This is a gruesome practice which made horrible the territory just outside the city of Urga. Urga is the only place in Mongolia where a multitude of Mongols live close together. But no encampment is safe from the possibility that one of the family dogs may come in dragging a human leg or arm. Thirty-five years in Mongolia have not inured me to this. I shudder with horror every time it happens.
There are Mongols who cannot bring themselves to lay their beloved dead out for the wolves to devour or dogs to tear to pieces. Some few families burn their corpses and send the ashes to repose in a holy place, such as a niche in a Tibetan temple or the temple of WuTai-Shan.
The Living Buddha was born in Tibet. When he was a baby, lama priests took him to Urga, saying that it had been revealed to them that he was a holy child sent to be God on earth to the Mongolian people. The Mongols accepted him. His training was entirely Mongolian, yet through him the Tibetan priests had considerable influence in Mongolian affairs. His funloving personality captured the hearts of the fun-loving Mongols. They not only worshiped him as divine, but eventually they appointed him Emperor. His political position in Mongolia, even before his coronation as Emperor, was analogous to that of the Popes of mediæval Christendom.
My first meeting with the Living Buddha illustrates how easily a foreigner can be put into a foolish position by a slight knowledge of the language of the country into which he has newly come. It was in 1894, when I first went to Urga. I was at that time working very hard at the study of the language, and had a good teacher. One day when I had finished my daily lessons, and felt very much in need of exercise after a cramped two hours of writing instruction, I ordered my riding horse and went out alone.
I had not gone very far when I saw a party of lamas, dressed in flowing yellow robes and mounted on frisky horses, coming at a good pace toward me on the same road on which I was riding. I heard someone shout ’Bo!’ As the only meaning I knew for bo was ‘gun,’ and I did not have a gun, I paid no attention. Suddenly I noticed that everyone was staring at me and shouting ’Bo! Bo! Bo!’ Still I did not understand, and thought it very strange that all the people, save the lama party, had dismounted and were standing by their horses.
One of the lamas detached himself from the party and galloped up to me. He stopped at my horse’s head and shouted right into my face, ‘Bo!’ I did not understand, and, returning his stare gravely, explained that I did not carry a gun. At that he, as well as the crowd, burst into laughter. He pointed to the ground and motioned to me to get off my horse.
I dismounted and stood meekly at my horse’s head, and the lama turned his horse and dashed back to his party. They all galloped up past me, smiling and laughing in a manner that made me feel like a lunatic. As soon as they were out of sight I took the shortest way home and presented myself to my teacher. I told him what had happened — how I had been ordered to give up my gun when I did not have one and forced to get down from my horse while the party passed. He then explained that the word bo has several meanings and one of them is to get down from a horse. From my description he knew that the party of lamas must have been in attendance on the Living Buddha, also out for his afternoon ride. He told me that by the law of Mongolia every man, woman, and child had to dismount when the Living Buddha passed.
This incident roused my curiosity about the man whom my teacher told me was worshiped by all the people of Mongolia as a god who even in the eyes of kings and princes could commit no sin. Consequently I often chose a road past his palace for my place of exercise.
One day, shortly after my first sight of him, I found near the palace a crowd of several thousand jostling, laughing people, packed into every possible nook and corner; but as I am taller and stronger than most men, I succeeded in pushing my way well in to the centre of the good-natured mob.
I supposed that I should witness some religious ceremony; so you can imagine my surprise when a window in the upper story of the palace was flung open and a jolly man, dressed in a gown of glittering gold, appeared and flung out a lady’s corset. It flew over my head. I caught it. My impulse was to fling it back at him, but before I could do so someone snatched it out of my hand.
My very fair hair made me a target in that crowd of dark men and women. The man at the window noticed my discomfiture and clapped his plump hands with delight. He hurled down a large bottle of perfume, which broke. The people sniffed the air and made faces at the odor.
A shower of watches followed — good watches of Swiss manufacture.
There was a terrific scramble for these — men and women went mad, jumping on top of each other in their eagerness; but fortunately the Mongols are not only of the most amiable disposition, but strong and sturdy, so no one was actually hurt. After the watches came clocks, all of foreign make, and of many types. Most of them were delicate, dainty things, such as ladies admire; but he heaved out one tall grandfather’s clock, which fell with a thud and was broken to pieces.
Lamps followed the clocks; then more perfume. He disappeared from the window. The mob called him to come back. They cheered when he returned with his arms filled with Western ladies’ dresses. These he threw out one at a time — evening gowns of silver lace, riding habits, walking costumes of tweed, and a very much beruffled wrapper that fluttered down like a balloon.
Hats which must have been designed to match a costume were tossed out as if they were so many cakes. Both men and women put these on over their own headgear. The Living Buddha even tried one, — a concoction of straw and ostrich feathers, — and thrust his head through the window for the admiration of the crowd before he threw it down.
Shoes came next — high-heeled shoes of leather and of satin. These were followed by a shower of face powder punctuated with fluffy puffs. There were even a pair of skates, a toy windmill, a Noah’s ark, and a small sailboat.
He ended the afternoon’s sport by scattering hundreds of horns and whistles and some Christmas-tree tinsel. Then he closed the window. The Mongols cheered, blew their horns, and whistled through their fingers, calling him out again. He threw the window open and thrust out his empty hands; then the people dispersed. All that afternoon and evening they rollicked through the streets on horseback, blowing the whistles and horns like children on a circus day in Sweden.
Later, when I had come to know the Living Buddha as an intimate friend, I discovered that he had an insatiable curiosity concerning all Western things, and, since he could not go abroad, he used to send for catalogues from shops in Stockholm, Berlin, London, Paris, Rome, and New York. It was his custom to order each article that interested him, so that he had frequent consignments of foreign goods arriving at his palace on the Tola River.
To make room for new things, and also reasoning that it was silly to keep material objects that had already served their purpose by informing him as to what foreigners use, he would proclaim a day on which he would distribute Western goods from the palace windows, and the jolly crowd I have pictured would collect on each of these days. The performance gave a lot of pleasure to hundreds of fun-loving Mongols, and the Living Buddha enjoyed it immensely. I did too, on those occasions when I was asked to assist him.
When I had lived in Urga some time, had made many friends, and had become familiar with the language, a young Mongolian duke, the eldest son of the Prince of Hanta, invited me to go with him to the Dolan Horsone Natam, or Festival of the Seven States. This was a festival held by the Living Buddha at a place some distance from Urga. People made preparations for it throughout three-year intervals by getting together the best possible outfit of clothes and by training the best race horses; and they looked forward to the absolution of their sins by the Living Buddha’s personal blessing. It was by far the biggest show of splendor and of gayety held anywhere in Mongolia, and people flocked to it from all over the country.
The young Duke of Hanta had spoken to the Living Buddha about me and had asked for permission to bring me along, so I had the honor of being one of the Living Buddha’s own party when he left Urga for the place of festivity. Consequently I went in company with the young nobles who escorted the Buddha when he went abroad on state occasions.
There were about twenty thousand people gathered for the fair from all the states in Mongolia. I did not see anyone at any time who was not dressed in silk of the best quality and of the most brilliant colors. All my friends changed their costumes several times a day, so I concluded that this was the general custom.
The women here, as in Western society, wore by far the most elaborate apparel; they were all in bright colors never a pastel shade. But these bright hues suit the Mongolian type of beauty. They wore heavy gold and silver headdresses made in the shape of crowns. All these crowns were jeweled, and many women had clusters of pearls that hung down to their waists. Lobsen Jensen explained to me that a woman’s headdress might cost many thousands of dollars, and he pointed out to me one beautiful young lady who had the equivalent of a herd of five thousand horses on her head.
All the women had coral, the national ornament of Mongolia, somewhere in their headdresses; and they all wore riding boots, similar in pattern to men’s boots, ornamented with designs in colored leather at the top.
At the festival everyone moved on a horse; no one seemed even to consider the possibility of walking the few yards from one tent to another. In fact, it would have been dangerous to do so, because no pedestrian was safe amid the galloping movement of the half-controlled horses. Hobbled horses stood before every tent, waiting the pleasure of the owners.
The horses, as is the Mongolian custom, were dressed almost as gayly as the men or women who rode them. Their bridles and their tail straps were all studded with silver and gold, or ornamented with gems, according to the fancy and wealth of a rider. The saddles were covered with scarlet and were also ornamented with silver and gold.
Over the tents flew the bright banners of the different tribes, and on them were sewn the royal colors, the inherited right of each noble family.
On the hillside and on the grassy plain surrounding the tents were horses for racing, mares and cows for milking, and flocks of sheep to provide fresh meat for each day. They were tended by herdsmen and shepherds dressed in flowing garments of brilliant color, with streamer hats.
The festivities lasted for eight days, which were principally devoted to the horse races. The Living Buddha occupied the place of honor at each day’s race. He was always gorgeously robed in gold and surrounded by a brilliant escort of priests and princes who sat about his outdoor throne.
The races were for different types of horses on different days, and any horse bred in Mongolia could be entered. The prizes were not large, — a roll of silk or a little lump of silver, — but the honor of being the owner of a winning horse was very great. The Mongol owners bred their stock with this thought in mind, and entered their best in each contest. To us Westerners there would seem perhaps to be a drawback in the fact that each winning horse must be presented to the Living Buddha. But the Living Buddha was so looked up to by all the Mongol people that every man and woman considered it an extremely great honor to have reared and trained a horse fit for his herds.
The jockeys in all the races were children between seven and fifteen years of age. They were all dressed in small silk jackets and very short silk pants. A few saddles were used, but, as the Duke of Hanta explained to me, jockeys had been badly hurt and even killed at former festivals by having their saddles slip and being caught in them, so they were looked upon with disfavor by the owners, the crowd, and the jockeys. Consequently nearly all of the horses were ridden bareback.
The Living Buddha had a great many of his own horses at the festival. The Prince of Hanta and I looked them over together, as we were much interested in the one which had been the winner of the gelding race for the last three seasons. He was a beautiful animal, — a big bay with four white socks, and a white star in his forehead, — and appeared in very good condition. But we knew his age, and the Prince of Hanta said that two or three other horses would press him very hard for first place this time.
We went on to the inspection of a horse that a prince from the East was entering for the same race. It was a younger animal, of cream color, with long slim legs and well-developed running muscles. I was very much attracted to this horse from the instant I saw him, and gave little attention to the animals in the three or four other herds that we visited.
The hour of the race came. The horses got off in fine order. With the Duke of Hanta I rode to the rise of a hill from which we could watch the first part of the race, and then around to another hill from which we obtained a view of the open valley in which the last stage was run. It was very easy to follow the progress of the cream horse because of his light color. In the same way the white socks of the Living Buddha’s bay marked him on the course.
These two entered the valley running neck and neck. The cream, my favorite, gained slowly inch by inch until the bay’s nose was level with his tail. There was only a little way to go — I thought that the race was the cream’s without a doubt, and relaxed the strain with which I had been leaning forward in my saddle. But something happened. I cannot be certain that the jockey pulled his horse to the left — the little boy must certainly have been too exhausted to do that after ten miles of galloping bareback on a strong horse. Still, the bay came in winner, filling out the circle of his fourth season.
At the end of each day’s race the Living Buddha went back to his tent; then rows on rows of people knelt about the tent on the green grass, their bowed heads low on their hands. Prostrate and humble, these rich noblemen from all over Mongolia awaited the blessing of the little Tibetan boy, now grown to manhood, whom the lama priests had told them was sent to earth to reveal to them the will of God. He would come out of his tent and walk among them, touching each one gently on the head. Then they would rise and go back to their own tents.
When the hour of blessing was past they shook off their seriousness and were gay people seemingly interested in nothing beyond horses and frivolity. And the Buddha too, when he had done his duty, would be one of them in merriment.
Mounted on horses, all the people dashed about from tent to tent, visiting and feasting with their friends, the women as free and gay as the men. They made tests of horsemanship over the course where the races were run, dared each other to ride this horse and that, and sang songs and played flutes until all hours of the night.
From the day on which I was first introduced to the Living Buddha he was always exceedingly kind to me and most solicitous for my comfort. One summer, when it was unusually hot in Urga, he invited me to stay with him in his palace on the Tola River. I hesitated to accept, as I thought that the invitation was just an act of politeness; but he continued to send for me to come, so finally I went for two weeks. While I was there every possible thing was done for my pleasure and amusement. The Living Buddha saw to it that I had an interesting time; and his wife, who managed her large household with marvelous efficiency, looked after my material needs.
The Buddhist religion forbade the Living God to marry, but when he fell in love with a vivacious, handsome Mongolian girl the Mongolian people found a way. There was a most elaborate ceremony whereby she was created a goddess. And after she had become a goddess there was no reason at all why she was not a fit mate for a Living God. In fact, by all reasoning a god was the only person she could marry. The Mongols never spoke of her as a human being, but always as a goddess. She was a practical, sensible woman, and a splendid home-maker, driving from the Buddha’s great palace any gloom that may have lurked in its many corridors before she came. She was a jolly companion, a good horsewoman, an excellent shot. The Buddha was exceedingly proud of her.
During the two weeks that I was at the palace she and I went every morning to the Sacred Mountain for target practice. One day the Living Buddha said, ‘Now we must have a contest so that I can discover which of you is really the better shot.’
He ordered a target to be put up, then handed each of us a rifle. He especially stressed the fact that the one he gave me had come from France and was very expensive. His wife fired three shots and made as many hits in the mark. I then took careful aim, but registered three misses, to the Buddha’s huge delight.
Upon examining my gun I noticed that the sight had been knocked to one side. I called the Buddha’s attention to this. He laughed loud and long, and said, ’If you are really a good shot, you should have noticed the condition of your gun before you aimed.’
He was always fond of a practical joke. Some years after this, when I took him the first motor car that was ever seen in Urga, he connected the electric current with the body of the car, and then invited the highest lamas and nobles to come to tea. After tea he exhibited the car, and he asked his guests to feel the fine polish on the fenders.
The first man to touch the car drew back as though burned. The others laughed at his timidity. Then a second one put out a brave hand — and jerked it back. More laughter, led by the Buddha. He took the greatest pleasure in this tea party at which each of his friends received a shock, so that not one of them would consent to ride with him in his car — they all marveled at his own ability to sit in it and ride comfortably through the palace grounds.
The Buddha lived in a luxurious way and surrounded himself with every object that his fancy desired, fed on the richest and the most costly foods, drank expensive French champagne, and dressed himself and all his attendants in the most gorgeous apparel. But he was a very kind man. No poor person, priest or layman, ever came to him in trouble during all the years that I knew him and went away without the Buddha having done everything in his power to make the suffering one’s lot easier. His charity extended into the far corners of the country that knew him as the Living God. He also had infinite compassion for all creatures of the animal world.
To the south of Urga, near his palace, there is a fine mountain called Bogda-Col. During the Living Buddha’s lifetime all hunting and killing of animals was forbidden on this mountain. Here one could see, any day of the year, big herds of reindeer, wild bears, wolves, foxes, mountain deer, and hundreds of kinds of birds, all quite tame and not at all afraid of man.
The Buddha constantly collected his animals from other places and had them freed in this paradise — apes, bears, rare birds, and even an elephant. Likewise in the River Tola, which runs by Urga, the Buddha forbade all catching of fish.
In 1911 the people of Mongolia sent the Manchu governor back to China and decided that their country would be better governed without further coöperation with China. A delegation of kings, princes, dukes, and commoners went to the Living Buddha and asked him to become Emperor. He consented. The inauguration of the new Emperor was a very impressive ceremony. The whole of North Mongolia flocked to Urga in festive robes, and the streets were paraded by Mongolian soldiers mounted on beautiful horses and dressed in rich uniforms.
The people presented to the Living Buddha, as a thank offering for his consenting to be made Emperor, three hundred white horses with yellow halters, each with a red fox skin tied about its throat, and one hundred white camels, each with a sable skin tied about its throat. These were led up to the palace and pre to him. Then the nobles, kings, princes, and commoners all promised allegiance to the new Emperor, after he had taken a solemn oath.
The Emperor soon selected ministers and officials. His government ran smoothly, and the best blood of Mongolia flocked around him This was a prosperous time for Urga. Life was very gay, and hope ran high; it was a good season and wealth abounded. Chinese and Russian merchants did a fine business, and trade throve throughout the Empire. There were no heavy taxes. The roads were filled with big caravans going and coming constantly winding down across the plain throth Kalgan to China, or northward into Russia. Mongolia prospered as she has never prospered at any other time during the years that I have lived among her people.
The end of the régime was brought about because of the generosity and the goodness of the Mongols’ character — a too great trust in all men, a simplicity which judges others to be as honest as they themselves are.
In November 1919, a Chinese general, Little Hsü, under pretense of protecting the border, obtained permission to bring an army through Urga. However, on getting his army to Urga he broke the Kiakhta Treaty and made himself master of North Mongolia. He was a shrewd and sharp little man and did his work quickly. Nobles who entertained him were thrown into prison, and he seized Urga in a cruel grip.
Two different parties of Mongols set out trustfully to Russia to get help against this army. One party went to Moscow and invited the Soviet authorities to come and help; the other party went to see Baron Ungern-Sternberg in the mountains to the east of Urga. The Mongols did not realize that Russia was then a divided country. In their eyes its inhabitants were simply the Russian people, a signatory party to the treaty that had been broken — genial and just traders with Mongolia for more than a century. The Mongols knew nothing of ‘Red’ and ‘White.’ If they had heard the words, they did not comprehend them.
Baron Ungern-Sternberg was the nearer, and reached Urga before any authority in Moscow could act. He attacked and took Urga in February 1921 with his army of seven hundred and fifty Russians and as many more Mongols, destroying most of Little Hsü’s army of fifteen thousand men. He was now ruler over Urga and North Mongolia. But, although he was a cruel soldier of fortune, he had great respect for the Living Buddha and treated him and the Mongol nobles fairly. The Living Buddha was treated as Emperor, but in reality had little power.
Baron Ungern-Sternberg was an energetic man. He opened a big tannery in Urga, installed electric light, and built and repaired many bridges. But he was obsessed by a hatred of all Jews, and put to death with terrible cruelty all the Russian Jews in Urga that he could lay his hands on, — men, women, and children, — despite everything that the Living Buddha and the Mongolian people could do. His régime was of short duration, for the Red Russians came in from the North and defeated and killed him.
The Russian Red Army entered Urga in July 1921. They again gave the Mongols assurance of their independence, and promised assistance in the fulfillment of the Kiakhta Treaty. But, as their political views were against emperors and princes, the Living Buddha never regained his former splendor or power, and all nobles soon disappeared from North Mongolia. Commoners, advised by Russians from Moscow, were the power in the new government. The Living Buddha sickened and died in 1924, and it seems that there will never be another Living Buddha in Mongolia.
The Living Buddha was always very kind to me. He made me many valuable presents, and bestowed upon me the Mongolian ducal decoration. When I took my friend, Sven Hedin, to visit him, he was a sick man. He was nearly blind, and his heart had been broken by the turn of affairs in Mongolia. But he did everything in his power to make Hedin’s visit to Urga a success. He was not only the Living God who gave absolution for their sins twice weekly to Mongolian supplicants at Urga, but a great man who recognized genius in other men when he met it.