|This is not, we repeat, NOT, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama|
Discovering a major news magazine’s huge mistake ought to be an opportunity for gloating. In this case none of that gloating would be mine, since the whole idea and the research involved here comes not from me but from R.K., who is now going to build a major reputation for his initials, since that’s all he wanted to put here. The problem is a photograph that has sometimes been used in stories about His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, who yesterday enjoyed a Prayer Breakfast
in Washington with The President of the United States of America Barack Obama, and had a long time before that received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, etc. etc. Honestly, I assume everybody in the known universe knows to whom it is that we refer.
The photo above has also appeared on the internet in a larger form that supplies more background (we’ll put that in below). In the Newsweek
story in today’s February 6, 2015 issue — Peter Popham’s “Relentless: The Dalai Lama's Heart of Steel
” — the photo appears as above, but labeled with the following caption:
“Young Dalai Lama at Usersky-Danzan temple in Mongolia in 1939, aged three. KEYSTONE/AFP/GETTY”
Since the present Dalai Lama — or, if you prefer, Jampel Ngawang Lozang Tendzin Gyatso, འཇམ་དཔལ་ངག་དབང་བློ་བཟང་བསྟན་འཛིན་རྒྱ་མཚོ་ — was born on July 7, 1935, and Tibetan ‘age’ is always calculated up one year, that would make the photo date from around 1937, right? Wrong.
To see just how wrong this is, have a look at the front page of this newspaper
. Do not fail to make a note of the date you see there.
|"The Great White Lama: |
Notice His Cunning Little Toes"
published Monday, June 3, 1929
Our conclusion is very simple and indisputable. Since this photo was published in 1929 (and it seems it had already been published in England a year earlier*), it simply cannot be His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Newsweek must fix their error in dating it to 1939, ten years later. It is really beside the point if others made this or similar mistakes before them.** It might be interesting to trace the genealogy of this particular error in some detail someday, in some doctoral dissertation or whatever, but an error it most surely is.
(*This website [go there and search for the number "10215921"] says it took the photograph from The Illustrated London News of 22nd Dec 1928.)
(**Just do an “image search” on the internet, and you will find it has been used a number of times as if it were a photo of the His Holiness. Of course there is yet another mistake in the Newsweek picture caption, since His Holiness as a child never set foot in Mongolia.)
It has to be a photograph of someone else, and the question remains, Who? The newspaper story places it inside Tibet, but it is not always the case that the earliest version of the story is the truest therefore. If the photo was taken at a place called “Usersky-Dazan,” it would not have been in “Thibet,” but rather in Mongolia, Buriatia, or Kalmuckia somewhere.* So if you know or can find out anything at all about this little Lama with his dextrous toes, drop us a comment, let us reason together and seek out the truth even while we are sifting out the errors.
(*That Slavic genitive ending kind of gives it away, and the “Dazan” is a foreign and very likely Mongolian spelling for Tibetan Datsang, or གྲྭ་ཚང་ Mongolian always replaces the Tibetan final ‘ng’ sound with final ‘n’. For a curious picture said to be from Usersky-dazan, have a look at this commercial site. I also found in a newspaper archive a story published in the San Antonio Light for April 10, 1932, an article entitled “Why the Obscure Mongolian Baby Born at the Proper Minute is Worshipped as a God,” but seeing it involved filling out a long form and paying ten U.S. dollars, I decided to let it be. I did manage to find a clue that this Dazan ought to be located 20 miles from the ever-moving and ever-growing town of Urga. Urga is regarded as the old name for Ulan Bator.)
Here is the larger version of the photo I promised you earlier on. Take a very close look at it. If you detect signs it could be a collage of two different photographs, you may not be entirely alone. You can see that somebody's bad touchup job turned the beautiful double-Vajra design on the hanging cloth into a kind of crude looking cross.
|For this Getty image, look here.|
Addendum (February 7, 2015):
I am happy to report that the identification problem is largely solved, and I can tell you, Newsweek is going to feel even sillier than expected with cake all over his face. Again, I don’t get any gloating rights. All the credit goes elsewhere. Well, yesterday, as I was putting up the blog I did have the presence of mind to send an email to someone I was sure would be able to answer a few Mongol-ological questions, about where the monastery might be, in particular. But I have to admit that Agata Bareja-Starzynska of Warsaw surprised me with her brief and directly to the point information. In yesterday's first email she identified the “Usersky-Dazan” monastery as Gusino-ozersky (or Gusino-ozerskii Datsan) in Buryatia. And already last night she told me that the boy in the photo was most probably the one playing a lama in the Pudovkin movie “A Storm over Asia.” And this morning, I received the following email sent late last night. Seeing this evidence throws a very different light on the identity of the toe-crossing child Lama. To put it mildly, it was not the solution I was expecting, not at all.
Found it via Internet!https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_xc6OncdsdI
see a scene at 1:04:13 till 1:06
the Lama boy is there playing with his toes.
For myself, the scene started closer to 1:03. I recommend starting several minutes earlier, since there are scenes to be seen of Cham dancing that are quite impressive. I admit I have still never seen this movie (apart from this scene of course). I only now learned how to make “screen shots” on my Mac, so I’ll put some examples down below for the convenience of blog readers too lazy to watch movies.
Oh the movie! I forgot to say something about the movie. I found out that it’s a famous full-lengthed silent film, supposed to have been a landmark in cinematographic history when it was made in 1928. The director was Vsevolod Pudovkin
, and the English-language version is called “Storm over Asia.” The original title means “The Heir to Genghis Khan.” If you want to know what it’s about, have a look for yourself. But before you go, just let me get in one last jibe, smear a bit of that cake around on Newsweek’
s face. The photo Newsweek
innocently believed to be an image of His Holiness the Dalai Lama took on an aura of reality in two distinct historical phases:  an early Soviet period movie and  a newspaper story concocted out of the same for the bemusement of English and American readers who would not have known any better. Or were the journalists themselves the ones who knew no better?
|Screen shots from the movie|
§ § §
Another Addendum (February 8, 2015):
I was thinking there was still an area of mystery that ought to be explored if possible, namely, ‘Can anything more be known about the actual child who played the part of the infant Lama?’ Somebody told me he would be the best person to find out about anything that happened in Buryatia, so I wrote to Nikolay Tsyrempilov, who works at the Buryat State University in Ulan Ude. I was delighted by his fast response, and will, with his kind permission, pass on two passages from his emails, the first dated yesterday and the second dated today.
The first quote:
“As for your question, I have nothing new to add to what you already know. That’s absolutely true that Usersky Dazan is Gusinoozersky Datsan, the main Buddhist monastery of Buryatia until 1940s. Pudovkin made some important episodes of his movie at that monastery. I think that the boy was just a simple boy who was selected in the process of casting. I don’t believe that he was a real tulku. My opinion is based on the fact that in 1928 it was not safe for high foreign Lamas to stay in Buryatia. A year earlier the Soviet authorities launched repressions against the Lamas, and if you watch the movie carefully, you’ll see how anxious the lamas’ faces are. A couple of years before some Tibetan tulkus, e.g. Tangring Rinpoche, had stressful experiences staying in Buryatia. In 1928 the situation was even worse. If you look at the boy you can see that his attire is not typical for small tulkus. They just put a piece of yellow (I believe it is yellow) cloth on him. Probably, that was the reason he was called the white lama.”
The second is in answer to a question I had about the throne, and not just the child seated on it. I was thinking that the cloth that hangs down in front is a real throne cloth, featuring a large double-Vajra design, as we often see on Rinpoche thrones. But I was also thinking that the throne was far too low and close to the pavement to be a real Rinpoche throne. So here is Prof. Tsyrempilov's response:
“As for the throne, I think it’s a fake. It looks like a real one, but I believe this one was hastily constructed specially for the movie. Yes, it seems rather too low. The boy is not an ethnic Russian, he is a typical Buryat.”
§ § §
A wrinkle (Valentines Day, 2015):
If we were thinking there would be a smooth path to identifying the real young man in the photo and in the movie before the photo, a new and interesting wrinkle has come up along the way. I also wrote to Andrey Terentyev of St. Petersburg, author of some excellent books on Tibetan art and so on that I may blog about sometime soon. The surprising new news is that the temple in which the little lama was sitting was not in Buryatia as we had thought. I mean, it would be only natural to assume that he was filmed there, in the same place as all Cham dancing scenes that came before. But it now appears that this, like so many other things, is an illusion. Andrey says he immediately recognized the temple and its main image (or images) as the ones that were, in around the mid-1930's, at least, in the Buddhist temple that Agwan Dorjiev founded in St. Petersburg, Russia. Just below is a photo from that time that he sent me. I could locate a similar photo in a published book that dates it to the early 1930's, so at least we are in the right general time frame here. The temple still stands in Petersburg, I once visited it myself, and I can tell you that the large main image that is there now is not the one you would have seen in the 1930's (the one that appears in our photos). Andrey also sent a nice photo of the main image that you can see further down.
|Interior of Dorjiev's Buddhist temple in St. Petersburg, early-to-mid 1930's|
Compare what you see here to the first in the set of four screen-shots from the 1928 movie that I’ve posted above. Look closely and decide for yourself if what you see is the same place or not.
|Main central images in the Buddhist temple in St. Petersburg, early-to-mid 1930's|
I’m not one hundred percent, but I think that the smaller Buddha you see in front is the silver Gautama Buddha donated by the King of Siam especially for the consecration of the temple.* Its building began in 1909, with the permission of Czar Nicholas, and that story is a fascinating one we can’t go into right now. Needless to say, not everyone was in favor of its building, and Dorjiev reports in his memoirs that he received a number of death threats. Still, after the building was finished, the monks seem to have gotten on well with their neighbors.
(*Now, February 15, 2015, Andrey informs me that the Gautama was in fact copper, not silver, so my authority on this is certainly misleading. Thanks to Andrey for fixing still more of my mistakes.)
An email communication, dated February 15, from Andrey:
It’s true about looting the temple and fixing main image afterwards. But that image was made of alabaster and later was changed by Dorjiev for a metal one which you see on our photos.
One friend of mine, who was the main Snelling’s informant didn’t speak good English, so I suspect that Snelling mixed info on Siamese Buddha with another story concerning the famous Sandalwood Buddha statue made during Buddha’s lifetime and kept in Russia since 1900.
The Siamese statue was made of copper or brass. It was kept in the Museum of History of Religions and Atheism where I worked for 13 years.
I should add a few clarifications: The alabaster, being either white or lightish golden colored, was at least partly gilded over. The 1916 photo is different from all the others, since the Buddha's curls appear white (probably because the alabaster was not gilded there), the eyes are quite glowingly white, and the throne backing is very different. The sandalwood Buddha Andrey mentioned is something he knows about, since he wrote a book on exactly that subject:
The Sandalwood Buddha of the King Udayana. St.-Petersburg: A.Terentyev, 2010
Parallel Russian and English text
I noticed one detail that confirms or even clinches the fact that the scene of the little Rinpoche was shot in the St. Petersburg temple. I wish I had a copy of it to upload, but if you have the book at hand, turn to John Snelling's book Buddhism in Russia
(Element 1993), photo no. 16 in the middle of the book. There you see a photo labelled "Danzan Norboyev, sixth incarnation of Ganzhirva-Gegen, on the high lama's throne in the Leningrad Temple." Now get out a magnifying glass and examine the fabric covering the backrest part of the throne (the part behind the back of the Lama). Now look at the fabric covering the backrest in the scene from the 1928 movie. The floral fabric pattern is the same. And Danzan Norboyev (1887-1935) would have arrived in St. Petersburg in around 1929, so the dates are close enough we can be fairly sure it is the same piece of cloth. A minor detail, I suppose, yet telling.
So, let’s see where we stand right now... Far from being a photo of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the photo Newsweek published as being of Him was passed down from English & American newspapers of 1929 to 1932 that, without admitting doing so, took it from a Russian movie released in 1928. Now we know that the shots of the young reincarnate in that movie were actually taken in St. Petersburg, in a temple built for the use of the many Kalmucks and Buryats staying in St. Petersburg in those days. No reason why the child could not have been a Buryat as N.T. says he was, no reason at all. If I had a hammer handy I would want to pound on each letter as if it were a nail piercing the conscience of Newsweek
, but I guess bold print will do well enough: His Holiness was not in St. Petersburg in the 1920's, and the child filmed there was not Him, not Him at all
§ § §
P.S. (Not intending to let Newsweek off the hook, but...)
- Of course, to His Holiness this kind of identity problem will bring no grief at all.
- It is difficult to predict precisely, and I wouldn’t ever for the life of me even seem to second-guess His Holiness, but I strongly suspect His reaction would look a lot like this:
This comes from Dan's Tibeto-logic blog located at Blogger.com: