Tibet's part in the 'great game.' (Agvan Dorjiev)

by Hundley, Helen

History Today

Vol.43( Oct 1993)


COPYRIGHT History Today Ltd. (UK) 1993

            Why did the visit of a Buddhist holy man to Lhasa at the turn of the 
            century throw the British Foreign Office into a state of paranoia? 
            Helen Hundley explores the life and times of Agvan Dorjiev and the 
            part he played in the Asian rivalry of Britain and Russia. 
            This announcement of the activities of a ~certain official', clipped 
            in St Petersburg by the British Charge d'Affaires, Charles Hardinge, 
            and sent to the Foreign Office in London, introduced the British to 
            a citizen of the Russian empire, the Buriat lama, doctor of Buddhist 
            theology, Agvan Dorjiev (1853 - 1938). In the summers of 1900 and 
            1901 Dorjiev led embassies from the Dalai Lama to Russia expressing 
            official greetings. His presence at the embassies was to spark a 
            particularly interesting example of ~The Great Game' between Great 
            Britain and Russia. British perceptions of Dorjiev's role and 
            connections to the Russian government eventually led to the British 
            invasion of Tibet, the Younghusband Mission of 1904. 
            How could such an ~innocent' visit by a Buriat lama have initiated 
            such havoc? What role did this enigmatic man play in the affairs of 
            the great powers at the height of the imperialist era? In fact, the 
            mere presence of a citizen of the Russian empire in Tibet served to 
            alarm the British in India. At the time of the ~Great Game' none of 
            the players could imagine that non-Europeans could have their own 
            agendas or that a citizen of an empire would not share the same 
            goals as those of their mother country. It is not surprising then, 
            that the British naturally assumed that the Russian government 
            controlled all of Dorjiev's acts. British action at the time was 
            based on this perception of Dorjiev and his role in Tibet. For the 
            Tibetans, this perception of Russian support and interest was 
            precisely what they desired. 
            Agvan Dorjiev, a Transbaikal Buriat, certainly came from the Russian 
            empire, a fact his friends advertised during his visits to Russia 
            for the Dalai Lama. His home territory in eastern Siberia, located 
            on both sides of Lake Baikal, known as Buriatia, became the Buriat 
            Autonomous Republic under the Soviets and still retains their 
            identity under the Russian Republic. When the Russians annexed the 
            Baikal territory in the mid-seventeenth century the local 
            population, Mongolian people known as Buriats, all practiced 
            Shamanism. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the vast 
            majority of those Buriats who inhabited the region on the eastern 
            side of Lake Baikal, known as the Transbaikal, practiced Mahayana 
            Yellow Hat Buddhism, or Lamaism. 
            The Transbaikal Buriats were well aware of their minority status 
            both ethnically and religiously within the Russian empire. No matter 
            how isolated they may have been within the empire, however, they 
            were part of a greater religious, cultural, and ethnic ~family' 
            beyond - the Lamaist Buddhist religious family - which stretched 
            from the Transbaikal through Khalka, or Outer Mongolia, to Inner 
            Mongolia, to Tibet. 
            Lhasa, Tibet, is the home for this branch of Buddhism. Thus, for any 
            young Transbaikal Buriat wishing to perfect his religious 
            understanding, it was necessary to study in Tibet, a Chinese 
            tributary. After preparation at home in the 1860s Agvan Dorjiev 
            attended the Drepung Monastery, one of the most important 
            theological centres for Yellow Hat Lamaism in Tibet. It was an 
            atmosphere in which he thrived, winning the highest award for a 
            Buddhist scholar. In the mid-1880s, soon after completing fifteen 
            years of study and achieving honour as a scholar, he was named as 
            one of the new 13th Dalai Lama's (b. 1876) teachers and as his 
            spiritual adviser. He retained this role as spiritual adviser until 
            the late 1910s at least, when his physical absence attenuated that 
            side of their alliance. 
            Their relationship, however, went beyond that of student-teacher. 
            Dorjiev most certainly played a role in saving the life of the young 
            Dalai Lama in the mid- and late-1890s. The young man's continued 
            survival was in itself quite unique, as his four predecessors had 
            not lived long enough to actually rule (9th, 1805-1815.110th, 
            1816-1837; 11th, 1838-1855; 12th, 1856-1875). It is believed that 
            they were not allowed to live, and that the regents, the 
            Demo-Khutukhtus, were the agents of these deaths, possibly at the 
            behest of the Chinese. What is known through the Buriat scholar, 
            Tsybikov, who was in Lhasa from 1899 to 1902, is that there was an 
            internal struggle for the future of Tibet and Buddhism and that when 
            it was over, Dorjiev's charge, the 13th Dalai Lama, still lived, 
            indicating that the party that wished for more independence from 
            China for Tibet had prevailed. Needless to say, this period must 
            have deepened a close relationship and certainly placed Dorjiev in 
            the camp of those who wished to oppose destructive outside 
            The question remains, what purpose did the deaths of the earlier 
            Dalai Lamas serve, and what greater problems did their deaths imply? 
            In fact, the early deaths of the Dalai Lamas were just the most 
            visible signs of Tibet's precarious situation in the nineteenth 
            century. Throughout the century, Tibet had faced a growing challenge 
            to her limited local autonomy under the Dalai Lamas from her Chinese 
            overlords, who had occupied the country in the early eighteenth 
            century and became Tibet's official suzerains in 1792. By ensuring 
            that the young Dalai Lamas would not live long enough to take civil 
            control of the government, China removed a potential source of a 
            legitimate and organised challenge to its rule. 
            Unfortunately, Chinese interference was not the only danger that 
            confronted Tibet during this period. She also faced challenges to 
            her sovereignty from her neighbour, Gurkha-dominated Nepal, as well 
            as from the great imperial power to the south, Great Britain. Nepal 
            had shown interest since 1791, when she invaded Tibet and annexed 
            Shigate. As recently as 1855, Nepal had forced a 10,000-rupee tax on 
            Tibet and continued to exert pressure into the late nineteenth 
            The British had also indicated early and persistent interest in 
            Tibet, sending in a string of explorers while pressing for a special 
            trading place on the border of, or inside, Tibet. The British 
            interest had begun in the late 1700s during the tenure of India's 
            first Governor-General, Warren Hastings. By 1817 the British had 
            annexed Sikkim, a region that had hitherto paid special taxes to 
            Tibet, leaving that territory to Nepalese local control. In fact, an 
            1886 British Commercial Mission instigated border skirmishes that 
            involved Tibet, India, and Sikkim and eventually led to 1890 and 
            1893 trade agreements between China and Britain requiring Tibet to 
            trade with Britain, at a location chosen to serve British trade 
            needs. At the time, the Tibetans correctly understood the British 
            desire for increased trade, but they also feared that the British 
            would then annex them and totally destroy their culture. In the 
            1920s, the 13th Dalai Lama told Britain's representative, Sir 
            Charles Bell, that he had genuinely feared that the British had 
            wished to annex Tibet, and that if they had succeeded the survival 
            of Buddhism itself would have been in doubt. 
            Agvan Dorjiev provided a possible counterweight to dangers from both 
            directions. Here was a citizen of a state powerful enough to provide 
            a challenge to British aggression, and his actions from 1898 to 1904 
            illustrate the fact that he realised the impact he might have. For 
            their part, the Tibetans knew little to nothing about Russia. 
            Dorjiev was in the position to tell them. By all accounts, by the 
            1890s, Dorjiev began to expound the story that the mythical kingdom 
            of Shamba-la, a kingdom to the north of Tibet whose king would save 
            Buddhism, was actually the kingdom of Russia. Whether Dorjiev, the 
            Dalai Lama, the Dalai Lama's government and advisers, or all of 
            these men in concert, originated the plan of seeking contact with 
            the Russian empire, the activity was underway at least by 1898 if 
            not sooner. Although we cannot be certain how far everyone wished 
            this relationship to go, at the very least it is safe to assume that 
            they sought protection from British pressure and perhaps even hoped 
            to see a loosening of Chinese overlordship by playing Dorjiev's 
            Russian card. 
            The Tibetans may have had purely local interests, Dorjiev certainly 
            had broader goals. At this time of tremendous political and social 
            questioning in Europe, the peoples of the Russian empire were 
            exploring their own nationalist identities. In the Siberian regional 
            press, Dorjiev engaged in a battle with other Buriat intelligentsia 
            over the correct direction for Buriats. He argued for a 
            pan-Buddhist, pan-Mongolist movement directed at merging all 
            Buddhists, from the Baikal to perhaps even Tibet, into one state, 
            rather than to attempt to create an independent secular Buriat 
            state. In order to face the political realities of the times, he 
            recommended that this expanded Buddhist world unite under the aegis 
            of the Russian empire. With their increased physical size and 
            numbers, Buddhists could expect greater security in the Russian 
            Whatever the agendas, hidden or otherwise, in 1898 Dorjiev was sent 
            to Europe by the Dalai Lama to learn more about European affairs. On 
            this trip Dorjiev met Tsar Nicholas II for the first time, 
            unofficially. in the spring of 1900 Dorjiev returned with six other 
            representatives of the Dalai Lama who travelled through India on 
            their way to meet with the Tsar in Odessa in July at the Livadia 
            Palace. At this point, the British government and the newspapers 
            were blissfully unaware of the existence of Dorjiev or his mission. 
            The following year the pilgrimage was repeated with Dorjiev and the 
            other representatives meeting this time with the Tsar, the Minister 
            of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Finance in St Petersburg. 
            Probably none of these exchanges of pleasantries would have been of 
            much interest, nor would they have had the desired effect of 
            implying Russian support for the Dalai Lama, had they remained 
            secret. The Russian press and especially the Tsarist official Dr 
            Badmaev, a Buriat himself, made certain that the visits were 
            publicised and that Dorjiev's role and background were discussed 
            extensively in the Russian papers. On the surface, it appeared that 
            the information was having a subtle effect. in July and August 1901, 
            The Times in London repeated the Russian information, from the St 
            Petersburgskiia Vedomosti and other Russian journalistic sources, 
            with and without editorial comment. The activities of the ~Buddhist 
            from the Trans-Baikal Province' and his mission received several 
            mentions at a time replete with seemingly more important news, 
            indicating British fascination with Dorjiev's mission. 
            Although British initial information on Dorjiev came from the 
            Russian's themselves, a Japanese Buddhist monk, Ekai Kawaguchi, who 
            had visited Lhasa incognito, because of his status as a foreigner, 
            for eighteen months, expended an enormous amount of effort telling 
            the British about Dorjiev's activities. His account of his 1901-2 
            stay in Lhasa was published in Japanese in 1903-4 in 156 daily 
            issues of an Osaka newspaper, and in English in 1909. More 
            importantly, the indian government had access to all that Kawaguchi 
            saw, and all that he thought that he saw. Whilst in Tibet, and 
            later, Kawaguchi sent reports on Dorjiev's activities to his Tibetan 
            tutor, the Bengali, Sarat Chandra Das (1849-1917), a British agent. 
            In these letters, Kawaguchi did not make vague statements, based on 
            a general assumption that a citizen of the Russian empire might be a 
            source of future trouble in the region, but instead made very 
            specific allegations. He not only reported that Dorjiev had 
            encouraged the Dalai Lama to think of the Russian empire as 
            Shamba-la, that Dorjiev was Minister of War, but also that he was 
            personally responsible for creating an arsenal in Lhasa through the 
            importation of American guns from Mongolia. The Japanese monk also 
            reported that Dorjiev's agitations were at odds with a general 
            pro-British feeling among the Tibetans. His work did not remain 
            hidden: in the account giving his own justification for going into 
            Tibet, Sir Francis Younghusband, leader of the British expedition 
            into Lhasa and Commissioner to Tibet (1902-4), cited these same 
            Kawaguchi also managed to visit Tibet's arch enemy, Nepal, on his 
            way out of Tibet in 1902. While there he spoke to Chandra Shamsher, 
            Nepal's prime minister, to report that the Russian citizen had 
            gained influence over the Dalai Lama, and that ~... Tibet had taken 
            a hard line since Tsan-ni Kembo's [Dorjiev's] return from Russia'. 
            Nepal in turn used Kawaguchi's information to justify asking Britain 
            for action when talking to British Resident, Colonel C.W. Ravenshaw, 
            in October 1902, providing the Viceroy of India, George Nathaniel 
            Curzon, with justification for subsequent action on his part. Why 
            had Kawaguchi taken such a negative attitude toward Dorjiev? While 
            there is no proof that he was a Japanese spy, a spy, Navita 
            Yasuteru, had been sent to Lhasa at about the same time. Kawaguchi 
            may very well have been a self-appointed defender of his country's 
            interests in Asia. Additionally, documents in Tibet and Japan imply 
            a pro-British attitude on his part. 
            While we know a great deal about Kawaguchi's attempts at painting a 
            dark picture of Dorjiev's activities before 1904, we know very 
            little about yet another reporter of Russian intrigues - the German, 
            Wilhelm Filchner. In 1924, he wrote a lurid account of Russian 
            intrigue in Tibet through Dorjiev and his supposed agents. We do not 
            know, however, if he was able to communicate his theories to the 
            British at the turn of the century. 
            Was Lama Dorjiev actually an agent of the Tsar? Perhaps it is not 
            important whether he was or not. Because of a combination of the 
            Russian-supplied information and Kawaguchi's reports, he was 
            certainly seen as the embodiment of evil and trouble by a number of 
            representatives of the British government. In spite of subsequent 
            denials of interest in Dorjiev, members of the Younghusband 
            Expedition all relate stories of his activities in Russia, based on 
            these accounts, as prefaces to their actions in Tibet. Thus, his 
            activities reached the group for which they were meant, but 
            unfortunately resulted in an undesirable reaction. 
            The clipped, translated articles sent back to the British Foreign 
            Office stating the circumstances of the visit, and especially 
            Dorjiev's presence in the entourage and his leading role in 
            negotiations, created an explosion in the Viceroy of India's 
            offices, and led Curzon to initiate a pre-emptive mission to Tibet. 
            From the beginning of their awareness of his existence, Dorjiev's 
            presence and activities caused concern if not hysteria on the part 
            of Britain's representatives in India. 
            Younghusband himself specifically stated that Dorjiev's visits to 
            Russia in 1900 and 1901 were the cause of his own mission. His 
            vocabulary on this subject was firm but not flowery - his underlings 
            were more poetic in their statements. While the civil servant, 
            Charles Bell's, more seasoned and mature writings quietly held 
            Dorjiev responsible for the Dalai Lama's actions, Edmund Candler 
            with the 23rd Sikh Pioneers called Dorjiev an ~arch-intriguer' and 
            ~adventurer'. Lieutenant Colonel Waddell, the doctor on the 
            Younghusband Mission, went even further, stating that Dojiev ~was 
            the agent through which the Peter's pence of the Tartars of Baikal 
            were made over to the Lhasa exchequer'. In his memoirs published the 
            year after the mission, Waddell specifically and repeatedly blamed 
            Dorjiev for the need for the mission. Waddell reiterated Kawaguchi's 
            accusations saying that Dorjiev had created the Shamba-la-Russian 
            myth, that ~he poisoned his [the young Dalai Lama's] mind against 
            the English', and was even ~supervising the war preparations in the 
            Lhasa Arsenal'. However bluntly they stated the case, all of these 
            British officials firmly established Agvan Dorjiev as a source of 
            danger, and even as a spy, in the minds of the British public. 
            What then did the man who sent the British into Lhasa think? All 
            evidence implies that Curzon reacted extremely to Dorjiev's visits 
            to Russia, based on an assumption that he was a Russian agent. 
            Curzon was not just reacting to meetings between Dorjiev and Russian 
            officials, however. The hyperactive rumour mill fuelled by the 
            ~Great Game' served to provide the viceroy with ~concrete' actions 
            on the part of the Russians. Rumours of treaties written as a result 
            of these visits were the real source of Curzon's discomfort. 
            Moreover, Curzon's concern about Russian designs was not based on 
            fantasy or rumour. Russia genuinely presented a security threat to 
            Britain's empire in Asia at the turn of the century. Russia's 
            successful invasion and annexation of Central Asia from the 1860s to 
            the 1880s, her annexation of the Amur and Ussuri territories in 
            1860, her movement into the Liaotung Peninsula in the 1890s, her 
            activities in Manchuria where her troops lingered as a result of the 
            Boxer Rebellion, all gave credence to an assumption of an insatiable 
            Russian appetite for territory, and credence to British fears of 
            encirclement of her ~jewel in the crown', India. Before he was 
            viceroy, Curzon had travelled throughout the territories that Russia 
            had recently annexed in Central Asia, in order to evaluate 
            realistically the danger Russia presented to Britain in Asia. He 
            stated that neither the alarmists nor the apologists understood the 
            Russian empire. Based on his personal observations, Curzon came to 
            the conclusion that Russia was very successful at adding territory 
            but not a good administrator after annexation. While this analysis 
            certainly calmed some of his fears, Curzon believed that Russia 
            would continue to expand outward unless checked. 
            Curzon did not wish to stress or even admit his concern over 
            Dorjiev's activities or anxiety over Russian intrigue in his 
            arguments with the London Foreign Office, as they were less 
            susceptible to the rumours of the dangers Dorjiev presented. At the 
            beginning of the mission in January 1904 he wrote to Younghusband 
            advising him to ~Remember that in the eyes of HMG we are advancing 
            not because of Dorjieff or the Mission to Livadia or the Russian 
            spies in Lhasa, but because of our convention shamelessly violated 
            ...' as London would only accept a legal concern as reason for 
            In the end, whatever Curzon's justification for his actions, a 
            heavily armed and supported Younghusband Expedition travelled 
            through Tibet in 1903 and entered Lhasa in August of 1904. Once in 
            Lhasa, Younghusband was ~itching' to write an agreement with the 
            Dalai Lama when he found to his great chagrin that the Dalai Lama 
            and Dorjiev had fled Lhasa the week before. Even at that juncture, 
            as well as later, the colonel exhibited as great an interest in 
            Dorjiev's whereabouts as in the Dalai Lama's. 
            Younghusband's account reflects an obvious expectation of greater 
            opposition and better armed opponents, revealing an intimate 
            knowledge of Kawaguchi's as yet unpublished claims of Dorjiev's 
            activities. The ease with which the British moved through Tibet, and 
            the absence of any Russian agents or hoards of weapons all pointed 
            to the emptiness of the claims of Dorjiev's activities. The obvious 
            inaccuracies of Kawaguchi's claims were ignored, however. 
            Younghusband did finally discover someone to sign his British and 
            Tibetan Convention of 1904. The expedition left Lhasa in September 
            and returned to India in the autumn of 1904. 
            After all the effort, it really is not certain how much the 
            expedition succeeded in its goal as a pre-emptive strike to warn the 
            Russians away from further expansion in south-central Asia. The 
            Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 and the Russian Revolution of 1905 
            turned Russia's attention inwards. Russian interest, if it had ever 
            existed, had cooled so much that by 1907, Britain and Russia were 
            able to write a Convention in which Russia essentially forswore any 
            interest in Tibet. 
            Interestingly enough, Dorjiev's role as a lightning rod for British 
            panic about alleged Russian plots did not end after his flight from 
            Lhasa, or even after the Convention of 1907. He continued to be a 
            source of fascination because of his trips to St Petersburg to seek 
            help for the Dalai Lama during his flights from Lhasa to China and 
            India. Still attempting to build his Pan-Buddhist union, Dorjiev's 
            trip to Urga in 1912 resulted in the writing of two treaties, one 
            between Russia and Mongolia and one between Mongolia and Tibet, 
            neither of which had been initiated by Russia. Dorjiev's presence in 
            Mongolia in 1911 and 1912 was enough even to fuel a rumour that the 
            Dalai Lama was about to take Russian citizenship and live in St 
            Petersburg in a Buddhist temple being constructed at Dorjiev's 
            Beginning in 1901, Dorjiev served as the perfect scapegoat for 
            Viceroy Curzon to justify his actions. While Curzon took a broad 
            view of Russian abilities in Asia, because of his citizenship and 
            ethnicity, Dorjiev served as a proximate cause for Curzon's actions. 
            However sophisticated Curzon's thinking may have been, certainly 
            those on the expedition had no doubt about who was the villain, and 
            that the Russian government had to be pulling his strings, as no 
            non-European could possibly have a goal that did not serve a 
            European power. 
            At the time, and even now, almost everyone has been wrong about 
            Agvan Dorjiev of the Transbaikal. He was no one's puppet. He 
            certainly was not the ~Russian master spy' that he was depicted to 
            be. Dorjiev may have worked for closer relations between the Russian 
            empire and Tibet, but he was not interested in serving the Russian 
            empire per se. Dorjiev was a pan-Mongolist and a pan-Buddhist. His 
            entire and lengthy career points to his dedication to these 
            interests and his willingness to be ~flexible' in the manner in 
            which he achieved his goals. Moreover, he was innocent of many of 
            the activities he was accused of by both Kawaguchi and Filchner, 
            activities that were used as justifications for British actions both 
            prior to, and after, 1904. 
            Finally, who then in St Petersburg bore the blame for drawing Russia 
            into yet another dangerous game? Recent evidence of the archives 
            supports the theory that the Russian Foreign Ministry initiated 
            nothing, and even important British observers of the time agreed. 
            The British Charge d' Affaires in St Petersburg, Spring Rice, told 
            the Foreign Office that the activity on Russia's part arose from 
            Nicholas II's romantic fascination with the East and the possibility 
            of his having a role in an exotic religion. This last explanation is 
            probably closest to the truth. There certainly is ample evidence of 
            the Tsar's interest in ~exotic' healing and the religions that 
            spawned it. Dorjiev used the Tsar's interests to strike up 
            Russo-Tibetan contacts. 
            For a brief moment Agvan Dorjiev and his Dalai Lama attempted to 
            balance the dangers facing Tibet and Buddhism from the European, 
            Nepalese, and Chinese threats. The Russian card ultimately failed 
            due to the essential peripheral interest Russia and England had in 
            Tibet. Everything and everywhere else was more important. 
            While the 13th Dalai Lama succeeded later in establishing a tenuous 
            Tibetan autonomy, since 1949 Tibet has lost its battle with China, 
            seeing the destruction of its religion and even its people. Under 
            the Soviets, Dorjiev continued his efforts to pull Mongols together 
            until Stalin stopped him. After the October Revolution he worked to 
            keep Buddhism alive, succeeding to a certain extent until Stalin 
            took control of the government. The aged Dorjiev was put under house 
            arrest in the 1930s and died under uncertain circumstances, in 1938. 
            Dorjiev's vision of a Mongol union, however, has not died. Today, 
            after the breakup of the Soviet Union, religious-centred and 
            secular-centred Buriats are discussing possible relationships of 
            which Dorjiev would heartily approve. 
            Helen Hundley is Assistant Professor of History at Wichita State 
            University, Kansas.