Lama of the Gobi: The Life and Times of Danzan Rabjaa, Mongolia's Greatest Mystical Poet
By Michael Kohn — Maitri Books — Ulaanbaatar — 163 pages



Danzan Rabjaa (1803-1856), officially known as the Fifth Noyon Incarnate Lama of the Gobi, is perhaps Mongolia's most beloved saint. The Fourth has made so many scandals, including the murder of a member of the Chinese royal family, that the Manchu Emperor banned his reincarnation. Consequently when young Rabjaa was enthroned as the Fifth, he was officially given an alternate title to hide his true identity. Previous to his identification and Buddhist education, the boy Rabjaa had been the child of a wandering minstrel and it was from his father that Rabjaa learned the gift of song and poetry. As he grew up his talent for verse was evident and by his early 20s he was creating epic poems and short stories. He would eventually pen over 300 poems, including the well-known "Shame-Shame," a critical attack on the immorality he witnessed in his society.

Between commissioning monasteries and artwork he also started producing theatre, adapting old Tibetan plays to fit a Mongolian setting. His greatest work was Saran Khökhöö Namtar (The Life Story of the Moon Cuckoo) a mammoth project that took up to a month to perform in its entirety. The story did much to promote Mongolian culture but like his poetry it also allowed Rabjaa the opportunity to attack the elements of society he saw as corrupt and degenerate. Most of all, Rabjaa was critical of his Manchu overlords who on more than one occasion threatened to burn down his theatre.

More than a playwright and poet, Danzan Rabjaa was a true Renaissance man and innovator, with a number of well-recorded talents. He was a collector of valuable objects and opened Mongolia's first museum at his main monastery, Khamaryn Khiid. He had knowledge of medicinal plants and treated his disciples as well as the Bogd Gegeen of Khuree. He advanced the social status of women, encouraging equal rights, raising their level of education and honoring them in religious ceremonies. He was a tantric master and educated his disciples in Buddhist theology. Rabjaa was also well-traveled; he made a number of trips across Mongolia and China.

Sadly, Danzan Rabjaa's messages of kindness went unheeded and he was poisoned by a rival. The Sixth incarnate was assassinated as a youth and the Seventh was executed by Mongolian Communists in 1931. The lineage came to an end and Danzan Rabjaa's legacy was hidden under the veil of communism. Danzan Rabjaa's monastery Khamaryn Khiid was destroyed by the Mongolian army, but not before a young monk, Oidov, was able to hide crates full of Danzan Rabjaa's artwork and personal effects. Oidov's grandson Altangerel is now charged with caring for the objects sacred to Danzan Rabjaa.

"Lama of the Gobi  is the first full account of Danzan Rabjaa in the English-language. It carries the reader through Mongolian history, Buddhism and the traditions of the nomadic culture to generate an appreciation of both the man and the many legends that surround him." — Glenn H Mullin, author and Buddhologist

Michael Kohn, this author of this book, first learned about Danzan Rabjaa in 1999 while working for The Mongol Messenger, an English-language newspaper in Ulaanbaatar. After reading his story in the local press he traveled to Sainshand to meet Mr. Altangerel and learn first hand about the legends of Danzan Rabjaa. His findings grew into this extraordinary book, published in 2006 by Maitri Books. You can read more about Michael Kohn at:

Resource Guide: Art Appraisers | Art Galleries | Associations | Auction Services | Conservation | Cultural Studies | Museums

Newsletter Sign Up:

© The Tibetan Mongolian Museum Society • 4105 Duke Street • Suite 108, Alexandria, VA 22304