Natural mummification is very rare, requiring conditions of extreme temperatures and dry air to preserve the body. India’s only known naturally preserved oldest mummy is in village Gue, located between the towns of Sumdo and Tabo within the trans- Himalayan cold desert of Spiti Valley of Himachal Pradesh. The self mummified body of the dead Korzok Lama Sangha Tenzing of the Tabo Monastery lives on in the cold and dry fresh environs.
Believed to be about 600-year-old, the holy body is in a sitting position with his fist around one leg, chin resting on his knee; teeth are still visible through his open lips. The monk is virtually a statue in prayer.
Natives are devotedly influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. Known as “living Buddha”, followers believe that the mummy is alive with the hair and nails still growing.
Local lore says that he asked his followers to mummify him during a scorpion infestation in the town; and when his spirit left his body, a rainbow appeared and the scorpions disappeared. According to one school of thought, the yogic postures in which the monk sits can self preserve the body.
- Apparently, his body got buried beneath a glacier during an avalanche and remained there for centuries till ITBP (Indo Tibetan Border Police) personnel found it during some road clearance project, only a few kilometers away from the India-China border.
- Buddhist monks of Japan and Tibet are said to have a unique method of mummification. By cutting down fat intake, they were preparing the body for preservation. Also, in preparation for death, they ran candles along the skin, drying it out. By the time the monks died, the body was devoid of any fats and the organs would be shrunken. The body would thus not decompose and the natural form would be preserved.
- It’s believed to be a ritual that was undertaken between the 11th and 19th Centuries by the most highly devoted and able spiritual masters in Yamagata^ (Japan), who would starve themselves to death very slowly to reach the highest form of enlightenment.
- As the legend goes, the monks starved themselves down to flesh and bones, ingesting only roots, nuts, and herbs to completely deplete their fat reserves. Perhaps, they also consumed poisonous lacquer made from the sap of the tree that facilitated vomiting, removed moisture from the body; and acted as a deterrent to flesh-eating insects after death so that their organs wouldn’t rot. When they were near death, the monks were placed in an underground tomb where they sat in the lotus position (legs crossed with each foot atop the opposite thigh).
- The monk’s body was naturally left underground for three years and three months until it had fully hardened. Buried three meters underground and breathing through a bamboo stick protruding from the dirt, reciting chants. The monk rang his bell each day indicating to his disciples he was alive. When the bell stopped ringing it meant he was dead. Three years later, his disciples would dig him up to see if he had completed the process to become a self-mummified monk or “living Buddha”.
- Today, there are 16 mummified monks whose corpses are still preserved in Japan. Monk Tenzin at Gue would have followed a similar procedure to the Japanese monks, evident from the high residual nitrogen levels – indicative of prolonged fasting – that Mair’s* team found in his body.
This practice no longer happens today, but the followers exist.
- A discovery film ‘Mystery of the Tibetan Mummy’ follows a team of scientists led by *Prof. Victor H Mair as they try to examine the mummy discovered in Gue, and find out how old the body is, and why it is preserved in such good condition.
- In the context, there is also a reference to the Bronze Age and Early Iron Age mummies that have been unearthed from around the edges of the Tarim Basin in Eastern Central Asia (Xinjiang, China). These mummies count as one of the most important archeological discoveries of the 20th and 21st centuries.
- Egyptian mummies were usually embalmed and then wrapped in muslin cloth. About 2000 years, how did the Egyptians look like? A Virginia-based lab has now recreated the faces of three mummies using their DNA. The three men were predicted to have a light brown complexion, with dark eyes and hair and no freckles.
I wish, during my long stay in Japan, I had visited the temples of the self mummified monks to worship the dead.
The Buddhist mummy of Monk Sangha is perhaps the only one of a Buddhist monk in India that was naturally mummified (self-mummification) without the use of chemical preservatives.
Though I had intensive touring of the contiguous areas through these terrains in the mid-nineties; presently my son Manu Maharaaj had a time alone with the bony monk looking into his open eye, in awe.
^For the prefecture with the same name where this city is located,
*Professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania U.S.
Ref: A Guide on Where to See the Mummies of Yamagata GaijinPot Travel
Science Desk | Kochi |October 6, 2021
Prof. (Er.) Chander P Mahajan is an art critic & a free lance journalist. The Environmentalist stays in Shimla and Dalhousie, Himachal Pradesh, India.