When we hear the word “mummy”, most of us automatically think of the time-honoured pharaohs of Egypt (all right, some of us may also think of the blockbuster movie, The Mummy). Thanks to these unique relics, modern science has learned a lot about the life and afterlife of ancient Egyptians.
But as it turns out, there’s more to mummies than just the Egypt of yore! While most people are familiar with the ancient Egyptian practice of mummification (a painstaking process of preservation that involves treatments with oils and minerals), there are actually a number of ways in which a body can be mummified.
The most intriguing and eerie one among these techniques is natural self-mummification. Interestingly, India is home to a remarkably well-preserved specimen of this ancient tradition — the Gue mummy of Spiti Valley.
Believed to over 500 years old, this rare natural mummy belongs to Sangha Tenzin, a Buddhist monk who started the self-mummification process while still living!
In 1975, an earthquake in the wind-sculpted Spiti Valley opened up a time-worn tomb in Gue, a little hamlet about 30 miles from the famous Tabo Monastery. Inside lay the mummified body of Sangha Tenzin, with skin intact, teeth visible through open lips and hair on his head. However, it was not until 2004 that the exposed tomb was finally excavated and the mummy removed.
After the resulting furore had settled down, a tiny, box-shaped concrete museum was built amidst the handful of mud houses at Gue. The 500-year-old mummy was then placed inside by the reverential locals, protected by only a thin sheet of glass.
The reason for the mummy being accorded this deep respect? Local folklore, according to which, Sangha Tenzin is said to have sacrificed himself for the survival of the village.
The story goes that he asked his followers to let him mummify himself after a devastating scorpion infestation. When his spirit left his body, it is believed that a rainbow appeared on the horizon following which the scorpions disappeared and the plague ended.
For the uninitiated, the esoteric tradition of natural self-mummification practiced by Nyingma sect of Buddhist monks — called Sokushinbutsu — involves no embalming. It is incredibly difficult process in which the body is compelled to react in such a way that its fats and fluids reduce at a constant rate.
It begins with the monk ceasing to to eat barley, rice and legumes (food that add fat to the body).This is because fat putrefies after death and so removing the fat from the body helps in preserving it better. This also helps in reducing the size of organs to such an extent that the desiccated body resists decomposition.
The body in kept in a seated posture (with a restrainer — called gomtag — around the neck and the thighs) so that the monk can continue to meditate. During this period of slow starvation, the monk runs candles along his skin to help it gradually dry out. A special diet (herbs, roots and tree-sap that act as deterrent to flesh-eating insects) is also given towards the end to deplete moisture in the body and preserve the meat on the bone.
Following his death, the monk is carefully placed in an underground room and allowed to dry out further for three years, before being treated with candles again. With time, the physical form literally becomes a statue in prayer, a ‘living Buddha’ as these mummies are now known as.
Interestingly, less than thirty of these self-mummified monks have been found around the world. Most of them have been found in Northern Honshu, an island in Japan whose monks also follows this practice of natural mummification.
The high levels of residual nitrogen (indicative of prolonged starvation) in Sangha Tenzin’s body shows that he followed this procedure to mummify himself.
Presently, the mummy shows little deterioration, despite having no artificial preservation and exposure to the elements. Its excellent state is probably due to the clean air, low humidity and extremely cold climate of the surrounding high-altitude desert.
As such, visitors to Gue’s unique museum can clearly observe Tenzin’s well-preserved form — from its intact head of hair and empty eye sockets to the darkened, taut skin on its broad forehead. As it sits firmly with its fist around one leg, chin resting on its knee, the mummified monk seems to be lost in contemplation as he gazes out at the surreal landscape beyond.
So if you plan to visit Spiti Valley, remember to make a detour to Gue and spend some time with India’s only naturalised mummy!