“I won’t tell you what’s there, you’ll have to see it to believe it,” our guide Suraj said. “You’ll be shocked without a doubt though!” Suraj flashed a cheeky grin through his beetelnut-stained lips, leaving us intrigued by how many more wonders this high-altitude desert could possibly hide.
I was travelling with a bunch of friends in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, specifically in a region called Spiti –a remote Himalayan outpost on the Tibetan border where change has been slow. We had already been awed by an ancient Buddhist monastery that rose like an ethereal castle on the barren mountain slopes at Kye; sipped tea in one of the world’s highest inhabited villages at Kibber; driven over impossibly treacherous mud roads along the raging Spiti River; and witnessed several magical sunsets over serrated Himalayan peaks and surreal, wind-sculpted moonscapes. But enchanting Spiti, one of India’s least populated regions and one heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, had more secrets than we could fathom.
On a cold and rain-washed morning, high up in the Himalayas, we made our way towards the small village of Gue, just 9km from the Tibetan border, to see what surprise Suraj had in store. Steadily climbing over a freshly tarred road that ran between pale brown dirt and rock debris, we arrived at a tiny hamlet that consisted of a handful of mud houses – and one tiny, box-shaped, single-room concrete structure. Inside, we found ourselves gaping at a 500-year-old mummy, teeth still visible through his open lips, protected by only a thin sheet of glass.
Until this moment, I’d assumed that mummified bodies were embalmed, wrapped and displayed in museums beneath several layers of glass. But here I was, looking directly at his darkened, taut skin, intact head of hair and well-preserved form; he sat firmly with his fist around one leg, chin resting on his knee.
These were the remains of a 15th-century Buddhist monk named Sangha Tenzin. He was discovered in 1975 when the stupa that was housing him collapsed during an earthquake. Since then, the body has shown little deterioration, despite being exposed to the elements and having no artificial preservation.
The weather outside looked grey and sinister, and the eerie sounds of the howling winds and rumbling clouds reflected my muddled disposition. Bewildered, I closed the door of the tiny concrete room to make the reflections on the glass housing disappear, and I found myself alone with the monk. Mouth wide open, I was filled with both wonder and fear as I surveyed his bony figure and stared into his hollow eyes. He looked so uncannily human that I half expected him to wake up and move towards me. Sangha Tenzin had been dead for more than 500 years, yet his body seemed to live on.
Upon returning home, in a quest to make sense of the bizarre encounter, I stumbled upon a documentary called The Mystery of the Tibetan Mummy. It profiled research carried out by Professor Victor H Mair from University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.. In the documentary, Mair draws parallels between Sangha Tenzin and the Buddhist monks of Yamagata in northern Japan, gathering clues about the process from the only known and documented occurrence of self-mummification, Sokushinbutsu. It’s a ritual that was undertaken between the 11th and 19th Centuries by the most highly devoted and able spiritual masters in Yamagata, who would starve themselves to death very slowly in order to reach the highest form of enlightenment.
The Yamagata monks would eat a solely tree-based diet, ingesting only roots, nuts and herbs in order to completely deplete their fat reserves. This process could take anywhere from several months to 10 years, during which time the monks were also believed to be ingesting poisonous cycad nuts and lacquer tree sap, which facilitated vomiting, removed moisture from the body and acted as a deterrent to flesh-eating insects after death. By the time the monk died, the body was so devoid of fat and the organs were so shrunken in size that the desiccated body wouldn’t start decomposing – thus preserving the physical form and beginning the baffling process of natural mummification.
Tenzin 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. Meditation may have also played an important role, as there was a visible gomtag (meditation belt) that ran around Tenzin’s neck and legs to help maintain his posture until death. I was in awe at the knowledge and determination required to envision and execute a ritual this strange.
Months later, I heard about two more Living Buddhas (as self-mummified monks are popularly known) in Ladakh’s Thiksey Monastery. More recently, in February, a well-preserved, 200-year-old self-mummified monk was found in Mongolia, another Tibetan Buddhism stronghold.
Scientists haven’t found any Living Buddhas in Tibet yet, though it is likely that the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976) and the following cultural destruction likely led to the ruin of any sacred natural mummies, religious literature and several thousand monasteries. Fortunately, in cold and remote Spiti, isolated in the Indian Himalayas, Sangha Tenzin's unlikely remains found a safe shelter.
Where do you rank in our tribe of worldly readers? Answer these questions to get a sense.