A mummified monk in a lonely village beckons us to faraway Spiti
When Columbus was just touching down in America, a Buddhist monk was mummifying himself in distant India — to free his village from a plague of scorpions. The monk, or lama, known as Sangha Tenzin is probably the only mummy in India to have undergone natural mummification. We decided to go looking for him in one of India’s remotest villages.
Gue is a tiny hamlet in the Spiti valley of Himachal Pradesh, almost on the Indo-China border. There are no buses to Gue, so we hired a cab from the high altitude village of Nako. That morning, we had started from Chitkul at 6:30 and reached Nako in the evening after a 12-hour rickety ride on one of the most treacherous roads of the Kinnaur range.
We left Nako at 7 am, driving through barren mountains for the next two hours. The treacherousness of the Malling Nalla no longer bothered us — in fact, we were so lost in the rugged and arid scenery that we did not think of the Malling Nalla till we had reached Sumdoh. Spiti starts from Sumdoh and foreigners visiting this region need an inner line permit (available in Rekong Peo).
A colourful arch invites you into the village of Gue. From here, it’s an 11 km drive along a narrow road abutting the mountains. There are hardly a dozen houses in the village and the mountains engulf it from all sides. The last structure in the village, atop a small knoll, is said to house the mummy. The icy breeze sets the right temperature for a visit to a mummified lama.
A mason working in the adjoining new monastery opens the door, and we get our first glimpse of the lama inside a small glass box. The mountains behind us are reflected in the glass, which lends it a karmic connection. As we step inside, the lama’s face gets clearer, with its empty eye sockets and the broad forehead. Our driver (and guide) tells us of how blood oozed out of the ground when people were digging the area to build houses. This led to much fright and furore among the villagers and, on further digging, the mummy was found.
Though the mummy is dated to be almost 500 years old, it has a certain air of freshness. The lama seems lost in contemplation as he looks over the valley. Chances are it’s the clean air and cold that contributed to the excellent state the mummy is in — with hair and teeth well preserved. The silk robes on him seem to conceal the tremendous power and will that he must have had to undergo the mummification process.
Natural mummification is an extremely difficult process in which the body is made to react in such a way that body fats and fluids reduce at a constant rate and the organs that can decay are reduced in size. A special diet is given towards the end to preserve the meat on the bone. The body is kept in a posture where the monk can continue to meditate, by using a restrainer around the neck. My post-travel research educated me about this esoteric practice, part of the Dzogchen tradition in the Nyingma sect of Buddhism. Northern Honshu in Japan also follows this practice of natural mummification.
It is believed that when Sangha Tenzin's soul finally left his body, a rainbow appeared across the sky and the village was rid forever from scorpions. With thoughts of the mummy and the serenity of the village still lingering in our minds, we bid adieu and continued our journey towards Kaza.