The Mummy Of Spiti Valley
“Mummy” The very word is enough to arouse anyone’s curiosity. The same thing happened when I first planned to travel the majestic Spiti Valley. Until 2 days to our departure, I had no knowledge of a Mummy’s existence in Spiti and my soul intention to visit the valley was to see the natural vistas that it has to offer. And then one day, while preparing the itinerary for my visit, I came across the name of a small remote village called Giu, also known as Geu or Ghuen and the mummy that resides there. Now this was really exciting as I had never seen a mummy before. The first image that formed in my head was that of Egyptian Mummies, wrapped in white bandages but when we finally reached Giu, I was completely surprised. What we found there inside a glass case was a naturally preserved dead body, not wrapped in any bandage, completely dried up and the eyes, teeth and hair on its head still intact.
Giu is a small village, comprising barely of about 50 to 75 houses, situated at a height of approx 10,000 feet above the sea level, between the towns of Sumdo and Tabo, located around 40 kilometers away from the popular 1,000-year-old Tabo Monastery. A yellow colored large cemented gate marks the deviation towards the village on NH-22, from where it is a steep 8 kms climb on a “somewhere good-somewhere bad” road to the hilltop where Giu is located. Spiti is one of the most sensitive border areas of the world, due to which until lately this region hasn’t seen much of tourism despite the fact that it is one of its kind. It means that if it wasn’t for its Mummy, the small village of Giu would probably have forever remained unknown to the world but now, every year, the mummy attracts a steady stream of wanderers despite the remote and inhospitable location.
Its existence has created a buzz in the tourism circuit but how this Mummy came to be, Who it was a person in real life and how it landed in a glass case in Giu is quite a story in itself. As per the locals, who award it the status of a deity, this Mummy is of a Lama who died at the age of 45 years nearly half a millenia ago. Official statement is that it was discovered by chance by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) during a road work. Some say that they came upon the Mummy while digging trenches in the area. Either way, while ITBP takes full credit for finding the Mummy but no one can tell exactly when, locals claim that they have already known about it ever since the 70s when this Mummy was located in a tomb at a different location. Then after the 70’s earthquake that created extensive damage in various parts of Spiti Valley and destroyed the tomb as well, the Mummy was officially discovered by ITBP during excavation. After that, the Himachal government have undertaken the maintenance and security of the shrine.
Fondly called as Mummy Lama by some villagers, the Mummy is believed to be of Sangha Tenzin, a monk from Gelugapa order. While there are no official records to claim this statement and the name could very well have been made up by the villagers, there are certain scientific facts that can be looked upon in this aspect. Carbon dating has revealed the Tibetan mummy dating back to the year 1475, making it over 500 years old. The Mummy was found in a sitting position [which it remains to be in till date] with a rosary in one hand, with all body parts intact and a strange belt running down its spine, from neck to lower parts of the body. This suggests that Sangha Tenzin, if that was indeed his name, was from a group of monks who were practitioners of “Zogchen”, a highest form of meditation. The strange belt tied around the body could be a ‘Gomthak’ that Monks used to tie around their neck to their knee while meditating.
Mummification, as history proves, was not a common Tibetan practice, as it was in ancient Egypt. Tibetans in old times would either offer their dead to the vultures and fishes or would cremate. Still some of the high priests were mummified and bodies kept around out of devotion, as a guide, someone to believe in to. Almost all Tibetan monks were mummified or preserved in a squatting position, than the reclining posture. Another difference between the Egyptian and Tibetan Mummies is in the way of preservation. While the Egyptians used the embalming technique and used several chemical ways to preserve the body of their dead, Tibetan mummies were said to be natural, meaning that the monks willed themselves to death through starvation and meditation. Using the advanced yogic postures and surviving on barks, they used to deprive their bodies of all juices and bacterias, which preserved the body with no chemical embalming involved. This is the same way that Sangha Tenzin is also believed to have mummified himself and hence the completely dried up body.
Interestingly, this is not the only Buddhist Mummy that exists. As a matter of fact, there have been several other known mummies in Tibet, which were destroyed by the Buddhists monks themselves fearing the onslaught of the Chinese after the Cultural Revolution. However there were a few that survived, mainly because of the fact that these were all in India. There are said to be about eight mummies in the monasteries of the Ladakh and Spiti valleys as well as one each in Kalimpong and Dehradun. Two of the well known ones are of Yogi Amtrin and Sangha Tenzin. And then there is also the body of Kyabje Yongdzin Ling Rinpoche, present Dalai Lama’s tutor, who died more than two decades ago and his body is currently preserved in McLeodganj.
Apart from these scientific and logical explanations, there is also the folklore that you can hear about from the villagers who believe that the Mummy has been looking after their village for centuries. One version of the story is that the Monk sacrificed his life and mummified himself to rid the village from the menace of Scorpions. It is believed that Sangha sat down to meditate for the betterment of the village, asked his disciples to entomb him and as his soul left for the heaven, a rainbow appeared across the sky and the village hasn’t seen even a single scorpion till date.
Another version of the story is that in ancient times, right through Giu passed an important trading route between India and Tibet. Those were the times when this small village prospered but slowly the traders found better routes. As less and less people traveled through the village, its prosperity also vanished over time. It was this prosperity of the people that Sangha Tenzin wanted to restore and sacrificed his life for.
“This is what he has been trying even in death you see” Said a Villager, “Even now he sits here at our village, attracting more and more people to visit us here”
Prayers are offered daily at the shrine by the locals. This is a world divided between the scientific and the mystical but one thing is for certain. It is the Mummy that puts the small village of Giu on the globe. Whether or not this was his intention but the Mummy of Sangha Tenzin does attract a lot of attention to the small village of Giu.