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Gue Monastery & the Mystery of the Mummy

by travelmynation
Gue Monastery

Who has not heard about Spiti Valley? We bet most of us have, but is Spiti only famous for its landscape, natural beauty, cultural heritage, and the Monasteries? Well, do you know about the mystery of the mummy in Gue Monastery? In 2018, when the Mummy was in front of our eyes, it was a scene right out of the Hollywood movie, The Mummy!

Interesting right? In 2018, we drove from Bangalore to the Northern states for a 6 month trip. In Spiti, we had a long conversation with a Jawan posted there and in this article we share what mysteries the mummy has!

Where is the Gue Mummy?

While visiting Spiti on the way to Tabo about three kilometers ahead of Sumdo is a diversion with a road sign directing travelers towards the village of Gue. It is almost a 10  kilometer drive from the signboard and you will get to drive on a paved road till the monastery. It is a small village comprising barely of about 50 to 75 houses and is only a few kilometers away from the Indo-China border. If not for the mummy, then the village of Gue would have never gained popularity.

Gue Monastery
The monastery that houses the Mummy. It is usually under lock and key

As you enter the village you will see the beautiful Gue monastery right at the edge of the hill. A BSF officer will always be in and around the monastery keeping an eye on the travelers and guarding the place. As you walk inside the monastery you will see an empty room with a small glass case in the center. Inside the glass case is the mummified body of Sangha Tenzin also known as  ‘Mummy Lama’ by the villagers, wrapped in silk robes. Another mystery is how people managed to place money inside the case. We couldn’t find any money hole there!

What is the Legend of the Gue Monastery?

Experts believe that the mummy is almost 500 years old,  but it looks extremely well preserved. Upon enquiring, some locals told us that Sangha Tenzin died at the age of 45 years,  nearly half a millennia ago. He asked his followers to let him mummify himself after a devastating scorpion infestation.

Gue Monastery
Pic of the Mummy. Notice how lifelike it is!

During that period he was undergoing slow starvation and was mostly meditating. He ran candles along his skin to help it gradually dry out. During the end of his time, he was given a special diet consisting of herbs, roots, and tree-sap that act as a deterrent to flesh-eating insects. It is also said that once the spirit left his body, a rainbow appeared on the horizon following which the scorpions disappeared and the plague ended.

Following his death, the monk was carefully placed in an underground room and was allowed to dry out for three more years before being treated with candles again. As time went by the physical form of the body literally became a statue in prayer, a ‘living Buddha’ as these mummies are now known as. The mummy of Sangha Tenzin is still well preserved with his teeth still visible with his open lips, and his hair and nails still growing. The body is kept in a seated posture so that the monk can continue to meditate. The skin of the mummy has darkened and he is sitting firmly with his fist around one leg and his chin resting on his knee.

The Discovery of the Mummy in Gue Monastery

This 15th-century Buddhist monk was discovered in 1975  when the stupa that was housing him collapsed during an earthquake.  It is believed that Sangha Tenzin and the Buddhist monks of Yamagata in northern Japan were gathering knowledge about self-mummification also known as Sokushinbutsu. It is a ritual that was started around 1000 years ago by a Japanese priest named Kukai. The ritual was intended to demonstrate the ultimate act of religious discipline and dedication. This ritual which culminated in death and the complete preservation of the body was practiced by many monks. If successful, then the monk was posthumously placed in a temple for others to see and honor.

The process of self-mummification

The process of self-mummification was very rigorous and painful as people say. We were told that during the first 1000 days the monks had to sacrifice all food except nuts, seeds, fruits, and berries and they engaged in extensive physical activity to strip themselves of all body fat. The for the next 1000 days their diet was restricted to only barks and roots and at the end of the period drink poisonous tea made from the sap of the Urushi tree. The tea was supposed to cause vomiting and a rapid loss of body fluids along with acting as a preservative and help kill all maggots and bacteria that would cause the body to decay after death.

Gue Monastery
A similar mummy in Japan. Pic courtesy - madworldjapaneseart.blogspot.com

During the final stage, after 6 years of preparation, the monk was supposed to lock himself in a stone tomb barely larger than his body. Here he is supposed to go into a state of meditation. He is seated in the lotus position, a position would not move from until he died. For his oxygen, a small air tube was present in the tomb. Each day the monk would need to ring a bell to let the outside world know that he was still alive.

Once dead and the bell stopped ringing, the oxygen tube was removed and the tomb was sealed for the final 1000 day period of the ritual.  When the entire process was over, the tomb was opened to see if the monk could successfully mummify himself or not.

If the body was found in a preserved state then he was raised to the status of Lord Buddha and his body was placed in a temple. This ancient practice of self-mummification continued until the 19th century and finally, the Japanese Government outlawed it. Today Sokushinbutsu has not practiced anymore but it is believed that many hundreds of monks attempted sokushinbutsu, but only 28 are known to have achieved mummification. Even today prayers are offered daily at the monastery by the locals and one thing that is certain is that It is the Mummy of Spiti Valley that puts the small village of Gue and the Gue Monastry on the global map today.

**This article is based on the information we collected during our visit to Spiti in 2018 along with research done online. If you find any information that is not accurate, please get in touch with us and we will be happy to make the edit. We do not claim that the information in the blog is a 100% accurate**

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