Sangha Tenzin: India’s Hidden Secret to Natural Mummification

Publish On: 14 Aug, 2019 10:50 AM | Updated   |   Abhishek Mishra  
Natural Mummification


hat is the first thing that comes into your mind when I say the word ‘mummy’? The pyramids of Egypt? The blockbuster movie franchise based on the same concept? Or your lovely, caring, wonderful mother? If it’s the first two, then you’re in for a real treat. For today I bring forth to you, India’s very own mummy! Yes, you read that right. We have a mummy, right here in the land of diversity. Who would’ve thought what people spend busloads of money to go to Egypt and see, is right here in our own country. Astonishing as it may sound, it’s completely true. And what is even more interesting is the fact that it’s a 500 year old mummy, discovered only 43 years ago. Without further ado, let’s divulge into the discovery and origination of a priceless Indian artefact, whose mere presence is a feather added to India’s cap of its multi-faceted history.

An image of Lama Tenzin, kept inside a glass cage in the temple.

Gue is a tiny hamlet in the Spiti valley of Himachal Pradesh, almost on the Indo-China border. A peaceful village, blissfully situated in the lovely foothills of the Himalayas, Gue is controlled by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and is a very difficult place to reach. A 12-hour rickety ride along one of the most treacherous roads of the Kinnaur range is the only way to visit this mysterious little town. And this is where India’s very own mummy resides. Not some crowd-infested, tourist hawking large city. Neither a distant, remote, magical location. But a simple, humble, serene village houses the country’s one and only mummy.

Gue village in Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh.

The mummy is said to be of one Sangha Tenzin, a Buddhist monk who mummified himself about 500 years ago. Yes, he actually mummified himself. This process of mummification, unknown to most, is the natural process of mummification. The procedure begins with a slow technique of starvation which eventually leads to ceasing of barley, rice, and beans consumption, which add fat to the body. Also, in preparation for death, the monk runs candles along his skin, drying it out. The monk dies of starvation in a seated pose. Fat putrefies after death, and by removing the body of fat, the monk can be better preserved. Following his death, he is then placed in an underground room for three years, to continue drying out before again being treated with candles. The monk becomes a statue in prayer. Less than thirty of these monks have been found around the world, most on the main island of Japan, Honshu.

Another such monk mummified by the natural process, found in Mongolia.

Now the question that naturally follows is, why exactly did Sangha Tenzin mummify himself? And the answer is equally surprising. Local lore claims that he asked his followers to mummify him during a scorpion infestation in the town. The town is located about 30 miles from the Tabo Monastery that dates to 996 CE. The body was kept in a posture where the monk could continue to meditate, by using a restrainer around the neck. 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.

In 1975 an earthquake in northern India opened an old tomb containing the mummified body of monk Sangha Tenzin. In 2004, the local police excavated the tomb and removed the mummy. On discovery, it was quite astonishing to find that the mummy was quite well preserved, with his skin intact and a crop of hair on his head. The mummy was eventually placed in a temple, which has become a local attraction for curious tourists.

A distant image capturing the background of the temple, where the mummy of Lama Tenzin is situated.

In conclusion, the mummy of Sangha Tenzin is one of the rarest, priceless artefacts in India’s possession. Yes, we have millions of temple, thousands of fortresses and hundreds of caves. But a natural mummy? We have only one of that. And what’s surprising is the lack of knowledge amongst the common public. Even travel enthusiasts are unaware of this historical beauty. It then becomes our sole responsibility, to put the word out there. To do everything in power, to make this temple one hell of a tourist spot. As obligated citizens, we owe it to Sangha Tenzin. For he did not just sacrifice himself in vain. He gave our country an invaluable gift. His is a story waiting to be told. A story of sacrifice. A story of bravery. A story, of India’s only mummy.