Mummy of Sangha Tenzin – Gue, India - Atlas Obscura

Mummy of Sangha Tenzin

Gue, India

Buddhist monk remarkably preserved because he started the mummification process while still living. 


Natural mummification is very rare, requiring conditions of extreme temperatures and dry air to preserve the body. Most mummies that we’ve seen (in textbooks and museums) were mummified with a chemical process called embalming and then wrapped in linen.

But Buddhist monks of Japan and Tibet have a unique method of mummification. When the monk is alive, he begins a slow process of starvation and ceases to eat barley, rice, and beans, which add fat to the body. Also, in preparation for death, he 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.

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. The mummy is remarkably well preserved, with skin intact and hair on his head. He died in the seated position, with a rope around the neck and thighs (an esoteric practice recorded in few Buddhist documents). Local lore claims that he asked his followers to mummify him during a scorpion infestation in the town, and when his spirit left his body, a rainbow appeared and the scorpions disappeared. The town is about 30 miles from the Tabo Monastery that dates to 996 CE.

The mummy of Sangha Tenzin is now on display in a temple in Gue, two miles from where he was excavated, in the Himachal Pradesh region of India, bordering Tibet. Controlled by the Indo-Tibetan Border Police and isolated in the Himalayas, the town is very difficult to reach. The temple where the mummy rests is open to the public, if you can get there.

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November 1, 2010

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