Fear, excitement, amazement these are the words that I will use to describe my experience in Gue village. Located in the Lahaul and Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh, this village has a wonder hidden in its core.
In this little village lays the perfectly well-preserved 500-year-old mummy of Sangha Tenzin. He was a Buddhist Monk from Tibet. He was found mummified in a sitting position, with his skin and hair intact.
What is a mummy?
A mummy is a dead human or animal whose skin and organs are preserved by the use of chemicals, in extreme cold conditions or by keeping it in low humidity and dry surroundings.
Earlier it was believed that the ancient Egyptian mummies were created naturally due to the environmental conditions in which they were buried. But later, as a result of many studies conducted by University of York, Oxford etc. it was confirmed that there also existed artificial mummies in the old times. This was confirmed in 2018, when tests on a 5600-year-old mummy in Turin revealed that it had been deliberately mummified using linen wrappings and embalming oils made from conifer resin and aromatic plant extracts.
Egyptians used to practice artificial mummification as part of a religious belief that it provides a better afterlife to the deceased. Later it became a status symbol resulting in elaborate tombs, pyramids of the kings and queens.
But can the mummification process be started only after death?
Naturally mummified relic of Sangha Tenzin says otherwise.
Story Behind the mummification of the monk Sangha Tenzin
It is believed that Buddhist monk, Sangha Tenzin sacrificed himself for the survival of his village.
The story says that the monk asked his followers to let him mummify himself to uplift a scorpion infestation curse on the village. When his soul left his body, it is believed that a rainbow appeared on the horizon following which the scorpion infestation disappeared and the plague ended.
How can one achieve natural self-mummification? The Sokushinbutsu
Sokushinbutsu are a kind of Buddhist mummy. The term refers to the practice of Buddhist monks observing asceticism to the point of death and entering mummification while they are still alive.
All over the world 24 such mummies have been discovered till date.
Sokushinbutsu involved a strict plant-based diet which abstained from any cereals, and relied on pine needles, resins and seeds found in the mountains, which would eliminate all fat in the body. This increased rate of fasting and meditation leads to starvation. The monk then reduced the intake of fluids, thus dehydrating the body which lead to shrinking of all organs. Slowly their souls left their body in this meditative state, the mummified monks were then kept in a cold dry enclosed space and worshipped by their followers as, ‘living Buddha’.
How was the mummy of Sangha Tenzin discovered?
In 1975, an earthquake in the Spiti Valley opened up a time-worn stupa in Gue, it was estimated to be from about the 14th century. Inside lay the mummified body of Sangha Tenzin, sitting in a meditative state, with his skin intact, teeth visible through open lips and hair on his head.
However due to the remoteness of Gue, in a desolate mountainous area close to India’s border with China – restricted to the public and under the control of the paramilitary Indo-Tibetan Border Police – the mummy’s existence had remained under wraps.
It was not until 2004 that the exposed tomb was finally excavated, and the mummy removed.
After the resulting craze and excitement had settled down, a tiny, box-shaped concrete museum was built amidst the handful of mud houses at Gue. The 500-year-old mummy was then placed inside by the religious locals, protected by only a sheet of glass.
The high levels of residual nitrogen, indicative of prolonged starvation, in Sangha Tenzin’s body shows that he followed Sokushinbutsu to mummify himself.
Presently, the mummy shows little deterioration. Its excellent state is probably due to the clean air, low humidity and extremely cold climate of the surrounding high-altitude cold desert.
How to reach Gue village?
Best way of transport to reach Gue is via your own vehicle or by a hired taxi. There is now surety of buses running for Gue on a daily basis. There is a high probability of getting a bus for this village from the town of Sumdoh in Kinnaur valley than from Kaza.
While approaching Spiti valley from the Kinnaur route, about three kilometers ahead of Sumdoh towards the Tabo village is a diversion directing travelers towards the village of Gue. The village is around 15-20 km from here on an unpaved muddy road.
The diversion is also known as Gue-nala locally and the government buses which run from kaza to Phoo and Shimla halt here. From here village is at a walking distance of 10-13 km along a very narrow trail.
The village of Gue is around 80km from the town of Kaza which the sub-district headquarters of Spiti valley and 430 km from the state capital of Shimla. Gue is only 250 km from the town of Manali via the famous Kunzum Pass.
On the second day of Spiti valley trip we started from the Nako village situated in Kinnaur district and had planned to take a detour to the small village of Gue before reaching Tabo village.
Between Nako and Tabo village there is a gate on the right-hand side of the road which says, ‘Welcome to Gue village’, from here the village is around 10-15 km via and unpaved dirt road.
The whole way there is very scenic with small mountain houses on the way, mountains on your left and in the front, a small canal on the right. This village is so remote that there are wild flowers growing on the road.
Gue monastery (a Japanese style temple built to keep the mummy in, after it’s complete) is situating in a clearing which is surrounded by the mountains that offers clean and cold air and icy-breeze throughout the year, on its side is the small cemented hut where the famous mummy has been placed for now.
The mummy is kept locked nowadays as it had been stolen before and can be viewed only via the windows. We were fortunate enough that we found the local with the keys there and got a change to have a look at the famous mummy up-close.
When I first saw the mummy, at first fear struck me, as I had never seen anything close to a real skeleton before, but that fear turned into amazement in just a few seconds as I noticed the teeth, hair and the hollow eye sockets of this scared monk. He was sitting with his head on his knees, meditating, at peace, and it brought a sense of relief to my soul to experiencing something so pure, selfless and unique.
Just outside the monastery is a small vendor who offers coffee and tea to the travelers here, and in that freezing cold, that was the nectar of life that we all needed. All of us gulped it down with smiling faces, endearing talks and roaring laughter.
This place is so close to the Indo-China border that one of my friends almost got arrested for flying a drone there. Safe to say, it is a no-fly zone for drones.
After that we explored a little bit of the village, enjoyed the nature and left for the Tabo village.
Where to stay
If you wish to stay in this village, your only options are homestays. You can stay there with just some basic facilities like food, bed, electricity and common washrooms. There are no local restaurants so the only option you have for the food are the homestays.
Since other than the mummy and scenery there is nothing much left to do there, you can complete exploring the place in a few hours and travel to Tabo, Dhankar or Kaza from there where you can find better homestays and hotels to stay in.
We stayed in Tashi homestay in Dhankar village which will cost you around Rs.800-1000 per person, including dinner and breakfast and their warm hospitality.
Nearby villages to explore in Spiti Valley
Some nearby villages that you can head for after exploring Gue village in Spiti Valley are:
It is a peaceful village famous for its Nako lake. This lake is about 3,662 metres above sea level and is surrounded by willow and poplar trees. Near the lake there are four Buddhist temples which you can visit.
The town surrounds a Buddhist monastery which, according to legend, is said to be over a thousand years old. The Dalai lama has expressed his desire to retire to Tabo, since he maintains that the Tabo Monastery is one of the holiest. In 1996, the Dalai Lama conducted the Kalachakra initiation ceremony in Tabo, which coincided with the millennium anniversary celebrations of the Tabo monastery. The ceremony was attended by thousands of Buddhists from across the world.
Dhankar Village is a large village which used to be the capital of Spiti Valley, India. It is at an altitude of 3,894 metres (12,774 feet) above sea level, between the towns of Tabo and Kaza, Himachal Pradesh. Above the village sits the local monastery – the Dhankar Gompa. It also has a beautiful hidden lake called Dhankar lake, it is a sacred lake and is surrounded by huge mountains, nothing man made can be seen for kilometers here, just the nature and peace.
The town of Kaza or Kaze is the subdivisional headquarters of the remote Spiti Valley. The town is divided into the old, as Kaza Khas and new as Kaza Soma sections. The new town contains the administrative buildings. The Tangyud Gompa dates to the early 14th century and is built like a fortified castle with massive slanted mud walls and battlements. It is on the edge of a deep canyon and overlooking the town of Kaza, 4 km from the town.
So, if you wish to see a mummy, there is no need to travel to Egypt, Gue village is the place to be for that, in India.
It is secluded, untouched by the outside world and offers a lot of our history.
I have tried to cover all the aspects related to this village. If you have anything else to ask or share, kindly drop your valuable feedback in the comment section.
If you wish to stay in Himalayas for a long period of time during this Corona pandemic here are some of the home-stays in Himalayas that can be your workstation with a view.
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Hi, I am Shivani Singh, I am an IT Engineer who loves to travel and pour her heart out with a piece of pen and paper. As I am an Air force brat, I had never had a single place which I could call home, everywhere I traveled I created a new home,a new life. Himalayas are the only place which connected to me in an ethereal level, now wherever I go, I know where my home is, it is where my soul resides, it is in the lap of the Himalayas.
9 Replies to “Naturally Mummified Monk In Gue Village – Sangha Tenzin”
This is absolutely lovely article. I read a lot about this mommy and really want to visit this Spiti length and breadth. Much needed information.
I have read about this mummy before, and the story behind it is amazing. I would love to visit it sometime and see it for myself. I wonder how much it is different from the Egyptian mummies?
I’ haven’t read about this but after reading your post I’m intrigued to visit this place some day. The thought of visiting a mummy sure seeks exciting but thrilling as well
Incredible photos! I would love to visit this village. Your blog definitely inspired me to add these places to my over flowing bucket list. This certainly looks perfect for nature lovers
Very intriguing post! I kept scrolling down till I hit upon the picture of the monk. It sent shivers down my spine to see him. Loved your post, the other pictures and descriptions are wonderful. Thank you for writing this one!
I had heard about this concept and how this particular community does it.
However had always been intrigued by it.
Your post has explained and thrown light on it in detail.
Would love to see it personally.
Wow, even though there are some mummies that I have seen in India, I still cannot visualise India to be the place to see mummies. The story of Sangha Tenzin seems intriguing and I would love to visit the Gue village to see it. It is really interesting to learn as to how the people generally preserve the bodies and store them. There was an exhibition few years ago in Sydney where they had got the mummies from Egypt and had stored them in Sydney for people to go see and learn about them.
Really nice article…very well structured…i wrote about the Gue monastery sometime back but you have written this in a much more detailed way
Gue is definitely one of my favourite villages! So small and quaint, yet it is so significant for historical reasons. I had a fair idea about the mummy and it’s teeth and hair – but the details you’ve written are amazing! Thanks for sharing this with us