By Shail Desai Jun. 12, 2016
Legend has it that the mummy in Himachal’s Giu has powers to keep visitors at bay so that he isn’t disturbed while meditating. I hitchhike across Spiti valley to find out.
It was time for another halt, this time for a quick meal at the lone dhaba at Spillow, in the Kinnaur valley of Himachal Pradesh. The next destination on our backpacking excursion was Nako, and we had been on the road for over three hours already. As we waited for our Maggi, conversation ranged from the erratic rainfall to a road-widening project that would be a boon for the locals, yet detrimental to the environment. Then someone mentioned the “Giu mummy”.
The idea of a mummy in Spiti valley was as unexpected as a fresco in the Panama Canal. “I’ve heard about the mummy at the Giu village, but haven’t been there myself,” our driver Pyarelal told us, as we gorged on our piping hot Maggi, ravenous after the bumpy ride from Rekong Peo.
As we made our way to Nako, picking up locals along the way, the conversation revolved around the mummy – some locals affirmed the legend, others came up blank. The road moved uphill after we crossed a weathered iron bridge at Khab. As we ascended, the raging Spiti River grew smaller and fainter behind us.
Dinner that night was a candlelit affair with Rambhakt, who gave us shelter in a comfortable corner of his home, right in the middle of the village. It didn’t take us too long to bring up the mummy again. Rambhakt smiled at us mysteriously. “Let me introduce you to someone who can tell you more,” he said, leaving the room.
He returned a few minutes later, holding the hand of a man who looked older than stone. The old man’s face was lined with wrinkles, a pair of broken glasses rested on his nose, held in place with a rubber band. He was, we were told, the oldest man in the village. As prayer flags fluttered in the wind outside, he told us the story of this popular mummy.
The mummy was believed to be the body of a lama called Sangha Tenzin from the Gelugpa sect. The lama lived in Giu about 500 years ago, when it was believed to be a part of Tibet. According to legend, he was deep in meditation when a glacier came down and buried him under piles of snow. And there he remained until the Indo-China war broke out in 1962.
During the war, since the closest Chinese village was just a few hours away from Giu, the Indian Army had set up base in the area. Soldiers were digging for a bunker when they suddenly found blood on the snow. Further digging revealed the lama’s body, wholly intact after all these years. Before they could do anything about the discovery, the weather turned and the body was left in the open.
Once the weather cleared, the villagers returned and summoned a local deity, Chhakula, to learn more about the mummy. The deity supposedly entered the body of a villager, and told the gathering that the frozen body belonged to someone special, and asked them to build a shelter for the lama. So the villagers built a little shrine at the same location where the mummy was found, and the legend of the Giu mummy was born.
Just as we reached the top of the road, we were met with the sight of a car with an open bonnet and a steaming engine, as if fulfilling Kunzum’s prophecy.
“I’ve been there many times when I was young; the hair and nails still grow – it’s a miracle,” the old man concluded, the candlelight flickering in his dark eyes.
That night we couldn’t sleep much. The next morning we were up before the sun, waiting for a ride. Luckily for us, along came Kunzum, who was taking his farm produce to the market at Hurling. Though the front cabin was full, he was happy to give us a ride. We found our space amid the vegetables in the back of his pickup, making an early breakfast of green pea. The road led us through some of the most magnificent parts of the region – from the lined up columns of stalagmites in the barren patches to the lush green apple orchards at Chango.
Kunzum said he would have gladly dropped us at Giu, about nine kilometres off the main NH22 highway, but that a mysterious force on the approach left cars with heated engines, and he didn’t want to get stranded. “The locals believe it’s the mummy’s powers that keep visitors at bay, to ensure that he isn’t disturbed while meditating,” he told us.
We began our trudge to Giu, until an army truck came along, and let us join the dust storm in the back. We were offloaded just outside Giu. After a 20-minute walk through the village, we finally saw a faded sign that read, “Mummy Road”.
Just as we reached the top of the road, we were met with the sight of a car with an open bonnet and a steaming engine, as if fulfilling Kunzum’s prophecy. The car’s perplexed driver fumed at how a relatively new car had been reduced to this state.
The door to the temple was ajar, and as we stepped in its cool, damp environs, our eyes took a while to adapt, as sunlight bounced off the mummy’s glass case. The mummy wasn’t in wraps like its Egyptian counterpart; neither was he lying on his back. He was about three-feet tall and sat in the lotus position, all knotted up. A tattered strap ran around his neck, holding his knee up to his chest. This, I would later learn, is the strap that helps monks maintain the rishi or sage posture. It is believed that they practice an advanced yogic posture called zolk-shun with the use of such a strap, to attain nirvana.
I couldn’t take my eyes off this man who’d travelled through 500 years in time. How had he been mummified? Did ice have a role to play? A research expedition led by an anthropologist from the University of Pennsylvania suggests an entirely different hypothesis – that the lama practiced self-mummification. Monks in deep meditative states, or tukdam, are considered to be a step away from Buddha. Their bodies gradually shrink, and hair, nails and clothes remain, but they are not considered dead. Forty such cases have been found in India in the past 50 years.
As I stood before this tiny body worn out and almost black with age, a shiver ran down my spine. The idea that this man could still be alive and meditating struck at the foundation of everything we know about the universe. It couldn’t be possible, could it? And yet, the locals said his nails continued to grow, as did the tuft of hair on the head.
Science has an explanation for this. The hair and nails get longer because the skin shrinks and withdraws, thus increasing their exposure – but up on that mountain, in the sharp sunlight of a cold day, I wanted to believe in the spiritual. We stepped out of the shrine. The sun had disappeared and a light drizzle fell across the valley. From our vantage point, we could still see the car by the road with its bonnet open.
It’s been four years since my trip to Kinnaur but the Giu mummy still haunts me. It had a sense of sorrow. It seemed like it would come to life any moment. Perhaps it did after we left.