“Gue” Welcome to Spiti

We entered Spiti district at Sumdo but didn’t have to wait long enough to start experiencing its unique allure. The appearance of the road from Sumdo towards Tabo had already created excitement about what would be in store as we ventured into Spiti. And about 11 kilometres from Sumdo, we crossed a bridge over a stream which was of a peculiar black colour. It was a unique sight and I presumed that it would be because of the blackish soil present on the mountains which made up the valley. Immediately after the bridge, we got onto a road that bifurcated off the highway. Our destination was ‘Giu’ or ‘Gue’, located at a distance of 7 – 8 kilometres from the bridge. Even though the road to the village was narrow, the tarmac surface ensured that it was a smooth ride.

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The black waters of the stream coming from Gue; Photo: Abhinav Kaushal

The village has become famous in the recent past for the mummified body of a monk.  The mummy is approximately 550 years old and according to radiocarbon dating by a team from Vienna, the monk was around 40 – 45 years old when he died. There are a few stories pertaining to the discovery of the mummy:

“ The first story states that the body of the monk got buried under an avalanche while he was in meditation. In 2004, when the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) personnel were carrying out some road related work nearby, their shovels hit the head of the mummy. As it started bleeding, the workers and the villagers got scared and subsequently the mummy was taken out. ”

“ The second story states that the mummy was found inside the ruins of a tomb somewhere around Gue. The area was affected by the 1975 Kinnaur earthquake, which revealed the tomb as well as the mummy inside it. The tomb was further dug and the body of the monk in a mummified state was excavated in 2004. ” 

“ Locals believe that the monk was ‘Sangha Tenzin’ who asked his followers to mummify him during an scorpion infestation at the village. When his spirit left his body, the scorpions are said to have disappeared. ”

The sight of the village was amazing. It was similar to a travel magazine photograph of a Swiss village and the Alps towering behind. The difference here was that the houses were mostly made of stone, mud and some wood, unlike what one would have found in the Swiss Alps. Some new houses made of the now common Reinforced Cement Concrete (RCC) could also be seen. As we neared the village, our driver Mr. Parvinder showed us the monastery near which the mummy was kept. The monastery was located at the end of the road, a few hundred meters above the village on a mountain side.

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The beautiful setting of the Gue Monastery; Photo: Abhinav Kaushal

On reaching the monastery, we saw a few other vehicles parked outside and I was surprised that other tourists were also aware of this place. I was then told that the construction of the monastery got completed a few months ago and that it was not fully functional yet. We were taken to a small room next to the monastery where the mummy had been kept. The key to the door of the room was kept with the ITBP personnel posted at a small bunker nearby. We removed our shoes and entered the “Mummy Lama Temple”.

The mummy was kept inside a glass enclosure. It was covered with white and yellow clothes, which are generally given by monks as a blessing. Money had also been offered to the mummy, inserted through small openings in the glass enclosure. Various denominations in a variety of currencies could be seen, which meant a lot of foreign tourists also visited this place. This was the only naturally preserved mummy in India and that too in a crouching posture.

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Gue Monastery with the room on the left where the mummy is kept; Photo: Abhinav Kaushal

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Mummy Lama of Gue; Photo: Abhinav Kaushal

The entire skeleton was of a somewhat dark brown colour but skin was visible on the skull, especially on the face. The skin was unbroken at many parts which indicated that the body was well preserved. It was surprising to know that the mummification had occurred naturally and no chemicals or any other means were used to do so. The right hand looked as if it was holding prayer beads, while the other hand wasn’t clearly visible under the cover of the clothes. A rope could be seen wound around the neck and the body, and the chin was resting on the left knee. Although the entire body had shrunk with all the bodily fluids dried out over the years, the teeth were still intact. The decomposed eyeballs had left behind empty sockets. Apparently, the hair on the head and the nails of the mummy are said to be still growing. A statue of Buddha was also kept in a corner of the room and a note pasted next to it stated that the statue was not to be touched.

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Village Gue as seen from the Monastery; Photo: Abhinav Kaushal

We came outside and got a clear view of the village itself. There was a trail going down towards the village from the monastery, while the motor-able road was longer. Mesmerised by the beauty of the place, I decided to indulge in the pleasure of walking down to the village. The greenery amidst the black soiled barren mountains was a sight to behold. Once at the village, I observed that the houses had flat roofs made of some wood and properly covered with mud. I somewhat understood that unavailability of abundant trees in the nearby areas explained the less amount of wood used for construction. The aspect that kept me intrigued however, was the flatness of the roof – it snowed heavily in these parts and it would be difficult to get rid of the snow from a flat surface; furthermore the possibility of melting snow seeping into the house was also there.

Moving through village along an alley that led to the main road, I saw an animal skin kept on some kind of a machine. A village elderly who was working in the field nearby told me that it was yak skin. Yak meat is eaten in these areas and the dried skin is used as seating carpets. With this newly acquired knowledge, I bid farewell to the village elderly as he continued with his work in spite of the 76 years of age that he was.

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So this is what yak skin looks like! ; Photo: Abhinav Kaushal

The visit to Gue and the “Mummy Lama Temple” has fascinated me ever since I’ve returned from the road-trip. And while I study more about the Sokushinbutsu practice, I can still picture the monk sitting in a state of meditation, centuries ago, high in the lap of the mountains that keep teaching me new lessons with each passing day.

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