The first detonation shattered the stillness of the sky like a hammer on a piece of cracked glass. We were walking along a wrinkle of maroon, rocky peaks, one last bend in the road between the easternmost corner of Himachal Pradesh and the highland plateaus of Tibet. To our left, the Spiti River kept flowing to the south, as deaf as a post. But I and my Malaysian fiancée, hearts in our mouths, had two good pairs of ears.
“Are they shooting?” she asked as she froze under the blistering high altitude morning sun. Truth be told, I didn’t know. Border skirmishes? The military we had just left at the Spiti-Kinnaur checkpoint should have known.
“Keep walking. They may be testing some explosives,” I explained, pulling her by her hand along that dusty, sun-scorched mountain road. We had to walk to the village of Giu, the last outpost of Himalayan India, an uphill slog to a shrine six kilometers away from Tibet.
A car whizzed past, spraying dust and small pebbles in its wake, ignoring us as if we were a couple of walking dead. As soon as the engine’s sputter muted in the distance, another whistle went up from beyond the mountains, reaching the sky without a soundtrack. Seconds later, the explosion shook the clouds overhead. When Kit stopped again, pressing my hand into hers as hard as she could, I had no second excuse.
“Testing for a nuclear war?”
Here, standing alone on the flanks of one of the world’s most contested borders, we had second thoughts about our decision to find the mummy of Sangha Tenzin.
“Not too far from here, just before the police checkpoint to Nako and Kinnaur, there’s a shrine with a 500-year old mummified Tibetan monk. He died of starvation, asphyxiating while meditating. Best part is, you don’t need a special area permit to get there,” said Christian, a Belgian teacher, and a devout Buddhist, as we were sipping chai at the tables of the Tabo monastery’s guesthouse.
We had met him a couple days before on the bus from Keylong to Kaza, the capital of Spiti Valley. Meaning “The Middle Land”, Spiti is one of the world’s most arid places; a high-altitude Himalayan desert valley that once was the middle passage between Tibet and the Kingdom of Ladakh. On its westernmost bend, the river that gives the valley its name turns southbound, marking the beginning of Kinnaur—another high-altitude basin traversed by the dangerous Hindustan-Tibet road, built by the British from 1850. When I saw Christian for the first time, his jacket tucked all the way up his chin, a light fog over his spectacles, he was passing the beads of a Buddhist rosary between his right thumb and index finger, one after the other, his lips reciting mute mantras. He had lived in New Delhi for ten years and spoke perfect Hindi: there was no reason why we shouldn’t trust his expert suggestions.
We met Christian again the next night. It was then that, with a feverish excitement similar to what teenagers feel when gazing at the pictures of a naked starlet, he passed his smartphone around the table. “Here it is,” he said with eyes filled with delight, his glasses perched on the tip of his nose. The phone contained a full set of pictures of Sangha Tenzin’s body: I felt immediately attracted to those empty orbits shrouded by a yellow saree, his corrugated mouth still sporting an impressive set of 500-year-old white teeth. “Holy moly,” I said as Christian sat back in his chair with the air of someone knowing he’s keeping a million-dollar secret.
The mummy of Sangha Tenzin is one of the Himalayas’ quirkiest sights: in 1975, an earthquake opened an old tomb that contained the mummified body. In 2004, the police excavated the grave and found the dead monk. “Locals believe that when the shovels hit Sangha’s mummified body, it still spurted blood,” Christian said while fingering his mobile’s screen to show us the morbid details of Tenzin’s eyeless face.
The way he decided to die is one of the world’s most peculiar religious death rituals: Buddhist monks in Tibet and Japan practice this unique method of self-mummification, which starts when a person is still alive. The monk would commence a slow process of starvation, stopping eating his staple diet of rice, barley and beans, which add fats to the body. He would also run candles over his skin to dry it out, all while keeping meditating. Sangha Tenzin was in fact found in a seated position, knees curled down his chin, a gomtag (meditation belt) still tangled around his neck and under his thigh to help him keep the posture. After the passing, other monks preserve the body underground for several years to help the drying process before treating it further with candles. There are less than thirty of these mummified monks around the world, and most were found in Japan’s main island, Honshu.
When Christian pulled back his smartphone, taking away Sangha Tenzin’s secret from my eyes, I had already made a resolution: there was a diversion to be made on our way to Kinnaur. Fifteen kilometers along the Indo-Tibetan border, and most likely on foot: no bus takes tourists to the mausoleum of a dead ascetic.
“I’ll see you in Nako if you make it on time,” said Egen, the Lithuanian man who had followed us from Ladakh to this remote corner of India. After two weeks of putting up with our hunger to get to the heart of Indo-Tibetan culture, he preferred to move on to the next safe destination listed in the guidebook. We all took the only morning bus from the stunning Tabo Monastery, the oldest lamasery in the Himalayas continuously operating since 996 AD, knowing we would depart at the Indo-Tibetan Border Police checkpoint a few kilometers before the village of Sumdo.
On arrival, we were all scrutinized by the police, who kind of lost their composure when a petite Malaysian woman asked them if they could store our backpacks for a few hours “while we hiked to Sangha Tenzin’s shrine”. The Indian lieutenant looked back at her for a moment as if she were a lunatic child, and then bobbed his head. “Of course Madam; but I need to inspect your bags, first.”
The Border Police stood in the doorframe looking at our backs as we started hiking back to where we had come from. But after hearing the second explosion, we wished we had never parted ways with our friend.
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