During our first day here, we were ushered into a small room on the second floor of a neatly-kept bungalow. There we were privy to a breathtakingly unique sight; a Tibetan mummification in progress.
Ordinarily, when a high Tibetan lama dies, his body is cremated, and the ashes are placed in a ritual stupa, or shrine. It’s not unlike the Roman Catholic practice of preserving the relics of saints. On rare occassions, though, when special conditions are met, the body of the lama is not cremated, but rather mummified.
Six weeks ago, the head of the entire monastic order passed away. He was especially revered and beloved, and was the 100th lama to hold that position. Furthermore, there were some unusual circumstances surrounding the way he passed. Shortly after his death, the Dalai Lama mandated that the body be mummified.
The mummification is taking place in the lama’s room, in the very place where he died. Since he passed away in the meditative position (the lotus position), a covered box was constructed around his body measuring approximately 5 feet on each side. The box is highly decorated in ritual symbols. Salt was then poured into the box entirely covering the body up to the neck, which draws moisture from the body. When the salt is saturated with liquid, it will be removed and replaced with fresh salt. A blue plastic tarp is spread under the box, so the monks in attendance on the process will know when the salt is saturated.
This process will take approximately one year. When it is finished, the mummified body will be encased in a golden statue bearing his likeness, and placed in the main temple here. It will be an object of extraordinary veneration and pilgrimage.
Needless to say, we were very privileged to be able to see this; I’m fairly confident that very few outsiders see a mummification in progress. As it was such a special viewing, we didn’t even ask to take pictures. My description will have to suffice.