Mummy mystery awaits

Discussion in 'Vietnam culture' started by ღMayღ, Dec 17, 2008.

  1. ღMayღ Newbie

    Member Since:
    Nov 6, 2008
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    Standing next to immense emerald fields and sparkling ponds, the Dau Pagoda in former Ha Tay Province (now part of extended Ha Noi) has been keeping a secret for four centuries.

    The secret lies in the deaths of two monks whose mummified bodies sit on display. The monks were heads of the pagoda in back-to-back eras, in the early and mid-17th century, who both died meditating. I had been wanting to visit the pagoda for ages and see their mummified remains, but only recently was I able to make the trip.

    [IMG]
    Transcendence: The embalmed body of monk Vu Khac Minh who decided to achieve nirvana by secluding himself in a hut to meditate.

    As we walked over to the mossy green walls of the three-door gate, I was taken aback by the serenity of the scene. It was a quiet winter afternoon, and only the sound of leaves falling and ducks flapping their wings on the ponds broke the silence. I jumped at the resounding sound of the bell, which sent a touching shiver down my spine as if touched by something other wordly.

    King Le Than Tong (1649-62) had called this region An Nam De Nhat Danh Lam (the most famous landscape of An Nam, an old name for Viet Nam). The pagoda is just 24km south of Ha Noi at the end of Gia Phuc Village, Nguyen Trai Commune, Thuong Tin District.

    Equipped with incense to honour the sanctity of those we were visiting, we made a quick tour of the pagoda, walking on the precious stone floors from the Ly dynasty (1010-1225). Two stone dragons guard the staircase in the main hall, masterpieces from the Tran Dynasty, winding around waves on blocks of stone.

    I was fascinated by the ancient architectural style, the beautiful sculptures and carvings on beams, columns and panels. Each piece depicts traditional figures, including the four sacred animals: dragon, kylin, turtle and phoenix. All of the buildings, including the main hall, the worship house, the temple and the monks’ houses, were built of rectangular bricks, dating back to the Mac dynasty (1527-92).


    Eternal life

    While the architecture is remarkable, one of the most interesting sights was certainly seeing the two mummified monks I had heard so much about.

    It was a touching experience, seeing for myself the two famous embalmed monks Vu Khac Truong and Vu Khac Minh. Protected by layers upon layers of lacquer, their bodies took the meditative lotus position under a glass shrine in the temple, a reminder of the legend that these monks left behind.

    [IMG]
    Touching history: Tranquility and serenity can always be found at the Dau Pagoda in Thuong Tin District , Ha Noi. — VNS Photos


    Minh was head of the temple of Dau until his death in 1639. According to local residents, in the mid-17th century, Superior monk Minh decided to achieve nirvana by secluding himself in a hut to meditate, and asked his disciples only to open the hut after 100 days. If once they opened the hut, they couldn’t smell anything, they were to cover his body with lacquer. If they saw maggots and could smell his decaying body, they were told to fill in the hut.

    One hundred days later, the disciples discovered their deceased superior in a meditative posture. They weren’t able to smell anything, as they discovered by his side a jar with fragrant herbal extracts.

    They followed their leader’s advice, and embalmed him. While his motivations remained mysterious, many years later, Minh’s nephew, Vu Khac Truong, did the same.

    Without using any prescribed embalming method, the body was covered with silver foil and layers of lacquer before being placed in the temple’s main building.

    Over the years, the bodies have been damaged by rats, floods, and humidity. While Minh’s body has stayed relatively intact, Truong’s body was badly decomposed, and scientists are still working on preserving it.

    Their bodies underwent extensive preservation efforts by the Institute of Archaeology in 2003, led by professor Nguyen Lan Cuong.

    "We spent several years researching to save both Minh and Truong in the long-term," said Nguyen Manh Hao who works for the Viet Nam Museum of History.

    The mummified Minh had to be glued back together and resealed with a new kind of lacquer, matching the resin lacquer originally used.

    The new lacquer was also used on Truong’s body, which had been made abnormally long from previous preservation efforts following a flood in 1914.

    Both bodies sit in air-tight glass cases to control humidity levels and ensure air quality. Archaeologists hope to preserve the mummies for another 100 years.


    Graceful passing

    While the bodies may need some work, their state is nevertheless impressive, and archaeologists are unable to explain how the two bodies have remained so intact.

    "Unlike the mummies of Egypt, Latin America or other regions of the world, Vu Khac Minh’s body still has its internal organs, like the brain, heart and liver," said Cuong. "This is really a special case."

    "Radiological examinations of mummies show that all of their bones and organs are in the same place as the moment of death, which makes their preservation over three centuries all the more mysterious," added Cuong, who has been studying the mummies for nearly 20 years.

    To keep them in their current state, scientists have inserted a substance to destroy live micro-organisms, and then closed the cracks with the original lacquer.

    The temple’s current head monk, Thich Thanh Nhung, said the preservation of his distant ancestors "is natural for Buddhists and illustrates the ability of the body to acquire a new level of grace through Buddhist teachings".

    He said that the pagoda attracts more than 10,000 visitors every year.

    The country only has four mummified statues nationwide, with these two considered the most precious.

    The two monks were featured in French film-maker Patrick Moreau’s latest film about Viet Nam released in October, L’Or du Dragon (Gold of the Dragon).

    "I was so touched to see those monks, who spent their last moments abstaining from food and praying before they died," said Moreau. "It’s a beautiful example of religious fervour."

    (VNS)

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