Dau pagoda's mummies - Invaluable treasures
VietNamNet Bridge – The bodies of Buddhist monks in Dau temple have existed for over three centuries, witnessing a lot of ups and downs. They are invaluable treasures and spiritual and cultural stamps of Vietnamese people. The mummies can be considered as one kind of xa loi (Buddha remains), which are the pinnacle of a meditation process in which the Buddhist monks could control their self-energy to embalm their bodies.

Immortal aspiration and Vietnam’s embalmment techniques

The second mummy at Dau pagoda

The mummy of Buddhist monk Vu Khac Truong.

At the Hanoi-based Institute for Information of Social Sciences, Dr. Nguyen Lan Cuong showed us two old pictures of Buddhist monk Vu Khac Minh. In the first picture, the statue has many cracks and seriously downgraded. In the second one, it looks shining and did not have any crack.

Dr. Cuong said that when he discovered the statute, it was partly damaged by humidity since it was placed into a wet temple for a very long time. The statue also had many cracks, with the one on its knee as the most serious.

A local man, Mr. Pham Van Son, told Dr. Cuong that when he was a little boy, he had heard that there were two foreigners that visited the Dau pagoda. They were very curious about the statue. After carefully examining the statue, one of them used his walking stick to break the knee to see whether there was bone inside or not. After that, the village patriarchs used Vietnamese varnish to mend the crack.

However, they did not understand about the principle of statue painting so they only painted only one layer. As a result, the outer was dry but the inside was still wet. After a period of time, the crack appeared again. Under this layer of paint, micro-organisms degraded the Vietnamese varnish layer, causing tangled slits. From the crack on the knee, oxygen infiltrated into the statue, making cracks on the head and the face within several decades.

A short period of time after Dr. Cuong discovered the mummy of Buddhist monk Vu Khac Minh, he again detected the mummy of monk Vu Khac Truong, the successor of monk Vu Khac Minh. He was also a nephew of Vu Khac Minh. He was an enlightened monk at that time.

The mummy of monk Vu Khac Truong was painted in white. His face was colored so the statue looked not very natural. Therefore, for centuries, Buddhist followers thought that this was an ancient timber statue.

The story about monk Vu Khac Truong is also thrilling. When the statue was moved from the temple to the yard, carriers accidentally broke a piece on the back of the statue, which was as large as a hand. People were astonished to see two spines inside the statue. It turned out that there was a bamboo stick in parallel with the real spine.

Nobody knows who put the bamboo stick into the body of this monk and why. It is also odd that X-ray scan did not work on this statue. Film sheets were all white.

Scientists tried to discover these secrets and finally, they found out that the statue was repaired once, a hundred of years ago.

Many people said that in 1914, a flood submerged the pagoda. This statue was soaked in water for many days, so it was decayed. The under part fell and the spine was broken. However, a group of Vietnamese scholars read documents related to this flood in France. The flood happened in 1893, not 1914. The statue was repaired by a very simple method. A bamboo stick was placed in parallel with the real spine, which worked as a prop. The statue was painted with a layer of lime, which created the reflected light phenomenon when the statue was scanned by X-ray.

When Dr. Cuong discovered the statue, it was seriously damaged. The outer layer of Vietnamese varnish was rotten, revealing the inside. The statue had a big hole on its chest. Its knees and arms were sprained. With a gentle jostle, this invaluable treasure would collapse.

Must-be-perfect project

The mummy of Buddhist monk
Vu Khac Minh.

To save the two mummies, Dr. Cuong wrote a project entitled “Restoring and preserving the statues of two Buddhist monks at Dau temple.” However, discussion on preservation methods took several years.

Cuong wanted to take the statues to Hanoi, where had the best conditions for restoration, but Dau pagoda’s monks wanted to restore the mummies right at the temple. The project was not approved until early 2003. A group of experts went to the temple to restore the statues. They included Dr. Cuong, lacquer painter Dao Ngoc Han, sculptors Pham Xuan Sinh and Nguyen Ngoc Lam and engineer Nguyen Manh Ha. The restoration project was carried out in the living of the temple.

Dr. Cuong recalled: “At that time, pressure on us was very heavy. We could not make mistake because the two statues were unique and any mistake could not be repaired.”

To fix cracks on these statues, scientists had to destroy micro-organisms and bacterium on these cracks and inside statues. Cuong asked for assistance from scientists of the Institute 69, who took care of the body of President Ho Chi Minh, to do this task.

An important matter was if cracks were mended by Vietnamese varnish, new cracks will appear between the old paint layer and the new one, after 50 years.

Painter Dao Ngoc Han suggested a daring idea: Expanding cracks by 10mm wide and 1mm deep each and then consolidating them by vai man (cloth to make mosquito nets) and Vietnamese varnish. This method can enhance the endurance of statues for hundreds of years.

After fixing the cracks, experts decided to cast the statues by gypsum. The request was that these statues must look exactly the old statues, with cracks, so visitors would think they were real statues.

However, if casting the mummies by gypsum, heat can damage the mummies. Sculptor Pham Xuan Sinh proposed to cast each part of mummies: head, body, arm, leg, hand, etc. and then join these parts together.

By traditional techniques like bo, hom, lot, thi, mai and thep, using traditional materials like Vietnamese varnish, vai man, do paper, sawdust and soil, experts made 14 layers of paint and gilt of the mummy of monk Vu Khac Minh. After each layer of paint, experts polish to make layers of paint to adhere to each other. When the last layer was painted, they detected that the surface of the statue was not smooth because specks of dust in the air stuck all over the statue. They had to paint one more layer of paint inside a mosquito net.

The statue of monk Vu Khac Truong was repaired in 1893 so it had some wrong anatomical details. Cuong proposed to dismantle the mummy and based on the skull to restore the mummy to its original form.

However, Dau pagoda’s monks and local officials did not agree, saying that local people had known the statue as it was for a hundred of year and they would not accept the new figure. Cuong had to agree with them.

On a summer afternoon, Dr. Cuong examined the statue and kept thinking why this monk had such long arms? He secretly pierced four small holes on the arm and elbow. His venturous curiosity worked.

He discovered that the right arm bone was placed in the wrong way. A piece of shin-bone was assembled into the arm, which made the arm longer than normal.

A very important mission in this project is how to preserve the mummies after they are restored. Any item will be destroyed gradually under the impact of oxygen. This process is slow or fast depends on the humidity and temperature of the environment. Experts had to maximally restrict the influence of oxygen to the mummies.

At first, experts planned to use desiccators but this equipment was expensive and it made noise, which was inappropriate to a temple. They then decided to protect the mummies by maintaining an environment of nitrogen-contained inert gas. This method was cheap, which was suitable for the local government’s financial ability.

A cooperative in Dong Anh district, Hanoi was ordered to make two box frames by jackfruit timber. The Dap Cau Glass Factory in Hanoi was asked to produce 1cm glass pieces. These elements were assembled into a glass box. On November 3, 2003, the final stage of the 200-day project was implemented: pumping nitrogen gas into the two boxes.

On November 29, 2003, at the inauguration ceremony of the repaired statues, an old man came to shake hands with Dr. Cuong. He said: “Thank you very much! I’m now assured to die because the two monks will live in this life for hundreds of years from now.”

However, Dr. Cuong still questioned himself: how Buddhist monks could embalm themselves so perfectly? Because ancient Egyptians had to experiment a lot before finding the best formula of embalmment.

Around 6,000BC, before burying the dead, Egyptians pierced holes in the desert and set up dead bodies in these holes in order to be dried by hot sand.

Until 2650BC, they began applying the new technique of taking out viscera for embalmment. Firstly, they slit the dead’s stomach for around 8cm to take viscera out. Only the heart was kept inside. They chiseled a hole onto the skull to pump palm wine in, and then they used an iron stick to strongly stir it inside the head. After that, the brain would run outside with alcohol from the hole. The skull was filled up by resin. The dead body was dried and filled up with flavoring and sawdust. Finally, the body was rolled by cloth, put into a coffin and place into a catacomb.

The mummies of Buddhist monks at Dau temple are intact and viscera are still inside the mummies, but why are these bodies are not rotten by micro-organisms?

Senior monks said that these Buddhist monks practiced Zen meditation to the pinnacle and they used ‘Kundalini’ (corporeal energy) to become immortal.

Dr. Cuong has guided hundreds of groups of visitors to the Dau pagoda to see the mummies but he would never forget what Prof. Dr. Istvan Kiszely, a famous Hungarian anthropologist, said: “You have showed me a miracle about Vietnam’s diverse culture. I hope that you will find out the mummies of other monks.”

The foreign professor’s hope has become reality when Vietnamese experts founded the mummies of two other monks at Phat Tich and Tieu Son temples.

Dr. Cuong believed that there are many mummies of other monks because all temples in Vietnam have tomb towers of Buddhist monks.