Mummy Discovered Inside an Ancient Buddha Statue

Drents Museum
Drents Museum / Drents Museum

In 1996, an anonymous man in Holland bought what he thought was just a golden Buddha statue. But the following year, experts working on restoration discovered something inside that made his buy a lot more interesting: a mummified skeleton.

In 2013, researchers at Mannheim University Hospital in Germany performed a CT scan on the statue, and, following a seven-month exhibition at the Drents Museum in Assen, Holland, that ended last August, experts decided to conduct a closer analysis with additional CT scans and an endoscopy.

"On the outside, it looks like a large statue of Buddha," the Drents museum said in a release. "Scan research has shown that on the inside, it is the mummy of a Buddhist monk who lived around the year 1100."

Research supports the theory that the skeleton is that of Buddhist master Liuquan, a member of the Chinese Meditation School. Even crazier? Liuquan essentially mummified himself in a process that began a very long time before his death.

The process of self-mummification is a grisly and grueling one attempted by certain Buddhist monks to achieve new levels of enlightenment and veneration. Practitioners followed a strict 1000-day diet of nuts and seeds in order to strip the body of fat, followed by a diet of bark and roots for another 1000 days. Toward the end of those six years, the monks would begin ingesting a poisonous tea made from the sap of the Urushi tree, which—in addition to causing vomiting and a rapid loss of body fluids—also acted as a preservative to kill off bacteria that would cause the body to decay after death.

After all that, the monk would lock himself in a tiny tomb, just large enough to accommodate his body in the lotus position, with an air tube and a bell. Every day that he remained alive, the monk would ring the bell; when the ringing ceased, his fellow monks would seal the tomb for another 1000 days. If the mummification process was deemed a success, the preserved monk would be celebrated as a Buddha, his body placed in a temple. (Failed mummies were resealed inside their tombs.)

The former appears to be the case for Liuquan, who was likely worshiped as a mummy for many years before being interred in the statue in the 14th century, as evidenced by a 14th-century textile roll found beneath the body. In addition to that textile, researchers discovered that Liuquan's organs had been replaced with some sort of script.

"What we thought was lung tissue, was not lung tissue, but what seems to be the remains of little pieces of paper with Chinese writing on them inside the body," Vincent van Vilsteren, curator of archaeology at the Drents Museum, told "There are still some investigations going on, DNA research is going on," he added.

The Buddha statue will be on display at the Hungarian Natural History Museum in Budapest until early May, when it heads to Luxembourg.