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Buddhist Monk Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov Mysteriously Shows Signs of Life Decades After Death

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Published: July 23, 2022
In the Palace of Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov, sits a monk whose body, embalmed with salt, has not decayed for over 90 years. (Image: Sasha India via Flickr CC BY 2.0)

In Buryatia, Russia, there is a Buddhist temple which holds the preserved body of Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov — a monk whose body has miraculously resisted decay almost a century after his death.

The body has been seated in the lotus pose ever since Itigilov’s passing, inaccessible to all but the monks of the temple, who claim that the monk is still alive but in a state of hibernation.

The incredible life-like state of Itigilov’s body has sparked debate between the religious and the scientific communities.

Life of Itigilov

Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov was born in Ulza Dobo — located in modern-day Buryatia within the Russian Federation — in 1852. Itigilov had no memory of his parents, who abandoned him when he was just a child.

Young Itigilov worked as a shepherd to make ends meet. According to legend, the boy was enamored with tombstones and other funeral objects, and he would take his flock of sheep to the cemetery to “play with the deceased.” 

The Buryat people didn’t usually bury their dead, let alone place them in coffins. Instead, they placed their bodies on platforms between trees or hills. Combing their hair, the boy said, “If only you had listened to me, you would not be lying here dead.”

Itigilov met some living people here, too; one of whom was a lama, who wielded a staff with a skull on it. The lama predicted, “The boy will become a great Master and will cheat death.”

The legends grew and thrived well into Itigilov’s life after he became a monk.

Itigelov-wikimedia-commons
Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov entered the monastery at the age of 15, already shrouded in prophecy that he would evade death. (Image: Wikimedia Commons Public domain)

The monks believed that the five-year-old boy came to Earth in the figure of divine faith known as the Bodhisattva, or Buddha. Some said that water separated in his presence. 

While it is impossible to verify these myths, we do know that at age 15, Itigilov joined a Buddhist monastery, where he studied religious texts for 23 years. Making quick spiritual progress, he gained pupils and became head of the monastery. He was even granted an audience with Tsar Nicholas II, and just before the tsar mobilized his troops for World War One, Itigilov became the leader of Eastern Siberian Buddhists.

When Communism took hold in Russia after the 1917 February Revolution, Itigilov warned his fellow lamas to flee the country. He, however, remained behind to face repression by the new atheist government. 

Itigilov’s dying wish

Finally, at the ripe age of 75, Itigilov gathered his students, sat in the lotus position, and asked them to pray for him. He instructed them:

“Visit me and look at my body in 30 years, and in 75 years take me out of the Earth.”

Shortly afterwards, the lama is said to have passed away, entering Nirvana. His body was placed in a cedar cube and, as per his will, covered with salt for embalming purposes.

The monks protected their lama, forbidding anyone to examine or take photographs of the monk’s body. 

Despite the Soviet Union’s executions of lamas and destruction of Buddhist temples, Joseph Stalin allowed Buddhists to rebuild the monastery outside Ivolginsky, along a valley near Ulan-Ude. After Stalin died, Itigilov and his salty coffin were reburied in a secret grave.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Buddhism in Russia began to revive and reclaim what was lost during the communist regime.

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A state of living death?

28 years after Itigilov’s death, a strong hurricane hit Buryatia. In a panic, rather than waiting the full 30 years as instructed, the locals exhumed his body and prayed to him for their safety.

They reportedly found the body to be still flexible, with a warmth around the heart area. They gave him a fresh change of clothes and encased him back in the box. This procedure was repeated in 1973.

As directed by Itigilov himself, 75 years after the monk’s death the body was exhumed again in 2002. In a covered coffin, he was relocated to the Ivolginsky datsan (monastery) near Ulan-Ude, and prayers were done only by candlelight. 

At that time, a forensic medical examiner found salt around the body, all the way up to his shoulders. Witnesses claimed that Itigilov’s head was so well-preserved that one would think that he was still alive.

“At first, everyone thought this was some kind of Buryat Buddhist joke, but now they don’t. His internal organs are fine, as are his eyes. An expert came recently and said his body is like that of a person who died several hours ago,” Yanzhima Vasilieva, director of the Institute of Pandito Hambo Lama Itigilov, said. 

Although researchers did not listen for a heartbeat, the monks provided samples of Itigilov’s hair, skin particles and sections of his nails.

“Infrared spectrophotometry showed that the protein samples have living characteristics, and when we exhumed the body there was no smell as from a rotting corpse and there still is none,” Victor Zvyagin, former director of identification at the Russian Forensic Medical Examination Center, said. 

However, this does not confirm that the lama lives. The bromine in his body was found to be 40 times higher than normal, with a body temperature 20 degrees below normal — both scientific signs that the monk is dead.

Still, many monks and pilgrims believe that Itigilov is still with them, and continue to visit and pray to him. Remarkably, at one point the body is said to have gained weight. Putting on around two kilograms a year, the “dead” monk gained around 10 kilograms over the course of six years. The body also seemed to collect moisture that looked very much like sweat.

How can this be explained? One theory is that Itigilov consumed a lot of legumes, which provided high levels of bromine that could mitigate the body’s sensitivity and the “impact of stimulating external impulses.” Some also believe that he used self-hypnosis to control his body’s metabolism, putting himself into a deep meditative state as he transitioned to death.

Like many mysteries, we may never fully understand or solve them; but for scientists and the faithful alike, Itigilov continues to inspire awe and play an important role in Russia’s cultural and religious heritage.