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The Making of Whole-Body Relics in Tibetan Buddhism

LIGHT OF KAILASH LECTURE #10:

The Making of Whole-Body Relics in Tibetan Buddhism

With Julia Hirsch

Traditions of bodily preservation have a long history on the Tibetan plateau, harkening back to Tibet’s imperial past (c. 650–950), when royal figures were occasionally mummified and interred in the seventh century. Medico-ritual technologies used to mummify and enshrine the bodies of religious and political elites have endured over the centuries and continue to be adapted by Tibetan Buddhists in diaspora today. But instances of manufacturing whole-body relics are rare. 

This talk will explore the creative ways in which Tibetan Buddhists preserve the remains of the “special dead” and transform living bodies into powerful relics. To ground this inquiry, I will look at the production of a major relic (sku gdung) undertaken by Tibetans and international collaborators in Dharamsala, India, in the late twentieth-century. I’ll be drawing from a funerary and meditation manual, two sources that provided step-by-step guidelines for handling the corpse of the Sixth Ling Rinpoche (1903–1983), an influential Geluk hierarch and tutor to the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Dalai Lamas. 

Paying close attention to the relic-making process, as well as vital materials like mercury, milk, and salt that are used during the embalming procedure, allows notions of skill and efficacy to emerge in embodied and embedded terms. This talk will also dive into the history and uses of embalming salts (pur tshwa)—as a pilgrimage offering, ritual object, medicinal substance, and contact relic—by looking at historical vignettes from Tibet and India from the late seventeenth to twentieth centuries. 

By focusing on process over product, this talk offers a grounded view of the sacred as made, not given. I also hope to show that the creative process of making sacred objects like whole-body relics entails a partnership between the divine and human, as well as vital materials. 

ABOUT THE SPEAKER

Julia Hirsch is a Ph.D. candidate in the Religious Studies Department at Stanford University, where she focuses on Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. She holds a B.A. from Boston College in Philosophy with minors in Psychoanalytics and Women’s & Gender Studies (2015). She received her M.A. in the History of Art and Archaeology: Religious Arts of Asia from SOAS University of London (2020). 

Julia’s current research explores Buddhist material religion and visual culture, power objects, and ritual. Of particular interest are relic cults, funerary rites, and the importance—and soteriological potential—of sensory encounter in South Asian and Himalayan traditions. 

Prior to joining Stanford, Julia worked for several years at Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, where she continues to serve as a contributing editor covering Buddhist art, film, and publishing. 

American sculptor Lisa Sofman at work on the embalmed body of Ling Rinpoche in the mid-1980s. Dharamsala, India. Photo by Lisa Sofman. In Mandala Magazine, 1984.