Photo by Tomas Fano, CC BY 2.0 Chic and synonymous with luxurious yachts and glamorous…
Of course the Portuguese had gotten all out of control.
Timayya had done his work well and the Bijapur kings were out of the way. Goa belonged to Portugal and everyone was rich from slaving and spices. Other than to wait for next year’s spice fleet, there was not much to do beyond bearing the cross of the tropics .
I can picture them there, clad head to foot in filthy, sweat-stained woolen uniforms hiding in the shadows waiting for that one month of the year when the there wasn’t the shoulder-bending heat or the ceaseless rain that caused mold to grow in their clothing and leather boots. I can picture them hiding in the shadows thinking : one more year…one more…then I’ll have enough money to go home. It was enough to drive a man to drink. Drink, gamble and womanize.
And then there was the cholera. Yes, that too.
By the time Francisco de Jasso y Azpilicueta, student of Ignatius of Loyola and co-founder of the Society of Jesus, arrived in 1542 the colony had descended into a city of gambling houses, uncontrolled Hindu rituals among the slaves, bordellos, drunken debauchery and…horror of all horrors…miscegenation. Before moving on to missionary work in the rest of India, Indonesia and Japan, the future St. Francis Xavier appointed himself vacuum-cleaner of Goa.
Clean house he did. And so, soon after his death in China his incorrupt body was dug from a shallow pit and made its way to the towering Basilica of Bom Jesus in Goa. There, among the gilded alters, the body was placed in a glass container which was then encased in a silver casket and raised above the marble stone floor as a relic to be worshipped like other
That’s where I found him in January 2012.
As a former archaeologist, I’ve seen lots of dead guys and make a habit to check out famous people dead. I visited the mummy of Lenin in 1989, explored the Mummy-industrial complex in Egypt, spent a day sipping slivivice with an Australian girl at the Sedlec Ossuary in Kutná Hora (you need to drink in a place like that), have gone repeatedly to El Museo De Las Momias in Guanajato and although I haven’t been to the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, it is high on my list. All that aside, it has never ceased to amaze me why the dead end up on display.
Why see dead people? Veneration of the important and incorruptible is always high on the list as is scientific curiosity. More often than not, however, it is done to remind the living of just how fleeting and careless life can be.
Here are the top five dead people I’d like to meet.
1. Khambo Lama – Ivolginsky Datsan Monastery, East Siberia near Lake Baikal, Russia
Born in 1852, Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov was appointed the 12th Pandito Khambo Lama, the head of Buddhism in Russia. In1911. He is credited with inspiring a Buddhist revival among Buryats . A close friend of Tsar Nicholas II he founded the Gunzechoyney datsan, the first Buddhist temple in St. Petersburg. Once the war was over he saw the coming terror of Stalin and sent his students to Tibet. He hung on, however, and died, sitting in the lotus position in 1927.
In 2002, monks at the Ivolginsky Datsan revealed that Khambo Lama was not only still sitting in the lotus position but that he had not decayed. A scientist from the Federal Center of Forensic Medicine examined Itigilov’s body and conducted analyses of hair, skin and nail specimens concluding that Itigilov’s body was in the condition of someone who had died a mere 36 hours ago. Other scientists have likewise been baffled.
Itigilov’s body is kept, in a glass case in an upper floor of the main monastery building. The monks place the body on public exhibit seven days a year.
2. St. Rita of Cascia – Basilica of Santa Rita da Cascia, Umbria, Italy
She moves. She opens her eyes. She’s dead.
She is after all, the Saint of the Impossible. For 18 years Rita endured an abusive husband. She had never even wanted to be married. The convent she told her parents, was the life for her. They refused. After his violent murder around 1400 she endured the death of her teenage sons. Then she endured an Catholic church that refused her because of her association with her dead husband. But when the nuns woke one morning to find that Rita had been transported inside by Saint John the Baptist and Saint Augustine they couldn’t turn her down.
While at the convent, Rita was struck with a sudden wound in her forehead. This wound never healed, it hurt her and it stank – so much so that, at times, the other nuns would not go near her. On the day she died, the stench from the wound transformed into a beautiful scent of roses.
To this day, she remains an incorrupt saint in the Basilica of Santa Rita.
3. Jeremy Bentham – South Cloisters, Main Building, University College London, England
Ok. I admit that he is not a saint and while nobody ever lost Jeremy Bentham he was a pretty damn interesting guy. Born in 1748, Bentham was an English author, jurist, philosopher, and legal and social reformer. He was a political radical who fought for the separation of church and state, the abolition of slavery, economic equality, women’s rights, freedom of expression, the decriminalization of homosexuality and animal rights. He is often considered the founding figure of utilitarianism. So, all in all, this great life or worthy and important work. It is was happened after that sends a little chuckle through my belly.
Ever the scientist and rationalist, Bentham willed that his body be dissected as part of a public anatomy lecture, then preserved for public display in his “auto-icon” box. But Bentham lost his head. It was meant to have been mummified to resemble his appearance in life but the mummification specialist messed up. Bentham was left dried and dark with the skin stretched tightly over the skull. Ick. So he got a wax head, instead in which they stuck Bentham’s own hair. I cant help but think Jeremy Bentham would have found the whole thing rather amusing.
4. Bernadette Soubirous – Marian shrine at Nevers, Bourgogne, France
Hard times had fallen on France and the family of little Bernadette lived in a cold, damp basement. She was asthmatic and
a cholera survivor and she was prone to visions. She was 14 when she saw the “small young lady” in the grotto of Massabielle outside Lourdes. Her sister was right next to her and saw nothing. For weeks she returned and every time saw the same young lady. On the seventeenth visit the apparition identified herself as Mary (although Bernadette never specifically said so).
The local town went nuts.
Interrogated by the police commissioner, hounded by disbelievers, treated as a freak, Bernadette never changed her story. Before long though, she had quite a following. The apparition caused a spring to begin flowing in the grotto and asked that a chapel be built. Nowadays, over 5 million people visit Lourdes every year.
Taking refuge from the public attention at a Catholic hospice, the girl never left, dying at just 35 years old. In 1909 she was exhumed. Bernadette was incorrupt. She remains on display today.
5. Xin Zhui, the Chinese Lady Dai – Hunan Provincial Museum, Changsha, Hunan, China
Although labled as the world’s best preserved mummy or “the perfect corpse” she wasn’t in the best of shape while she died. This wife of a Chinese nobleman was overweight, ridden by diabetes and high blood pressure, had high cholesterol, liver disease, gallstones and arteries that were almost totally clogged. She died of a heart attack, 2,100 years ago, at the age of 50 (give or take). She was buried in one of the most astounding tombs ever discovered in China.
The tomb at Mawangdui was actually home to three tombs. Lady Dai’s husband, Li Cang, was the prime minister of Changsha. He died in 186 B.C., 20 some years before his wife died. One of the greatest finds in the tombs was the library of 50 books written on silk and bamboo slips. The volumes focused on the military and medicine, sexual health, women’s beauty and martial arts. Lady Dai herself was nested in 6 coffins, like a Russian doll and had been bathed in mercury at death. Not quite the honey soaking Alexander the Great got nor the beer bath Lord Nelson’s corpse got on the way home but it worked.
Ok. She wasn’t a saint either and she certainly wasn’t incorrupt but damn would I like to pay her and the others on this list a visit. The Lady Dai mummy is often on tour these days but is housed at the Hunan Provincial Museum.
Read: The Times of Lady Dai