Life after Death – old Chinese style Dr Mukur Petrolwala

Death, morbid and mortal, can be fascinating – especially if, one studies the approach of generations of people in different cultures towards it. We had that opportunity to study the ancient Chinese attitude.

Just before he died at the age of 32, Alexander, the Great, convened his generals and told them his last three wishes about how he should be taken for his burial, and their explanation:

1. That his coffin should be carried on the shoulders by the best doctors of the time.- to show that they did not have the power to heal, in the face of death.

2. That the treasures he had conquered (silver, gold, precious stones), should be scattered on the path to the grave site, for all to see that material goods conquered here, cannot be taken, so, also remain here.

3. That his hands should be dangling in the air, outside of the coffin, and in view of all - so that people can see that just as we came here with empty hands, we leave too with empty hands, when we are ending the most valuable treasure, which is our time.
I feel it’s about time, that doctors forget the haloed status, that they have got used to and display the first wish of Alexander, prominently in their clinics. If repeated often, people would understand that doctors neither kill, nor can prevent death!

The Ming Tombs and the Sacred Way

About his other two wishes - the Chinese emperors, obviously did not share the same thoughts. Like kings crowned or uncrowned elsewhere, they believed that they are the children of God and hence they would have to maintain the same pomp and glory in after life! And so, they prepared assiduously for that! Our first glimpse of that was at the Ming Tombs, near Beijing.

The Ming Tombs are a collection of mausoleums, where 13 emperors of the Ming dynasty are buried. Started by the third emperor Zu Di, the tombs are built over a huge area, comprising of mountains, rivers etc, on the principles of fengshui, about 50 km from Beijing. Zu Di's Changling tomb is the largest and a seven km long Sacred Way leads to it. A huge red gate marks the beginning of the Sacred Way and is followed by a pavilion, having a huge tortoise carrying a tablet. It was believed that the king after dying would walk this way to his grave and so it is also called the Spirit Way. Not yet a spirit and without the benefit of spirits, we walked only a part of it after the gate. The broad path is lined with lovely trees and 18 pairs of huge statues on either side. Six pairs are human figures – generals, ministers, bodyguards, the king may need in after life. Then there are two pairs of six animals - one standing and one sitting of each! One pair gets to rest while the other is on duty! The king’s human attendants, like doctors in India, are not expected to rest!
The animals are lion for power, horse for riding, elephant for jungle and camel for desert trips, holy qilin and xishi to ward off the evil eye! The statues are magnificent. After passing all these, we boarded the bus to reach the tombs.

The Changling tomb has not been excavated yet. But it is well preserved and there is a large statue of the emperor. Then we went to see the only excavated and opened tomb – that of Wan Li, the Dingling Tomb. In the sixties, archaeologists advocated the excavation and opened this. But at that time, they didn’t have adequate techniques for excavation and preservation. The tomb yielded large quantities of gold and silver ornaments, precious jewels, woodwork, textiles etc. but most of these were either destroyed or looted. The remains of the emperor and his two queens were dragged out and burnt in the revolution of those times. After that, the government has not permitted any more excavations.

At present, the rooms in the tomb are empty except one where the empty coffins of the three royals are kept. And as their afterlife treasure is no more, the visiting Chinese offer money for their erstwhile king. So the coffins are almost covered with yuan notes and coins! The poor continue to subsidise the royals even when they are no more!

This is quite similar to the belief found in Egyptian pyramids that the king should be provided with things he would need in afterlife.

Xian and the Terracota Army

But, if we thought that the Ming Emperors had wasted so much money they could have spent on their poor subjects, we had not yet reached Xi’an (pronounced Shiyan), which was our next stop. You might remember that to reciprocate PM Modi greeting President Xi in Amdavad, Xi hosted our PM in Xian on his first visit. Modi’s selfie with a terracotta warrior went viral!

Xian was the eastern terminus for the famous Silk Route, that China is now trying to revive as OBOR. But it shot to prominence on the world stage, thanks to the super gigantic craze of the first Emperor of China, Qin (Chin) for afterlife. Xian was then the capital of China some two thousand years ago and Qin created a huge necropolis (city of the dead) for himself, in 200 BC; and we haven’t seen even half of it as yet.

In the seventies, some farmers, digging a well in a village near Xian, came across life like soldiers. After their fright subsided, they realised they were statues of baked clay. The government soon stepped in and systemic excavation was taken up. Huge areas were marked out and called pits. They were dug upto 25 feet. Pit no 1, which is now open for viewing, is 750ft*250 ft. 6000 soldier statues were unearthed from this pit. At the time of excavation, they were all found painted in brilliant colors, but the color coating soon cracked and peeled off. They restored some and put them in display boxes at the entrance. As we enter the fully air-conditioned building housing Pit 1, there’s a large showcase showing the different soldiers. They differ in height, (as per rank, generals the tallest,) and even facial features. After that the actual pit starts and it is so impressive. They have dug in such a way to preserve most of the walls or restored them later. The terracotta army is facing in the direction of perceived threat for the emperor, his newly won states! At the end of the pit, they have created a hospital, where repairs of the damaged statues is being carried out!