This heartrending photograph is of Thich Quang Duc. He was a monk from Vietnam who burned himself to death in Vietnamese capital Saigon on 11 June 1963. While Vietnam is a Buddhist majority country, the then Vietnamese President, Ngo Dinh Diem, was a Roman Catholic and he pursued policies that were heavily biased towards Roman Catholic minority of Vietnam. Because of this the Buddhist discontent was rapidly increasing and it reached the peak in May 1963 when Buddhists were disallowed to fly Buddhist flag on Gautama Buddha‘s birthday. In contrast, just a few days ago, Catholics were allowed to fly the Vatican flag at a celebration for Archbishop of Hue, Archbishop was brother of the President.
Thich Quang Duc decided to do self-immolation in protest of the President’s policies. He reached at a busy intersection in Saigon with a procession of about 350 monks. He was traveling in a Austin Westminster sedan car in front of the procession. At the intersection he came out of the car along with two other monks. One of those monks placed a cushion in the middle of the road on which Thich Quang Duc sat in lotus position. The other monk emptied a 5 liter gasoline can on him while Thich Quang Duc rotated a string of wooden beads in his hand. Praying to Buddha, he struck a match and within a few moments he was engulfed by flames.
This iconic photograph was taken by Malcolm Browne and it won Pulitzer Prize in 1963. And a similar photograph won World Press Photo of the Year. American Journalist David Halberstam witnessed this incident and wrote:
I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think… As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him
The monks were very much aware of the result that an immolation was likely to have. So by the time I got to the pagoda where all of this was being organized, it was already underway—the monks and nuns were chanting a type of chant that’s very common at funerals and so forth. At a signal from the leader, they all started out into the street and headed toward the central part of Saigon on foot. When we reached there, the monks quickly formed a circle around a precise intersection of two main streets in Saigon. A car drove up. Two young monks got out of it. An older monk, leaning a little bit on one of the younger ones, also got out. He headed right for the center of the intersection. The two young monks brought up a plastic jerry can, which proved to be gasoline. As soon as he seated himself, they poured the liquid all over him. He got out a matchbook, lighted it, and dropped it in his lap and was immediately engulfed in flames. Everybody that witnessed this was horrified. It was every bit as bad as I could have expected.
I don’t know exactly when he died because you couldn’t tell from his features or voice or anything. He never yelled out in pain. His face seemed to remain fairly calm until it was so blackened by the flames that you couldn’t make it out anymore. Finally the monks decided he was dead and they brought up a coffin, an improvised wooden coffin.
After approximately ten minutes, Thich Quang Duc’s body was not fully immolated, and it toppled backward onto the street and the fire subsided.
A group of monks covered the smoking corpse with yellow robes, picked it up and tried to fit it into a coffin, but the limbs could not be bent and one of the arms protruded from the wooden box as he was carried to the nearby Xa Loi Pagoda in central Saigon.
Thich Quang Duc’s body was re-cremated but his heart still did not burn! It was considered holy and is still preserved in Xa Loi Pagoda.
How did you like this photographs and the story behind it? Please comment and give your feedback as it helps me in writing better content for my readers. Thank you for reading and stay connected with my website as I will continue to bring even more iconic photographs to you.