For most, death is a concept so dark and daunting that we often push it to the catacombs of our minds. We pass the duty of care to a funeral home and see only our recently deceased in all their glory, dressed in their best! Sitting proudly in a fruit basket like coffin so they can be remembered in the premium version of their former selves.
Now, this varies as you trot from country to country. In India and Nepal it’s not uncommon to witness public burnings of bodies in Varanassi or on pyres in Kathmandu. This is a pretty daunting thing to watch but nothing could have prepared me for the debacle of a Tibetan Sky Burial. (I’ve included other visitors pictures here as my phone was stolen in Taiwan with the original images)
A ceremony that the Chinese thought most gruesome and for a long time condemned but for Tibetans it makes perfect sense. I won’t ruin the surprise for you just yet! I was in a small town called Litang, in the Sichaun province. Meandering the streets of Litang, you might be forgiven for thinking you are already in Tibet when in fact you are many hours drive from it. The culture here as been, dare I say it, more preserved than the cultural squash that the Peoples Republic of China has placed on Tibet itself. Here you will see men garnished in long colourful dresses, bones in their hair, dawning Yak furs and bringing large slabs of meat over their shoulders to market.
Having heard of a Tibetan Sky Burial and the gruesome nature of it, my curious nature (that gets me in trouble a little bit more than I care to admit) sent me scouring the town for more information. Tucked up neatly in my home stay with a family who were more than helpful in getting me the info I needed, I set my alarm for an early start. Buzzing away at the tender hour of 5am, I threw my clothes on and made my way across town, to the wide open plains that skirt the built up tenements of Litang. Trudging my way through a soggy field and deep mud until I clambered into a wide open clearing, I had arrived. High on the right near the top of a nearby mount, the entire expanse was decorated in an endless ream of prayer flags, draped one lay over another until, one large pile of flags was all that could be seen. The burial grounds were still and strangely silent. In the distance, through the waking morning, a small fire could be seen. Edging my way slowly towards the fire, I could see the fire was dotted with a small group of people at it’s peripheral. Cautiously, I approached and became aware that it was indeed a small family warming their hands by the fire. Keep in mind, Litang is well over 4,000m and this was most definitely not the median side of summer.
What we were all waiting for I wasn’t entirely sure. That was until a young mad brought a cardboard box to the group with the help of another man. Inside, was the body of this young mans father who had died the night before. Not that I was lucky someone died, but there was a strange level of satisfaction with rolling the dice and actually getting the chance to witness probably the most gruesome thing I’ve seen to date. The field may well have been empty upon my arrival. Continuing to wait, we were eventually joined by a monk. I’ll call him “the chopper” for obvious reasons. Wielding only an axe, a knife and wearing a white apron, the body was lifted across a small stream area, followed by a small squad from the group. Some, it seems, had decided that being there was enough let alone seeing the finer details to come.
A rock plinth was quickly put to use to stabilise the body parts as The Choppers methodically and precisely began to chop the body into various pieces with a professional demeanour! Whack after whack, thump after thump, he made extremely short work of this young mans father. Equipping his knife, The Chopper surgically began to work around the fingers, feet and everything else. The morning sky is brightening a little and the black trickle of liquid from the body was now turning to a ruby red flow. Breathing heavily and stepping away, The Chopper joined us only a stones throw away. In the distance, the ruffle of what I had previously assumed were bushes swaying in the early morning breeze began to take long strides before swinging into the sky and swooping down towards the human carcass. The vultures here are well used to this ritual and know the precise moment when their dinner is being served!
In a mere flash, these skulking vultures have made nothing of the body, fighting for every piece of flesh, fat and muscle from the bones. Tossing the arms and legs around, looking for the last scraps, The Chopper began to flail his arms wildly to ward of the ravenous creatures to begin the next step. Here, he uses the back of his axe to smash and grind the remaining bones while using Barley, water, sugar and the brain to make a fine paste which the vultures then waste no time in consuming. A rather efficient way to dispose of the body don’t you think?
It’s here that I’m going to give you the reasoning why this gruesome ordeal is taking place. You see, in the Tibetan Buddhism sect they believe that your body is simply a vessel! That it’s only purpose is to give you safe passage in this life in the physical realm and once you have died, your soul has been released and will be reincarnated. For them, they believe that the body should be given back to the earth in the most useful way possible.
However, despite the belief system leading to this method of disposing of their dead, there is a little more sense to it than first meets the eye, well at least in this neck of the woods. You see, the Tibetan plateau is at an abnormally high altitude, often high above the tree line leading to a scarcity of lumber for cremation. Burial is made extremely complicated given that the soil depth is almost nil in the region so it actually makes sense to the Tibetans, to dispose of their human remains in a way that benefits the environment around them the most.
I cast my thoughts to the family now standing around the simmering embers that burned ferociously before. Maybe they have seen this a thousand times but I can see from their faces that it didn’t quell the emotion from what had just happened. Initially worried they would be angered by my presence, they were the opposite as they are proud of their traditions and they are often suppressed by the government for their unusual way of life. Being there seemed to have an almost entertaining impact on the event and I was warmly welcomed.