A Tibetan Sky Burial: The Circle of Life

Culture, Travel | by Amber Mizerak
Posted: May 10th, 2012 | Updated: June 30th, 2014 | Comments

Tibetan sky burial

 

Summer is rolling in and along with the heat comes, for many travelers, some free time to explore the world. If you're preparing for an upcoming trip, there are few amazing China experiences you might want to consider. Two weeks ago I recommended heading to the wild west of Sichuan to see the annual Litang Horse Festival, but I never mentioned that while in the hills of Litang you can witness something else equally if not more fascinating: a Tibetan sky burial (tiānzàng, 天葬). 

What is a Tibetan sky burial?

A sky burial is a traditional Tibetan burial technique that disposes of a dead body by offering it to nature. It's a funeral, but one very different from the West where we bury or burn the body. Prior to a sky burial, the body is covered with a white cloth and placed face down on the side of a hill. The cloth is removed and the monk or religious master of ceremonies (known in Tibetan as the tomden) anchors the body to the ground while circling a small Buddhist monument and chanting mantras. Most Tibetans are Buddhist and believe in rebirth—that our body is just a vessel for our current life, and that after death our spirit leaves the body and a new cycle of existence begins. In addition to being in line with religious beliefs, the ritual is also a practical solution for the disposal of human remains; Tibet, and much of the surrounding region where sky burials are performed, is a high-altitude climate, rendering firewood for cremation in short supply and the ground rocky, often frozen and difficult to penetrate for grave sites.

Tibetan sky burial

My Experience

I was on my first big solo backpacking trip and excited by the exotic places I was seeing, how lost I was and the great people I was meeting. I traveled to Litang with three other girls I met along the way, and we ventured from Chengdu to Kangding through mountains, mudslides and dangerous roads in a mini van with no shocks or suspension. I distinctly remember the driver snorting orange powdered tobacco, and laughing at me when I tried it (it was strange... and it burned, wouldn't recommend it). To pass the time and distract myself from the almost non-existent roads, I used the Mandarin book to ask our driver if he was married, had children and if he liked to dance.

Finally, after a long, uncomfortable, and beautiful two day road trip, we arrived at the Potala Inn [Bùdálā Dàjiǔdiàn, 布達拉大酒店; (86 836) 532 2533] in Litang where we had the pleasure of meeting Metok, the English speaking Tibetan owner who was very friendly and welcoming. Metok personally drove us to the site of the sky burial and chatted with us about her culture and how it was changing rapidly due to the increased numbers of Han Chinese migrating into the area. She dropped us off at the base of the hill and we walked slowly and carefully to a mound a good distance across from the burial site.

We were conscious of the delicate situation and wanted to be sure we were respectful. The family and friends of the deceased gathered in and around a small building at the base of the hill and waved us to come closer, but we decided to stay out of the way and observe from afar. We were four new friends from different countries wandering through China about to watch a dead body get eaten by birds. We sat speechless in awe of the process. Three men dressed in red and gold robes carried the body to the middle of the hill. The tomden then took his saw-like knife and cut the body into smaller sections. While the body was being prepared, vultures the size of small bear cubs sat on the hilltop waiting in the distance, while some hovered in circles impatiently. Once the body was cut into smaller sections, the monk stepped away and watched as the birds pulled bits off to the side and fought for their share, while the smaller crows hung back and waited for the larger birds to eat their fill. When all the meat was eaten off the bones and only the hollow carcass was left, the tomden returned to the body and smashed the bones and the brains with a hammer before mixing the crushed remains with barley flower, tea and sugar (or yak butter). This elixir was then shared with the birds as well. After the body and skeleton were completely devoured, all that remained were patchy red spots of earth and grass.

 

I had no idea this practice existed when I set out on my trip, or that I would even end up in Litang, but after witnessing this equally gruesome and beautiful ritual I couldn't help but realize how fragile life is and how fast it can vanish into thin air. It was without a doubt a moving experience and one that will stick in my memory.

Tibetan sky burial

Photos courtesy of fish-bone, junehylai, jaglazier.

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