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Tibetan Sky Burial

by André on September 21st, 2011

This morning I witnessed the single most extraordinary event of my travels, and perhaps my life. Today I witnessed a Tibetan Sky Burial, or actually two. But before you continue I must warn you that this story might not be for the fainthearted.

This morning I went a little out of the town of Litang to some grassy hills where some yaks were eating and a few people were eating next to a fire. A little bit further a bunch of vultures were sitting on top of the hill waiting for what was about to come. After a while two guys walked up the hill looking for a spot to hammer a pole in the ground. At that time another guy changed his clothes to some kind of monk outfit and on top of that he covered himself in plastic. When he was done he also walked op to the hill with a big bag in one hand and an axe in the other.

Of course I had a bit of an idea of what I was about to see and out of respect I stood about 100m away. But although the distance we could see what came out of that bag, a human body, probably that of a child. The body was (as I later learned) tight up to the pole with his or her hands while it was laying down naked on the ground. At that point about thirty vultures that were sitting on the hill flew closer to the body while the man covered in plastic was slicing open the body. When he was done, he walked away a little bit and let the vultures do their work.

After a while, the man covered in plastic came back, this time with the axe. Although it was hard to see from a distance the sound it made was pretty clear; he was chopping up the bones. After a while he was finished and left while the vultures came back to finish the remaining parts of the body.

At that point a car came up to the mountain. A couple of people came out and they were also putting a pole in the ground. Later more people came with cars and motorbikes, some of them went up the mountain and some of them stayed down where I also was sitting. One of the guys waved at me and told me to come up the mountain with him.

Even though I knew what I was about to see I still came up with him. Another body was already being tight up to the pole. There were a lot more people now than there were at the previous ‘burial’ but none of them seem to be in a sad mood and they were even laughing. And there I was standing about four meters away from another body that was being devoured by vultures. At that point somebody gested to sit down next to him, so I did. He made some remarks about my big nose and laughed, all while I saw the body losing its flesh and showing more and more bone. All of a sudden I realised where I was sitting and I saw hundereds of pieces of bones lying around me belonging to people who probably have been burried there only days before.

When the vultures where almost done with their first part a couple of the guys went back to the body, which about now was reduced to only a skeleton. The guys took their axes and started chopping of the legs. Anther guy grabbed the legbone, put it on a stone and started grinding it with the back of his axe from the knee to the toes. Slowly the rest of the body was being chopped up and grinded so it was easier for the vultures to digest. Once in a while they were picking a piece of bone, all with bare hands, and threw it to the vultures that were waiting.

Still the people were chatting to eachother and even a phone rang and was answered. None of the people minded me being there but it seemed a bit too disrespectful and morbid to make pictures.

In the end only the skull remained. With an axe they opened it up and exposed the brain which was cut out with a knife and being fed to the vultures who were fighting over it. Some Tibetan guy made a remark about something to which everybody was laughing, even the guy who was at that point crushing the remainders of the skull. When the last piece of bone was grinded they wiped all the bones together, mixed it with some kind of powder and left it there.

As if it was the most normal thing in the world, they washed their hands and removed a bit of brain that flew in someones neck. Another job well done. They all left, still chatting to each other, while the vultures ate the rest of the grinded body. I stayed for a little while watching the vultures and trying to realize what I’ve just seen.

The guy at the hostel told me the people were the relatives of the deceased. Normally they aren’t so cheerful as they were today and being allowed to be so close to the ritual as a tourist is quite uncommon. Also he said that the person only died the day before and was still alive two days ago when I first heard this ritual existed.

ps. ok, so somebody else did take pictures and posted them on the internet. Images can be disturbing but this is exactly what I’ve seen and also on the same location: Burials in Tibet not for sensitive souls/

From → China

8 Comments
  1. Sanne permalink

    Wow, André, this is a good morning wake up call!! Pfoeh, sitting right up in my bed after reading this and seeing those pics! Incredibly impressive what you’ve experienced! Must be really strange to see this all as it definitely would freak me out ;) Hope you’re doing fine! I miss my travels a lot and wanna go back! Miss the feeling of traveling.. If you’ll back in Holland let me know! I’d like to hear the rest of your stories! Enjoy!! Xx

  2. J-A permalink

    No shit!!

  3. Sandy permalink

    Woow Andre!!! Thats kind of a horror story.. I can’t hardly believe it! Definitly again new adventure on your list! Kiss x your dutch mate!! San!!

  4. Johan permalink

    Wat een verhaal he! Ongelooflijk dat dit uberhaupt nog bestaat. Nu zijn films als Saw en The Texas chainsaw massacre een eitje voor jou!

  5. Andre permalink

    I know it is not the nicest thing to see, so sorry if I ruined someones apetite. But again, this was just such an extraordinary event that I HAD to write about it. I hope you guys are not starting to believe I’m sick in the head or something… ;-)

  6. Sky Burial is een Boeddhistische ‘begrafenis’. André, André.. hoe ben je daar terecht gekomen? En dat buitenstaanders worden toegelaten. Onbegrijpelijk.

  7. André permalink

    …had inderdaad het idee dat ze niet zomaar de vogeltjes aan t voeren waren ;-) maar goed, denk dat ik ook even moet vermelden dat de ziel los wordt gezien van het lichaam en dat, als de ziel het lichaam heeft verlaten, deze geen nut meer heeft. Het is dus minder een afscheid van de persoon (ziel) dan van het lichaam dat terug aan de ‘goden’ wordt gegeven.

    Het is in de praktijk misschien allemaal een beetje luguber maar denk niet dat het allemaal zo onbegrijpelijk is.

    En las dit nog over de verbazingwekkende ‘luchtigheid’ van de ceremonie (no pun intended): “All the eyewitness accounts remarked on the fact that the rogyapas did not perform their task with gravity or ceremony, but rather talked and laughed as during any other type of physical labor. According to Buddhist teaching, this makes it easier for the soul of the deceased to move on from the uncertain plane between life and death onto the next life.”

  8. Ashley permalink

    I’m doing an assignment about this at the moment! It’s actually quite peaceful when you think about it – it represent the kindness and charity towards nature, I mean, they don’t need their body after death, why not feed it to the animals?

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