Sky burial in Litang
Jonathan Monk experienced first-hand a Tibetan sky burial…
Litang is a strange place. Situated in the south western Chinese province of Sichuan, it is reached by passing over crumbling roads, rivers and rockslides which wind through 5,000 metre high mountain passes. All of a sudden, the landscape flattens out inexorably towards the horizon. This vast land is the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, and this is Litang: a Tibetan town of 51,000 which, at 4,014 metres, is the highest town in the world. The roads to Litang are blocked with snow much of the year, whilst in the summer mudslides often make the roads impassable. For those who do make it here, many are forced to turn around upon arrival, descending immediately due to altitude sickness.
We arrived stiff-legged from our journey, late at night in a lightning storm, and as we welcomed the shelter from the rain, we chatted to our host. The lady we were staying with invited us to witness a sky burial the next morning. On the way to Litang we’d heard murmurings of such burials, but little did I expect to witness one. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to. In this part of the world an ancient Buddhist-Tibetan burial tradition remains: bodies are neither buried nor burned, but offered up to the sky instead.
The ceremonies begin at dawn, and driving out into the hills on the far side of town I could begin to appreciate the landscape that had been masked during my late-night arrival. Razor-sharp peaks topping 6,000 metres reach for the deep blue sky, surrounding the flat expanse of the Tibetan plateau. The foothills here are considered sacred, and over the years thousands of bodies have been buried here – though you’d never know it. Little evidence remains of the lives lost – for every body offered up to the skies, all that remains is a small stone carving heaped in a pile on the hill’s peak.C. Jonathan Monk
The burial began with a squabble between two Tibetan monks over the location of a suitable spot on the hillside to conduct the ceremony. Monks, or intelligent men, we were told, are buried on the hill top; ordinary citizens dying of natural causes may be buried towards the middle; and criminals or murder victims towards the bottom. In an analogue to Christian practices, suicides are not permitted to have a sky burial (they are particularly wary of those who have poisoned themselves, lest their flesh kill the sacred vultures).
The body in question was that of an old man from Xiangcheng, his natural death and good life warranting an upper-middle position. He had died just the day before. With little hesitation, his son had placed his dead father’s body into a square cardboard box. Owning no car of his own a friend had offered to drive him, and together they had come eight hours through the night to bury his father at this sacred spot in Litang. And here was his son in the early light of day, removing the body which he had curved into the fetal position, and laying it face down on the ground. He tied an orange cloth around the neck to an adjacent pole and then stepped back.
And then we waited. The ominously named ‘cutter’ was late, and the son of the deceased chatted amiably to the lady who was accompanying us. Eventually a figure came striding up the hillside. Wearing a disposable plastic apron, wielding a large axe over his shoulder and with a large knife in his belt, this was unmistakably the cutter. He proceeded to cut open the body at every point; leading a sharp knife down the side of the neck, along the shoulder, gliding down the arm and struggling in between each finger.
Excited by the smell of flesh there was movement from afar. It was at this point I realised the herd of what had looked to be sheep or small cows on a nearby hill were in fact the largest birds I’ve ever seen. Huge vultures, some with wingspans approaching nine feet, circled above – perfect gliders who were darkening the sky. The cutter continued with his incisions, pausing on the tricky toes, as the vultures began to land and queue uncomplainingly. Finally, a long cut was made along the sternum and the head was scalped, giving the vultures access points to all parts of the flesh. Although the smell excites some of them, the vultures have wait patiently. As the cutter steps back though, it’s a liberal feeding frenzy. The vultures encircle the body, devouring the carcass within about four minutes. The circle remains a tight mass: birds jockey for position; glimpses of the body are seen; smaller ravens stand looking on waiting for any scraps. The uniformity of the circle is broken, however, as two vultures emerge fighting over what looks like an arm, though it could be a leg.
The cutter, now joined by religious attendants, enters the fray once the majority of the body is gone. Shooing away any remaining vultures, they lay down a sacred stone plinth. It is against this stone which the body, which has quickly become a skeleton, is placed on. The bones are beaten: crushed by repeated hammer blows and mixed together with barley flour and sugar. Thus even the skeleton becomes an appealing avian snack, and before long the sky burial is complete. The body returns not to the earth but ascends to the sky, as these giant sacred birds take to the air, ready to return another day.
The sight of the sky burial occupies my thoughts for days; one of my companions had walked away feeling ill at the time, while the other had nightmares. Yet for all its seeming primitivism and brutality, the genesis of the sky burial is understandable in this part of the world. The burial fulfills an ecological and practical function, as bodies cannot be buried in ground which is frozen much of the year, nor can bodies be burned in a land where wood is scarce. On a spiritual level, such a method of burial is in keeping with Buddhist beliefs which see the body as a temporary vehicle through life. By giving one’s body to the sacred vultures, one can become intimately connected with the cycle of life. The opinion of many Han Chinese is that sky burials are a savage practice of Tibetans. The burials were even banned in the 1960s and 1970s, part of the wider limitation of the religious rights of Tibetans. Legalised again in the late 1980s, sky burials still require expensive and difficult to obtain permits for foreigners wishing to view them in Tibet. Litang, by virtue of lying just east of where the provincial Tibetan border is drawn, avoids such restrictions. I had tentatively asked our Tibetan host if she would like to be buried like this? “Yes,” she replied, “I want to be buried like this, every Tibetan wants to be buried like this”. This perhaps explains the willingness of our host to take us to the sacred hills, and the appreciation shown by the man burying his own father – a sky burial represents a cultural expression; an expression from a culture that is increasingly restricted upon by a government that would rather mute such tradition. Out here though, in a town on top of the world, the Tibetan culture lives on.
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