Pale smoke rises in the early morning, the grass blue-grey in twilight. Four Tibetan men sit close to the fire, brewing yak milk tea. Beyond them, the lights of Lithang blink off one at a time as a pale dawn unfolds, clouds tinged pink in the alpine sky. The silence and stillness are serene, but unsettling. The men by the fire ignore us as we look around, murmuring uncertainties. Are we lost? On the ridge above, an enormous, dark bird lands in a flutter. More descend, huge wings spread, and soon the hills are dotted with feathered shapes, hungry, expectant. We’ve seen vultures before, gliding on thermals, eyes scouring the barren, rocky land for carrion. But never so many. Never this close.
Human bones litter the ground; knuckles, teeth, one side of a jaw, rusted knives and axes scattered among them, the first evidence we’ve found that we’ve come to the right place. Behind us, from Lithang, a procession marches along the winding dirt road, a team of young men carrying something on their shoulders. Hundreds follow, nearly running to keep pace. The crowd reaches us and the men lay down their burden. It’s a body, wrapped in white, arms crossed over its chest. The vultures shuffle closer, ignored by the spectators as they spread out over the grass. Many sit, chatting amongst themselves, their mood lighter and more carefree than I could have imagined. Twenty or so monks chant in unison, voices ambient in the still air.
Lithang lies in the south-west of the Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province, China, at just over four-thousand metres elevation. The town is 80% Tibetan, predominantly Buddhist, dusty, colorful, and overwhelming friendly, Tibetan culture surviving as best it can under the watchful eye of the Chinese military. Prayer flags flutter on frigid mountain breezes, families circumambulate around shines and prayer wheels and the homes of the 7th and 10thDalai Lamas, both of whom were born here. Through revolution and oppression, traditions have endured, among them one of human-kinds most unique funeral rites: The Sky Burial. I first read about it years ago, my imagination aflame with visions of stone tables atop windswept mountains, vultures aloft, waiting to dive upon spread corpses. There is no table here, only rounded, smooth rocks placed deliberately on the grass, nor do the carrion birds circle. Instead they stand, pressing greedily toward the body only to be repelled by shouts and waving arms. Not yet.
Things happen quickly. The monks finish their mantra and depart, places taken by eager vultures. A team of rogyapas (body-breakers) in green bio-hazard suits unwrap the body and scuttle over it with knives, scouring deep lines across limbs and chest, slicing the webbing between fingers and toes, cutting away the hair. One stands aloof, directing the others. He wears no green, only a white butcher-apron over his clothes, a mallet resting in one hand. He gives an order, the others retreat, leaving the young man naked, his corpse slashed red as though painted. The image is a flicker before the body is swarmed by vultures, disappearing beneath a wriggling mass of feathers and flapping wings. Hooked beaks stab and withdraw, tossing chunks of flesh and stringy entrails into the air to be swallowed.
For a while I stare, engrossed. Then my gaze shifts to the watching Tibetans, many of whom show only minimal curiosity as their friend, brother, neighbour is devoured. Most of them will adhere to Vajrayana Buddhism and believe in transmigration of the spirit. A body, to them, is no more than an empty vessel, the soul already on its way to rebirth. Allowing it to be consumed is, for compassionate Buddhists, simply the most generous method of disposal, since the deceased, and therefore his/her relations, are providing nourishment to the earth, plants and animals. Sky Burials also serve another practicality in the sparse mountains of Sichuan Province, where digging graves in rocky ground can be difficult, and a lack of combustible fuels prevent the other traditional Buddhist burial method of cremation.
Soon the rogyapas reclaim the body, driving the carrion birds back by beating long strips of cloth. The corpse is stripped, a pink-tinged skeleton spread on the ground. The men descend upon it as quickly as the vultures, hacking at the joints with axes. I see severed arms and feet, ribs disconnected, the skull cut from the top of the spine, held casually in gloved hands. Its empty eyes stare at me as it is placed upon one of the rocks. The man in the butcher-apron approaches, his mallet raised high. He crushes the jaw and bottom half of the skull, swings again and flattens the rest. He kneels and grinds the skull-fragments against stone, turning bone to powder. His men do the same with arms, legs and pelvis, mixing the powder with tsampa (barley flour, tea and yak milk,) creating a thick, grey dough that they fold into a single mass.
Many Tibetans stand close to the rogyapas as they work. Others watch from a high ledge above. I linger back, respectful as possible under the circumstances. Behind me, red taxis trundle over green grass, disgorging Chinese tourists clutching cameras and phones. They straggle up the hill, cameras firing at the working men, the waiting vultures, the bones scattered across the ground. Several Tibetans watch them in obvious disgust. Others try to ignore them, a task made difficult as the Chinese approach the dismembered skeleton, making no attempt to hush their voices.
Once Lithang was synonymous with Tibetan resistance during the 1950’s Chinese takeover of Tibet. Now nearly 20% of the city is Han Chinese, their presence amplified by the enormous People’s Liberation Army compound built just outside town. Across what was once Eastern Tibet, much of Tibetan culture has become a Chinese tourist attraction, with Tibetans often forced into the role of reluctant guides. Sky Burials in particular are a point of contention. Burial locations are highlighted on tourist maps and officials sometimes even sell tickets, provoking conflict between Tibetans and Chinese. In Russel O. Bush’s film, Vultures of Tibet, monks are shown advancing on tourists with weapons in hand, the indignant Chinese resolving to get their money back. Today there seems to be no threat of violence, but the tension in their air becomes a physical presence as the rogyapas hack and grind at the skeleton, turning it slowly into paste.
Eventually the rogyapas retreat, the vultures swarm, and the unrecognisable remains of the body are engulfed once more. Many Tibetans have left now, even some of the vultures have flown away, their hunger satiated. A Tibetan stands near me, asks my name, my origin, tells me in halting English about his children. He is polite, gracious, curious of foreign features. Beside him, a Chinese tourist picks up a knuckle bone. The Tibetan man frowns, says something I do not understand, and the tourist lets it fall as he walks away. My new friend watches, eyes narrowed.
“China no good,” he murmurs. He wants to say more but doesn’t have the words. Instead he clenches his fists and knocks them gently together, and in the soft smack of his hands I hear the decades of pressure, the insults one after another, the pain of enduring China’s endless ‘patriotic education campaigns.’ As recently as 2007, Lithang was the scene of a Chinese military crackdown after protesters rallied for the release of a political prisoner. Runggye Adak, the man in question, was imprisoned for eight years after an impromptu anti-Chinese Government speech. Now, ten years later, Chinese tourists stand on the bones of his countrymen.
Today, at least, the citizens of Lithang seem tolerant. The Chinese too, after a few words of warning, seem to sense the need for respect. They hang back as the carrion birds gobble the last of the body, the rogyapas tossing a few scraps toward them. The crowd thins to a handful, my Tibetan companion moves on, and I am left momentarily alone. I am struck by the quiet, the serenity, the acute purity of everything I have witnessed. I have seen corpses before, their skin cold from industrial refrigeration, their thin bodies adorned in makeup and finery, poor attempts to mask the hollowness of death. My society covets life and fears its end, bundles the dead into morgues and coffins to shield others from having to reason with its inevitability. Here, death is embraced by one’s community as a natural passing, a necessary step from one form to the next on the path to Nirvana. Flesh is returned to the earth, the joys and triumphs of the being who inhabited it echoed in the laughter of the rogyapas as they work, the ease of the audience, the rhythmic voices of monks on the scented air.
I have lived a crazy, adventurous, often confronting life. And yet there are few moments I remember as vividly as that day, on a mountain in what was once Tibet. Weeks, months, years later, I remain captivated. Not by images of bloodstained beaks or dismembered skeletons or empty-eyed skulls, but by the peace I experienced in watching a human be reduced to nothing, flesh and bone and organ turned to animal waste, turned, eventually, to soil. Standing on that sunny hill, watching the vultures spread their wings and fly, one at a time, into the mountains, I can only wish that my passing will be so organic, my family and friends gathering as my body is prepared and swiftly destroyed, my soul sent on to its next life among incense and song.
International Campaign For Tibet: https://savetibet.org
The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com
*Out of respect, I took no photos during The Sky Burial. The photos of vultures on this page were taken two days earlier.