I always believed that the Tibetan culture is the most mysterious and intriguing one in the world. Indeed, I fell in love with whatever they believed in while I was travelling in Tibetan China. Tibetans are the most pious and devoted people I have seen. To them, their religion is their life. Every Tibetan strives to kowtow at least 10,000 times to Buddha in their lifetime, and to walk to Lhasa from their hometowns while kowtowing. It takes months and even years to do this, and many perish in the harsh conditions along the way.
“Leave my body along the road to Lhasa if I shall perish.”
“Feed me to the vultures so I can go to heaven.”
The sky burial is the most prestigious form of burial for Tibetans. Only the respected can be accorded with such an honour. All Tibetans strive for a sky burial, because this is the closest way they could go from the earth to heaven. Yet, contrary to how extraordinary the name sounds, a sky burial is as primitive as it can be.
“I was born from the earth and I will return to the earth.”
After death, the body is stripped naked and wrapped in a white cloth. It stays in a Buddhist temple for 49 days, under a continuous chant by monks. The body is then brought to the sky burial site, where the monks perform the final rites.
At the burial site you will not find the family members of the dead. Only relatives and friends from the same village will be present. To the family members, the dead is already dead and there is no need to “send him off”. As soon as the rites are completed, one of the villagers will cut the body up and remove the innards. From afar you will see the massively long intestines, dismembered arms and legs thrown around the burial site.
At the same time, further up the mountains lay a congregation of vultures. As the rotting smell thickens, more vultures begin to gather around, flying in circles above the site. The vultures are huge and hungry. You can see that they are eying the decomposing body and are eager to rip it apart.
Right when the body is fully cut up, the vultures sweep down from the mountains in unison. Suddenly, the sky is filled with hundreds of vultures, gliding down with their majestic wings wide open. It is a silent moment; even the vultures know how to respect the dead and give it the peace it deserves.
When the last prayers are completed, the monks move away from the burial site. This is a sign for the vultures to begin their feast. In a split second, hundreds of vultures begin charging into the burial site and ripping apart the skin and flesh of the body. At this moment, the rotting smell is so strong you will feel nauseous just breathing in the cold air. Like a mad rush, the vultures snatch the pieces of rotting meat from one another and fight to gain control of the flesh.
The sky burial is just so raw and natural. To the Tibetans, returning to the earth is their dream. There is no need for pleasantries, accessories or extravaganza. You are born naked and you die naked in the starkest possible way.
As soon as the feeding is over, the vultures walk away from the burial site and begin flying away from the mountains. Just like how they come in, the vultures leave in a huge congregation, gracefully gliding across the blue sky. It was amazing just watching the huge vultures fly off into the horizon.
Tibetans believe that a desirable burial is one where there is neither flesh nor skin left on the body. This symbolises that the dead has successfully gone to heaven. After the feeding, the relatives return to the burial site to check on the body. They then return home, leaving the carcass behind.
At the Sertar Buddhist Institute sky burial site, the skulls and hair of the dead are put on an artistic display. No matter who you are, how you look like and what you do, you will not take anything with you to heaven. Ultimately, you are no different from the person beside you, just like how the skulls and hair are no different from one another.
The sky burial is a sight that you have to witness at least once in your life. You may think it is cruel and barbaric, but it is a solemn and spiritual event for the Tibetans. Their worldview is that simple: they belong to the earth and nothing else.
Did you read how I sneaked into Sertar Buddhist Institute, or Larung Gar? Here is how I did it.
Have you seen a sky burial? Drop me a comment if you have any opinions about it! Do share this with your friends so that more people are aware of what a sky burial actually is.