Life and death on the plateau – experiencing a Tibetan sky burial.
The flames of the fire warmed my shivering legs on a below-freezing Wednesday morning, as a middle-aged Tibetan man in extravagantly decorated garb poured us another yak butter tea.
Vultures circled overhead, throwing their broad shadows in spectacular dances across the frosted earth. The gathering of almost 50 local men joked amongst themselves, acknowledging our presence with courteous smiles and nods.
The sun began to peak over a distant mountain, and as the shadows danced across the plateau the group turned and started walking purposefully up a shallow hill.
Our friend with the tea nodded at us; The sky burial was about to begin.
Five unassuming fellows opened the back of an idling SUV and carefully lifted a cumbersome white bag from the trunk. They placed it on a sprawling, flat stone, encircled the sack and dutifully started chanting Buddhist mantras.
Cautiously they emptied the sacred contents of the bag onto the blessed stone. The naked body of a lifeless man collapsed limply onto the hallowed ground. Without further word, knives were suddenly brandished, and the vultures touched down a few metres from the scene.
A supervising priest wandered up from the fire, took a deep breath, and gave the final approval. Immediately the men dropped to their knees and started to dismember the body, determined and methodically.
In the high-altitude plateaus of Tibet a compelling tradition is used to dispose of the bodies of the deceased. Above 4000m, the frozen topsoil is too rigid to dig below the first few inches, which makes burying the dead almost impossible.
The arid landscape is void of trees, making cremation an uneconomical task that is only reserved for the most esteemed of fellows.
In keeping with the beliefs of Vajrayana Buddhism, which is heavily practised throughout Tibet and parts of Mongolia, a sky burial is considered to be the most generous and practical means of disposing a corpse.
On charnel ground called ‘durtro’, a body is dissected by a handful of body breakers, known as ‘rogyapas’.
The duty is not done in a morbid and sombre manner; Instead the men joke and make idle chat, in the belief that laughter will help guide the spirit of the deceased from the uncertain plane after death and into the next life.
Relatives stand in the distance amongst fluttering prayer flags – present, but out of sight of the ritual.
On this chilled Wednesday morning in the hills of a Tibetan town we stood on the outer edges of the ceremony and quietly observed as the men finished their first macabre task.
When the limbs were cleanly separated, the rogyapas backed away from the body and allowed the waiting birds of prey to flock to the site. Furiously they picked and tore away at the flesh, fighting amongst themselves in the process.
We watched with jaws agape as the vultures rapidly devoured the figure. The body of the man quickly disappeared in a flurry of activity.
After a few minutes the men moved forward again, scaring off the carnivorous birds. Gathering the remains into a pile with bare hands, each rogyapa started mixing tsampa, a traditional Tibetan food, with what was left of the flesh and bones.
The barley flour and tea blend absorbs the fluids of the body and makes the skeletal leftovers more appetising for the vultures. The knives were traded for compact axes and the body breakers began chopping rhythmically, separating the pieces into smaller and smaller fragments.
Each section was then thrown to the onlooking, ravenous vultures.
Buddhists believe that once you pass away your body becomes an empty vessel as your spirit moves onto the next life. There is no emotional connection to the corpse, as it no longer contains a soul.
The feeding of the birds in a Tibetan sky burial is considered to be a final act of generosity by the deceased and their relatives, which provides nourishment to living beings.
This act of compassion towards another species is an important and deeply respected Buddhist virtue.
The rogyapas shovelled what little remained of the body back into the plastic bag. Joking amongst themselves, they carried it to another side of the hill and lit a fire in a steel furnace.
In one last act of finality, they threw the bag into the roaring inferno. I stared into the flames as they flickered gracefully around the frigid sky.
The rest of the men urged us to stay with them to watch the vultures consume the final pieces of the dead. Cigarettes were sparked and offered around, tobacco smoke spinning skyward to mingle with the frozen air.
All around us were fragments of bone, scattered like discarded confetti. Smiling, one man picked up a shard to show me, before dropping it back to the earth.
There it would stay for an eternity, the only evidence remaining of what was now the empty vessel.
The vultures pecked at their last morsel as we returned to the fire to sip on more yak butter tea. The sun was high in the crisp blue sky, brightening both the terrain and the ambiance.
The mood remained jovial, belying the spiritual importance of what we had just witnessed. The gathered men idly chatted, the odd laugh chorusing out over the grasslands.
The body breakers scrubbed their arms and hands with water, ridding themselves of any evidence of the sky burial. Alesha and I downed the last drop of tea and politely shook the hands of each man we had interacted with.
When the rogyapas extended theirs to say goodbye, we shook them without hesitation, respect outweighing any thoughts of what may remain on their hands.
We walked back towards the waking town, prayer flags and cheerful men waving behind us. In the observation of the traditional Tibetan ceremony we had learned more about this culture than books could ever teach.
In each death there is also life – one previous and one to continue on, whether it be in the form of a soaring spirit or that of a nourished bird.
On the hills of ancient Tibet, in the welcoming presence of peaceful mortals, we could almost sense the dead man’s spirit passing gracefully into the next life.