Tibetan Sky Burial (天葬)

There are many things this temple is famous for, but the main ‘attraction’ here is the fact that this is one of the few places you can witness the Tibetan ritual of sky burial (天葬). I’ll let you wikipedia the details.

The rituals usually start early and it’s quite a hike up to the top of the mountain. Waking up at 5:30am, many others were already on the road walking up with us. The strange part was, this stray dog noticed us near our hostel and kept following us wherever we went! Didn’t know why he followed us, but he was good company.

We arrived at the ceremony site, but were stopped far away by locals. We stuck around anyways in the damp, chilly and cloudy morning. There were a dozen monks around, and a half dozen ‘workers’. It didn’t take long before the condors started showing up, soaring out of the clouds from afar and landing un-gracefully into the ceremony site. Note, the condors nest in the same valley we hiked up yesterday.

After an hour or so, tourists are now well over 60 people, a bunch of monks drove off in their cars and some workers were carried off in trucks. We thought it was over, until someone actually said it was okay for us to see! The workers are now fewer, and only ONE monk remained. We suspect that the first ceremony was someone of higher econo-social status so they didn’t let people see.

The ceremony itself is a bit ambiguous. The monks keep a constant supply of prayers, and the workers look like they’re doing hard labour. We were still a bit far, so I can’t explain the details. The actual process goes like this:

  1. A cloth-sack carrying the corpse is unraveled and the condors go CRAZY.

  2. Once the condors stop being ‘efficient’, the workers then go in and help out. With a knife, they’ll slice up different pieces of the remains.

  3. After the flesh is eaten, the bones are then ‘processed’ with a hammer and combined with some wheat flour, which we assume was to to aid the appetite of the condors.

  4. Repeat, until finished.

So as the monk kept chanting prayers, the workers would scramble around trying to make sure everything is consumed, as it is said that you can’t achieve full ‘release’ from the world until every bit of your body is taken. The strange thing was, once a condor was full, it would just walk away to the side and not bother anyone!

The most grotesque thing we saw? After the flesh was mostly gone, the workers scuttled away the condor pack and pulled out a human skull with the connecting spinal cord…. Without much thought, he brought it to the ‘workbench’ and started hammering away at it. The grossest part for me was the fact that, he had to work pretty damn hard with the hammer (at least 8-9 hard smashes) before it was opened, which he then threw back into the pack which threw the condors into a frenzied fight…. Uhhhh *shudder*

In all seriousness, it is not as grotesque as it sounds (possibly because we were about 150m away and can’t see the actual slicing & dicing). On the flip side, it also isn’t very ‘holy’, as the workers would yell, get upset and sometimes laugh a bit. The whole process, seemed strangely enough, very ‘normal’ or as we call, 平常心. Also, the fact that there were well over 100 tourists talking and chatting didn’t give much solemn to the atmosphere….

PS – The stray dog kept his distance from the ceremonial site and stayed at the gates, when we left he probably found another group to follow. He was a good dog… When one of us would stop he would wait until they caught up. Bacon, if you’re reading this, you need learn!

Categories: China, General | Tags: | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Tibetan Sky Burial (天葬)

  1. DBJ

    that’s a good stray dog…hope the condors don’t get him

  2. Heroko Yihe Zhao

    shouldnt read this before lunch

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