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The purpose of this document is to provide an ethnographic account of the Tibetan funeral ritual -
the sky burial, (Tib.) 'jhator', literally 'giving alms to the birds.'
|| A Sky Burial || Other eye-witness accounts || Visual documentation ||
The document is a part of the Religion section
of the Tibetan
Studies WWW Virtual Library. Please mail firstname.lastname@example.org
if you know of relevant networked resource not in this page.
A Sky Burial - The Sacred Solemn Funeral Rite of Tibet
The following notes were prepared by Mondo Secter (email@example.com),
Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, Canada in October 1999
for the use by the H-Net list for Asian History and Culture
(H-ASIA@H-NET. MSU.EDU). They are reprinted here with kind permission
of the author.
"Tibetan culture and religion is not something I have studied, or
researched, although I do have a graduate degree in Chinese religion and
philosophy. What I am sharing is something from my very personal
experience. It was the summer of 1986.
After teaching for a year in central China we were looking forward to
traveling to Tibet via Luoyang, Xian and Xining with its large Tibetan
community. Train tickets from Xining to Germud, the last stop in China
before Tibet, were sold out a week or two in advance. I used my best
Chinese, which wasn't that good, to persuade the station mistress of the
merit of our case. Just before the train pulled out she gave us the last
two seats. We had to overnight in Germud to take the two-day bus ride that
began at the crack of dawn. It wasn't long before the driver started
swaying rhythmically, his mind clearly not in touch with his body.
Occasionally his body shot back to an upright position with a sudden as he
regained consciousness. He seemed to be cruising on automatic pilot.
The bus was constantly weaving and the passengers as a collective body felt
we would careen off the mountain road and over the edge at any time. The
drop was easily hundreds of feet. Those of us who felt they could steer
the bus in an emergency took turns sitting up front prepared to grab the
steering wheel if the driver fell asleep. That was how it went for two
days until we arrived in Lhasa.
About half the passengers experienced altitude sickness at least once
during the trip. Most of us were Westerners working in China; the others
were Tibetan. Sometime after lunch of the first day we heard about the
'sky burial.' I felt I was listening to an ancient myth being passed down
to another generation. The Tibetan trader sitting behind me told us that
the burial had been off limits to foreigners for quite some time, and no
one knew when or if the ban would be lifted again. I don't remember if we
spoke in Chinese or English. Others talked of Westerners who had managed
witness the 'forbidden' ritual dressed in Tibetan garb. Getting caught by
Chinese authorities when breaking their laws can be a most unpleasant
experience. When we arrived in Lhasa, we met some Westerners who had been
there for some time and who confirmed ban. The word was that it would not
be lifted in the foreseeable future.
Witness to a Sky Burial - The Sacred Solemn Funeral Rite of Tibet
In the summer 1986 my spouse and I were granted the privilege of
witnessing a sky burial on the outskirts of Lhasa. We had been in Tibet
for about ten days and were flying back to China a few days later. By this
time we had heard quite a bit about the sky burials which we were correctly
informed had been banned / closed / off limits to foreigners for some time.
Suddenly one afternoon we were told that a limited number of Westerners
would be allowed to attend a sky burial the next morning. Did we want to
go? Without hesitation we said yes. For reasons that we did not fathom
there had been a quiet shift in policy. No payment or transfer of money
that we knew of was involved. Although it is possible that one party paid
some money for seven or eight people to attend in order to cover their own
intentions. Whatever happened, this brief window opened up and we felt
quite honored to be able to witness this ritual. We also realized that
between 'now and then' anything could change to cancel our plan to bear
We had to rent or borrow bicycles that afternoon as we had to get up at
about 4:00AM and bike as a group in the darkness quite a way from the
center of town, maybe twenty or thirty minutes, using bike lamps and
flashlights as our only source of visibility. Fortunately by then we had
become somewhat acclimatized to the altitude. We were following a rough
map of the kind associated with a buried treasure, which in retrospect is
what it was. We left the bikes and walked quite some distance, perhaps
another ten or fifteen minutes across a rocky area of the high desert, and
finally climbed to the top of a rocky ledge that overlooked the burial rock
about 40-50 feet away. By that time, the sun was thinking about rising and
shades of hazy light revealed three bodies wrapped in white. There were
also three or four Tibetans milling around the bodies doing nothing
particular or so it seemed.
After about ten or fifteen minutes one of them walked over to where we
were all sitting and bathed us in incense. It reminded me of the sage
smoke smudge that was wafted over everyone and everything at a Native
American ceremony I had attended. The Tibetan spoke to us in simple
Chinese to make sure we understood the solemnity of the occasion and the
manners. He also reminded us that ' pictures were forbidden.' Two of us
were conversant in Chinese and translated this to the others, but I think
they all got the message without the translation.
We all sat huddled in two groups in close proximity for warmth, perched on
the ledge in the chill morning air just as the dawn was breaking. I
wondered what mystery had made this profound experience possible and what
had drawn us together; three or four couples who had only recently
connected in Lhasa.
At one point two of the attendants unwrapped one of the bodies and calmly
began to cut it up. At first they sliced of pieced of flesh which they
tossed to an area about fifteen or twenty feet from where they were
working. A couple of huge vultures were flying high overhead, and a couple
of others were perched on some rocks at some distance. Then the men began
to wave their arms and made some strange haunting sounds that reminded me
of wild animal or bird calls. It probably took about 15-20 minutes for the
birds to come - a few dozen. In the meantime the two men charged with the
job of disposing of the bodies, continued to cut up the bodies, one
at-a-time. The bones were hacked or broken into smaller pieces and tossed
aside. The vultures swooped down and tore off pieces of flesh or in some
cases flew off with a large chunk which they could eat without being
challenged. The bigger bones were broken up on the rocks with large heavy
stone, and the pieces tossed easily into the feeding area. Although there
seemed to be more than enough for all the birds, by nature they kept vying
for the spoils. The whole affair was not harried, but rather a methodical
solemn process that must have lasted for a little more than an hour.
When it was over I felt a sense of deep connection to rhythm of life and
to the universe as a whole. No one talked much about the experience. I
remember reflecting on the fact that these bodies had not suffered the
indignity of worms and maggots. In some ways it seemed quite civilized.
It was a haunting experience that in many ways is still fresh in my mind.
In the past thirteen years I don't think Ari and I ever talked about that
day. We don't have to. With some reluctance she has helped me recall some
of the details, and for that I am grateful. I also am reluctant to talk
about it but I have decided to share this experience in the hope that it
might be a helpful and useful contribution to the understanding of the
Tibetan people and their burial ritual."
Copyright © 1999 by M.Secter. The above text is not to be re-published without the author's
Other eye-witness accounts of the Sky Burial
- Rotem Eldar, April 2005.
Date: Tue, 14 Mar 2006,
From: Rotem Eldar (firstname.lastname@example.org),
Subject: tibetan sky burial,
I have witnessed a burial [in April 2005, in Litang, Eastern Tibet - tmc.] and even got permission to
take pictures and join the family. Have a look here:
Will be more than happy if you add this link to your
article [see above - tmc] [...].
Will be also happy to share some more photos and movie
clips I have which are harder to watch, if needed.
- Anonymous, Jul 12, 1999.
Tibet's 'sky burial' lives on to link death and nature.
The New York Times
- Sylvia and Lisa [no surnames are stated - tmc]. 1998. Sky-burial Accounts.
A collection of inadequately referenced excerpts from:
"The Myth of Shangri-La", Peter Bishop, 1989.
"Seven Years in Tibet", Heinrich Harrer, nd.
"My Journey to Lhasa", Alexandra David-Neel, 1983.
"Flight of the Wind Horse", Niema Ash, nd.
- Pamela Logan. 1997. Witness to a Tibetan Sky-Burial: A Field Report for the China.
Exploration and Research Society
Drigung, Tibet; Sep 26, 1997
- Patrick Mansier, 1983.
Date: Sat, 15 Jan 2000
From: "Patrick M." (email@example.com)
Subject: Tibetan Sky Burial
"I mention to you that a full account of the tibetan sky burial (text and
photographs) was published in the french magazine "Geo" (No 54) in august
1983. The author is M. Patrick Mansier, a tibetologist scholar who gave a
detailed explanation of this ritual (history, religious background and fine
description). This same author published again a article with photos in the
form of an interview in the french magazine "New Look" (April 1991).
The data of these reportages and ethographical accounts were collected
during a mission in Tibet this author undertook in 1982 as the official
interpreter of a french geological team under the direction of M. Claude
Allegre, a famoust french geologist who is now the french minister of
education, research and science.
You should mention this first contribution, never surpassed since then, to
this burial ritual, unique in the world."
- The event, which is very seldom - if ever - photographed, is documented on a film
"Lhasa 1986: The Forbidden City Opens Its Doors"
The film includes scenes shot at the Potala, the Jokhang, Gyurme Tantric
College, and at a sky burial site near Sera monastery.
60 min. Wisdom Films.
361 Newbury St.
Boston. MA 02115
[Src: Films and Videos on Tibet, Last updated: 5 February 1996
The catalog has been compiled by Sonam Dargyay (sdhargay--at--ucs.indiana.edu)
With additions by A. Tom Grunfeld (tgrunfeld--at--sescva.esc.edu),
Brian C. Shaw (bcjshaw--at--hkucc.hku.hk), and David Cherniack
- H-ASIA: RESOURCE: New Asian Documentary Film Series, September 10, 2006
From: Ellen Bruno (ellen--at--brunofilms.com)
In following up to my earlier post, I am pleased to report that I have now completed a new film "Sky Burial set in Northern Tibet."
Sky Burial follows the ritual of "jha-tor", the giving of alms to birds in a northern Tibetan monastery. The bodies of the dead are offered to the vultures as a final act of kindness to living beings.
To view a clip: http://brunofilms.com/sky.html
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