Tibetan Sky Burial
by Graham Earnshaw
In was mid-1983, and I was on one of the first journalist trips into Tibet forever. On the first morning at about 3am, well before dawn, I sneaked out a window in the government guest house in the center of Lhasa. The front door of the guest house was locked. There were no guards in sight.
Myself and a British diplomat by the name of Will Dennis walked quietly out of the town (it was hardly a city). No one challenged us. There was nobody about, although as we got further beyond the houses, we began to pass pilgrims coming into Lhasa, some walking and some crawling. We walked in the dark to a hillside behind the Sera Monastery where we had heard Sky Burials were performed just about every day.
We probably walked for two hours in total. I had wondered about the altitude sickness which many people report, caused by the thin oxygen-light air in high-altitude Lhasa, but I felt totally fine, even though we had been at that elevation for only a few hours before we started out. The last part was a long trudge up a winding dirt track along a mountainside, but the way was marked by a tiny camp fire up ahead.
We reached the saddle of the hill, and there was a Liberation-brand (Wuhan-built) truck on the left, on the lower side of the hill, and the campfire on the right, higher side of the hill, around which were crouched a group of Tibetans, the relatives of the dead. They invited us to sit with them, and we made friendly faces at each other. They didn’t speak Chinese, and my Tibetan leaves a lot to be desired, in other words zero. They made us some of the disgustingly sweet milk tea infused with the yak butter that the whole of Tibet stinks of. Further along in the darkness was the outline of a large rock on which were two whitish rolls of aomething. The rock was shaped like a flattened pear, the thin ending pointing outwards, with indents and pockmarks over its surface.
After a while, a very short but obviously strong man with several long knives in hand arrived, and was greeted with respect by the Tibetans. It was the Sky Burial Master. His torso was bare, and he wore baggy shorts. He went onto the rock, unwrapped the bundles, and started to carve up the bodies within.
I had been worried that I would find it nauseating to see human bodies being cut up, but in fact I felt only curiosity, basically because the Tibetans themselves — the relatives and the Master — treated it as a normal, natural sort of event. As if it was a particularly significant haircut, perhaps.
The sky was beginning to get lighter. To the right, the rocky hillside curved up sharply towards a ridge high above us. And on the ridge we became aware of huge birds, watching the proceedings. They were massive vultures, the best-fed birds in the world. As the Sky Burial Master continued his work, the birds gradually moved down from the ridge towards the rock, flying and hopping, getting a bit of exercise before breakfast. The rock outcrops were covered in the flags and whisps of material which Tibetans use to make shrines, and there were small fires on some of the closer outcrops, sending thin trails of white smoke up into the sky. There was no wind.
The Master was cutting the bodies up in a very definite and precise way.
There was no obvious blood because it is drained out of the bodies before the sky burial takes place. The master carved the meat into bite-size chunks on the thinner ledge part of the rock, took the bones out, smashed them into depressions in the rock surface, and then used an instrument to crush them into powder. By now the vultures, maybe a dozen of them, had hopped onto the fat part of the rock, and were waiting expectantly for the first course. My memory is that the birds stood taller than the Sky Burial Master. I don’t know if that’s possible, but they were huge birds.
The Master took the pulverised bone fragments and scattered them onto the meat chunks and then fed them to the vultures. The reasoning is that the vultures must eat the entire body to ensure the spirit of the dead person rises to heaven along with the white smoke, so the bone must be mixed in with the more tasty bits. Like mixing bitter medicine with Ribena.
It was now pretty light, and several Chinese arrived in the standard blue Mao jackets of the era. The Tibetans shooed them away, would not let them anywhere near the campfire. The Chinese backed off a little up the hill and watched from a distance. The Tibetans were clearly unhappy about their presence.
That was about the end of the ceremony. The bodies had been pretty much eaten up. Then we saw a jeep roaring up the mountain below the sky burial rock, then twisting round and up to where we were standing. Out jumped two Chinese policemen, very pissed off, and order myself and Will into the back. We were driven back to Lhasa and given a stiff talking-to. But we didn’t tell the other people in the party what we had seen.
The next morning, several of our companions, including some of the toughest and most resourceful foreign correspondents in the world, tried to leave the guest house to go to the sky burial site, but they were stopped before they got out of the door. Finally, towards the end of our visit, word leaked out amongst our colleagues that we’d been to see the Sky Burial, and they were extremely jealous.
I wrote the story for the Daily Telegraph, which you can read in the Other Writings section of earnshaw.com.
In 1998, I was engaged by Audi to give a lecture to a group of Chinese journalists in Shanghai specialising in the auto industry, about how to use the Internet. Afterwards, we went to dinner, and one of the journalists said: “You know, you are well known in China.”
“How come?” I asked.
“Because you are the first foreign journalist ever to witness a Sky Burial in Tibet.”
Of all the reasons he could have given for me to be well known in China, I would never have guessed that one.