Last Updated on 2022/04/22
Tibetan communities continue to celebrate their ancient customs and traditions.
Among these, one of the most special funerary traditions is related to the open-air sacrificial burial, Sky burial, or ritual dissection, an ancient funerary practice wherein a human corpse is incised in certain locations and placed on a mountaintop, exposing it to vultures.
Chinese government prohibited it in the 60s and 70s but started to allow it again in the 1980s.
The tomden (or rogyapas), the master of ceremonies, usually a monk, after reciting Buddhist mantras, sharpens his knife and flays the body from head to toe, exposing the body to the elements. Vultures start circling above the site, attracted by the fire of juniper and the smell of meat. The soul of the corpse in the meantime reaches heaven, and the believer’s body provides food to sustain living beings. The tomden calls the vultures using the expression “Shey, Shey” (“Feed on, Feed on”). The birds attracted by the meat, descend from the sky, and eat the dead man’s body.
The tomden makes its way through the hungry birds, cut into large pieces the corpse, and throws them to the animals. Bones and brains are then crushed with a hammer and mixed with barley flour. Later, the birds disappear in the sky ferrying the soul of the deceased. Vultures are considered sacred because they are a representation of the god dakinis.
Seda or Sertar in Ganze prefecture, northern Sichuan is home of the Larung Gar Buddhist Institute, the largest Buddhist Institute on the Tibetan Plateau; during certain times of the year, the population of the school is almost 50,000 monks, nuns, and students. The county of Seda (Sertar or Serta), before the Chinese occupation, was part of Tibet, but today is an integral part of the territory of Sichuan, like many other western counties of the province, where there are more than 800,000 Tibetans (these counties with the regions eastern Tibetan Kham are).
Tibetan Sky burial pictures
“Sky burial and open cremation may initially appear grotesque for Westerners, especially if they have not reflected on their own burial practice[s]. For Tibetan Buddhists, sky burial and cremation are templates of instructional teaching on the impermanence of life.” (Tibetan Buddhism and the resolution of grief: The Bardo-Thodol for the dying and the grieving by Goss, Robert E.; Klass, Dennis)