ABOUT SKY BURIAL

Vulture on the way to Tibetan Sky Burial site
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Vulture on the way to Tibetan Sky Burial site

Tibetan sky burial is a mysterious funeral practice that fascinates and sometimes intimidates people from a different cultural background. Although it might seem brutal at first, this tradition demonstrates deep love and compassion towards all living beings and genuine concern about the earth. 

Tibetans believe that after death your body is merely an empty vessel. Sky Burial, therefore, is the last act of merit – feeding the body to the birds, eliminating what is no longer serving you. At the same time, the practice poses no harm to the environment.

In this article, you will find detailed information about the sky burial, and other funeral practices in Tibet.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

Bon Religion

During the early history of Tibet when the main religion was Bon, the earth burial, or simply tombs were the most common funeral practice for noble Tibetans. In the Yarlung Tsangpo Valley, there are still tombs of the first Tibetan Kings. The Valley of the Kings is located outside of Tsedang. The most prominent tomb belongs to the King Songtsen Gampo. At the present moment, the tombs look like large hills from the outside. 

According to Tibetan records, king Songtsen Gampo’s tomb should be deep under the ground with several inner chambers holding various reliquaries, and artifacts made of silver, gold and using various precious stones.

Buddhism

With the adoption of Buddhism in Tibet, other types of burials became more popular in Tibet. 
The most commonly used traditions are:

TIBETAN SKY BURIAL

Himalayan Vultures gathering for Tibetan Sky Burial ritual
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Himalayan Vultures gathering for Tibetan Sky Burial ritual

Sky burial is practiced not only in Tibet, but also in Bhutan, Mongolia, and some parts of India.

Tibetans call sky burial Ten-Chak or Kyil-Khor. Sky burial, sometimes also called celestial burial, is the main funeral practice for most Tibetans who died from natural causes. Tibetans use other funeral rituals when people die from infectious disease or poison that can be dangerous for birds, or for those who committed suicide.

Its wide-spread use in Tibet is based on 2 main factors: practical and religious.

The ground in most areas of Tibet is deeply frozen and rocky. That makes digging graves difficult. In addition, most of the Tibetan Plateau is above the tree-growing zone. Thus cremation was also not available for most people until recent years. Sky Burial, on the other hand, is not only an environmentally feasible solution for Tibetans, but it also relates to their beliefs and religion.

The tradition follows the example that historical Buddha set himself. In one of Buddha’s lives, his incarnation Prince Sattva encountered a hungry tigress with small cubs. Being unable to find food she was ready to eat her own cubs. He felt strong compassion for her and offered his own body. Tibetans follow the example and offer their dead bodies to vultures.

There are not enough carcasses of wild animals that vultures can eat to support their population. Vultures also never attack living animals. Therefore, feeding the body to vultures provides an important source of food for them without any harm to living beings.

For Tibetans, sky burial demonstrates the impermanence of the physical body. It is also a chance to make one more gesture of generosity by providing food to birds.

HOW IS SKY BURIAL PERFORMED

Sakya monastery murals depicting scenes about Bardo - after death
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Murals depicting scenes about Bardo – state after death

The exact practice of Tibetan sky burial might differ slightly depending on the region, and how busy the sky burial site is. This is an overview of a typical tradition.

After Tibetan dies, the family keeps the body at home for the next 3 to 5 days. During that time, monks visit the house to recite prayers and also read Bardo Thodol – the Tibetan Book of The Dead in English translation. The book explains what the spirit faces during the rebirth process. After that, the body is ready for a sky burial. The site of the sky burial is usually high in the mountains, where vultures gather. The site itself is often just a flat stone slab. The area around it is marked with hundreds of prayer flags. 

The dead body’s spine is broken and then the body is carried to the mountain top. The Tumden, body breaker, burns juniper incense to attract vultures. He cuts the body and lets vultures take care of the rest. After approximately only 10-15 minutes, the birds leave only a carcass of the body. Then the master smashes bones with a hammer and mixes it with tsampa – roasted barley flour and mixes it with Tibetan butter tea. Vultures, as well as crows and hawks, finish every piece of the body.

It is a bad sign if vultures don’t finish eating a body. Tibetans believe that it is a result of a person’s bad deeds.

Family members don’t attend the ceremony. They stay home and pray. During the next 49 days, the family will request prayers from lamas. According to Bardo, after 7 weeks the spirit will be reborn.

SKY BURIAL SITES IN TIBET

Sky burial mountain near Drak Yerpa
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Sky burial mountain near Drak Yerpa

There are many sky burials in Tibet. While traveling on the plateau, your guide will point to some of them. However, they are hard to see as all of them are high in the mountains. Also, foreigners are not allowed to visit the sky burials and watch the ceremony.

Some of the most famous sky burials are near Drigun Til monastery, Pabongka, Sera Monastery, and Larung Gar in Eastern Tibet. If you are traveling to Mount Kailash, you will see one of the sky burial sites from a distance on your first day of walking around the mountain. There is an old (no longer active) sky burial site opposing Drak Yerpa Hermitage that you can visit. It is also a great place to view the panorama of the entire temple complex. 

WATCHING AND RECORDING SKY BURIALS

Murals in Chumpu nunnery
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Mural depicting sky burial in Chimpu Nunnery

Previously, tourists visited some Tibetan sky burial sites and even recorded the ceremony. Unfortunately, some of the people who watched these videos didn’t understand the cultural significance of the ceremony and made disrespectful comments. The government decided to close all sky burial sites for visitors. Starting from 2005 any organization or individual are not allowed to:

  • watch, photograph and take videos of the scene of the burial activity;
  • publish photos, videos, or any recordings, reprint texts, pictures, and reports related to the funeral activities through newspapers, magazines, books, radio, film, television, and other media;
  • use a sky burial platform as a tourist attraction for visitors.

For Tibetans, it is in an intimate process. Please, respect the law and don’t try to visit sky burials.

OTHER FUNERAL TRADITIONS IN TIBET

FUNERAL STUPA

Stupa of 4th Panchen Lama in Tashi Lhunpo monastery
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Stupa of 4th Panchen Lama in Tashi Lhunpo monastery

There are 2 different types of stupas that you can see in Tibet. The most commonly seen stupas are religious objects. They can be small, for example, stupas in the Phabongka Hermitage site. The largest stupa in Tibet is Kumbum – 35-meter high chorten with nine levels.  Another type of stupa is a funeral stupa. 

The stupas of the highest lamas – the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama preserve the full body. Other important lamas are cremated first and then their ashes are placed inside a stupa. 

You can see previous Dalai Lamas funeral stupas in the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Panchen Lamas funeral stupas are in the Tashi Lhunpo monastery in Shigatse.

FIRE BURIAL (CREMATION)

For most other Tibetans cremation is a less common practice. Cremation is used for people who died from infectious disease, were poisoned or committed suicide. Tibetans can also use it if nearby sky burials are full.

However, there is an important exception to it. The high lamas in Tibet are cremated. After that, their remains are placed in tomb stupas.

Tibetans believe that spirit can get more trouble during cremation, and only for high lamas it will be easy to reach a higher level after rebirth.

WATER BURIAL

People who live far from sky burial sites can use this practice as the main one. Otherwise, it is a less common ceremony and mostly used when sky burial sites are full or for travelers or beggers. There are special platforms beside rivers. The dead body is offered to fish in the river. Similar to the sky burial, only people who died from natural causes can be offered to fish.

EARTH BURIAL

Tibetans believe that it is the least desirable funeral practice from the Buddhist standpoint. After the body is buried underground, it attracts worms that will consume it. However, when they finish eating the body, they will have no food left and start eating each other. These insects born from your body will experience sadness, sorrow, and death, contributing to the spirit’s bad karma.

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