Have you ever been shocked while travelling? I certainly was. Even though its harder to surprise me nowadays, I remember many times looking at something happening in front of my eyes in awe. Moreover, I was often the only person being bedazzled as locals paid no attention. What was so special for me was quite normal to them. It was part of their culture or they saw it so many times they became numb to this sensation. For example, an elephant being part of the traffic in Kerala, a beggar woman sleeping by busy street in Mumbai and using two small naked children just for her comfort – one as a pillow and one laying on her legs just to warm her up, people burping and farting around you while meditating in Myanmar, police openly asking you for a bribe in Cambodia and many more…

I was shocked when experiencing these things for the first time, but still I was somehow prepared. Every guidebook warns you about the culture shock you can expect in particular country, so at least you know upfront what you are getting yourself into. You realise that many of the cultural and behavioural rules you learned back home will be no longer valid when exploring a distant country. You become like a child again, suddenly being aware of hundreds of unknown stimuli around you – and you love it!

But what if something comes that you didn’t expect at all? Something that no guidebook warned you about. Something that will make you experience the culture shock the hard way for the first time. This is what happened to me while travelling in the west part of Sichuan province in China, a region formally part of Tibet. Here is the full story:

Litang monastery
Tibetian atmosphere in Sichuan

Travelling in Sichuan was a culture heaven on its own. I always wanted to visit Tibet, but since I am a budget traveller right now I kept postponing this dream for later. Moreover, I like to travel and explore on my own but in Tibet I would only be allowed to travel in an organised group with a tour guide, seeing just what they want me to see. Not really how I imagined it. That’s why I was super excited when travelling in Sichuan, realising that even though I am not in the official territory of current Tibet, I am in the territory that was Tibet until about 65 years ago. And even if it’s now officially part of China, the people, culture, country and architecture there can sometimes be more Tibetan than inside touristy Tibet. Plus you can travel and explore on your own with very low budget (if you hitchhike and use student card). The deal was sealed and one of my most adventurous travels started.

I was travelling with Avishai from Israel whom I met at the beginning of my travel in China. After exploring Yunnan province and hitchhiking north for two full days (one of them in a pig truck), we finally arrived to Litang, a town located at an altitude above 4,000m and the birthplace of the 7th and 10th Dalai Lamas as well as one of the main areas of Tibetan armed resistance to the PLA occupation in the 1950s.

Hitchhiking pigtruck in China
Hitchhiking in a pigtruck. We are happy as finally someone took us on this empty road. They are obviously not happy as they know we will be squeezed like this for next 8 hours…

We already got used to people in this region speaking zero English so our conversation with locals was limited to mixture of body language and Chinese vocabulary we picked on the go. That’s why I was surprised when in a guest house they handed me a phone to speak with the owner of the accommodation. She welcomed us in fluent English and gave us a few tips of what to see and do around the area. One of the tips was to witness a sky burial ceremony that was supposed to happen the next day. She didn’t explain much about it, just that it’s very different to funerals as we know them, and involves eagles (which turned out to be vultures). I had a really strange feeling. I didn’t want to interrupt someone’s private ceremony just out of my curiosity for different cultures, but she said this shouldn’t be a problem and encouraged me to go to confront death and feel the impermanence of life. “I hope it doesn’t happen that tomorrow there is no body!” she laughed.

When I hung up I was still unsure about going. I imagined the picture of the family opening a box with small cut parts of the body, vultures flying in to take all of them and then flying high to the sky after. Taking the body to the heaven like a guardian angels. Sky burial. Curiosity took over, and early morning the next day, Avishai and I headed to the sacred hill.

Litang mountains
Views in Litang are breathtaking. And not just because of the high altitude.

We knew we are at the right place as we could see vultures gathering at the top of the hill. As we walked up, I started to notice small pieces of crushed bones scattered around. The higher we went the higher was their frequency. New objects appeared. Knives. Several of them here and there. They looked dull, old and rusty – they had definitely served their purpose already. We started to feel a little shaken and nervous. What had we got ourselves into? As I was looking at slightly bigger pieces of bones under my sandals, I noticed a hatchet laying nearby. I looked around with more attention to discover several of them, all covered with stains of unidentifiable colour mixed with rust. I was thinking of turning around and going back to the guest house. I was curious but this was too much. I could not see any overleap of my idea of this ceremony with the scenery I found myself in. At this moment we were close enough to see the family of deceased that gathered here. There was not many of them, only six plus a monk, all men. I could see no fear or sadness on their faces and that made me calmer. They smiled and offered us cigarettes. Even though I am not a smoker, I was relieved with their warm welcome at such an intimate ceremony.

Vultures in Litang gathering for a sky burial ceremony
Vultures gathering at the top of the sacred hill

With body language and a couple of English words they explain to us they are from Batang, but they had to drive all the way here as it is the closest place where they can do the traditional ceremony. Then one of them points at the chained box. “Old” he says. So we understand that inside of it will be probably grandma or grandpa who died of an old age. The box seems so small, I cannot imagine that a whole body would fit inside. It must have been already prepared for the ceremony and portioned in some way. But why there is a chain around it? That is really disturbing me. We all look at it quietly. Just a chained box in the middle of the hill. Vultures starts to come closer and closer. More and more of them fly in from far mountains. Compared to us, they know what to expect. This ceremony happens here each Monday, Wednesday and Saturday at dawn in case there are one or more dead people. Some of the vultures come too close so the family just threaten them with a stick in the hand and they back off disappointed. It is not the time yet.

Soon the monk comes to stand in front of the box and pray. This goes on for a long time so my attention starts to drift away. I notice an unusual figure at the bottom of the hill. It is a man who is wearing a disposable plastic apron. Walking along the river, he leans down to wash his hands. Then he starts to walk around, picking up knives and hatchets. Testing their sharpness with the tip of his finger, he throws them away disappointed and looks for another one. Once it looks like he is satisfied, he takes one hatchet and two knives to the river to wash them and starts to walk our direction. Just in time. The monk has just finished the ceremony so this butcher can take over. Later after ceremony I read that the name for this profession is rogyapa – body breaker.

Sky burial in Litang
With these creatures walking just a few metres away from you, you feel nothing but respect.

He orders the family to unchain the box and take the contents out. First, they take out something like a big bag of flour, after that some orange pieces of cloth and a long lace, then they tilt the box and a corpse in the foetal position rolls out. A naked body of very old and very skinny person with shaved head. I cannot even say if it is a man or a woman. The rogyapa places the body face down, stretches it out and ties the head with the lace to a nearby wooden stick hammered to the ground. I am to discover why soon.

Vultures start to be very eager at this point, trying to make their way to the dead body so the family makes a protective half circle around it. The carnivorous birds will have to follow the correct timing of the ceremony. Bone-breaker takes a knife and starts cutting. First the back of the body: long, deep parallel cuts going all the way down from neck to the butt. And then the same at right angles. The body is starting to look like a sausage you prepare for a camp fire. The knife seems to slide in so easily. There is no blood. Somewhere around this moment my brain switches into some weird mode. I guess it’s too much to cope with as a reality, so I observe it more like its just a documentary on TV. This cannot really be happening right in front of my eyes. Just a few meters away from me. This must not be real.

The butcher, wrapped in a plastic bags, then continues and does the same with the rest of the body. Arms, legs, neck, hands, soles of the feet. Once he is finished he steps back and the family makes way for the hungry birds. Luckily, we do not see too much at this point. There are so many of them that as soon as they encircle the body you can see just a big group of wings and feathers, they are fighting hard to get the best bits. A terrible smell starts to spread around in a second. I consider myself a greatly gifted traveller since I can sleep anywhere, no matter what conditions and noise, and I don’t usually care too much about smells; but this one is too much even for me. I cover my nose with my scarf and hope it will pass quickly.

Sky burial in Litang
Family and rogyapa observing the ceremony

Some vultures take parts of the body and fly with them away to enjoy their food at some quiet place. Now I see why they have tied the body to the wooden stick, otherwise they could not be sure where it will end up. I see two vultures fighting for the skeleton of an arm. One wins and drags it away. Family wants to prevent this and starts chasing this misbehaving predator but it’s too late, he got too far and the right arm is lost. The butcher gives a sign for them to scare vultures away. It takes a while and a lot of threatening with a hatchet, but the birds finally back away. They know its not over yet. It’s shocking to see that after what seemed to be less than 10 minutes, there is no flesh left on the body, what lies in front of us is just a skeleton (minus one arm). I think this is it, but the hardest part is yet to come. To assure ascent of the soul, the entire body of the deceased should be eaten. The rogyapa takes bones piece by piece and puts them on a big, flat rock nearby to pound them into pulp with the hammerhead of the hatchet. This seems to be really hard work and will take the longest part of the ceremony. I wonder how well people like him are paid. This must be a really tough job, both mentally and physically. The only change comes with the skull. He carefully cracks it open and bring closer to the family for them to examine. We hear agreeing noises of aaaaaaawww and ooooowwww but have no idea what is going on. One vulture takes advantage of this situation to steal a bit of crushed bone but he is quickly chased away.

Once the bone breaker is finished, they mix all the mass with with tsampa (roasted barley flour). They step back once again to give way to the vultures. The portion left for them is not as big as you might expect and it takes them hardly 5 minutes to be finished. One by one, the vultures start to move slowly away up the mountain. They don’t fly with their full stomachs any more, they walk. The first rays of sun start to cover the mountain and these gigantic birds open their wings wide. A member of a family faces them and starts to sing beautifully. This moment is magical. Maybe they are just drying their feathers, but it seems more like they give respect to the body and to family.

Sky burial in Litang
As soon as the song started…
Sky burial in Litang
… vultures moved up the hill and spread their wings

My mind wanders. Processing what I have just witnessed and what touched me so deeply on many levels. It was so different from our traditions, but not just in its explicit nature. When people close to me died, I could understand that they are gone, that I will never be able to have a conversation with them or to see them again. But there still was a place on a graveyard where I knew their body is buried and where I could come to think of them, bring flowers and remember the time we spent together. Now in Litang I could see the body completely disappearing away in front of my eyes in just one hour. Longlife, the woman on the phone, was right. I never fully realised the impermanence of life before. Somehow, I never felt so detached  to my own body, but in kind of a good way. It’s just a body. And according to Buddhists, who we are is a soul. That’s why the family wasn’t showing any signs of sadness. According to their beliefs, this soul will be reincarnated now. Maybe into the vulture who will be fed again by different body. Or maybe into a bunny which will live longer as it will not being chased by a vulture (who is already full…) There was no need to preserve the body of their loved one, as it is now only an empty vessel. So they did the best they could with it, they sacrificed it to birds making a good deed.

Looking at the beautiful country around I also start to realise the practical reasons for this tradition. The terrain around is mostly just a few centimetres of soil covering solid rock, making it almost impossible to dig a grave. Wood is also difficult to come by, as most of the land is above the tree line, so cremation would be a difficult process. Sky burial wins in this case as being the easiest and most ecological as well.

Sky burial in Litang
Digging a grave or finding enough wood for cremation would be challenging in these conditions

The beautiful song ended. Vultures started to fly away and the family load their car and gave us a lift to the city. There we walked slowly, just one leg in front of another, trying to come back to reality. I got very sick and delusional that night. I blame the altitude sickness, but it might have been as well the combination of both – high altitude and processing this experience.

What about you? Share with us what shaken you the most during your travels. How did you cope with the culture shock?

One thought to “Sky burial ceremony”

  • Tommo

    Great article, Martina!


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