Tibetan sky burial

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China 31, Commotion at the temple

Copyright, Elaine Canham 2015

Copyright, Elaine Canham 2015


Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China and Tibet

In the evening we go to the market. I feel as if I’ve travelled about 500 years back in time. At least. The place is stuffed with pilgrims and families who have come for a trip to the big city. Some of them surround a teenager who is juggling with silver balls. He occasionally swallows them – they are the size of tennis balls – and then he brings them back up and gets on with the juggling, which is disgusting but I can’t not watch. What happens if one gets stuck?

There is a man selling the strips of stripy material that Tibetan women make their aprons out of. His price depends on the length of your arms. Agnetha agrees reasonable terms and sticks her arms out and he cuts a length of material which stretches from her finger tip to finger tip. I mime that I want some too and he agrees the same price. But he doesn’t reckon on the fact that I am way taller than her. The Tibetans all gather good naturedly to watch and when I stretch my much longer arms out, there is a good deal of laughter. The seller is not happy at the poor deal he has struck, but he can’t back out, and there are lots of jokes at his expense. Still, he comes round and gives me a smile with my change. The material is like thick felt, way too stiff to make a scarf out of. I have no idea what I’m going to do with it, but I’m very pleased with my bargain.

The market has grown up round the Jokhang temple, the most sacred in Tibet. According to Julie’s guidebook, it was built in 642, (just about the time my ancestors decided blue paint would go well with a goatskin loincloth). On one of the pillars there is a rather poignant inscription recording a treaty between China and Tibet in 822. It says, ‘Tibet and China shall abide by the frontiers of which they are now in occupation. All to the east is the country of Great China; and all to the west is, without question, the country of Great Tibet. Henceforth on neither side shall there be waging of war nor seizing of territory.’

The square is festooned with what looks like bunting but which is, in actual fact, thousands of prayers printed on rectangular pieces of paper bought or brought by the pilgrims who flock here. There are more pilgrims than you could shake a stick at; some, still not quite at the temple, are throwing themselves full length on the ground and getting up and repeating the process, but once they get to the temple, they have to go round it once, clockwise, before they can go in. In front of the temple doors there are more worshippers bowing and kneeling and prostrating themselves, I can even see children doing it, in a nearby gutter.

Inside the monks are chanting and it is dim and peaceful. There are several different rooms, all with enormous Buddhas and, in front of each, there are all sorts of offerings, from lumps of raw turquoise the size of a baby’s head, to rusting tin cans in which grass is growing. Every gift, from the richest to the poorest is honoured. And then there is a sudden commotion at the entrance and a blare of music and about four Chinese soldiers come in with a ghetto blaster. They swagger up to the altar, Chinese pop music bouncing off the walls, sniff at the yak butter candles and hold their noses. They laugh and point in disdain at the tins of grass. I find this so upsetting, but none of us can say anything. It would only make trouble for the monks, and none of them pay any attention. They carry on with their prayers and their eternal sweeping and eventually the soldiers push off, their music still faintly thumping after they have gone.

Hannah from New York pops round for a cup of tea before she goes tomorrow. She too is going to Kunming, so we might meet up. She’s had a bit of a rough time here. When she went to a sky burial a few days ago, there were five dead children. ‘There was a guy who was there the whole time,’ she said. ‘I think, from what he was miming, that he was the father, and he couldn’t bear to watch, just kept hiding behind a rock. I didn’t want to watch either. So I just held his hand. Poor guy. God knows what they all died of.’

And then, to round off her day, although this doesn’t really count on a dead children scale of disaster, Hannah got some bug and spent all night in the toilet room. ‘It wasn’t too bad until I dropped my book,’ she said. ‘Right through the hole in the goddam floor. It just fell out of my hands, and there was nothing I could do about it. My only book, can you believe it? I just cried. And you know what I was reading?’

We shake our heads.

I think she’s going to cry again. ‘Joseph Fucking Conrad’, she says, and then starts to laugh. ‘Heart of Fucking Darkness.’

China 29: Sky burial

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015

Copyright Elaine Canham 2015


PLEASE NOTE: This is an account, from my 1985 diary, of how the Tibetans dispose of their dead. It is not sensational, but some people might find it upsetting. 

March 8

Get up while its still dark and walk out of Lhasa to see a sky burial. The sun rises as we leave the streets and go out, past a field of greenhouses and anti-aircraft guns, across a rubbish tip and part of the way up a mountain. There is a high ridge above us. It looks just like the desert and mountains that you see in cowboy films and, frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of apaches suddenly appeared against the skyline.

There are four of us; me, Agnetha, Mick, and Julie. We get to the place; there are seven men drinking tea around a bonfire; a few feet further on is a monk dressed very ornately and sporting a pair of mirrored sunglasses. He is beating time with a little hand-held drum. The men give us cups of hot sweet tea and offer us cigarettes.

One of them mimes a camera, and then makes a slitting motion across his throat. He is not joking. You can watch this ceremony, but they won’t allow you to photograph it. One American who tried it had a human heart pushed into his face and his camera smashed on a rock. The Swedish girl, Kristen, who is leaving today for Xigaze, told us last night  that when she came here a few days ago, she thought she did have permission, but when she got her camera out they threw stones at her, and one man chased her with a knife.

Why they let us watch at all, I don’t know. A bus toils up the track and some Chinese squaddies get out. They are unarmed, cheerfully jostling each other. They have obviously come to see the sights. The Tibetans stand up, get their knives out, and walk towards them. This is not what the soldiers were expecting and they falter, their smiles dying. They’re only young lads, far from home. They’ve just come for a trip out, and they don’t really get what is happening. But there is no misunderstanding the Tibetans. The bloke who dealt with us goes right up to them. It doesn’t take a degree in languages to understand that he is telling them to bugger off. Some of the soldiers point at us, and the Tibetan lifts his knife and says some more. There is a moment of silence and then the soldiers get back on the bus, and it drives away.

When the sun is fully up five of the Tibetans go down to a large rock below us. It is as if it were held between two knees, and we are standing on one of the knees. Three of the men sit down, side by side.

There are two small bundles on this rock and what looks like a lump hammer. There are joss sticks smoking everywhere in the earth, the air is heavy with the scent of incense and burning yak dung. The two men left standing sharpen their knives, and begin. They rip open the bundles and there is an adult body in each; a man and a woman, trussed up like chickens. They untie them, but fasten them by their necks to a rock. And then they start. They simply turn the bodies on their fronts and hack them up. They throw the bones to the three men who are sitting, waiting, and they pound them up. They put the internal organs into a sack and smash the skulls by dropping rocks on to them. The woman’s hair, still braided with ribbons, flutters away and is caught and hung on a bush, where there are already several others. The priest chants and drums the whole time.

When the men are done, they all come back up to us, except for one who stays behind and shouts to the vultures which are sweeping in, perching untidily in the crags and ridges above. The birds won’t come down until they are absolutely certain it is safe. Other people begin to arrive and stand beside us now. They are the relatives and they have come to see the vultures arrive – the quicker the birds arrive, the greater the honour. It’s impossible to tell what these people are feeling, and I’m not going to stare at them. Their attention is focused on the birds.

A couple of birds swoop down and the man throws the flesh. More and more birds, including eagles, arrive and the rock is a moving mass of brown feathers. The vultures are easily spooked. The eagles take longer to come, but once they do, they don’t scare easily. When they show signs of losing interest, the man throws the contents of the bag at them.

And then it’s all over. The whole thing has taken about an hour. Apparently Tibetans choose this way of disposing of their dead, partly for practical reasons – there is not enough wood for burning, and you can’t dig graves on the side of these mountains. But they also feel that death is part of life, and that other creatures must benefit. At least, that’s how I understand it. But I don’t know what it takes for a person to rip a body to shreds and feed it to vultures. I do get the distinct impression that all the guys involved, including the priest in the shades, are a bit crazed.

We walk down the mountain in complete silence. It is a beautiful day.


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