Thursday, December 25, 2014

Sky Burial

Sky burial (Tibetan: Wylie: bya gtor, lit. "bird-scattered") is a funeral practice in which a human corpse is placed on a mountaintop to decompose while exposing to the elements or to be eaten by scavenging animals, especially birds of prey. It is a specific type of the general practice of excarnation. It is practiced in Tibet and the Chinese provinces of, Qinghai,Sichuan and Inner Mongolia, and in Mongolia proper. The locations of preparation and sky burial are understood in the Vajrayana Buddhist traditions as charnel grounds. Comparable practices are part of Zoroastrian burial practices where deceased are exposed to the elements and birds of prey on stone structures called Dakhma. Few such places remain operational today due to religious marginalization, urbanization and the decimation of vulture populations.

The majority of Tibetan people and many Mongols adhere to Vajrayana Buddhism, which teaches the transmigration of spirits. There is no need to preserve the body, as it is now an empty vessel. Birds may eat it or nature may cause it to decompose. The function of the sky burial is simply to dispose of the remains in as generous a way as possible (the source of the practice's Tibetan name). In much of Tibet and Qinghai, the ground is too hard and rocky to dig a grave, and, due to the scarcity of fuel and timber, sky burials were typically more practical than the traditional Buddhist practice of cremation. In the past, cremation was limited to high lamas and some other dignitaries, but modern technology and difficulties with sky burial have led to its increasing use by commoners.


For Tibetan Buddhists, sky burial and cremation are templates of instructional teaching on the impermanence of life. Jhator is considered an act of generosity on the part of the deceased, since the deceased and his/her surviving relatives are providing food to sustain living beings. Such generosity and compassion for all beings are important virtues in Buddhism.

Although some observers have suggested that jhator is also meant to unite the deceased person with the sky or sacred realm, this does not seem consistent with most of the knowledgeable commentary and eyewitness reports, which indicate that Tibetans believe that at this point life has completely left the body and the body contains nothing more than simple flesh.

Only people who directly know the deceased usually observe it, when the excarnation happens at night.


  • Participants
Prior to the procedure, monks may chant mantra around the body and burn juniper incense – although ceremonial activities often take place on the preceding day.

The work of disassembling of the body may be done by a monk, or, more commonly, by rogyapas ("body-breakers").

All the eyewitness accounts remarked on the fact that the rogyapas did not perform their task with gravity or ceremony, but rather talked and laughed as during any other type of physical labor. According to Buddhist teaching, this makes it easier for the soul of the deceased to move on from the uncertain plane between life and death onto the next life.

  • Disassembling the Body
According to most accounts, vultures are given the whole body. Then, when only the bones remain, these are broken up with mallets, ground with tsampa (barley flour with tea and yak butter, or milk), and given to the crows and hawks that have waited for the vultures to depart.

In one account, the leading rogyapa cut off the limbs and hacked the body to pieces, handing each part to his assistants, who used rocks to pound the flesh and bones together to a pulp, which they mixed with tsampa before the vultures were summoned to eat.

Sometimes the internal organs were removed and processed separately, but they too were consumed by birds. The hair is removed from the head and may be simply thrown away; at Drigung, it seems, at least some hair is kept in a room of the monastery.

None of the eyewitness accounts specify which kind of knife is used in the jhator. One source states that it is a "ritual flaying knife" or trigu (Sanskrit kartika), but another source expresses scepticism, noting that the trigu is considered a woman's tool (rogyapas seem to be exclusively male).

  • Vultures
The species contributing to the ritual is the "Eurasian Griffon," a species of Old World vulture (order Falconiformes, family Accipitridae, scientific name Gyps fulvus).

In places where there are several jhator offerings each day, the birds sometimes have to be coaxed to eat, which may be accomplished with a ritual dance. It is considered a bad omen if the vultures will not eat, or if even a small portion of the body is left after the birds fly away.

In places where fewer bodies are offered, the vultures are more eager- and sometimes have to be fended off with sticks during the initial preparations.


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