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View from a Tibetan Sky Burial Spot

This story is a work of fiction. The featured characters are made up. However, the information illustrated in the story are based on historical facts with the sources listed below or through hyperlinks.

It is 5am and the morning sky in Tibet is rising from its sleep. Tina and I prepared ourselves for our second day of visit to the Yerpa Valley to view the traditional Tibetan Sky Burial process. As the we hike up to Yerpa Valley, we begin to mentally prepare each other for what we will witness at the top of the hill. 

Some ask why we wanted to take a trip to watch such a “gruesome” ritual. Tina and I felt that death is interpreted in different ways in different civilisations. Many religions treat death as a central idea, creating rituals that reflect social systems and as historians, we wanted to see the significance of the Sky Burial ritual on the Tibetan culture.

Yerpa Valley

Yerpa Valley, Tibet.

I retrieve my research notes from two weeks ago which explains what this practice involves and recounted to Tina, “The Tibetan Sky Burial process is a funerary practice with a long history of about 11,000 years.  Tibet is the second home of Buddhism where a human body is cut in specific places and placed on elevated ground, exposing it to the natural elements (or Mahabhuta). The wild animals like vultures and hawks are then left to feed on the flesh of the deceased, commonly known as the Sky Burial ritual”.

I continued reading from the research notes even though I was beginning to pant while we follow the winding path to the monastery. “Compassion and kindness to animals is a fundamental idea to Buddhism, therefore one’s body is seen as just a shell after death. The physical body is left to feed the animals as the spirit reincarnates. The locals have named this process, Bya Gtor, meaning alms for the birds”.

Bya Gtor

Bya Gtor (Alms for the Birds)

Tina recalled her knowledge on the different customary procedures, “In Tibet, Sky Burial is the preferred practice when a loved one passes on even though is very expensive. Beyond just religious reasons, the environment does not facilitate other forms of burial. Solid rock foundation makes digging difficult and as the Tibetans live above the tree line, wood is rare and cremation is a challenge”.

After three hours of intensive hiking, we arrived at the halfway mark, Drigung Monastery. “The body is kept in an upright position for two days, with prayers and chanting from the Lama”, Tina reviewed. She gestures to a small path outside the monastery, “The spine of the corpse is then broken so the body can be kept compact while being carried up to the site along this route”.

At the peak, family members are seen clashing double-sided drums and chanting. Upon reaching the site, the rogyapa or body breakers begins to burn juniper incense to attract the vultures, using an axe to slice up the body.

Within minutes, the vultures hone in on the body and cover the body completely. These 2 meter wide birds tear down the flesh with their powerful beaks and break the decomposing body down even further. After a frenzy of feeding for thirteen minutes and only the bones remain, the rogyapa pound the bones into a pulp and mix it with elements like flour, tea and yak butter .

Sky burial

Still practiced today, Tibetan Sky Burial.

“This helps the crows and hawks to consume the body after the vultures have had their fill of meat”, I explained to Tina. “It is seen as a bad omen if the vultures don’t eat, which can be a problem if they have been treated with medicine or disinfectants like in hospitals”.

As we begin our descent after yet another break, the vultures return to their watch spots on the tip of the hill and Yerpa Valley is restored to its scenic serenity again, until the next sky burial.