Shoot First? Reflections on a Tibetan Sky Burial

As soon as the monks dumped the limp corpse onto the grass, my first instinct was to start shooting. I raised the camera to my eye and snapped a few photos. The sound of the icy mountain winds easily swallowed the petite noise of my camera clicking away. Then I saw the rogyapa, or “bone breaker” start making his way over to the naked body with a knife in hand and an axe over his broad shoulder. Plump, bald and wearing a yellowed plastic apron, to me he looked just like a stereotypical butcher. However, despite his easy grin and casual chit chat with the other monks, he wasn’t about to perform any ordinary carving. At least, for me he wasn’t. As I later found out, hacking apart the dead and feeding them to vultures was a weekly affair for “Mr Cutter”, as he was dubbed by one English-speaking Tibetan from the village. For the monks, this was a perfectly routine event. The same could be said for the army of massive black vultures that had gathered over the hills. It was at that point that I questioned my right to appropriate this ritual.

Jhator- The Sky Burial

Earlier that week, an old man had died in the nearby Tibetan village. His body would have been placed in a sitting position, and a monk from the nearby monastery would have prayed before him. Two days later, the body was cleaned and blessed. Then, the spine was snapped. Early that morning, the limp body was folded up inside a black plastic bag and placed in the back of a jeep before being driven out of town towards the hills.

It was evident from the teeth scattered over the hillside that we’d found something most visitors to the Tibetan foothills don’t encounter. Shards of pearl white bone crunched under my boots, and slivers of dry flesh clung to the sparse vegetation. A wave of uneasiness passed through the small herd of backpackers I was with. It was as though the wind had managed to cut its way through the imitation North Face fleeces and the wayward teeth were biting through the soles of half a dozen sets of hiking boots. Queasy groans were mixed with the exclamations of glee from those of us who thought we had just found some really awesomely cool shit.

We hadn’t asked permission. But nobody seemed to care. The monks were busily going about their business, and it looked as though the family of the deceased had decided to stay at home.

Lined up a few metres away from the spectacle, we watched as a rope was tied around the neck of the withered, pale corpse. The rope was then attached to a peg, which was hammered into the ground to keep the body from going astray. Mr Cutter started carving up the man’s flesh. Incisions were made in the scalp, opening the skin on the man’s head up like a flower. His back and rump were criss-crossed with more cuts, exposing as much raw flesh as possible. Likewise, long splits were opened down the arms and legs, displaying pink meat for the birds, which were now closing in. After adding a few finishing touches like sawing cuts between the toes, Mr Cutter backed away, and let the vultures waddle on in. Like footballers in a scrum, they piled on top of each other.

The body was shredded by the ravenous, probing beaks. Streamers of meat flew in all directions, nourishing the smaller birds on the sidelines. The man’s frail neck buckled under the weight of so many excited birds, and soon snapped. A skinned head rolled down the hill, landing at my feet. One lidless eyeball and an empty socket stared up at me; the skeletal jaw grinned. I thought of how those teeth would soon be all that’s left. A monk jogged over, his orange robes flapping in the wind. Giving me a resigned look, he awkwardly picked up the slimy head. Holding the dripping mass with his fingertips, the monk shuffled back up the hill, before dumping the decapitated head into the writhing heap of feathers.

“This is going to look so good on Youtube!” said one of the other backpackers. It was only then that I realised that the entire time my camera had been hanging from my neck- forgotten; meanwhile his handicam had recorded everything. Belatedly, I felt the urge to start snapping away. Then I imagined how his video would look on Youtube. I imagined kids back home checking it out, crooning over how gross it was. Some people would probably come away from the scene and view it just like the Chinese bureaucrats that banned the practice for decades had: that the Tibetans were “barbaric”. Displaced from its cultural context, this scene is nothing more than pornography. My preceding paragraphs areporn.

Yet as I watched this scene, I didn’t feel the slightest disgust. It made perfect sense. Even in spring, the earth in these mountains is rock hard, making ground burial impractical. At high altitudes, timber is a rare resource, meaning that cremation is an expensive waste of valuable bio-fuel. Yet one thing that isn’t in short supply are vultures. On the plateau, vultures are holy animals- manifestations of a feminine sky spirit. Comparatively, Tibetan Buddhism views the corpse as an empty husk left behind by the soul. It has no value beyond its calorie content. Hence, the sky burial (as the ritual is typically known as in English) is a final act of charity on behalf of the deceased. Alms for the birds.

Within ten minutes, it was over. The vultures dispersed, and started wiping their beaks on the grass. Mr Cutter returned to a clean skeleton. It was so white it could have been a cheesy stage prop. Using the blunt side of the axe head, Mr Cutter ground the bones with flour, then threw the powdery mixture to the birds. Nothing was wasted. After a long life, the man’s earthly shell had returned to nature.

I left with a few shots of the vultures, but none of the ritual itself. At the time, I had no idea how I could possibly convey what I’d seen without misrepresenting the Tibetans. I’ve always thought of photography as the most honest form of expression; a snapshot of reality itself. However, disembodied photographs of a mutilated corpse on the hillside wouldn’t have accurately conveyed the ritual. I didn’t know how to photograph the final moments of that scene in a way that would illustrate its inherent beauty. The beauty in the absence of our modern alienation from death. I’ve heard Tibetan monks are sometimes encouraged to observe this ritual as an exercise in facing and understanding mortal death. Whether or not this is true, even as an atheist I could see the value in this. If I had taken photos, and anybody had looked at such photographs with disgust, then I would have failed to show the true nature of the sky burial.

A few months later in Mongolia, I passed another such burial field. Like the Tibetans, the Mongolians also perform sky burials. I wouldn’t have known we were passing such a site if one of the local nomads I was with hadn’t pointed it out.

“We don’t go there,” she said, pointing to some distant hills. When I told her I had already visited such a burial ground, she was shocked. She explained that in Mongolia, my unannounced presence at a sky burial would be a terrible offence. Such things are private affairs. I couldn’t help but wonder if back in Tibet, I had made a mistake before even reaching for my camera. The sky burial was an incredible experience, but as a foreigner with only a rudimentary understanding of Tibetan culture, did I have any right to see it?

First published by Verse Magazine.

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