Thanatourism: Sky burials in Tibet

Thanatourism is derived from the Ancient Greek word thanatos in mythology, for the personification of death.  Thanatourism is an extreme form of grief tourism that involves the dark contemplation of death at the time of its occurrence.  Every religion has a different approach to death and in the mountains of Tibet, there is (from the western perspective) a strange and morbid sky burial ritual that has its basis in the Buddhist belief of rebirth after death.  Sky burials are believed to have existed as early as 400 B.C., according to the prophecies of the Greek philosopher, Zoroaster.  Zoroastrians believed that on the 4th day after death, the soul leaves the body to return to nature.  Since fire and earth were considered sacred and not to be used for burial in the Zoroastrian religion, the bodies were left on open-topped enclosures called Towers of Silence or Dokhmas for disposal by the vultures and the weather.

It must be remembered that Tibet is a land where sky burials are closely associated with nature, partially due to necessity.  Here, soil is at a premium and wood for funeral pyres, other than yak chips, is practically nonexistent on the 12,000-foot plateau.  Beyond Llasa, the spiritual heart of Tibet, the area is remote and regulations seem too distant to apply.  There are 1,075 sky burial sites, where about 100 people called sky burial operators, are designated to perform the rituals.  The largest sky burial site, Drepung Monastery, founded in 1416, has received an average of 10 bodies per day for thousands of years.Â

Sky burial rituals are not performed on the 19th day of the Tibetan calendar, a day of reading the sutras for the dead, a divine procedure in Buddhism.  The sky burial takes place, usually at dawn, and tourists, if allowed, are bathed in juniper incense, while three or four attendants wrap the bodies of the dead and lay them on flat rocky ledges.  Monks lead the procession to the burial ground where Tibetan prayer flags surround the area.  The higher up the mountain the more precedence is given, as in a burial site for a monk, rather than for a commoner.  The vultures or lammergeyers, known as “dakinis,” or “sky dancers,” hover above the site while strange calls emanate from attendants summoning these birds of prey to devour the pieces of carcass that are tossed 10 to 15 feet in the air toward the sky.  Bones are chopped and tossed aside in a methodical and solemn procedure, designed to emphasize the impermanence of life.  Since Buddhists believe there is no purpose in keeping the body after death when the spirit has gone, the actual feeding to the vultures is considered a final act of charity, an essential part of the cycle of life and death.Â

In some cases, the body is tied to a pole, and slowly stripped of flesh by the vultures.  A Tibetan monk arrives with a sledge hammer and a burlap apron around his waist to continue chopping up the skeleton and the head, and these small pieces are mixed together with a paste of roasted barley flour, sugar, and butter to further attract the birds.  At the end of the ritual, the entire area is swept clean, although some religious sects retain pieces of the skulls to use as teacups.Â

For many, the visits to the sites of these rituals near Mt. Kailish, the home of the Buddhist God Kang Ringboche, are pilgrimages, firmly rooted in religious beliefs.  For others, it is a way to connect with nature, to rejuvenate the mind and spirit, to regain a feeling of perspective between man and the universe.  Tibet itself is a country so distant that its spirituality seems to be everywhere.  Indeed, the entire land of Tibet seems to hold a magical attraction, a Nirvana where time stands still and pleasure comes from meditation and deep reflection. Â

The media has brought death and tragedy in lurid, morbid details and reports from the far corners of the world to us all.  It is entirely possible that thanatourism in Tibet exists simply because of the unknown, mysterious phenomenon of death itself.  Although the sky burial may seem primitive and bizarre, its apparent link between the living and the dead seems to provide an opportunity to experience death vicariously.  Thanatourists are fascinated with symbolic encounters with death and the more realistic the ritual appears, the greater the fascination.Â

Sky burials were banned in the 1960’s and 1970’s to foreigners or Westerners; however, Chinese officials began allowing sky burials again in the 1980’s.  Again, in 1983, the sites were closed for a time when a group of tourists were stoned by grieving relatives.  Although the government has banned outsiders from actually participating, unless by invitation, and photography is forbidden, many monks act as guides and take tourists to these sites.  The compensation they receive is usually left as donations for the monastery or collected by the government.  The Chinese government, anticipating over 5 million tourists to visit Tibet in the next few years, is actively arranging tours and encouraging hotels and travel agents to promote tourism of any type.  Whether the Tibetans will be able to keep their religious beliefs and traditions to live in peace or whether pressure from the Chinese government, the media, and the thanatourist will take precedence remains to be seen.
Sharon L. Slayton

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