(English version from the text posted in Jun/2014)
The so-called “sky burial” (tiānzāng, in the Tibetan language) is an ancient tradition of Tibetan Buddhism that considers the body only as a vehicle to go through this life; once a body dies, the spirit abandons the body leaving it useless.
Giving the body as food for the vultures is a final act of generosity toward the world of the living and is part of the life cycle. The vultures themselves are revered and believed to be a manifestation of the god Dakinis.
In addition to spiritual significance, Sky Burial is also a practical way for Tibetan plateau populations to rid of the bodies in an area where temperatures keep the soil frozen during most of the year, in a place where wood is scarce and can’t be wasted on funeral pyres.
The ceremony, more practical than ritualistic, is usually held in the morning on a hillside, further away from the villages. On one side small groups of people wait, almost exclusively men, many wearing the traditional Tibetan coats that with the help of the excessive long sleeves keep tied to the waist. On the other side groups of vultures forming brown spots on the green of the terrain, wait calmly. Not far away, another group is distinguished by the colourful clothes and trekking equipment: it is mainly Chinese tourist who visit these areas along the route between Chengdu and Lhasa, one of the most popular adventure travel routes among the Chinese tourism, which sees Tibet with a primitive and wilderness area… a kind of discovery of the “last frontier” in their own country.
From the bodies that are waiting on the ground, a smell of seven days of decomposition is released, which the gentle breeze brings up along the hill. As the men in charge of preparing the bodies do their work, the various groups of vultures gather, flying low over the place and down the hill in a slow but determined walk, forming an impressive group.
At the discreet signal of a monk attending the ceremony, the groups of vultures begin with semi-open wings the descent of the hill, towards the bodies, which in seconds disappear under the undulating brown cloak formed by the birds, greedily cut and tear viscera, skin and flesh, from which abruptly a nasty smell kick out most of the spectators, provoking ravages of agony and vomiting, despite the scarves that cover the faces.
After less than half an hour, little remains of the corpses beyond the bones, which are methodically broken against a stone, with the aid of hammers, until they become small pieces that are mixed with barley flour and served again as food for the vultures, which as trained animals, wait patiently, at close distance, for the second part of the feast.
Despite the apparent relaxation with which Tibetans attend this ceremony, without lamentations or exuberant emotional manifestations, the sky burials are intense and disturbing, remaining forever the memory of the smell of death that sticks to the skin of the living and the heavy beating of the vultures’s wings, flying lower and lower as they run to the corpses.
All this ceremony is enveloped under the majestic calm of the green landscape and the intense blue sky of the Garzê Hills.