A young man's strange erotic journey around the globe
Tibetan Sky Burial
Litang, Sichuan Province, China
Here I am up in the hills above Litang at quarter to six in the morning (the time that I was told to be there by the young woman behind the desk at the guesthouse) to watch a Tibetan Sky Burial take place. A sky burial is a funeral in which a human corpse is placed on a mountaintop, sliced up with a machete and devoured by vultures.
As the sun began to rise and burn the frost off the plains below, I remained alone up in the hills where the cab driver had dropped me off. While doing push-ups to keep warm, I started to think that maybe this sky burial shit wasn’t gonna happen.
However, about an hour later, another cab eventually came down the road and I was joined by a pair of Spaniards and an Israeli couple who’d also come to watch this strange, macabre, funerary ritual dissection.
Finally, after waiting for close to five hours, this SUV containing three Tibetan guys pulled up at the site. I had no idea what to expect…
As it turns out, this vehicle did not contain the guest of honor. While two of the three men climbed to the top of a nearby hill and began dicking around, another dude sparked a fire and sat down. As smoke billowed up into the air, he waved us over to join him.
As we hesitantly approached this man, he pulled out a machete, first pointed it at us then pretended to stab himself in the stomach and faked his own death. After lying there feigning the end of his days, the dude suddenly shot up, arms flailing like a bird of prey, yelling “CAW! CAW!” while he mimicked the consumption of a dead body. He ended this sequence by rolling around and laughing hysterically to himself.
After helping the desensitized charade-playing man carry several bags containing rolls of prayer banners up the hill…
…they began running them from the top of the hill to the bottom right alongside all the other old ones that littered the hillside.
Traditionally, as images fade from old prayer flags when exposed to the elements, it’s said that they become a permanent part of the universe. In mounting the new flags next to the old, Tibetans acknowledge that life goes on and will always be replaced by new life – that all beings are part of a greater, ongoing cycle.
I don’t know whether it’d been the smoke from the fire that the one man lit, our mere presence at the burial site or some sort of spiritual intuition, but one by one the vultures started to appear at the top of the hill even in the absence of a body
My Israeli bro lending a hand in stringing up the prayer flags to expedite the process.
Puppies nestled up in a mess of old prayer flags. They probably only sneak out to eat up all the human scraps left behind by the vultures…that is, if there’s any left for them.
Shortly after the last prayer flags had been securely tied up, the three men left and we once again were left by ourselves. Nevertheless, the vultures continued to gather and circle in the sky above.
About half an hour later, some people began to gather down there around the bottom left corner of the picture…
…and set up camp, but there was still no sign of a body.
Nevertheless, the birds continued to pour in from all directions.
Then it appeared. The bodymobile pulled up, the back hatch was popped and the family gathered around the plastic-wrapped corpse to say their final goodbyes.
“Jhator,” or sky burials, are considered an act of generosity on the part of the deceased and his/her surviving relatives because they are providing food to sustain living beings – the vultures. That being said, the family didn’t want to stick around to watch their loved one get eaten. Once they peaced, the body was promptly dumped on the ground by these dudes right here.
First the plastic was cut off and the body laid out by the “rogyapa” who I like to refer to as “the butcher.” It is believed that this form of funeral originated because the earth in this part of the world is too rocky and frozen to make ground burial practical. Furthermore, this town is at an elevation too high for trees to grow resulting in a shortage of lumber rendering cremation impractical and costly.
Then began the butchering. What better way to start than with a fat slab of back meat? On a side note, the onlooker on the right has a total Larry from “Three Stooges” haircut.
For Tibetans, sky burials represent our impermanence on earth. The way these vultures are creeping in, it looks like the circle of life is just about to get underway.
The butchering continues until the body starts looking like something you’d buy from the supermarket…
This makes the vultures even hungrier and more unruly. The only thing standing between them and their feast is this man who waves his jacket at the birds to keep them at bay while the butchering continues.
The jacket-waving bros could only hold back the beasts for so long. The dam broke and a feeding frenzy ensued.
num num num num num num num num
Vying for a taste. What would you do for a Klondike Bar?
After awhile, a few of the vultures began dispersing. The butcher took this as his/her cue to step back into action and continue dismembering the body.
Check out boner boy – Sucka’z been picked clean.
As the butcher continues to do his/her thing, Santa’s two little helpers continue to spit, kick and wave their jackets at any impatient vultures who can’t wait for the next course of the meal.
During this time, pieces of sinew were sawed off the bone and tossed up for grabs to the nearby crowds of hungry vultures.
As we watched the gruesome event unfold, a woman who’d been walking near us picking up handfuls of yak shit and tossing them into a wicker basket that’d been strapped to her back (side note: Tibetans take yak shit and throw it against the exterior walls of their house and leave it out there in the sun until it completely dries and peels off before using it to burn in their fireplace to keep their houses warm) non-verbally invited us to follow and join her friends who’d been having a picnic.
This circle of women had been the first group of people we’d seen arriving just before the body earlier in the story. While this circle had been picnic and prayer-wheel-spinning oriented, next to them had been a circle of men getting hammered and pissing whereever they damn well pleased.
Meanwhile, the bloody, red skeleton had been being shifted and positioned up onto a slab of rock for the next step in the process.
During the break in the feast, one of the vultures took this opportunity to show off his wingspan and flash his genitals in an apparent attempt to get some vulture pussy from the bird in front of him.
Shown here are the women having a gay old time at the picnic while they pretty much forced us to have as much fruit punch as we could drink and as many rice krispy squares as we could eat despite a minor loss in appetite from the event. Talking, laughing and merrymaking at the funeral are supposed to make it easier for the soul of the deceased to move on from the uncertain plane between life and death on to the next life. Pictured in the distance between their shoulders is…
…the ribcage of the dead body being hacked up with an ax on the aforementioned concrete slab.
The women, focused intently on the process while never stopping the prayer wheel spinning.
The butcher laying on the finishing touches and tossing the scraps down to the still-hungry birds.
The End – I guess my only regret from this day was not taking all my clothes off and being the first person ever to streak a sky burial.