Death Rituals in Himalaya
The odometer pushed against its plastic casing, warning that 140km was at least as fast as we were going. Speed limits do not hold the same significance in Tibet as they do in Australia. I would soon discover this discrepancy would be reflective of the vast differences between our cultures, particularly the distinction between our attitudes toward death. It was pitch black without the headlights of the procession of 4WDs that sped through the early morning fog and I could just make out the mountains on either side of the road. My tour group and I had flown into Lhasa, Tibet a little over three weeks ago and were now travelling toward Mt Everest and then onto Kathmandu. Our trip to Everest Base Camp was captivating, but what really grabbed my attention were the people along the way.
We encountered many weather-beaten young children along the way who try to sell passing tourist bits and pieces, or just want to meet white people and have their photo taken with us. I encountered one such boy who couldn’t have been older than 5 or 6. Standing around on one of our rest stops, I walked over to the child on a bike who had been staring at me for the last 10 minutes. I knelt down and asked him in my limited Tibetan “Where is Qomolangma (Tibetan name for Everest)?” he paused for a few seconds, and in broken English, furrowed his brow and replied in a deep, coarse voice I would have expected from his grandfather, “Qomolangma, that way,” pointing to Mt Everest’s barely discernible silhouette in the distance. Maybe it was his deep voice or his worn and tired face, but this kid struck me as wise beyond his years; yet not in a way that would signify a loss of innocence too young, but instead in a very content way. A way representative of his complete acceptance with his lot in life. I then asked him “Tell me about your life?” With no worldly aspirations or possessions, he smiled at me with a mouth full of pearly whites, and amused by my bad Tibetan replied, “My life is my family and my goat.” I felt this kid still had a sense of wonder about him; a childish enthusiasm that is lost in all our Western cynicism. He could still look at the night sky and be amazed.
I would later realise that this would be the last “innocent” child I would see after this point. Although dirty with the coarse hands of a labourer, he still had that spark in his eyes that comes from being loved and loving someone; something that I realised was absent and sorely missed in the eyes of shoe-glue huffing youths of Thamal, Kathmandu.
On this particular morning, we were heading to the top of a high mountain with a very narrow, very steep and very unsanctioned road by anyone’s standards, to witness a Sky Burial. I had researched the little literature there is on Sky Burials in Tibet so with this lack of information in mind, the prospect of witnessing something that only a few had seen made the excursion all the more appealing and the gory aspects of it more palatable. We arrived at the burial site not long after dawn. Tibetan prayer flags were strewn over the rocky site, and looked to me as if an undergrad student from Brunswick had set up camp there the night before. A few pleasantries were shared with the friends and relatives of the deceased, as well as several cups of yak butter tea (whose sickly sweet aroma pervades almost all of Tibet) I could barely stomach, and showed appreciation by feigning delight,”mmmm!”
The Burial Master then, clothed only by baggy ¾ length pants and a thick leather belt arrived with a selection of knives dragged the body, already drained of blood, over to a large, smooth rock and began to dissect the body into smaller parts. He then proceeded to crush the bone with what would be most accurately described as a primitive, novelty-sized mortar and pestle. The vultures, all the while, eagerly anticipating their breakfast at a distance.
He did this as though it was the most natural