Sky burial Process in Nepal
If you ever encounter this ritual while trekking to the Mustang and Dolpo region of Nepal, first, you will see a lifeless body on the stones, while birds can be seen circling overhead. The corpse will be naked, stiff, and cold as the surrounding landscape. Their eyes will match the color of the grey clouds hovering over the towering Himalayan peaks. This ritual occurs in a remote and isolated location, within one of Earth's least explored wilderness areas.
Armed with a flaying knife, a person prepares the body for the sky burial ceremony. He carefully tests the knife's sharpness and commences with the work. With purposeful and precise cuts, he separates the hair from the scalp, limbs from the torso, and flesh from the bone. Every movement is carried out with great respect for the ancient custom that guides this ritual, as the body is reduced to tiny fragments in a sacred clearing.
The vultures assembled in a large group patiently await their turn. More of them continue to descend from the sky, elegantly spiraling down until they finally land to partake in the feast. Amidst a lack of emotion towards the human remains, the birds eagerly consume the offering. The Rogyapa, or "body breaker," proceeds with ease to put away his blade and use a hammer to crush any remaining bones. The practice of sky burial involves offering the remains of a deceased person to vultures, which is considered a compassionate and kind way to bid farewell to the mortal body. It is believed that vultures transport the soul of the departed to heaven after exposing the body to the natural elements. Furthermore, it is also thought that this ritual ensures the person's rebirth as a human in their next life.
When someone passes away in the Himalayan rimlands of Nepal, the first thing to do is decide how to give them a proper funeral. Usually, a highly respected priest knowledgeable about the local customs will examine the dates of the person's birth and death. Based on these dates, the priest will determine which of the five elements - earth, water, air, sky, or fire - the person is associated with. Depending on this, the funeral will involve either burning the body, burying it, feeding it to fish after being cut up, or feeding it to vultures after being chopped up. At the designated site, the individuals in the burial process carefully dismember the deceased's body. The nails on the fingertips are burned beforehand, as they are believed to be poisonous to the vultures. Once everything is prepared, a lama plays the Damaru drum to call the vultures circling in the sky. In this culture, it is believed that if vultures do not consume a deceased person's body during a sky burial, the individual may have committed a wrongdoing, or the rituals surrounding their passing were not carried out correctly.
Is Sky Burial Legal In Nepal?
The sky burial ritual or practice of "cremation on the roof" has been a part of Nepalese culture for centuries, but its legal status in the country is complex and controversial. Sky burial is a traditional funerary practice in which a deceased person's remains are left in an exposed area to be eaten by scavenging animals. In Nepal, the local people call this practice "Asti" or "bird burning" because birds of prey, such as vultures, often consume the flesh of the dead. Nepal is a multi-religious country, and sky burial raises ethical and moral questions for Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and Christians. However, despite the controversial nature of the practice, it is still legally allowed in certain parts of the country.
The legal status is difficult to ascertain due to the lack of formal regulation of sky burial in Nepal, and most locals are unaware of any rules that may exist. In addition, many local communities view sky burial as an expression of their cultural and religious beliefs and oppose any attempts to ban the practice.
In a 2020 publication by Bird Conservation Nepal, Thakur Gurung from Chhusang in the Mustang district explained that sky burials are conducted in the region due to the lack of wood for cremation and the rugged terrain with rocky ground, making it challenging to dig graves. Sky burials involve placing the deceased's body on an elevated site, exposed to the elements, and consumed by birds of prey, per local customs and beliefs. This process is carried out with great respect and reverence for the departed.
The traditional practice of sky burial is facing a decline in the number of vultures participating, according to Gyalche Bishokarma, who is responsible for preparing corpses for this ancient ritual in Chhonup. Nowadays, the Himalayan Griffon is the most commonly present species, while the Bearded Vulture and Cinereous Vulture are hardly seen.
During the 1990s, the population of vultures in South Asia suffered a significant decline by over 90% because they were feeding on carcasses that were contaminated with a drug known as Diclofenac. Veterinarians used this drug as an anti-inflammatory medication. Following the ban of a harmful drug in Nepal and neighboring countries in 2006, conservation strategies were implemented to support the return of raptors. These strategies included establishing "vulture restaurants," which provide safe meat for the birds in Nepal's Terai and foothills. Experts believe that reviving the traditional practice of sky burial could be another way to promote the vultures' return and provide them with safe food. However, ensuring that the deceased person has no illnesses or receives steroid treatments before the ritual occurs is crucial. Reintroducing the practice of sky burials would benefit both the preservation of vultures and cultural traditions. Furthermore, it would educate people about the temporary nature of life and how all species, including humans, are interdependent. Moreover, Reviving the culture, tradition, and ritual of Mustang communities can ensure the preservation of our heritage and the revival of the Himalayan vulture population.
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History of the Sky Burial Ritual in Mustang-Nepal
The history of the sky burial ritual in Mustang-Nepal is fascinating and dates back as far as 2500 years ago. Sky burial is an ancient ritual by which human remains are distributed to the birds of the sky to provide food and allow the dead's soul to take flight and move on to the next life. It is an ancient practice among the locals of Mustang in Nepal, who deem the ritual to be respectful and sacred.
In Mustang- Nepal, sky burial rituals are practiced mainly by the people following the Buddhist Bon religion, which normally dates back to 2500 years ago. The beliefs and customs of the ancient Bon religion and Tibetan Buddhism, which still hold in Mustang-Nepal, revolve around the theory of rebirth and the cyclical nature of life and death. This cycle is represented by the three sacred stones at the top of the mountain, which symbolize the birth, death, and reemergence of life. The sky burial ritual is believed to free the deceased's soul from the prison of physical energy, allowing it to fly away from the living world and be reborn.
The practical execution of the sky burial ritual involves dressing the deceased's body in white and placing them in a simple coffin in an isolated location near the summit of a sacred mountain. Here they are left undisturbed as the birds, believed to be the protectors and guides of the dead, come and consume the body. This process is seen as allowing the deceased's spirit to be reborn and providing sustenance to the birds.
The sky burial in Mustang-Nepal is an ancient custom that is still practiced to this day. It is a unique and reflective ritual in which the dead are respected and the living commune with nature and the spirit world to ensure the dead can pass on to the afterlife in a dignified manner. This ritual is a powerful reminder of the importance of life, death, and the cyclical nature of being in the ancient Bon culture.
The original name for the sky burial ritual is Jhator, derived from two words in the Tibetan language: jha, meaning "give," and tor, meaning "to take away." This provides an insight into the cultural understanding of the practice of sky burial: to reposition the dead's soul to the heavens, to the gods. During the Jhator process, vultures consume all flesh before sunset, thus completing the ritual.
Challenges and Controversies Surrounding the Sky Burial Ritual In Nepal
Sky Burial, or ritual and ritualistic offering of dead human bodies to nature, is one of the most ancient funeral customs practiced in Nepal and several other regions worldwide. The ritual's origin is rooted in the belief that the body needs to be returned to the earth and its elements and also in the Nepalese practice of Jhankri, a traditional medicine man whose role is to protect society from evil spirits.
In the global area in recent years, the practice of sky burial has seen an increase in study worldwide despite its longevity along with the arguments for and against its practice ranging from respect for Culture practices to being an ethical and environmental concern. The controversy surrounding Sky Burial is twofold. On the one hand, tradition has tangible environmental benefits. Sky Burial stops the need for expensive burial fields and coffins. This ritual is also seen as a healthier and more natural way to bury the dead - by providing the elements of the earth with the nutrients found in the body.
This ritual can benefit small communities in mountainous regions lacking wood and often cannot afford traditional burials. On a more spiritual level, many argue that Sky Burial allows humans to reconnect with nature, honoring the dead as part of the cycle of life and returning them safely and peacefully to nature. The ritual is viewed as a respectful farewell to the dead, and its rituals have deeply embedded religious and spiritual meanings.
Unfortunately, the ritual of Sky Burial has become incredibly controversial in recent years. Firstly, it has been reported that the high-altitude locations where Sky Burials take place are populated by more individuals looking to avoid high funeral costs. As a result, the high peaks are littered with remains, creating an environmental hazard. Furthermore, the practice has been heavily criticized on ethical grounds by certain animal rights activists, as it is thought that Sky Burial is causing significant harm to the local bird population.
Sky Burial ritual continues to be surrounded by significant challenges and controversies. With the increasing global scrutiny of traditional and ancient practices, few burial traditions have attracted as much controversy as Sky Burial in Nepal. Thankfully, organizations such as UNESCO and the Nepalese government have worked hard to ensure the Sky Burial ritual remains respected and meaningful, considering ethical and environmental concerns. With their help, the ritual's issues and controversy can be resolved, and the entire community can accept and honor the tradition.
Trekkers and Sky Burial Ritual in Mustang
Choosing the Upper Mustang trek and Upper Dolpo Treks are great ways to encounter this Sky Burial ritual in Nepal. Nepal's Upper Dolpo and Upper Mustang regions are unique, requiring a trek through two areas inaccessible not so long ago to the outside world. These areas offer a landscape and culture likened to those found in Tibet or Ladakh in India, blending the Tibetan Plateau with the Dhaulagiri mountain ranges.
This extended trekking journey, spanning almost a month, is highly demanding yet incredibly rewarding. The trek includes many ascents and descents throughout its course, involving climbs over altitudes of 4,000m and above, with some high passes reaching 5,000m. This demanding route indicates a need for a great deal of endurance and physical strength from trekkers. Throughout the trek, you can explore the mesmerizing Phoksundo Lake; Shey Monastery; Crystal Mountain; learn about the ancient Bon religion; and marvel at the rare wildlife such as the snow leopard. You will also gain insight into the Forbidden Kingdom of Mustang's monasteries, stupas, people, and history.
If you decide to venture to these regions, you must remember the immense sanctity carried by the sky burial ritual. Respectful behavior and intentions are, without a doubt, necessary, but besides these, you should not attend a sky burial ceremony while carrying a camera. Although there have been moments in which only with express permission photographers and film crews were allowed to observe and document sky burial, it is highly discouraged. The travel guide of Lonely Planet has warned not to attend the Sky Burial ritual in Tibet region even if an opportunity is offered at no charge or for a fee. Most locals find travelers' attendance highly offensive, while some highly authoritative people in the community even impose a fine. However, in Nepal, trekkers can attain the ritual with the permission of locals and other ritual-related people if they allow you.
However, trekkers may be allowed to witness the sky burial ritual, but they are not allowed to participate in it. The locals respect the traditions and cultures of their region, and participating in the ritual is prohibited. Trekkers who choose to attain the ritual should ensure that they are not interfering with the process or acting disrespectfully towards the ritual and locals. For example, trekkers should respect the local spiritual beliefs and dress conservatively without performing any disrespectful gestures.
Finally, Attending a Sky Burial ritual is more than a mere spectator opportunity but a deeply personal journey. This ritual can evoke powerful emotional responses from participants and therefore requires a certain emotional intelligence to process such intense feelings. Those who may not be prepared to handle such powerful emotions may not find this experience beneficial.
Sky Burial Ritual in Other Parts of The World
Sky burials are unique burial rituals practiced for centuries in various parts of the world. The most representative example, however, is Tibet—a region where the ritual has been deeply entwined with Tibetan culture and beliefs. In Tibetan society, the sky burial ritual is one of the culture's most important and profound rituals.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the sky burial ritual is seen as a pathway to liberation from continued reincarnations for the departed soul. This divine undertaking begins with a ceremonial cleansing, in which mantras are recited to purify the being. A solemn procession of monks escorts the deceased to the burial site, where the departed is returned to nature with a visual ceremony. In the ritual, the body is exposed to the sun and the wind, demonstrating that the individual has been released from their worldly form. Sky burial is referred to as Ten-Chak or Kyil-Khor by Tibetans and is the traditional funeral practice used for those who have died from natural causes. This ceremony is firmly ingrained in Tibetan culture's practical and religious values. To ensure the safety of their community, Tibetans undertake other forms of funeral practices for those who have died from infectious diseases, poisoning, or suicide.
There are many renowned places in Tibet where the sky burial ritual is still practiced, like Drigun Til Monastery, Pabongka, Sera Monastery, and Larung Gar of Eastern Tibet. For those wishing to pilgrimage around Mount Kailash, a sky burial site may be seen in the far distance during the first day of their tour. Facing the enchanting Drak Yerpa Hermitage is an inactive sky burial site accessible to tourists, contributing to the alluring array of the complete temple complex.
Essentially, in Tibet, there are two forms of Jhator. Isolated villagers and nomads practice the first. It involves leaving a deceased body exposed to the elements and whatever scavengers may come across, a practice known as sky burial. There are no professional body breakers on hand to handle the decomposition.
Tibetan Buddhists are encouraged to observe Jhator to confront the realities of physical death without fear, even though family members do not physically witness the breaking of the body. This is because the true tests of death are internal for them, while the physical body serves only as a source of nourishment to other living organisms.
Sky burials have been practiced in Tibet and Mongolia for centuries. They are primarily seen today in Tibet, Qinghai, Bhutan, Mongolia, parts of Nepal, and even some other Southeast Asian countries. Each area that practices sky burials has its unique version of the ritual, reflecting its religious beliefs, cultural customs, and social norms.
Other Buddhists Burial Customs in Nepal
In Nepal, funerary customs surrounding Buddhism are a significant part of the culture and the Buddhist population, which account for nearly 9.04% of the population. Buddhism plays an integral role in how individuals, who identify as Buddhist, interact with and process grief during funerals as part of their mourning rituals. While traditional funerary customs vary depending on the region within Nepal and the unique cultural heritage of the bereaved family, this essay will discuss the burial customs of Nepalese Buddhists.
A body is typically moved to a funeral or cremation pyre within 48 hours of death and is bathed and dressed in new garments. During this procession, community members escort the body to its funeral site shouting chants, beating drums, and blowing horns. In some areas, a bonfire may be laid in the path of the procession to signify the spirit of the departed soul. This ceremony is considered the beginning of the mourning period and is punctuated by offerings of flowers, fragrances, and incense.
At the funeral site, loved ones are encouraged to sit with the body and conduct special prayers as they call upon the spirits to take away the remains. A priest is typically called to anoint the body and to conduct prayers and Buddhist chanting with the family. Once the priest is done, he opens the body bag so family and friends can leave personal items or souvenirs with the body. The ceremony of placing the mementos into the body bag is called "phwalya," meaning "to give in the bag." Interment generally follows a day after but may last for three days, depending on the region and the individual family.
At the funeral, it is common to place a handful of rice and some tsampa (a type of flour made from barley), mustard seed, and white peas around the body and altar. This symbolizes blessing the deceased and allowing him to find his peaceful afterlife. Additionally, the family may offer monks or poor food to accumulate karma for the dead.
In most Nepalese Buddhist traditions, the preferred method of burial is cremation. A ceremony is conducted in honor of the deceased to symbolize their ascension to the next life. Monuments may be constructed at the cremation site to commemorate the deceased. As part of the cremation, family members can make offerings or prayers to be placed in the fire with the body or for the deceased's benefit in the afterlife. Upon completion of the cremation, the ashes and remains of the dead are collected in an urn, stored in a temple, or taken home to be scattered in a sacred river.
Nepalese Buddhist funerary customs are rooted in a long tradition that reflects the spiritual and cultural values of the people. Grieving family and friends often look to religious traditions to help them cope with their loss. Participating in these rituals can be a valuable part of the mourning process and help the family to remember their deceased loved one in an honoring, meaningful way.