Buried in the sky

By Chang Meng Source:Global Times Published: 2015-1-29 19:48:01

Tibet to issue legislation to protect traditional burial

Local lamas and tourists look at a tower of silence after a sky burial in Sertar county, Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province, on July 7, 2013. Photo: IC

An Xu (pseudonym), a college student in Chengdu, Southwest China's Sichuan Province, became fascinated with Tibetan culture after spending most of his spare time last year traveling in western Sichuan and Qinghai provinces, and the Tibet Autonomous Region.

Trekking past mysterious snow-capped mountains and holy temples, An said he witnessed the sky burial ceremony three times. He called it an unforgettable experience that made him reflect upon on how he understood life.

Sky burials are a traditional Tibetan ritual with a history going back more than 1,000 years. During the ritual, bodies are dismembered and fed to vultures and other predatory birds, which are considered divine creatures. It is regarded as an act of generosity and a ritual that allows the soul to ascend to heaven.

The mystic and religious nature of sky burial has attracted many curious tourists, especially in recent years as tours to Tibet have become increasingly popular. Photos and videos of the ceremony posted online have triggered controversy, with some saying it is disrespectful to the deceased and Tibetan people's beliefs.

Since 1985, Tibet's regional government has introduced three provisional rules to protect the tradition. After 30 years, the rules finally became law as regional lawmakers passed a bill on January 22 in an annual session of Tibetan people's congress.

The bill bans strangers from witnessing and filming the ceremony. "It shows respect and offers protection to the millennium-old tradition," said Samdrup, an official with the standing committee of the regional people's congress.

Tradition needs respect

There is no agreement on the origins of sky burials. Some theories claim it was introduced from India or Central Asia, while others suggest it was locally developed.

Despite increasing modernization, about 70 to 80 percent of Tibetans still choose sky burials, performing a final act of charity by giving their flesh to feed the birds, Wangqug, a lama based in Tibet, told the Global Times.

After being altered or even abandoned as an "old custom" during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), sky burial has made a comeback, enjoying both popular support and policy protection.

An Xu described the ceremony as "shocking" but "enlightening." Naked bodies are carried to the burial platform and laid facedown. As scriptures are chanted, the body is cut and gutted from behind, with a fire lit whose smoke is meant to attract vultures.

After the birds have devoured the body, the person leading the burial smashes the remaining bones and mixes them with tsampa, a traditional Tibetan staple, to make it possible for the vultures to consume them. This symbolizes a blessing for the successful reincarnation of the soul.

"You realized that all lives are equal in the end, and that humans are after all only a tiny part of nature," An said.

Strangers' sightseeing, photographing and filming of the ceremony, as well as any and all media reporting, were already banned in the 2005 provisional rules. However, An said there are always tourists at the site taking pictures. Some who were shouting in loud voices were asked to leave by family members and lamas.

Some of the controversy around photos and videos of the ritual centered around some people's view of it as a brutal tradition. But in Tibetan high school teacher Geleg's views, sky burial is deeply significant, as it symbolizes generosity and occupies no land, while producing no pollution whatsoever.

"I welcome the legislation as the onlookers are disturbing. It's OK if you go visit the temples where we put bones of our loved ones to let them return home. But it's offensive [for outsiders] to view the ceremony and outrageous for it to be a form of tourism. We need legal protection to limit tourists using us for novelty," he said.

Path to harmony

Although further details on the new bill have not been released, it covers issues like management and environmental protection of sky burial sites and proper qualifications for those leading the ritual. Currently, Tibet has 1,638 burial sites and 1,093 people qualified to lead burials, according to the Xinhua News Agency.

To keep the burial sites clean, previous rules banned shooting, explosions or resources extraction near the sites. Storage of flammable and toxic substances and waste discharge near the sites are also prohibited.

The Lhasa government also invested 11.4 million yuan ($1.8 million) to repair burial sites, shutting down nearby quarries and lumber mills.

Those who lead the burials - so called "burial hosts" - may also see their status raised as a result of the new legislation, said Xiong Kunxin, a professor of ethnic studies with the Minzu University of China who has spent years in Tibet.

Despite being the holy messenger between the deceased and the divine birds, burial hosts, who are normally laymen or specially designated monks, have an embarrassingly low status in real life, with little research done on either group. Sometimes the job is passed down on a hereditary basis, sometimes not.

Tibetan legislators have called to establish a certification system for sky burial hosts to better protect their rights, and create rules outlawing organizations or individuals from discriminating against them.

The new legislation has been welcomed by the Tibetan community and by scholars, with increasing public understanding as well. In various online travel forums, especially those for DIY tourists, more people are calling for fellow travelers to refrain from curiosity and stay away from the ceremony, or at least keep quiet and do not publish any images online.

Although actual conflicts brought by sightseeing or polluting activities around the burial sites have not been widely reported, Geleg hopes the authorities can issue detailed supervision and enforcement rules, with An agreed that he rarely saw or heard authorities at the scene to stop or punish misconducts.

Some also argue that proper management may also better introduce Tibetan culture to the public than strict bans.

It will take time to build up and improve a mature system that takes care of interests of multiple parties, Xiong said. However, he believes that the new bill will certainly benefit the tradition, and may inspire ecologically friendly development on the fragile plateau by showing how humans and nature can exist in harmony.

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