On my last excursion before leaving Nepal, I was told of the confronting, but sacred tradition of the sky burial.
I stepped out of the battered white taxi and onto an equally battered street of cobblestone. After donning sunglasses to shield my eyes from the midday sun, the time-worn splendour of Patan’s Durbar Square slowly came into focus.
Patan is an ancient town; historians place its founding around 300 BC. For centuries, it stood alongside Bhaktapur and Kathmandu as one of the most powerful kingdoms in the region. To Nepalis it is known as Lalitpur, “The Beautiful City” and it is not difficult to see why: the town square is lined with centuries-old palaces, temples and shrines, while the lanes that surround it are crowded with craftsmen working with wood, metal, and clay.
The people of Patan have worked hard to preserve their culture in the face of modernity. While Durbar Square is a World Heritage Site, it’s certainly no standing museum. Each day thousands of people gather in the square to pay respects to deities, meet with friends and to trade. The Kumari – a young girl who is revered as a living goddess – lives in the nearby palace of Kumari Ghar. She plays a central role in the town’s many religious festivals and holds a special place in locals’ hearts.
Taking it all in, I feel as though I’m in a time warp. If the town of Trinidad in Cuba transported me back to the 1900s, then Patan places me somewhere in the 17th Century.
I walked across the street and up onto a nearby rooftop to see the square from a better vantage point. As I stood on the roof edge taking photos a man addressed me from behind. He introduced himself as Balsudan – “Bal” for short – a Patan local who wanted to show me around and teach me about the area.
He had a slight frame, a warm smile and a freshly shaved head. Earlier in the day I resolved to explore Patan without a guide, but there was something in Bal’s manner that drew me in. It didn’t take long for me to agree to his company and we soon set off on our tour.
We stopped first at the sprawling red-brick palace of Hanuman Dhoka with its ornately carved blackwood finishing. At the palace’s entrance stands a statue of Lord Hanuman, the red-faced monkey god and follower of Ram; his simian features buried in thick coats of vermilion paste applied by generations of devotees. To his side is the fearsome visage of Narasimha, an incarnation of Vishnu as a multi-armed, half-man-half-lion devouring a hapless demon.
My intention is not to subject you to laborious descriptions of Patan’s architecture, suffice to say it is gorgeous and well worth a visit. Instead, I wanted to share with you what I learned of Balsudan. He was an interesting individual, eager to explain his worldview along with the particular practices of body and mind that kept in him good health.
Bal’s father was a well-respected astrologer. In his youth, Bal learned much about the movement of the stars and their portents for humanity and was happy to share some predictions about my coming weeks. Astrology still has an important place in Nepali society. While the new government is officially secular it nonetheless maintains a committee of astrological advisors and key political dates often align with auspicious astrological events.
Bal’s true passion, however, lies in meditation. He regularly teaches techniques to Nepalis and foreigners alike, but always refuses payment for his classes. To Bal, the practice of meditation is absolutely essential for physical and spiritual wellbeing. By extension, he views his teaching as a form of public service, a way of helping to enhance the lives of those he meets.
In an effort to understand the religious beliefs of the Nepali people, I often asked people whether they consider themselves Hindu or Buddhist. Nearly everyone I spoke to identified as Hindu, but expressed an interest in Tibetan Buddhism.
Balsudan took this somewhat further: while he was raised a Hindu, he has spent fifteen years exploring Tibetan Buddhism. Coupled with his knowledge of astrology and meditation, he has come to regard himself as something of a spiritual teacher.
As we moved through the relics of Durbar Square (too many of which remain as piles of rubble in the wake of the 2015 earthquakes) Bal referred back repeatedly to what I would term his spiritual epiphany.
In death, Hindus practice a traditional cremation of the body, a ritual I witnessed in detail at Pashupatinath. Many Buddhist schools have similar funeral rites, but the Tibetan Buddhists stand apart with their unique tradition of the sky burial.
When a Tibetan takes to their deathbed, a monk or family member will read them passages from The Tibetan Book of the Dead – a sacred text to guide the individual through the various stages of death and rebirth. They believe that once an individual passes away, their soul enters bardo, a sort of transition state between death and rebirth. When the soul first reaches bardo it has “the clearest experience of the reality of which one is spiritually capable,” followed by a series of terrifying hallucinations that are the result of karmic sins.
For those who are prepared, Bardo is an exceptional opportunity to achieve moksha (liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth). For those less prepared, there is a real risk they could lose themselves in the karmic hallucinations and reincarnate into a lower state as a result.
Once the individual has expired, the monks place the body in a sitting position. They then spend two days administering a series of rituals and prayers before breaking the spine. Now the body is ready for transportation. It is carried by yak to a designated site on the top of a mountain. This is where the rogyapa (crudely translated as “body breakers”) go to work.
First, they burn juniper to attract the attention of vultures. The birds often gather quickly and need to kept at bay until the preparation is complete. Next, they dismember the corpse, cutting the body into a number of small pieces following precise ritual patterns.
When the gruesome work is done, the pieces are offered up to the vultures in a specific order to ensure the entire body is eaten. When the bones have been picked clean, the monks then grind up the bones with mallets, mixing the dust with a substance called tsampa; a paste of barley flour, Tibetan tea and yak butter. This, the final evidence of the human form, is offered to the crows and hawks.
Curiously, eyewitness accounts report the rogyapa:
“Did not perform their task with gravity or ceremony, but rather talked and laughed as during any other type of physical labor. According to Buddhist teaching, this makes it easier for the soul of the deceased to move on from the uncertain plane between life and death onto the next life.”
To a Western sensibility this tradition of a sky burial may seem brutal and heartless, but once we understand the spiritual and practical foundations of the ritual it begins to make more sense.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the noblest precept is compassion for all living things. Two other crucial pillars of the belief system are the doctrine of non-attachment and that fact that all things in the universe are transitory. Our attempts to fight impermanence is one of the main causes of dukkha, which loosely translates to suffering or anxiety.
For this reason, family members are invited to come along to the sky burial. It is seen as an opportunity to meditate on the impermanence of life and put the principles of non-attachment into action.
It’s important to understand that to Tibetans, the body contains no essence of the human that once lived. With the soul having already departed to bardo to prepare for rebirth, the corpse is seen as a mere husk. In fact, the sky burial is regarded as a supremely positive act; one that radiates compassion, humility and generosity. Consider the symbolism of offering up your body so that it might sustain the lives of other creatures. Their name for the ritual is bya gtor – “alms for the birds.”
There are also practical considerations. Anthropologists point out that in Tibet, firewood is particularly rare, the climate is brutally cold and the ground is often solid rock or thick permafrost. This makes cremations or burials particularly difficult exercises. There are few alternate ways to dispose of the dead.
Balsudan holds the practice of sky burial in high regard. For him, this willingness to offer up your earthly remains to hungry animals is exceedingly important; it represents the peak of compassion and non-attachment. He elaborated by telling me the story of The Starving Tigress, a tale from the Jataka, a book in the Buddhist canon which details the past lives of Siddhārtha Gautama:
One day while wandering deep in the forest with his disciple Ajita, the Buddha came across a starving tigress with sunken eyes and an emaciated belly. She was the mother to a number of cubs, but as they tried to suckle milk from her she responded with a brutal and violent roar.
The Buddha could sense that in her great hunger the tigress would soon devour her cubs. He interpreted this as a symbol of the senselessness of saṃsāra (the cycle of death and rebirth), and the sin of self-love.
Shaken with grief, he sent his disciple away before throwing himself in front of the tigress from a high ledge:
I will kill my miserable body by casting it down into the precipice and with my corpse, I shall preserve the tigress from killing her young ones and the young ones from dying by the teeth of their mother…After so making up his mind, delighted at the thought that he was to destroy even his life for securing the benefit of others, to the amazement even of the calm minds of the deities – he gave up his body.
When Ajita returned, he saw the lioness feasting on the Buddha’s remains and realised what had transpired. He praises his teacher for his compassion, his “heroic, fearless and immense love,” and his intolerance of suffering, then returned home to tell the story to his fellow disciples.
(As an interesting aside The Economist notes this story is discussed in Tibetan communities when debating the morality of self-immolation. The question is whether this tale sets a precedent for allowing violent acts for the greater good.)
This story moved Bal deeply. He meditated it on it for some time, reaching a point where he not only understood what the tale wad trying to communicate, but felt that he too would happily offer up his body to “to the hungry tiger or vulture.” This triggered a spiritual epiphany: in that instant, Bal says that all the anger and anxieties of his life fell away and he emerged from the experience a changed man.
Bal repeated this story to me perhaps twelve times while we were together, reminding me that we must be willing to offer ourselves up to hungry creatures and that when we die, we should ask for a sky burial. For Bal, this was so fundamental to the teachings of Buddhism that practitioners in Myanmar and Cambodia – who practice cremation – could not be considered true Buddhists.
Bal and I have been in touch regularly since our time in Patan. On many occasions, he has suggested that I volunteer or donate to assist various earthquake relief efforts, has put forward ideas and practices for my own spiritual benefit and has been kind enough to make an offering for my recently departed grandmother at Bhimsen Temple in Patan.
While he is but one of the beautiful humans I have met in country, his character speaks to the Nepalese heart: his strong sense of compassion for other people, his readiness to help anyone in need, and his deeply held religious convictions.