Sky burial

Sky burial (Tibetan: བྱ་གཏོར་, Wylie: bya gtor, lit. "bird-scattered"[1]) is a funeral practice in which a human corpse is placed on a mountaintop to decompose while exposed to the elements or to be eaten by scavenging animals, especially carrion birds. It is a specific type of the general practice of excarnation. It is practiced in the Chinese provinces and autonomous regions of Tibet, Qinghai, Sichuan and Inner Mongolia, as well as in Mongolia, Bhutan and parts of India such as Sikkim and Zanskar.[2] The locations of preparation and sky burial are understood in the Vajrayana Buddhist traditions as charnel grounds. Comparable practices are part of Zoroastrian burial practices where deceased are exposed to the elements and birds of prey on stone structures called Dakhma.[3] Few such places remain operational today due to religious marginalisation, urbanisation and the decimation of vulture populations.[4][5]

The majority of Tibetan people and many Mongols adhere to Vajrayana Buddhism, which teaches the transmigration of spirits. There is no need to preserve the body, as it is now an empty vessel. Birds may eat it or nature may cause it to decompose. The function of the sky burial is simply to dispose of the remains in as generous a way as possible (the origin of the practice's Tibetan name). In much of Tibet and Qinghai, the ground is too hard and rocky to dig a grave, and due to the scarcity of fuel and timber, sky burials were typically more practical than the traditional Buddhist practice of cremation. In the past, cremation was limited to high lamas and some other dignitaries,[6] but modern technology and difficulties with sky burial have led to an increased use by commoners.[7]

Other nations which performed air burial were the Caucasus nations of Georgians, Abkhazians and Adyghe people, in which they put the corpse in a hollow tree trunk.[8][9]

Sky burial site, Yerpa Valley
A sky burial site in Yerpa Valley, Tibet
Drigung monastery
Drigung Monastery, Tibetan monastery famous for performing sky burials.

History and development

The Tibetan sky-burials appear to have evolved from ancient practices of defleshing corpses as discovered in archeological finds in the region.[10] These practices most likely came out of practical considerations,[11][12][13] but they could also be related to more ceremonial practices similar to the suspected sky burial evidence found at Göbekli Tepe (11,500 years before present) and Stonehenge (4,500 years BP). Most of Tibet is above the tree line, and the scarcity of timber makes cremation economically unfeasible. Additionally, subsurface interment is difficult since the active layer is not more than a few centimeters deep, with solid rock or permafrost beneath the surface.

The customs are first recorded in an indigenous 12th-century Buddhist treatise, which is colloquially known as the Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol).[14] Tibetan tantricism appears to have influenced the procedure.[15][16] The body is cut up according to instructions given by a lama or adept.[17]

Vultures on Lhasa sky burial rock 1
Vultures feeding on cut pieces of body at a 1985 sky burial in Lhasa, Tibet

Mongolians traditionally buried their dead (sometimes with human or animal sacrifice for the wealthier chieftains) but the Tümed adopted sky burial following their conversion to Tibetan Buddhism under Altan Khan during the Ming Dynasty and other banners subsequently converted under the Manchu Qing Dynasty.[18]

Sky burial was initially treated as a primitive superstition and sanitation concern by the Communist governments of both the PRC and Mongolia; both states closed many temples[18] and China banned the practice completely from the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s until the 1980s.[19]During this period, Sky burials were considered among the Four Olds, which was the umbrella term used by Communists to describe anti-proletarian customs, cultures and ideas. As a result of these policies, many corpses would simply be buried or thrown in rivers. Many families believed the souls of these people would never escape purgatory and became ghosts. Sky burial nonetheless continued to be practiced in rural areas and has even received official protection in recent years. However, the practice continues to diminish for a number of reasons, including restrictions on its practice near urban areas and diminishing numbers of vultures in rural districts. Finally, Tibetan practice holds that the yak carrying the body to the charnel grounds should be set free, making the rite much more expensive than a service at a crematorium.[7][20]

Purpose and meaning

Ragbya carries corps from Lhasa for Sky burial
Corpse being carried from Lhasa for sky burial about 1920

For Tibetan Buddhists, sky burial and cremation are templates of instructional teaching on the impermanence of life.[17] Jhator is considered an act of generosity on the part of the deceased, since the deceased and his/her surviving relatives are providing food to sustain living beings. Such generosity and compassion for all beings are important virtues in Buddhism.[21]

Although some observers have suggested that jhator is also meant to unite the deceased person with the sky or sacred realm, this does not seem consistent with most of the knowledgeable commentary and eyewitness reports, which indicate that Tibetans believe that at this point life has completely left the body and the body contains nothing more than simple flesh.

Only people who directly know the deceased usually observe it, when the excarnation happens at night.

Vajrayana iconography

The tradition and custom of the jhator afforded Traditional Tibetan medicine and thangka iconography with a particular insight into the interior workings of the human body. Pieces of the human skeleton were employed in ritual tools such as the skullcup, thigh-bone trumpet, etc.

The 'symbolic bone ornaments' (Skt: aṣṭhiamudrā; Tib: rus pa'i rgyanl phyag rgya) are also known as "mudra" or 'seals'. The Hevajra Tantra identifies the Symbolic Bone Ornaments with the Five Wisdoms and Jamgon Kongtrul in his commentary to the Hevajra Tantra explains this further.[22]


Bundesarchiv Bild 135-S-12-50-06, Tibetexpedition, Ragyapa, Geier
1938 photo of Sky burial from the Bundesarchiv

A traditional jhator is performed in specified locations in Tibet (and surrounding areas traditionally occupied by Tibetans). Drigung Monastery is one of the three most important jhator sites.

The procedure takes place on a large flat rock long used for the purpose. The charnel ground (durtro) is always higher than its surroundings. It may be very simple, consisting only of the flat rock, or it may be more elaborate, incorporating temples and stupa (chorten in Tibetan).

Relatives may remain nearby[23] during the jhator, possibly in a place where they cannot see it directly. The jhator usually takes place at dawn.

The full jhator procedure (as described below) is elaborate and expensive. Those who cannot afford it simply place their deceased on a high rock where the body decomposes or is eaten by birds and animals.


Accounts from observers vary. The following description is assembled from multiple accounts by observers from the U.S. and Europe. References appear at the end.


Prior to the procedure, monks may chant mantra around the body and burn juniper incense – although ceremonial activities often take place on the preceding day.

The work of disassembling of the body may be done by a monk, or, more commonly, by rogyapas ("body-breakers").

All the eyewitness accounts remarked on the fact that the rogyapas 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.

Some accounts refer to individuals who carry out sky burial rituals as a ‘Tokden’ which is Tibetan for ‘Sky Burial Master’. While a Todken has an important role in burial rites, they are often people of low social status and sometimes receive payment from the families of the deceased.

Disassembling the body

A body being prepared for Sky burial in Sichuan.

According to most accounts, vultures are given the whole body. Then, when only the bones remain, these are broken up with mallets, ground with tsampa (barley flour with tea and yak butter, or milk), and given to the crows and hawks that have waited for the vultures to depart.

In one account, the leading rogyapa cut off the limbs and hacked the body to pieces, handing each part to his assistants, who used rocks to pound the flesh and bones together to a pulp, which they mixed with tsampa before the vultures were summoned to eat. In some cases, a Todken will use butcher’s tools to divide the body.

Sometimes the internal organs were removed and processed separately, but they too were consumed by birds. The hair is removed from the head and may be simply thrown away; at Drigung, it seems, at least some hair is kept in a room of the monastery.

None of the eyewitness accounts specify which kind of knife is used in the jhator. One source states that it is a "ritual flaying knife" or trigu (Sanskrit kartika), but another source expresses scepticism, noting that the trigu is considered a woman's tool (rogyapas seem to be exclusively male).


Vulture - Sky burial
Skeletal remains as vultures feed.

The species contributing to the ritual is the griffon vulture, a species of Old World vulture (order Accipitriformes, family Accipitridae, scientific name Gyps fulvus).

In places where there are several jhator offerings each day, the birds sometimes have to be coaxed to eat, which may be accomplished with a ritual dance. It is considered a bad omen if the vultures will not eat, or if even a small portion of the body is left after the birds fly away. In these cases, it is usually believed that the individual being buried committed so many sins that their body is considered too dirty to eat or that the individual’s family failed to observe proper rituals.

In places where fewer bodies are offered, the vultures are more eager, and sometimes have to be fended off with sticks during the initial preparations. Often there is a limit to how many corpses can be consumed at a certain burial site, prompting lamas to find different areas. It is believed that if too many corpses are disposed in a certain burial site, ghosts may appear.

Among Zoroastrians

Ancient Zoroastrians believed the dead body should be put in particular structures to be feasted upon by birds of prey, because the burial or burning of the corpses would cause water and soil to become dirty, which is forbidden in the ancient religion.

In popular culture

A jhator was filmed, with permission from the family, for Frederique Darragon's documentary Secret Towers of the Himalayas, which aired on the Science Channel in fall 2008. The camera work was deliberately careful to never show the body itself, while documenting the procedure, birds, and tools.

The ritual was featured in films such as The Horse Thief, Kundun, and Himalaya.

At the sky burial site near the Larung Gar Buddhist Institute near Sertar, Sichuan, the Chinese have built a "Temple of Death" to attract and entertain the growing numbers of Chinese tourists, turning this simple and practical ritual into a tourist attraction.

A sky burial was shown in BBC's Human Planet – Mountains.

The semi-autobiographical book Wolf Totem discusses sky burial.

See also


  1. ^ "How Sky Burial Works". 25 July 2011.
  2. ^ Sulkowsky, Zoltan (2008). Around the World on a Motorcycle. Whitehorse Press. p. 114. ISBN 978-1-884313-55-4.
  3. ^ BBC. "Zoroastrian funerals Towers of Silence". 02 Oct 2009. Accessed 08 Sep 2014.
  4. ^ New York Times. "Giving New Life to Vultures to Restore a Human Ritual of Death". 29 Nov 2012. Accessed 08 Sep 2014.
  5. ^ npr. "Vanishing Vultures A Grave Matter For India's Parsis". 05 Sep 2012. Accessed 08 Sep 2014.
  6. ^ "Sky Burial, Tibetan Religious Ritual, Funeral Party".
  7. ^ a b China Daily. "Funeral reforms in Tibetan areas". 13 Dec 2012. Accessed 18 Jul 2013.
  8. ^ "ИСТОРИЯ ГРУЗИИ" (in Russian).
  10. ^ PBS. "Cave People of the Himalaya".
  11. ^ Wylie 1965, p. 232.
  12. ^ Martin 1996, pp. 360–365.
  13. ^ Joyce & Williamson 2003, p. 815.
  14. ^ Martin 1991, p. 212.
  15. ^ Ramachandra Rao 1977, p. 5.
  16. ^ Wylie 1964.
  17. ^ a b Goss & Klass 1997, p. 385.
  18. ^ a b Heike, Michel. "The Open-Air Sacrificial Burial of the Mongols". Accessed 18 Jul 2013.
  19. ^ Faison 1999, para. 13.
  20. ^ "Funeral reforms edge along in Tibetan areas". Xinhua. 2012-12-13. Retrieved 2012-12-16.
  21. ^ Mihai, Andrei (November 9, 2009). "The Sky Burial". ZME Science. Retrieved January 20, 2015.
  22. ^ Kongtrul 2005, p. 493.
  23. ^ Ash 1992, p. 59.


  • Ash, Niema (1992), Flight of the Wind Horse: A Journal into Tibet, London: Rider, pp. 57–61, ISBN 0-7126-3599-8.
  • Bruno, Ellen (2000), Sky Burial|11 minute film, Bruno Films.
  • Dechen, Pemba (2012), "Rinchen, the Sky-Burial Master", Manoa, University of Hawai’i Press, 24: 92–104, doi:10.1353/man.2012.0016, JSTOR 42004645
  • Faison, Seth (July 3, 1999), "Lirong Journal; Tibetans, and Vultures, Keep Ancient Burial Rite", New York Times,
  • Goss, Robert E.; Klass, Dennis (1997), "Tibetan Buddhism and the resolution of grief: The Bardo-Thodol for the dying and the grieving", Death Studies, 21 (4): 377–395, doi:10.1080/074811897201895, PMID 10170479.
  • Joyce, Kelly A.; Williamson, John B. (2003), "Body recycling", in Bryant, Clifton D. (ed.), Handbook of Death & Dying, 2, Thousand Oaks: Sage, ISBN 0-7619-2514-7.
  • Kongtrul Lodrö Tayé, Jamgön (2005), Systems of Buddhist Tantra, The Indestructible Way of Secret Mantra, The Treasury of Knowledge, book 6, part 4, Boulder: Snow Lion, ISBN 1-55939-210-X.
  • Martin, Daniel Preston (1991), The Emergence of Bon and the Tibetan Polemical Tradition, (Ph.D. thesis), Indiana University Press, OCLC 24266269.
  • Martin, Daniel Preston (1996), "On the Cultural Ecology of Sky Burial on the Himalayan Plateau", East and West, 46 (3–4): 353–370.
  • Mullin, Glenn H. (1998). Living in the Face of Death: The Tibetan Tradition. 2008 reprint: Snow Lion Publications, Ithica, New York. ISBN 978-1-55939-310-2.
  • Ramachandra Rao, Saligrama Krishna (1977), Tibetan Tantrik Tradition, New Delhi: Arnold Heinemann, OCLC 5942361.
  • Wylie, Turrell V. (1964), "Ro-langs: the Tibetan zombie", History of Religions, 4 (1): 69–80, doi:10.1086/462495.
  • Wylie, Turrell V. (1965), "Mortuary Customs at Sa-Skya, Tibet", Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 25, 25: 229–242, doi:10.2307/2718344, JSTOR 2718344.

Further reading

External links

Berry Castle, Weare Giffard

Berry Castle is an Iron Age Hill fort in the civil parish of Huntshaw, close to Weare Giffard in Devon, England, to the north of Great Torrington. The fort takes the form of an oval enclosure situated on a promontory in Huntshaw Wood some 95 Metres above Sea Level. Recent tree clearance (2015) has revealed that the 'fort' is rectangular in shape with entrances at either end, and may be a Roman camp or a local example of a neolithic sky burial enclosure.

Charnel ground

A charnel ground (Devanagari: श्मशान; Romanized Sanskrit: śmaśān; Tibetan pronunciation: durtrö; Tibetan: དུར་ཁྲོད, Wylie: dur khrod), in concrete terms, is an above-ground site for the putrefaction of bodies, generally human, where formerly living tissue is left to decompose uncovered. Although it may have demarcated locations within it functionally identified as burial grounds, cemeteries and crematoria, it is distinct from these as well as from crypts or burial vaults.

In a religious sense, it is also a very important location for sadhana and ritual activity for Indo-Tibetan traditions of Dharma particularly those traditions iterated by the Tantric view such as Kashmiri Shaivism, Kaula tradition, Esoteric Buddhism, Vajrayana, Mantrayana, Dzogchen, and the sadhana of Chöd, Phowa and Zhitro, etc. The charnel ground is also an archetypal liminality that figures prominently in the literature and liturgy and as an artistic motif in Dharmic Traditions and cultures iterated by the more antinomian and esoteric aspects of traditional Indian culture.

Dana Levin (poet)

Dana Levin (born 1965) is a poet and teaches Creative Writing each Fall at Maryville University in St. Louis, where she serves as Distinguished Writer in Residence. She also teaches in the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers. She lives in Saint Louis, Missouri.

Death messenger

Death messengers, in former times, were those who were dispatched to spread the news that an inhabitant of their city or village had died. They were to wear unadorned black and go door to door with the message, "You are asked to attend the funeral of the departed __________ at (time, date, and place)." This was all they were allowed to say, and were to move on to the next house immediately after uttering the announcement. This tradition persisted in some areas to as late as the mid-19th century.

Dignified death

Dignified death is a somewhat elusive concept often related to suicide. One factor that has been cited as a core component of dignified death is maintaining a sense of control. Another view is that a truly dignified death is an extension of a dignified life. There is some concern that assisted suicide does not guarantee a dignified death, since some patients may experience complications such as nausea and vomiting. There is some concern that age discrimination denies the elderly a dignified death.

Disposal of human corpses

Disposal of human corpses, also called final disposition, is the practice and process of dealing with the remains of a deceased human being. Like most animals, when humans die, their bodies start to decompose, emitting a foul odor and attracting scavengers and decomposers. Disposal methods may need to account for the fact that soft tissues will decompose relatively rapidly, while the skeleton will remain intact for thousands of years under certain conditions.

Several methods for disposal are practiced. A funeral is a ceremony that may accompany the final disposition. Regardless, the manner of disposal is often dominated by spiritual concerns and a desire to show respect for the dead, and may be highly ritualized. In other circumstances, such as war or natural disaster, practical concerns may be forefront. Many religions as well as legal jurisdictions have set rules regarding the disposal of corpses. Since the experience of death is universal to all humans, practices regarding corpse disposal are a part of every culture. Ancient methods of disposing of dead bodies include cremation practised by the Romans, Greeks, and Hindus; burial practised by the Jews, Christians, and Muslims; mummification practised by the Ancient Egyptians; and the sky burial and a similar method of disposal called Towers of Silence practiced by Tibetan Buddhists and Zoroastrians.

Drigung Monastery

Drigung Thil Monastery (Wylie: bri gung mthil 'og min byang chub gling) is a monastery in Maizhokunggar County, Lhasa, Tibet founded in 1179. Traditionally it has been the main seat of the Drikung Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. In its early years the monastery played an important role in both religion and politics, but it was destroyed in 1290 by Mongol troops under the direction of a rival sect. The monastery was rebuilt and regained some of its former strength, but was primarily a center of meditative studies. The monastery was destroyed after 1959, but has since been partly rebuilt. As of 2015 there were about 250 resident monks.

Drigung Til Monastery is reputed to have the best sky burial ceremony of all. It is said that bodies dispatched here will not fall down into the “3 bad regions."


In archaeology and anthropology, the term excarnation (also known as defleshing) refers to the practice of removing the flesh and organs of the dead before burial, leaving only the bones.

Excarnation may be precipitated through natural means, involving leaving a body exposed for animals to scavenge, or it may be purposefully undertaken by butchering the corpse by hand.


A kapala (Sanskrit for "skull") or skullcup is a cup made from a human skull and used as a ritual implement (bowl) in both Hindu Tantra and Buddhist Tantra (Vajrayana). Especially in Tibet, they are often carved or elaborately mounted with precious metals and jewels.


Megadeath (or megacorpse) is one million human deaths, usually caused by a nuclear explosion. The term was used by scientists and thinkers who strategized likely outcomes of all-out nuclear warfare.


Mihr-Mihroe (died 554), in Middle Persian either Mihr-Mihrōē or Mihrmāh-rōy; in Byzantine sources Mermeroes (Greek: Μερμερόης), was a 6th-century Sassanid Persian general, and one of the leading commanders of the Byzantine–Sassanid Wars of the time.

Natural burial

Natural burial is the interment of the body of a dead person in the soil in a manner that does not inhibit decomposition but allows the body to be naturally recycled. It is an alternative to other contemporary Western burial methods and funerary customs.

Sky burial (disambiguation)

Sky burial may refer to:

Funerary practicesSky burial (Tibetan: བྱ་གཏོར་, Wylie: bya gtor, lit. "bird-scattered") a Tibetan open-air excarnation funerary practice

Dakhma (Persian: دخمه ; Avestan: lit. “tower of silence”) a Zoroastrian open-air excarnation funerary practice

Space burial, a space-age funerary practice involving launching cremated remains into spaceOther usesSky Burial (2004 novel) by Xue Xinran

Tree of physiology

The Tree of physiology is a Tibetan Thangka depicting human physiology and certain pathological transformations.

Tsozong Gongba Monastery

Tsozong Gongba Monastery (also romanized as Tsodzong or Tsomum) is a small Tibetan Buddhism monastery in eastern Tibet, China. The monastery, founded in 1400, practices the Nyingma tradition. Tsozong Gongba is located on Tashi Island (Chinese: 扎西岛; pinyin: Zhāxī Dǎo) in the middle of Pagsum Lake in the Nyenchen Tanglha Mountains, part of Gongbo'gyamda County in Nyingchi Prefecture, Tibet Autonomous Region. Tsozong Gongba means "castle in the lake" in Tibetan. The monastery has four buildings situated around a small yard.

The construction of the Tsozong Gongba Monastery was chaired by the Nyin-gma-pa monk Sungye Lingpa and is now home of few nuns.

The three statues (Chenresig, Guru Rimpoché and Sakya Thukpa, see below) were actually shot and burned by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) during the Cultural Revolution, before being restored by the local lama Dudjom Rimpoche and his son Chuni Rimpoche (now a resident at Lamaling Monastery near Bayi town). A small kora around the monastery passes several hard-to-discern holy sites, including a Sky burial site, a 'body-print' of Gesar.

Wang Lixiong

Wang Lixiong (Chinese: 王力雄; pinyin: Wáng Lìxióng, born 2 May 1953) is a Chinese writer and scholar, best known for his political prophecy fiction, Yellow Peril, and for his writings on Tibet and provocative analysis of China's western region of Xinjiang.Wang is regarded as one of the most outspoken dissidents, democracy activists, and reformers in China. He is married to Woeser, a Tibetan poet and essayist.

Yaz culture

The Yaz culture (named after the type site Yaz-depe, Yaz Depe, or Yaz Tepe, near Baýramaly, Turkmenistan) was an early Iron Age culture of Margiana, Bactria and Sogdia (ca. 1500–500 BC). It emerges at the top of late Bronze Age sites (BMAC), sometimes as stone towers and sizeable houses associated with irrigation systems. Ceramics were mostly hand-made, but there was increasing use of wheel-thrown ware. There have been found bronze or iron arrowheads, also iron sickles or carpet knives among other artifacts.With the farming citadels, steppe-derived metallurgy and ceramics, and absence of burials it has been regarded as a likely archaeological reflection of early East Iranian culture as described in the Avesta. So far, no burials related to the culture have been found, and this is taken as possible evidence of the Zoroastrian practice of exposure or sky burial.


Yerpa (also known as: Brag Yer-pa, Drak Yerpa, Druk Yerpa, Dagyeba, Dayerpa, and Trayerpa), is only a short drive to the east of Lhasa, Tibet, and consists of a monastery and a number of ancient meditation caves that used to house about 300 monks.

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