Travel: The day I saw eagles eat a man

TIBET, July 2008

Here is a little article I wrote after I witnessed a traditional Tibetan burial this July, a ‘Celestial Burial’ or ‘Sky Burial’. There are no photos of the ceremony included, taking photos is strictly forbidden. In fact it is not usually allowed for a non-Tibetan to watch the burial, but I was lucky enough to have several locals take me there. We initially watched from a distance of about 150m away (out of respect) and then moved to around 50m away. Anyway, here is the story:

On the morning of the 28th I pulled myself out of bed and clambered out through the darkness of a Tibetan youth hostel into the 4×4 waiting outside. A bumpy 15-minute ride later three Chinese guys, two girls and I began to drive uphill, climbing one of the small mountains on the outskirts of Lhasa. Ten minutes later we pulled over and got out of the car, the sky still dark.

We made our way up the rocky hillside, passing a monastery and following a rough-cut path in the rock. We hiked for a good 10 minutes, trying not to disturb the yaks sleeping by the roadside, and arrived at a rocky ledge with a great view of Lhasa, We sat perched on a craggy rock formation for several minutes, watching the sun slowly rise over the Tibetan capital.

Lamas wind up the mountain path

By this time we could see a faint light burning in the distance. It grew slowly in strength. The bodies were arriving, three of them today. A fire was lit in a clearing a couple hundred metres away and incense tossed onto it. A thick cloud of dark smoke now billowed from the fire. Monks and lamas clad in crimson robes worked their way up the winding mountain path in single file from the monastery towards the fire, arriving as the sky began to change colour.

Something caught my eye as I gazed into the now pinkish-blue skies. A group of dark specks was drifting in from over the mountain peak behind us. My companions began to turn their eyes towards the skies as several groups of vultures, or ?holy eagles? as the Tibetans call them, soared over. The birds came in groups of five to fifteen at a time, making a circle above us before gliding down onto the opposite peak, finally numbering around thirty or forty.

The lamas arrived. They were met at the fire by several men dressed in pure white robes, the burial masters. In a circle further behind stood the families of the deceased, and on the altar were the bodies. The altar was a rough circle with a diameter of about eight metres surrounded by rocks. Within the circle were several more large stones of various shapes and sizes, some almost in the shape of beds. The side of the altar that faces Lhasa was on a slight decline, and at this point partings in the low rock wall formed a sort of drainage system. The entire altar had a distinct white tint, as if someone had thrown a bucket of watered-down paint over the place long ago.

We put down our binoculars to creep closer.

One of the burial masters reached into the folds of his white robes and pulled out a large knife. It glistened silver in the sun?s early light. As I looked on, the other men in white followed suit, brandishing knives of all sorts and sizes. Nowhere did I see the intricate ceremonial knives my imagination had pictured: these were the rusty instruments one finds in an old butcher shop.

I saw no ceremony in what followed. One of the men in robes slashed into a body on the altar. Ignoring the red blood that had just splattered onto his pristine white robe he lifted the blade up again and brought it down, into the body. By this time all three men were hard at work, chopping the bodies up into little chunks. The strongest of the three men picked up a large steak-like slab of flesh and threw it onto the ground next to him for further cutting, the thud of meat being quite audible.

When one of the men had finished with his body he put down his knife and moved onto the next instrument, an enormous rock that must have weighed at least 20 kilograms attached to a short and bloodied white stick. With little effort the man lifted the hammer up, holding it high above his head for an instant before bringing it down onto what was left of the body. With an echoing thud and crack the now exposed bones were broken and smashed into shards.

The smell of human flesh

The rhythmic pounding of hammers continued for 10 minutes, and the burial masters turned three human corpses into a fine mash of bone and chopped flesh. The smell of human flesh had risen into the air and the eagles perched on the mountain opposite began to look restless. Suddenly, one of the eagles opened its wings and revealed its true size, an enormous wingspan, nearly three metres in width. With a strong beat of its wings the giant bird lifted itself off its perch and swooped down towards the altar below. The eagle was quickly joined by a couple more, and soon 20 birds were descending on the men in white. Clearly, they hadn?t yet finished their work. As the eagles attempted to reach their food, the burial masters, families of the deceased and even the lamas charged at the birds, shouting and brandishing knives. The eagles quickly decided to wait their turn and changed course, flying grudgingly back to their mountainside.

Soon the work was complete, and the burial masters brought out large sacks of flour, which they threw in handfuls over the flesh and bones. Thick white clouds of flour formed in the air before settling on what were, only 20 minutes earlier, three human bodies.

The smell of meat was too much for the eagles and the largest of the group beat his wings and took to the air, making for the altar again. This time he encountered no resistance as the men retreated from the stones. In a split second the eagles were in the air, swooping down on their meal. The sound of this spectacle was almost as terrifying as the sight, with 40 pairs of beating wings echoing down the valley.

A feeding frenzy

What ensued can be only be described as a feeding frenzy. The birds fought for a place on the stones, doing their best to get at the dinner prepared for them. They squawked and pushed and shoved and fought for scraps of meat and bone, too many birds for such a small altar.

Once the birds had eaten, the altar was left completely bare but for a few scattered feathers. Almost no trace of bones or blood could be seen, just a collection of dirtied knives and bloodied gloves. The air, however, was filled with the scent of flesh, a raw smell that wafted back and forth, making us gag.

The monks drifted back to their monastery and the families got back into their jeeps and drove to the grasslands near the city, where they enjoyed a post-funeral picnic on the grass, a Tibetan custom. The vultures made their way back onto the opposite peak where they stayed for some time, digesting their food. Several of the giant birds took to the air, but soon returned, weighed down by the meal they had just consumed.

Soaring with an eagle

We made our way over to the altar and walked clockwise around it once, observing Tibetan custom. All of us had come prepared for a gory scene, but we all left in a peaceful state of mind. Before leaving we spent some time standing by the altar, observing the giant birds with a certain sense of awe and appreciation. It was easy to understand why for a Tibetan, soaring up with an eagle at the end of life is a great honour.

Ed. note: “The day I saw eagles eat a man” is reproduced with permission from the blog, ChinaGold, Nuggets of information and experience from around China. Liam Bates is a graduate of La Chataigneraie, International School of Geneva, in Founex, Vaud, and he has written several travel stories for GenevaLunch (search GL site: Liam Bates)

Tibetan woman spinning the prayer wheels in a local monastery.

A yak skull I found sitting on a roof.


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