In September 1985, a British travel writer named Pico Iyer, along with 16 companions, arrived in Lhasa, Tibet, China, after obtaining a six-month leave permit from Time magazine. They were part of the first wave of foreigners allowed to visit Tibet, following the Chinese government’s decision to open the region to international visitors. During his journey, Iyer had a profoundly impactful experience in Tibet, particularly concerning the unique and mysterious tradition of sky burial.
After spending a night at the modest Banak Shol Hotel, Iyer and his group decided to explore the surroundings of Lhasa the next day. One of the first places they visited was the Ganden Monastery, which at that time was nothing but a pile of stones due to the Chinese invasion in 1959. However, Iyer’s most significant experience occurred when he witnessed the sky burial ritual, known as Jhator, performed by the Tibetan Buddhist community.
In this ritual, the deceased body is kept for several days and prayed over by lamas (monks) to help the soul be liberated from the pains of death. Subsequently, the body is transferred to the burial site, where the rogyapas (body carriers) dismember the skin, allowing vultures to consume the flesh. This burial procession is considered sacred by the Tibetan people, with vultures seen as guides for the soul into the eternal realm.
The sky burial ritual holds immense significance in Tibetan Buddhism, representing the final opportunity for the departed soul to perform a benevolent act by providing food for the vultures. The ceremony involves specific prayers and actions that must be meticulously followed to ensure the smooth transition of the soul to the next realm.
Although this ritual might be shocking to non-Tibetans, for the local people, sky burial is a tradition rich in spiritual meaning. Some Westerners, including Iyer, began to understand and appreciate this religious practice, despite their initial surprise and confusion.
The sky burial tradition in Tibet illustrates the cultural richness and religious diversity present in our world. Pico Iyer’s experience in Tibet goes beyond being just a travel story; it serves as a profound introduction to the unique beliefs and traditions of Tibetan Buddhism in the region.