Mission to Tibet, Part 2
By Jeff Baggaley <email@example.com>
Dec. 17, 2002
Road travel in Tibet is a test in patience and physical endurance: patience, because you never really get going faster than about 40 kms an hour and physical endurance, because the reason why you never go any faster than 40 kms- is because you're liable to rattle your vehicle to bits and pieces.
You know those commercials where rugged 4 by 4s are being tested under all kinds of adverse circumstances?
Those are the roads in Tibet- deeply rutted, rock strewn, frequently bisected by streams and rivers and often going up or going down-precipitously- along trails that would not easily accomodate two mountain sheep walking side by side, much less a Land Rover.
(Tibetan drivers tend to get perverse when driving the mountain trails; accelerating as close to the precipice as possible- looking down on a thousand foot drop from the back seat window -I mean STRAIGHT down- makes a lot of things VEEEERY clear, such as : " MYGODIREALLYLIKEBEINGALIVE!!!!")
The Tibetan Sky Burial
This first morning outside Lhasa was my first experience road travelling in Tibet. We had the added bonus of doing it in the dark. Four hours of coming to terms with one's own mortality in this manner was, as it turned out, a really good introduction to a sky burial.
We got to the Monastery a little before dawn, enough time to enjoy a couple of cups of yak butter tea, fortification for the events to come. Then an hour long hike up the mountain to the burial site. As we hiked up, we saw a couple of massively huge birds: Tibetan vultures with about a nine to ten wing foot span- I kid you not! They were about half again as large as the American bald eagle- a bird I know intimately as a number of them live close by my home in Nova Scotia.
As we neared the top, all along the fairly large field leading upward, masses of prayer flags festooned the area. Then the burial enclosure.
Holy Shit! There must have been about 350- 400 of those vultures all massed together in the central area. We approached to within 2 feet of the frenzied mass- close enough to pet one of the raptors had I been so inclined (NOT!)
After a half hour or so, a Tibetan priest, aided by three other priests- one clearly his son- begin shooing the birds back. Obediently, the birds move back, revealing a couple of skeletons on a cobble-stone kind of platform- whole skeletons- face partially intact on one, the two feet on the other. Oh look at that, the birds missed a thumb there, a bit of flesh on a rib there and other sundry bits and pieces here and there. The birds had been gorging on a couple of bodies, their live relatives watching all the while- no emotion of any kind. Then the real work began.
The chief priest tossed the skeletons to the others, who began ,with very heavy stone sledgehammers, to smash and mash the bones. It took about an hour or so, while the head priest circled round and round the platform picking up bits and pieces here and there, and throwing them into the bone-mash. When the mash got too red, from the blood, they would throw a white powder into the mix- from the red of life to the white of death. Then the grand finale.
Two of the bone-mashing priest started a chant of sorts- and got the skulls. And as the chant reached a cresendo- BANG!- down came the stone sledgehammers, each on each skull, one after the other- expertly I should add- and cracked those skulls wide open, in three parts, and out came the brains. Then the head priest's son picked up his skull,, examined the inside, motioned the relatives over, and indicated whatever occult knowledge he had therein discovered. Then the skulls and brains were mashed, the head priest made sure it was all chopped up fine, and the eagerly waiting raptors invited back to finnish their feast.
While the birds were at it, the head priest came over to where we were and motioned to me: "Get down!"
Oopsie! I had been sitting on the altar (good thing the birds were already glutted). Then the priest motions to Richard's gloves. I suggest to Richard that he gives the priest his gloves- a gesture of thanks for allowing us to be there, but Richard doesn't want to do that. So I offer the priest my gloves. He motions me to keep them. It is such a surreal scene, now coming to a close, that I suggest we escape the compound for a bit of relief. A good idea they agree, wanting to take a couple of photos surreptitiously- a real no no, so we were informed at the beginning.
As we walk around, more bodies are being brought up to the compound and being prepared for the SKY BURIAL. Sometimes they throw the bodies on the platform whole and sometimes they disarticulate them first. I see Richard, as though drawn by a magnet, being drawn back to the platform. He is obviously wanting to watch the ceremony again. I go back inside and stand beside him. It's like he is under some kind of spell.
Very gently I try to break it, "Rich, we'll all be there soon enough. We don't have to see it again." He had to physically shake himself free. As we get ready to go, the head priest's son comes over to me. He takes me by the hands and shakes them in a peculiar way. Then he kisses my cheeks. A force beyond me has taken hold and we bow to each other. He does some other kinds of ritualistic things, to which I'm responding beyond my conscious volition. Then it's over. I give him my gloves.
As we leave the compound, there is a set of yak horns lying on the ground- my gift in turn. We are brothers.
I have now been given permission to go to Kailash: By a priest of life and death, of creation and destruction. By the God of life and death, of creation and destruction. By Shiva, Lord of Kailash.
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