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The Sky Burial

CHINA | Thursday, 15 May 2014 | Views [848] | Scholarship Entry

The vultures arrive at the burial site at the same moment as the convoy of four-wheel drives. They approach from the east, the cars from the west, and the enormous birds take their places in silent vigil on the high crags of the mountainside. The vultures may be hungry, but they are patient.

Traces of the ceremony thread the grass on this shallow incline: a rusted knife, a tuff of stray black hair, a tooth caught on the underside of a girl’s shoe. Arriving at dawn we sit above the fray, amid the shards of finely wrought stone and prayer-bearing pottery, watching the edelweiss sway.

The Tibetans alight from their SUVs, a small party bearing the woman wrapped in white plastic and tape. We are beckoned towards the swollen yellow body, cut from its cocoon and laid on the grass. A portly man with a clear sheet of plastic strung around his midriff, the rogyapas (body-breaker), approaches the corpse with a short axe slung over either shoulder.

It begins without prayer or observance. The birds feast first with their eyes as incisions are made in the palsied flesh. She has become carrion, filleted until she resembles a Chinese prince’s jade plate armour. The howls of rabid dogs echo from the nearby pass. It is a wonder they come at all; the birds are thorough.

The rogyapas bellows for the assembled to stand back. His blade drops. The vultures descend; a colossal burst of upturned wings, and then an impenetrable circle of grey feathers – lashing, convulsing, heaving. When the body-breaker swats the last birds away minutes later, only a cluster of bones and a pristine skull, jaw agape, remain. He passes the second axe to his assistant, and they begin the arduous task of grinding up the bones for the final course, scattered with chaff between blows as an appetiser.

The mind grasps to make sense of it, for a thought to cling to in the scattered void conjured by each crack, splinter and snap of bone, and at last all that I can seize are words words words; my own skull rings with “what a piece of work is a man?” The infinities of human experience are reduced to meat, finally ground to a powder and fed to the vultures. What is left is fit only to be carried on the wind.

Yet as I anguish, the gathered Tibetans, who knew and loved the deceased woman, can still proffer a smile or a joke over the dull thuds of the axe-head. They consider her struggle in this body long done. The soul has flown, just as its final vestiges will too soar away in the belly of a bird.

Tags: 2014 Travel Writing Scholarship - Euro Roadtrip

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