Returning to Nature: The Beauty of Tibetan Bird Burial
Bird Burial: A Unique Tibetan Tradition
High in the pristine mountains of Tibet, where breathtaking landscapes merge with harsh winter temperatures, you’ll find an unusual and thought-provoking tradition: bird burial. In this narrative, we’ll explore the intricate details of this remarkable funerary practice and the profound understanding of life, death, and spirituality held by the Tibetan people.
Tibet and the Meldor Gungkar Region
Tibet, situated to the west of China, is renowned for its natural beauty and rich cultural diversity. Within Tibet, the Meldor Gungkar province is where the distinctive ritual of bird burial takes place. What’s intriguing is that bird burials can occur anywhere across the Tibetan plateau, a vast and challenging terrain.
Among the renowned and convenient locations for this practice, the Drigung area stands out. Here, the local population meticulously carries out bird burial rituals, adhering to a unique set of customs. Bird burial, in essence, involves placing the deceased within the body of a bird or allowing natural scavengers to disassemble the body.
Spirituality and the Significance of Bird Burial
Tibetans firmly believe that the soul transcends the physical body. For three days following a person’s death, the body remains untouched, with the exception of the crown of the head, believed to house consciousness.
Bird burial, however, extends beyond the act of exposing the body to avian observers. It encompasses a seven-week spiritual process that prepares the soul for its next cycle of life— reincarnation. In a harsh climate and arid terrain like the Land of Snow, traditional ground burials are challenging due to the stubborn soil and a scarcity of trees for fuel, making burial or cremation infrequent.
In Tibetan culture, the passing of an average individual often entails a distinct sky burial ceremony known as Thien Tang. The body is returned to the vast plateau’s open skies, where wolves and vultures play an integral role in the natural decomposition process.
The second, more intricate form of celestial burial is known as Bird Burial. During this rite, individuals called “Rogyapas,” specializing in dismembering the deceased, distribute the remains to vultures. This process is regarded as a sacred act, a way of returning the body to nature, which is deeply rooted in the beliefs of the Tibetan people. Throughout their lives, Tibetans practice the principles of Tong-len (Giving and Receiving), even in death, generously contributing to the world.
Furthermore, returning the deceased to nature also benefits the ecosystem, reducing the number of living animals preyed upon by vultures when they are hungry. Such practices align with the Tibetan perspective of compassion and interconnectedness. Bird burial reflects an intimate understanding of the circle of life and death, ultimately emphasizing the importance of embracing impermanence.
Observing a bird burial ritual, a striking and somewhat eerie practice, is a rare opportunity for outsiders. Tibetans tend to strongly discourage foreign tourist visits. Those attending such funerals are mostly familiar faces, including adults and children.
Bird burial symbolizes the act of returning the body to nature. In Tibet, where Vajrayana Buddhism prevails, vultures are seen as symbols of Dakinis—female travelers of the sky, often referred to as Dakinis. Thus, offering their bodies to vultures is considered a blessing and an honor.
Tibetans diligently practice the teachings of Tong-len, generously giving back to the world, even in death. By returning the deceased to nature, they help ensure that fewer living creatures are preyed upon by vultures when hunger strikes, fostering balance in the ecosystem.
In conclusion, bird burial is a unique and distinctive practice that may appear unsettling to outsiders but is deeply rooted in Tibetan beliefs, values, and customs. It serves as a reminder that different regions and cultures have their distinct etiquettes and rituals, all deserving of respect and understanding.