Reviving Himalayan vulture and culture
In many cultures, death rituals are often even more significant and elaborate than those performed after birth. The sanctity of burial or cremation is binding for many communities in Nepal as well. So much so that it is quite unusual to donate organs to save lives or for medical research as was in the case of historian Satyamohan Joshi who passed away recently at age 103.
But communities living in Nepal's Trans-Himalayan region that includes the Humla, Jumla, Dolpa, Mustang and Manang districts still perform 'sky burial' -- an ancient Tibetan funerary tradition in which after death the body is dismembered and set on an elevated location as an offering for sacred vultures.
Sky burial is essentially an attempt to follow in the steps of the Buddha who sacrificed his own life to save a starving tigress in one of his many reincarnations before Siddhartha Gautam of the Sakyamuni clan.
Giving up the human corpse to vultures is regarded as a final act of compassion and kindness. Vultures are said to carry the deceased's soul to heaven after exposing the body to the elements. In addition, it is also thought that after a sky burial, a person will reincarnate again as a human in the next life.
Determining the funeral's approach is the first action taken once someone passes away in Nepal's Himalayan rimlands. A high priest typically analyses a person's birth and death dates to determine what one of the five signs, earth, water, air, sky, or fire they belong to. Based on the sign, the person is either burnt, buried, cut and fed to fish, or chopped and fed to vultures.
The corpse is then tied up and a lama starts chanting the necessary prayers. Family members join in and offer their condolences to the deceased by offering the khada sacred cloth. Next, the priest circumambulates the corpse thrice and the body is then carried to a place specially allocated for the funeral.
At the designated location, the body breakers chop the corpse into precise pieces. The nails on the tips of the fingers are burnt because they are thought to be poisonous to vultures. Once the offering is ready, the lama plays damaru drum as an invitation for vultures wheeling overhead.
If the vultures do not feed on the corpse, it is thought to be a bad omen, that the person has sinned or that the ceremonies weren't carried out properly.
In an article published by Bird Conservation Nepal in 2020, Thakur Gurung of Chhusang of Mustang district is quoted as saying, 'One of the reasons for sky burials is the absence of timber for cremation and the hand and rocky ground which makes digging a grave quite challenging in the region.'
But there has been a gradual decline in the number of vultures participating in a sky burial, says Gyalche Bishokarma from Chhonup whose traditional job is to chop up corpses for the ancient ritual. “Bearded Vulture and Cinereous Vulture rarely make an appearance now. We mostly get Himalayan Griffon these days,” he adds.
Back in the 1990s, the vultures were nearly extinct with their population in South Asia declining to more than 90% primarily due to their feeding on carcasses contaminated by a veterinary anti-inflammatory drug called Diclofenac.
It was only after Nepal and other countries in the region banned the drug in 2006 and various conservation strategies including ‘vulture restaurants’ set up to serve safe meat for the birds across Nepal’s Tarai and foothills that the raptors returned. Experts say that sky burial could be another way to bring the vultures back and provide them with safe meat.
Except, the ritual will need to be revived. Also attention needs to paid so that the dead person was not sick and being treated with steroids.
“It has been around 10 years since any sky burial has been practiced and the villagers have settled for easier burning funerals,” said Chhamba Dukta, a lama who used to perform sky burials in Dolpo and Mustang, speaking to the blog Kathmandu Films.
Reviving sky burials would therefore ensure the survival of both vulture and culture, and serve an educational purpose about the impermanence of life and the interdependence of species, including humans.
Says the former Mayor of Lomanthang Subarna Kumar Bista: “If we could revive the culture, tradition and the ritual of such communities in Mustang, it would ensure the continuation of our culture as well as restore the vulture population of the Himalaya."
Pooja Lama is pursuing a master’s degree from the Central Department of Zoology at Tribhuvan University.