Tibetan Sky Burials and the Ragyabas

There is a social group in Tibet called the Ragyabas, whose job it is to break up the bodies of the dead and feed them to vultures in ceremonies held on open land called Sky Burials. Traditionally the Ragyabas lived seperate from society, a version of the untouchable caste of India.  In Patrick French´s book Tibet, Tibet, he describes how Ragyabas have various tax duties, how they would chant and beg at aristocratic weddings and how, as well as dealing with corpses, they were expected to do other tasks such as clean the drains.

When monks needed skeletons for religious ceremonies, the Ragyabas were called in to disinter bodies and bring them to the religious sites. They had their own master and hierarchy and they interbred and lived in ghettoes.

Percival Landon, writing in The Times after witnessing a sky burial in 1904, wrote: “It is difficult to imagine a more repulsive occupation, a more brutalized type of humanity, and, above all, a more abominable and foul sort of hovel than those, which are characteristic of these men. Filthy in appearance, half-naked, half-clothed in obscene rags, these nasty folk live in houses which a respectable pig would refuse to occupy.”

The English, of course, were not quite sure what they were witnessing. It also made no sense for them to paint Tibet in semi-mystical terms as they´d just killed five thousand Tibetans armed with slingshots and swords when marching on Lhasa. Later, when China invaded and British interests were threatened, they would change their tune.

In sky ceremonies, the bodies of the dead are carried out to bare spots and cut up by the dead breakers. The Ragyabas, after offering incense, make a special call to the birds and slowly and methodically butcher and chop to pieces the bodies with special tools. The morsels are thrown to the birds and the vultures swoop down, crowd in and pick clean the bones. It takes about an hour.

Sky ceremonies are thought to pre-date Buddhism in Tibet: they are  a practical way of desposing of dead bodies in a land where fuel is scarce and the ground is hard. It is a tradition which has been incorporated into Buddism because of its importance to the Tibetans – and it continues despite revulsion from the latest foreigners to take up residence in their land – the Chinese.

As a bright footnote to quite a sombre theme, Wade Davis, in Into the Silence, relates how Francis Younghusband, one of the British who had made it to Lhasa at the turn of the last century, and very much the old colonial,  left the country a changed man.

At the first opportunity after leaving the city, Younghusband slipped away from the others and walked alone in the mountains. The sky was radiant blue and the light was violet.

He looked back at Lhasa and thought upon the words of the Lama who had presented with him an image of the Buddha as a gesture of peace – Younghusband would keep it on his person for the rest of his life.

“And with the warmth still on me,” he wrote, “and bathed in the insinuating influences of the dreamy autumn evening, I was sensibly infused with an almost intoxicating sensation of elation and good will. The exhileration of the moment grew and grew til it thrilled through me with overpowering intensity. Never again could I think evil, or ever again be at enmity with any man.”

Younghusband went on to form the World Congress of Faiths.

“Such experiences are all to rare and they but too become blurred in the actualities of of daily intercourse and practical existence. Yet it is these few fleeting moments which are reality. In these we only see real life. The rest is ephemeral, the unsubstantial. And that single hour leaving Lhasa was worth the rest of my lifetime.”