Tibetan 'sky burial' to continue under protection

IANS, March 7, 2006

Lhasa, Tibet (China) -- In an effort to better protect and show more respect to the traditional Tibetan burial ritual of feeding dead bodies to vultures, China has imposed rigid rules to ban photography and media reports about it.

According to the provisional administration's rules on "celestial burial" released by the Tibet autonomous regional government, people are not allowed to gather around to watch the burial process, which is more than 10 centuries old. They have also been barred from taking photos, video recording, and all other ways of reporting about the traditional custom.

Unaffected by the changes in burial methods across China, Tibetan people still adhere to their own way of feeding vultures, or birds of prey, with the bodies of the dear departed, known as celestial burial.

In most of the Chinese cities, cremation has become a common burial practice although the people of Han nationality, the majority of the Chinese population, used to bury the dead in tombs in the past.

The provisional regulations, the third of their kind in the past two decades since 1985, underscored that celestial burials are a Tibetan custom strictly protected by the national laws.

To better protect the vultures that are sacred to Tibetans - firing guns, blasting up mountainsides or quarrying around burial sites are also prohibited.

Under the call of local residents and burial priests, the bodies of those who die of poisoning or infectious diseases are not allowed to receive celestial burials, the provisional rules say.

The rules and regulations emphasise for the first time that celestial burial operators - a special group of Tibetans who preside over the procedures - should be esteemed as professionals, and no discrimination should be directed against them.

"The autonomous regional government has made a decision to offer financial aid to senior burial operators and those who fall short of having sufficient income," said Tan Jiaming, an official in charge of social welfare with the regional civil affairs department.

Statistics from the department show that there are a total of 1,075 celestial burial sites and approximate 100 operators across Tibet.

About 80 percent of the Tibetans still prefer celestial burial, as it has been observed for hundreds of years, acknowledged Basang Wangdu, director of the Nationality Research Institute of the Tibetan Academy of Social Sciences.

Celestial burial is one of the three principal ways that Tibetans traditionally return their dear departed to the earth.

The two others are cremation and water burial.

Though the Chinese central government built a modern crematory in Tibet in October 2000, it has failed to attract the Tibetans. The first Tibetan cremation was carried out on Jan 2, 2001.

Celestial burial is closely related to the Buddhism practiced in the Himalayan region. Buddhists believe in life recycles and the spirit of the dead is considered to leave the body the moment he passes away and the dead should be fed to birds of prey, or sacred vultures, as a last token of charity.

"The unique rituals have been respected by the central and regional governments," said Tan.

In the two previous official orders, the autonomous regional government imposed punishment on uninvited outsiders participating in the rituals and photographers recording the burial.

The Tibetan regional government has removed nine quarries and stone processing plants from Sera Monastery - a leading burial site on the northern outskirts of Lhasa, the regional capital - in 2004, and earmarked some $125,000 (one million yuan) in its renovation.

Priority was given to the protection of local burial sites and monasteries during China's landmark construction of the Qinghai-Tibet railway, the highest in the world.

"The unique traditional Tibetan burial tradition formed during a long history will live on with the meticulous protection of the Chinese government," said Celha Qoisang, 65, a chief celestial burial operator at Drigung Til Monastery.