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The vulture is considered "unclean" in many cultures because it feeds on carrion.  However, unlike most other large soaring birds the vulture does not kill, nor cause to be killed, any living thing.  It soars to great heights yet its clear vision allows for it to notice the subtlest hints of mortality in animals, large and small.  It exhibits patience, and then it takes what is given. 

Milarepa, Tibetan Buddhism's most famous yogin, had an auspicious dream while he was studying with Marpa the Translator.  He saw four pillars, one supporting a lion; a second, a tiger; the next a garuda, and the fourth had a vulture nesting there.  Marpa interpreted that as representing his main disciples, saying that Mila was the Vulture:

"That great pillar established in the north/ Is you, Milarepa of Kungthang./ That vulture soaring above the pillar/ Is your vulture-like character. / The vulture fully displaying her brilliant feathers/ Means that you have received the oral instructions of the hearing lineage./ The vulture making a nest among the rocks/ Is the sign that your life-force will be harder than rock./ The flock of birds filling the sky/ Is the sign that the Kagyü teachings will spread./ The vulture giving birth to a young one/ Is the sign that one without rival will come./ Son, this dream is not bad, but an excellent dream." 

~Lhalungpa (trans.) The Life of Milarepa.

During the time of the 5th Dalai Lama, Drüpthob Tashi, a Khampa yogi (Tib. ngakpa) was said to have the ability of transforming himself into a white vulture.  Besides being able to fly, he generously gave teachings to the other birds especially to those subsisting on human corpses at sky burial sites.  It was reported that those birds would then bless the corpses by tapping them three times with their beaks before consuming them. 

Sky Burial

Niema Ash, who visited Tibet in the 1980's, describes excarnation or sky-burial [jha-tor, alms-giving to birds] in her short book, Flight of the Wind Horse: A Journey Into Tibet

An hour's walk out of town past the local dump, she and a friend reach a small stony plateau where five Tibetan men and a boy are drinking tea and joking:

"Nearby is the 'altar', a large flat rock with bowl-like depressions. It is separated from where the Tibetans sit by a shallow gully strewn with bits of discarded clothing and hanks of hair ... .  Rows of silent birds are perched on ledges - vultures.  Their colours blend so perfectly with the mountains that at first they are hard to distinguish. Ravens swoop in and out of the gully and gather nervously in black patches on the altar rock. 

A white square bundle tied with a rope sits among the ravens . . .   .

About 15 Westerners trickle in.  No Chinese are present. There have been some unpleasant incidents . . .  .  In the past some have jeered at the burial procedure, proclaiming it barbaric. Now Tibetans stone them whenever they appear . . .  .   Westerners are welcome so long as they do not attempt to film or take photographs. If they do, they may be driven away with showers of stones.

A little after 8 a.m., the sun touches the altar rock. This is the signal for the burial to begin. One of the Tibetan men dons a grubby white coat and a white surgical-type cap. He says something to us in Tibetan.  Pascal translates: 'While they work, no pictures'. The man in white, two of the Tibetan men and the boy, climb on to the rock. The other two Tibetans, relatives of the deceased, remain by the fire. The man in white ... unties the bundle. A woman, naked except for an unbuttoned faded red blouse, tumbles out. She looks pregnant, youngish, with long black hair. (Later we learn that her body was carried a long distance on someone's back, since there are only a few places in Tibet where sky burials are performed.)

The man in white drags her body over the rock and lays it face down in the centre. He begins without ceremony by pulling off the woman's blouse and flinging it into the gully. He yanks a large knife from his belt and with surgical precision cuts a slit down her spine. Starting from the shoulder blade he strips the flesh away down the left side of her back, using swastika-patterned cuts. (For Tibetans the swastika is the symbol of eternity.) This done, he neatly hacks off her left arm with his knife. The severed arm is tossed to the young boy who, squatting on his haunches, pounds it to a pulp with something which looks like the back of an axe, using one of the depressions in the rock as a container. It's hard work for a boy and he grunts and groans as he works.

The man in white continues to hack the left side of the body, panting loudly, like someone chopping wood.  The two men, also squatting, are thrown flesh and bones which they too pound in the bowl-like depressions. The sounds of panting and puffing combine with the squishing sound of flesh being pulverized and bones being smashed.  Tsampa, a mixture of barley flour, tea and yak butter, is added to the flesh and bones to make a paste. Everything happens quickly. The men work with a practiced skill, pausing only to sharpen their axes, or for a short cigarette break.  So engrossed am I by their expertise, I almost forget what they are doing.

The woman's right side is begun, the flesh sliced efficiently from the ribs. The man's white coat becomes splattered with blood as he severs the limbs, detaching them from the rest of the body with a bloodied white cloth. By now the rock looks like a butcher's shop, bloody with tattered flesh and strewn limbs, and the woman like a butchered carcass. I turn away many times, unable to watch, then turn back, unable not to watch.

Some vultures fly off the mountains and begin circling the altar rock, gliding over our head. The butcher continues working. He chops hard with one resounding blow, through the chest cavity, and reaching inside pulls out the heart. Holding it up, he shouts something to the two Tibetans by the fire. They nod. He chops the heart to bits. Then the stomach [belly] is slit open and the organs removed. These are cut up and kept separate, not pounded.

The work is easier now. While they work, the men talk, laugh and joke, but do not break their work rhythm. The Westerners are silent. Lastly the head is separated from the neck with one neat blow. The severed head is held up. I remember John the Baptist; only this man is no Salome and the seven veils are bloodied scraps. The butcher hold the head by the hair and deftly scalps it. Then, tying the long black hair into a knot, he flings it into the gully. Next he picks up a large flat stone and, holding it overhead, mutters a short prayer and smashes the skull, twice.

One of the seated men brings tea on to the rock for the workers. The vultures circle closer. An old monk dressed in crimson and saffron robes appears close to us. Facing the rock, he says a prayer with his hands held together, and prostrates before the rock . . .  .  The butcher faces the mountains and turning to the vultures, calls: 'Shoo . . . Tzshoo . . .'

At the signal, about a dozen vultures (the vanguard) leave their mountain perch and swoop on to the rock. The rest remain, not breaking rank. The butcher throws bits of flesh as they gather around him. They are huge beautiful birds with white necks and legs, and speckled tan and white bodies. Their wings flutter and spread to reveal white undersides and dark brown tips. Some are so close that we can see their bright blue eyes.

The vultures wait with restraint as the work continues. The boy bundles the chopped organs into a cloth. Several vultures, unable to maintain discipline, try to steal bits of flesh from the boy. The butcher angrily chases them off the rock with kicks and abusive shouts, as though punishing them for bad behavior. When he is finished, the boy carries the bundle off the rock. The two men leave with him. Then the butcher, facing the mountain ledges, raises his arms to the vultures and addresses them in a shrill singsong voice, 'Tria . . . soya . . . tria . . .'

Suddenly hundreds of vultures fill the sky, hover in a quivering cloud above our head, their wings beating a nervous fluttering sound, and descend on the rock, completely covering it. . . . it is a bad omen if anything is left uneaten."

After the birds have finished the paste served out bit by bit, the cloth containing the organs is offered.  When the birds have gone, the men having had their tea, climb the rock to check that everything has been eaten, and to clean it for the next offering.

Today sky burial is expensive, costing up to a quarter-year's income.  Those who cannot afford it have to make do with putting their dead out on the higher rocks for birds and other animals such as wild dogs.   Once, a friend of Ash's, who was out climbing chased away some dogs he thought were attacking someone, but what he found was the upper half of the corpse of a naked girl in perfect, even beautiful condition.  There was no bottom half; it had been completely consumed.

  • Near the beginning of the film Himalaya:  l'enfance d'un chef (Dir. Eric Valli, Antelope, 2000. Tibetan with English and French sub-titles) there is a subtle scene of sky-burial.  When the vultures need to be induced to land, this is accomplished by means of a performance of an offering ritual danced by a small group of Nyingma lamas.  

Towers of Silence

The Parsees, Persian Zoroastrians living in India, also rely on the the griffon (Himalayan vulture.)  

Zoroastrians are the followers of the Iranian prophet Spitaman Zarathustra, who is thought to have lived in Airyanem Vaejah ca.1200 BCE.  In the 10th century, a small group from the Persian province of Khorasan landed on the western coast of India and were given sanctuary by Hindu king Jadi Rana. In the 17th century, they were invited by the East India Company to Bombay where they prospered.

Also known as Parsis, they, too, dispose of the dead by exposing them for excarnation. Parsee doctrine holds that corpses contaminate anything they touch.  Hence they cannot be buried, cremated, or thrown into the river as they are in other Indian religions.  Although for Zoroastrians the four traditional elements -- earth, air, fire and water -- are considered sacred, cremation is considered the least offensive option for those who do not wish to observe the orthodox custom or who live in other countries.  

The orthodox practice involves putting the corpse into the interior of a granite structure known as a dakhma. There, in a hollow on one of the three-tiered black stones atop the 100-foot Towers, the vultures and other carnivorous birds such as kites dispose of it in a useful and sanitary fashion. The process is hidden from view, since except for an entrance which is kept shut, the building is enclosed but for the opening to the skies where the birds can come and go. 

". . . the parapet of each Tower possesses an extraordinary coping, which instantly attracts and fascinates the gaze. It is a coping formed, not of dead stone, but of living vultures. These birds, on the occasion of my visit, had settled themselves side by side in perfect order, and in a complete circle around the parapets of the Towers, with their heads pointed inwards, and so lazily did they sit there and so motionless was their whole mien that, except for their color, they might have been carved out of the stone-work."

In chapters 16 and 17 of his fine first novel, Such a Long Journey (1991) Rohinton Mistry describes the ritual as it was carried out ca. 1970.  The towers are located in an area known as Dungarwadi, atop Malabar Hill which is the highest point in Mumbai (Bombay.)  It is closed to public access and is screened from view by the trees.  (There is also an active Parsi dakhma in Pakistan.  Abandoned towers exist outside the city of Yazd in Iran.) 

The corpses are delivered and handled by white-robed assistants called nassasalers (nasasalar) who incur a limited form of ostracizing as a consequence of this work.  The body is washed, perfumed with myrrh, and blessed with prayers by the officiating priest (Farsi: dustoor.)  It  is placed in one of three areas, according to whether it is that of a man, woman or child. Then with special hooked rods, all clothing and adornment is removed.

At the head nasasalar's signal of three claps, the male mourners who are at the nearby prayer pavilion and stand side by side holding opposite ends of white handkerchiefs in a gesture of ritual solidarity, begin praying for the departed. The sounds summon the birds. 

Women do not approach the upper precincts.  They, and others who may prefer to, stay at small bungalis at the upper or lower level of the site.  Prayers are said for 4 days after a death.

Occasionally, there arises a public outcry against the traditional practice when some people mistakenly believe bits of flesh have been dropped from the air.  However it is known that carrion birds cannot take flight until about one hour after they have fed.

Not Enough Vultures

In July 16, 2001, The Indian Express stated that the Parsee Council installed an array of solar reflectors in the dakhma to help speed decomposition which formerly had taken months as a consequence of the decline in the number of vultures.  An aviary is also being established  since over 100 vultures are needed to keep up with the 3 or 4 corpses that appear each day. 

In "Decline in vulture population causes concern," (Times of India,19 May 2000) Vikas Vajpayee wrote from Kanpur about the plight of Gyps himalayensis

"There has been an alarming decline in the population of vultures-- causing a serious concern among scientists and environment experts. A group of Menaka Gandhi's organization People For Animals (PFA)'s city unit has decided to launch a massive awareness campaign about the sharp decline of vultures in the city.

The much maligned bird of prey, which is a self-appointed scavenger, [is] meeting [an] unnatural death due to the ignorance and unawareness [sic] among people about their significance in [our] environment [since they provide some] protection from [epidemic viruses] which are generated in decomposed bodies.

The vulture breed is on the verge of extinction in India and studies about vultures pointed out the fact that [the] use of pesticides and chemicals in [the] tanning process was proving fatal for vultures. According to scientists, "chemicals used in [the] tanning process to get the skins of animals remained viable in flesh of the animals. After the skin recovery, flesh of the animals is given to vultures and this results in [the] vultures' death. "

The main breeds of vulture found in India are Gyps bengalensis (white-backed vulture) Gyps indicus, and the Himalayan Griffon (Gyps fulvans). All these breeds depend on only one staple food: carrion."

However, in January 2004, it was found that the main culprit for the near-extinction of the South Asian vulture is the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, diclofenac, which is widely prescribed for cattle.  It seems harmless to other species including humans, but is deadly for the great birds.   It causes kidney failure, and a miserable death follows its ingestion within a matter of days.  There are substitutes for this drug but currently they are not nearly as inexpensive.

Legislation was passed to penalize those found still using the drug on their cattle but, according to Times of India (Feb 25/12,) it has had little influence on farmers' practices.

Ancient Britain

The curved knife that appears in our title graphics is the traditional flaying knife called trigu or tigu  [Skt.: kartika] which is similar to the Inuit ulu.  It is often referred to in English as a hooked knife

It is interesting to recognize this same kind of knife in the oldest English epic, Beowulf.   The hero struggles in the water's depths with the ogre Grendel's mother and her deadly curved blade.  [The link is to the superb verse rendition by Seamus Heaney.]


carrion: Long-dead or rotten meat.

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