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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 . . .'
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.