For location scouting to Mustang, in search of villages still performing the funeral ceremony of Sky Burials, a lot was discovered. Starting with a short flight to Pokhara, we drove for more than 10 hours to Jomsom, which is notorious for its windy weather. Jomsom is one of the biggest cities of Mustang, and connects Lower Mustang with Upper. It’s also visited by majority of people visiting the temple of Muktinath.
The village close to Jomsom, is Kagbeni. Kagbeni is famous for people from all around the country visiting to perform post-funeral ceremonies. But still, this village hasn’t seen any sky burial procession for more than a decade. We walked for around 45 minutes, crossing the Kali Gandaki river, to visit a small village named Tiri. In Gonpa Gong in Tiri, resides Chhamba Dukta, who performed sky burials, originally in his village in Dolpa, and also in Mustang. But he says it’s been around 10 years that the villagers have switched to an easier method of burning the dead body than the comparatively difficult method of sky burials.
On his reference, we headed towards the village of Dhakmar, in Upper Mustang. Dhakmar in the local language, ‘Dhak’ stands for Hills & ‘mar’ stands for Red, thus meaning Red Hills. Although, the villages in lower parts of Mustang have stopped sky burials, mainly because of development of roadways and hiking trails, bringing alien people to Mustang, the hidden villages of Upper Mustang still follow the tradition.
What’s interesting is, once someone is dead, a high priest looks after the time of birth and death, to determine what method the dead is supposed to be cremated. It’s actually basic astrology, as per which all of us are divided into five signs: earth, air, water, sky and fire. Determining what sign a person is, he/she is either buried, chopped and fed to the fishes, chopped and fed to the vultures or burned respectively.
One other interesting concept of sky burials, revolves around why feeding to the vultures. In the traditional Tibetan mythology, vultures once old, do not fall to the earth when their time has come. They rather keep flying higher until they just disappear in the sky. That’s where the name comes from: Sky Burials.
During Sky Burials, a Lama determines the process, and first the body is tied up, and everyone expresses their condolences by offering Khada, a religious cloth for farewell. The Lama goes around the body thrice, and then the body is carried to a specific place that’s allocated for the funeral. Once there, the body breakers chop the body into various pieces, only the tip of the fingers containing the nails (which is considered to be poisonous to the vultures) and the top part of the head is burnt but not fed to the vultures. Once the body is chopped into pieces, the lama plays Damaru, and an instrument that’s made from a human knee, which denotes an invitation to the vultures. It’s said if the person has sinned, vultures do not feed on the body, and the body has to be burned, which is inauspicious, as it had to follow two traditions.
This unique tradition of sky burials, is slowly getting extinct, in majority of regions of Mustang, and Kathmandu Films believes it’s our duty to broadcast and document such an intimidating ritual, to keep the originality and uniqueness of Nepal alive.