From Recce to Mustang: The Journey To The Sky Burial

Mustang was once an isolated and independent Tibetan kingdom. Today, it still stands strong representing its history, an exotic dessert in highlands, stonewalled villages and breathtaking views. The entire feel of the place is mystical.

We got ourselves to this mystical land to cover a special story, the one that strictly practiced in the vicinity of this area i.e Sky Burial. In an unabated search for villages that still performed this ancient practice.

We know sounds odd, let us explain …

What is Sky Burial?

Sky burial is an ancient Tibetan funeral which has an unusual yet unique process. The corpse is first dismembered. Then it is exposed on an elevated location, as an offering for the sacred vultures. Far from conventional Sky burial can come off as shocking to a lot of people; after all, dead bodies being offered to vultures.

However, philosophy and values behind this ritual are simply beautiful and
Virtuous which stands “If your spirit has left your body and it could nourish another creature, then it should.”

We wanted to capture this very sentiment and set out on our journey far and wide from Recce to Mustang.

The onset of our journey a short flight to Pokhara, from where we drove for more than 10 hours to Jomsom, one of the biggest cities in Mustang district, well known for its relentless winds. Connected to Lower Mustang with the Upper, it is also one of the most popular trekking destinations in Nepal. Mostly visited by people going to the sacred temple of Muktinath.


The Mystic of Mustang

Located in Upper Mustang Kagbeni is famous village for people, from all around the country, visiting to perform post-funeral rituals.

This village performs all the distinct post funeral rituals but still has not seen any sky burial for more than a decade. Hence, to find the location we needed, we decided to hike up for about 45 minutes, crossing the Kali Gandaki river to come upon a small village named Tiri.

There we met Chhamba Dukta in Gonpa Gong. A Lama who performs sky burials, originally in his village in Dolpa, and in Mustang. He told us that it has been around 10 years since any sky burial. The villagers have settled for easier burning funerals, rather than difficult ones. Hence, on his reference, our team headed towards a village, Dhamkar, in Upper Mustang.


The Basic Of Sky Burial

The very first thing to do after a person dies is to determine the method for their funeral. Usually, a high priest looks into the time of birth and death to find out what sign the person is. He determines one of the five signs: earth, water, air, sky, and fire through basic astrology. After ascertaining the sign, s/he is either buried, chopped and fed to the fishes, chopped and fed to
the vultures or burned respectively.


The Procedures Of This Ancient Tradition

After a Lama determines the process, the body is first tied up and he begins to recite the necessary prayers. Family members join along, beating double-sided drums and chanting prayers. They offer their condolences to the deceased by offering Khada, a religious cloth for farewell. Then, the priest goes around the body thrice, and it’s carried to a place that is specially allocated for the funeral.

Once there, the body breakers chop the body into precise pieces. The tip of the fingers containing the nails are considered to be poisonous to the vultures, so they are burnt along with the head. Once the offerings are ready, the Lama plays Damaru, an instrument crafted from the human knee. This is an invitation for the vultures to glide down and devour the offerings. It is believed to be a bad omen if the vultures do not feed on the body. It implies that the body it too dirty to eat (i.e, the person has sinned), or the rituals weren’t performed correctly. In such a case, the body has to be burnt, which is considered inauspicious, as it had to follow two traditions.


Concepts Behind Sky Burial

As described in the traditional Tibetan mythologies, sky burials signify a true act of compassion and charity. The body, which never again serves any purpose, is offered to the vultures to feed on as an alms for the sacred birds. The idea at work here is that if a body that ideally serves no use can sustain some other creature, then why not? After all, it’s important to not waste any opportunity to help other living beings.

One of the other interesting concepts of why the burial is named the SKY burial revolves around the choice of the animal: the vultures.A traditional Tibetan mythology indicates that once the vultures are old, they do not fall back to the earth when their time has come. Rather, they keep flying higher until they just disappear into the sky. And that’s where the name comes from: Sky Burials!

Lastly, while this ritual is slowly moving towards extinction we take pride in having been able to document and capture these stories through film. Tell the story many had forgotten is one the reasons for Kathmandu Films and we feel honored to have been able to do that.