Sky burials: Animism, Totemism, Shamanism, and Paganism
Sky burial (Tibetan: བྱ་གཏོར་, Wylie: bya gtor, lit. “bird-scattered”) is a funeral practice in which a human corpse is placed on a mountaintop to decompose while exposed to the elements or to be eaten by scavenging animals, especially carrion birds. It is a specific type of the general practice of excarnation. It is practiced in the Chinese provinces and autonomous regions of Tibet, Qinghai, Sichuan and Inner Mongolia, as well as in Mongolia, Bhutan, Nepal, and parts of India such as Sikkim and Zanskar. The Tibetan sky-burials appear to have evolved from ancient practices of defleshing corpses as discovered in archeological finds in the region. These practices most likely came out of practical considerations, but they could also be related to more ceremonial practices similar to the suspected sky burial evidence found at Göbekli Tepe (11,500 years before present) and Stonehenge (4,500 years BP). Most of Tibet is above the tree line, and the scarcity of timber makes cremation economically unfeasible. Additionally, subsurface interment is difficult since the active layer is not more than a few centimeters deep, with solid rock or permafrost beneath the surface. For Tibetan Buddhists, sky burial and cremation are templates of instructional teaching on the impermanence of life. Jhator is considered an act of generosity on the part of the deceased, since the deceased and his/her surviving relatives are providing food to sustain living beings. Such generosity and compassion for all beings are important virtues in Buddhism. Although some observers have suggested that jhator is also meant to unite the deceased person with the sky or sacred realm, this does not seem consistent with most of the knowledgeable commentary and eyewitness reports, which indicate that Tibetans believe that at this point life has completely left the body and the body contains nothing more than simple flesh. Only people who directly know the deceased usually observe it, when the excarnation happens at night. The tradition and custom of the jhator afforded Traditional Tibetan medicine and thangkaiconography with a particular insight into the interior workings of the human body. Pieces of the human skeleton were employed in ritual tools such as the skullcup, thigh-bone trumpet, etc. The ‘symbolic bone ornaments’ (Skt: aṣṭhiamudrā; Tib: rus pa’i rgyanl phyag rgya) are also known as “mudra” or ‘seals’. The Hevajra Tantra identifies the Symbolic Bone Ornaments with the Five Wisdoms and Jamgon Kongtrul in his commentary to the Hevajra Tantra explains this further. The locations of preparation and sky burial are understood in the Vajrayana Buddhist traditions as charnel grounds. Comparable practices are part of Zoroastrian burial practices where deceased are exposed to the elements and birds of prey on stone structures called Dakhma. Few such places remain operational today due to religious marginalisation, urbanisation and the decimation of vulture populations. The majority of Tibetan people and many Mongols adhere to Vajrayana Buddhism, which teaches the transmigration of spirits. There is no need to preserve the body, as it is now an empty vessel. Birds may eat it or nature may cause it to decompose. The function of the sky burial is simply to dispose of the remains in as generous a way as possible (the source of the practice’s Tibetan name). In much of Tibet and Qinghai, the ground is too hard and rocky to dig a grave, and, due to the scarcity of fuel and timber, sky burials were typically more practical than the traditional Buddhist practice of cremation. In the past, cremation was limited to high lamas and some other dignitaries, but modern technology and difficulties with sky burial have led to an increased use by commoners. The customs are first recorded in an indigenous 12th-century Buddhist treatise, which is colloquially known as the Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol). Tibetan tantricism appears to have influenced the procedure. The body is cut up according to instructions given by a lama or adept. Mongolians traditionally buried their dead (sometimes with human or animal sacrifice for the wealthier chieftains) but the Tümed adopted sky burial following their conversion to Tibetan Buddhism under Altan Khan during the Ming Dynasty and other banners subsequently converted under the Manchu Qing Dynasty. Sky burial was initially treated as a primitive superstition and sanitation concern by the Communist governments of both the PRC and Mongolia; both states closed many temples and China banned the practice completely from the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s until the 1980s. Sky burial nonetheless continued to be practiced in rural areas and has even received official protection in recent years. However, the practice continues to diminish for a number of reasons, including restrictions on its practice near urban areas and diminishing numbers of vultures in rural districts. Where the vultures remain, they often react badly to corpses treated with medicine and disinfectants at modern hospitals. Finally, Tibetan practice holds that the yak carrying the body to the charnel grounds should be set free, making the rite much more expensive than a service at a crematorium. A traditional jhator is performed in specified locations in Tibet (and surrounding areas traditionally occupied by Tibetans). Drigung Monastery is one of the three most important jhatorsites.
How Sky Burial Works?
The procedure takes place on a large flat rock long used for the purpose. The charnel ground (durtro) is always higher than its surroundings. It may be very simple, consisting only of the flat rock, or it may be more elaborate, incorporating temples and stupa (chorten in Tibetan). Relatives may remain nearby during the jhator, possibly in a place where they cannot see it directly. The jhator usually takes place at dawn. The full jhator procedure (as described below) is elaborate and expensive. Those who cannot afford it simply place their deceased on a high rock where the body decomposes or is eaten by birds and animals. The birds are already circling as the man lays the dead woman out on the stones. Naked and stiff, the corpse is as cold as the surrounding landscape and her eyes as gray as the clouds that haunt the looming Himalayan peaks. The ritual plays out in staggering isolation; high on the Tibetan plateau and amid some of the least explored wilderness on Earth. The man draws his flaying knife and tests its sharpness with his thumb. Then he sets to work. With deep, determined slices, he separates hair from scalp, then limbs from torso and flesh from bone. Ancient custom animates each movement, as he steadily reduces the corpse to mere fragments in the hallowed clearing. Vultures already surround him in huddled, black masses. Overhead, dozens more wind down the last of their spiral descent, tracing invisible circles in the air, and land at last to feast. Indifferent to the human in their midst, the birds tear into the meal with ravenous enthusiasm. Meanwhile the man, a rogyapa, or “breaker of bodies,” calmly sets aside his blade and grabs a hammer to pulverize the remaining bones. Known as sky burial or celestial burial to outsiders, this is the Tibetan practice of jhator, or the giving of alms to birds, in which the body of the deceased is dismantled to facilitate faster and more thorough consumption by vultures. To foreign eyes, this unique funeral rite may seem callous or morbid. Yet within the spiritual and geographic contexts of Tibetan culture, it is the perfect fate for the body humans leave behind in death. Humans have a complex relationship with death, and as we’ll see in the pages ahead, the Tibetan people are no exception. First, let’s strip away the layers of religion and myth surrounding sky burial and examine geography’s role. The Chinese Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) occupies roughly 471,700 square miles (1.2 million square kilometers) of Central Asia to the northeast of India. Encompassing some of the highest peaks of the Himalayan Mountains and the least explored regions on the planet, the average altitude for a Tibetan settlement is roughly 16,500 feet (5,000 meters) above sea level [source: Beall]. To put that in perspective, Leadville, Colo., ranks as the highest incorporated city in the United States at 10,152 feet (3,094 meters). No understanding of sky burial is complete without a glimpse into the spiritual heart of Tibet. While the rite of jhator may seem callous in regard to mortality, Tibetan Buddhists are deeply concerned with the reality of death. Recorded Tibetan history reaches back 2,300 years to a pre-Buddhist age ruled by warriors, shamans and a line of kings said to have descended from the sky on a magical ladder. The region’s early Bön religion was animistic; it viewed nonhumans as spiritual beings. While sky burial was not in vogue during the days of the original Tibetan kings, the holiness of sky and birds was already present. Up until the 20th century, virtually the only application of the wheel in Tibetan culture was the use of mani, or prayer, wheels in spiritual blessings. This fact stresses the inward nature of the society, one that places a stronger emphasis on the exploration of consciousness and spirituality than the material world. Make no mistake: Science has its place in Tibetan culture. The region’s warrior kings of the seventh and eighth centuries imported a great deal of mathematics, medicine and architecture from neighboring areas. They also introduced Buddhism and its emphasis on karma, reincarnation and the middle path between extreme ideas. When anticipating an important journey, it pays to prepare. And since Tibetan Buddhists view death as the journey from this life to the next, they place tremendous importance on steps to ensure a safe voyage through the space betwixt death and rebirth — a dreamlike intermediate state known as bardo. If you were planning a trip to, say, Tibet, you’d probably pick up a guidebook written by people who have actually traveled there. When planning the ultimate trip, therefore, Tibetan Buddhists turn to the holy men who, through intense meditation, claim knowledge of both past lives and the death journey. A guide also exists in the form of the eighth-century text “Bardo Thodol” or “Liberation in the Intermediate State Through Hearing.” Westerners often call this work the “Tibetan Book of the Dead.” Ref
Sacred Bird Shrine (to me this is now hidden but still Sky burial connected beliefs)
Torii Gates (Japanese 鳥居, literally bird abode )
A torii (鳥居, literally bird abode) is a traditional Japanese gate most commonly found at the entrance of or within a Shinto shrine, where it symbolically marks the transition from the profane to sacred. The presence of a torii at the entrance is usually the simplest way to identify Shinto shrines, and a small torii icon represents them on Japanese road maps. The first appearance of Torii gates in Japan can be reliably pinpointed to at least the mid-Heian period because they are mentioned in a text written in 922. The oldest existing stone torii was built in the 12th century and belongs to a Hachiman Shrine in Yamagata prefecture. The oldest wooden torii is a ryōbu torii (see description below) at Kubō Hachiman Shrine in Yamanashi prefecture built in 1535. Torii gates were traditionally made from wood or stone, but today they can be also made of reinforced concrete, copper, stainless steel or other materials. They are usually either unpainted or painted vermilion with a black upper lintel. Inari shrines typically have many torii because those who have been successful in business often donate in gratitude a torii to Inari, kami of fertility and industry. Fushimi Inari-taisha in Kyoto has thousands of such torii, each bearing the donor’s name. The function of a torii is to mark the entrance to a sacred space. For this reason, the road leading to a Shinto shrine (sandō) is almost always straddled by one or more torii, which are therefore the easiest way to distinguish a shrine from a Buddhist temple. If the sandōpasses under multiple torii, the outer of them is called ichi no torii (一の鳥居, first torii). The following ones, closer to the shrine, are usually called, in order, ni no torii (二の鳥居, second torii) and san no torii (三の鳥居, third torii). Other torii can be found farther into the shrine to represent increasing levels of holiness as one nears the inner sanctuary (honden), core of the shrine. Also, because of the strong relationship between Shinto shrines and the Japanese Imperial family, a torii stands also in front of the tomb of each Emperor. Whether torii existed in Japan before Buddhism or, to the contrary, arrived with it (see section below) is, however, an open question. In the past torii must have been used also at the entrance of Buddhist temples. Even today, as prominent a temple as Osaka‘s Shitennō-ji, founded in 593 by Shōtoku Taishi and the oldest state-built Buddhist temple in the world (and country), has a torii straddling one of its entrances. (The original wooden torii burned in 1294 and was then replaced by one in stone.) Many Buddhist temples include one or more Shinto shrines dedicated to their tutelary kami (“Chinjusha“), and in that case a torii marks the shrine’s entrance. Benzaiten is a syncretic goddess derived from the Indian divinity Sarasvati which unites elements of both Shinto and Buddhism. For this reason halls dedicated to her can be found at both temples and shrines, and in either case in front of the hall stands a torii. The goddess herself is sometimes portrayed with a torii on her head (see photo below). Finally, until the Meiji period (1868–1912) torii were routinely adorned with plaques carrying Buddhist sutras. The association between Japanese Buddhism and the torii is therefore old and profound. Yamabushi, Japanese mountain ascetic hermits with a long tradition as mighty warriors endowed with supernatural powers, sometimes use as their symbol a torii. The torii is also sometimes used as a symbol of Japan in non-religious contexts. For example, it is the symbol of the Marine Corps Security Force Regiment and the 187th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division and of other US forces in Japan. The origins of the torii are unknown and there are several different theories on the subject, none of which has gained universal acceptance. Because the use of symbolic gates is widespread in Asia—such structures can be found for example in India, China, Thailand, Korea, and within Nicobarese and Shompen villages—historians believe they may be an imported tradition. They may, for example, have originated in India from the torana gates in the monastery of Sanchi in central India. According to this theory, the torana was adopted by Shingon Buddhism founder Kūkai, who used it to demarcate the sacred space used for the homa ceremony. The hypothesis arose in the 19th and 20th centuries due to similarities in structure and name between the two gates. Linguistic and historical objections have now emerged, but no conclusion has yet been reached. In Bangkok, Thailand, a Brahmin structure called Sao Ching Cha strongly resembles a torii. Functionally, however, it is very different as it is used as a swing. During ceremonies Brahmins swing, trying to grab a bag of coins placed on one of the pillars. Other theories claim torii may be related to the pailou of China. These structures however can assume a great variety of forms, only some of which actually somewhat resemble a torii. The same goes for Korea’s “hongsal-mun”. Unlike its Chinese counterpart, the hongsal-mun does not vary greatly in design and is always painted red, with “arrowsticks” located on the top of the structure (hence the name). Various tentative etymologies of the word torii exist. According to one of them, the name derives from the term tōri-iru (通り入る, pass through and enter). Another hypothesis takes the name literally: the gate would originally have been some kind of bird perch. This is based on the religious use of bird perches in Asia, such as the Korean sotdae(솟대), which are poles with one or more wooden birds resting on their top. Commonly found in groups at the entrance of villages together with totem poles called jangseung, they are talismans which ward off evil spirits and bring the villagers good luck. “Bird perches” similar in form and function to the sotdae exist also in other shamanistic cultures in China, Mongolia and Siberia. Although they do not look like torii and serve a different function, these “bird perches” show how birds in several Asian cultures are believed to have magic or spiritual properties, and may therefore help explain the enigmatic literal meaning of the torii’s name (“bird perch”). Poles believed to have supported wooden bird figures very similar to the sotdae have been found together with wooden birds, and are believed by some historians to have somehow evolved into today’s torii. Intriguingly, in both Korea and Japan single poles represent deities (kami in the case of Japan) and hashira (柱, pole) is the counter for kami. In Japan birds have also long had a connection with the dead, this may mean it was born in connection with some prehistorical funerary rite. Ancient Japanese texts like the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki for example mention how Yamato Takeru after his death became a white bird and in that form chose a place for his own burial. For this reason, his mausoleum was then called shiratori misasagi (白鳥陵, white bird grave). Many later texts also show some relationship between dead souls and white birds, a link common also in other cultures, shamanic like the Japanese. Bird motifs from the Yayoi and Kofun periods associating birds with the dead have also been found in several archeological sites. This relationship between birds and death would also explain why, in spite of their name, no visible trace of birds remains in today’s torii: birds were symbols of death, which in Shinto brings defilement (kegare). Finally, the possibility that torii are a Japanese invention cannot be discounted. The first toriicould have evolved already with their present function through the following sequence of events:
- Four posts were placed at the corners of a sacred area and connected with a rope, thus dividing sacred and mundane.
- Two taller posts were then placed at the center of the most auspicious direction, to let the priest in.
- A rope was tied from one post to the other to mark the border between the outside and the inside, the sacred and the mundane. This hypothetical stage corresponds to a type of torii in actual use, the so-called shime-torii (注連鳥居), an example of which can be seen in front of Ōmiwa Shrine‘s haiden in Kyoto (see also the photo in the gallery).
- The rope was replaced by a lintel.
- Because the gate was structurally weak, it was reinforced with a tie-beam, and what is today called shinmei torii (神明鳥居) or futabashira torii (二柱鳥居, two pillar torii) (see illustration at right) was born. This theory however does nothing to explain how the gates got their name.
The shinmei torii, whose structure agrees with the historians’ reconstruction, consists of just four unbarked and unpainted logs: two vertical pillars (hashira (柱)) topped by a horizontal lintel(kasagi (笠木)) and kept together by a tie-beam ( nuki (貫)). The pillars may have a slight inward inclination called uchikorobi (内転び) or just korobi (転び). Its parts are always straight.
- Torii may be unpainted or painted vermilion and black. The color black is limited to the kasagiand the nemaki (根巻, see illustration). Very rarely torii can be found also in other colors. Kamakura‘s Kamakura-gū for example has a white and red one.
- The kasagi may be reinforced underneath by a second horizontal lintel called shimaki or shimagi (島木).
- Kasagi and the shimaki may have an upward curve called sorimashi (反り増し).
- The nuki is often held in place by wedges (kusabi (楔)). The kusabi in many cases are purely ornamental.
- At the center of the nuki there may be a supporting strut called gakuzuka (額束), sometimes covered by a tablet carrying the name of the shrine (see photo in the gallery).
- The pillars often rest on a white stone ring called kamebara (亀腹, turtle belly) or daiishi (台石, base stone). The stone is sometimes replaced by a decorative black sleeve called nemaki (根巻, root sleeve).
- At the top of the pillars there may be a decorative ring called daiwa (台輪, big ring).
- The gate has a purely symbolic function and therefore there usually are no doors or board fences, but exceptions exist, as for example in the case of Ōmiwa Shrine‘s triple-arched torii(miwa torii, see below).
Looking at the simplist Torii Gates (Japanese 鳥居, literally bird abode ) could hold a body in a kind of hammock (from Spanish hamaca, borrowed from Taino and Arawak hamaka) which turned the hammock on the simplest Torii Gate thus morphing it into a Sacred Bird Shrine directly with Sky burial connected beliefs to me.
However, I think Torii Gates or an accompanying hammock of some sort, was still likely an evolution of hanging bodies from trees as it seen with a in this picture below of a Horrifying moment a live bull is hung from a tree until it dies for Chinese ‘luck’ festival
- The ‘cow hanging ceremony’ is supposed to bring a bumper harvest
- It has been carried out by the Dong people of China for about 400 years
- Bull is decorated with flowers before being hoisted up and left to die
Chinese villagers have defended their tradition of hanging a live bull from a tree until it dies as part of a ritual to bring them luck and a bumper harvest. The ‘cow-hanging ceremony’ has been carried out by the minority Dong people of southern China for almost 500 years and now attracts hundreds of tourists. The tradition in Baojiang village, Guangxi Zhuang region, is supposed to bring good weather and a full harvest, as well as peace and prosperity.
Barbaric: The bull is hanged from a tree as part of a traditional Dong festival to bring good luck at harvest
Horrifying: In front of families and young children the bull is hauled up and hanged until it dies. Residents parade the bull around the area, where it supposedly collects bad luck. They then choose a ceremonial tree in the village, from which to hang the animal, and decorate it with red flowers before it is killed. Residents in Baojiang village, Rongshui, Guangxi, have denied the spectacle is cruel, and are refusing to give it up, especially as it is growing into a popular tourist attraction. Lu Hung, who lives in the village, said the killing of the bull is part of their traditions. He said: ‘We also hang cows also to warn those people who don’t behave themselves. [This] used to be the threat of what will happen to them.’ The ceremony has been held annually for 470 years on June 2 of the traditional Chinese calendar and traditionally acts as a warning to villagers to abide by local rules. Ceremonial: After choosing the tree, villagers then fix the animal with flowers and the rope. It is Cruel: The bull is decorated and then led around the village before it is attached to the tree. Once the animal is decorated and tied with the rope, the strongest villagers haul the terrified and struggling bull into the air where it eventually dies in front of families and young children. The noose is sometimes looped over the animal’s leg so it stays alive for longer for the hundreds of people who turn up to watch. Villagers who watch the struggles will be blessed by the gods, according to tradition. There are about three million ethnic Dong people in China and they have a distinct language and festivals from the rest of the country. Many of their rituals are aimed at appeasing their gods and animals, usually chickens, are offered as a sacrifice. The chickens are attached to ‘sacred trees’ until they die. Ref
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