Jhator - Sky burial

Sky burial or jhator (in Tibetan „giving alms to the birds“) is a Tibetan burial custom where a body of the deceased person is cut into small pieces and put on top of a mountain.

Body parts are there exposed to the Mahābhūta and animals (especially birds of prey). As to the fact that most of Tibetans are Buddhists, let’s mention that the Mahābhūta (in Sanskrit and Pāli “great element”) in Buddhism are “four great elements” - earth, water, fire and air.

It is believed that the vultures (birds of prey) are Dakinis ("sky dancers"). Dakinis are kind of angels. They take the soul into the heaven. For the Tibetans heaven is a windy place where souls wait to be reincarnated in their next lives.

One of the main teachings of Buddhism is rebirth. For Buddhists body is just an empty vessel and there is no need to preserve it. Because of such beliefs it is not strange that the Sky burial is practised in Tibet.

There are also some more practical reasons for this tradition. The soil after only few centimetres becomes very hard with many rocks so digging a grave would be extremely difficult task. Trees are rare so even performing a cremation would be a problem too.

Sky burial was first mentioned in the Book of the Dead (Bardo Thodol). There are some opinions that one of the reasons for the Sky burial was to prevent the use of some human bones in tantric rituals like for example kapalas (skull cups) and thigh-bone trumpets.

For the people of Tibet Jhator is above all an act of compassion and generosity. The Chinese authorities of Tibet criminalized it during the 1960s as being barbaric. Jhator has been again allowed since the 1980s. In most situations foreigners are not allowed to be present at Jhator.

Drigung monastery in Tibet
Drigung monastery in Tibet

Jhator is organized only on specific locations in Tibet or neighbouring areas with Tibetan communities. Drigungtil Ogmin Jangchubling Monastery (Drikung Thil Monastery) is one of the most famous locations where the Jhator is performed. The Monastery is located 150 kilometres east of Lhasa. It was founded by Drigung Kyobpa Jigten-gonpo-rinchenpel in 1179.

Place where sky burials are performed
Place where sky burials are performed

Jhator is usually done at dawn. It takes place on a large flat rock. The relatives of the deceased may stay nearby, but in a position where they do not see directly the whole procedure.

Now let’s mention few details about the way Jhator is actually performed. After death the body of the deceased is left untouched for three days. The corpse is cleaned and wrapped in a white cloth. The corpse is put in a fetal position. Before the Jhator a monk chants mantra around the body and burns juniper incense.

Disassembling of the body is done by the rogyapas (“body breakers”). The cutting itself is done by the leading rogyapa. He handles each part to his assistants. They use the stones to pound bones and flesh into a pulp. The pulp is then mixed with tsampa (barley flour with tea and yak butter or milk). The created mixture is put for the vultures to eat it.

There are also situation where there is no cutting of the body. There the whole body is given to the vultures. When they finish their “meal” the remaining bones are broken up with mallets, mixed with tsampa and given to craws and hawks.