Witnessing a Water Burial in Tibet.
Chance can be a backpacker’s best friend. Some of the most incredible things you see in your travels will happen by simple pure chance. That was the case in Tibet one morning at about 7:30 a.m. when my guide instructed our driver to pull over so we could see a sacred lake. The reason the lake was sacred was because the water that filled it drained into it from a nearby sacred mountain, and literally every mountain in Tibet is sacred. As we pulled over and got out the brisk morning wind stung my face and the sky was preparing to be blue and beautiful as it is most days in Tibet. The sun was still making it’s way over the Himalya Range and the lake was only slightly lit up this early morning. Near the edge of the lake was a small locally built stupa monument covered by prayer flags. With the exception of 2 others and their guide, it was just my driver, my guide Joma, and myself at this lakeside sight. As I walked toward the edge of the cliff, as we were about 30 feet above the edge of the lake, I noticed two men in their 40’s cleaning the naked body of an older man, probably in his 60’s that looked very pale and ill. The men carefully moved his body back and forth and scrubbed it with a sponge. I thought this strange for it was a little chilly and an odd place for a bath, but I’d only been in Tibet for 6 days and wasn’t sure about the culture.
As, I walked back to my guide she asked me if I saw the water burial. I said, I wasn’t sure and she instructed me to go back and watch. The man that I thought was sick was actually dead and the two men washing him were preparing him for his burial. As I walked back to the edge of the cliff I noticed one of the men picking up a giant sharp stone, about as big as a basketball, and start thrusting/smashing it into the dead man’s shoulder. I was completely frozen and unable to do anything but watch, like seeing a train wreck. Before I knew it they had completely severed his arm and in the most surreal moment of my life I watched them throw his arm off the side of the cliff into the dark water below where it sank and disappeared forever. To this day the image of that arm floating through the air silhouetted by the morning sun is still frozen in my mind. Soon after the arm was thrown into the drink they started in on cutting off a leg, which turned out to be all that I could watch.
I backed away slowly from the edge of the cliff and walked over to Joma, she then explained to me this man was being returned to the Earth. His body was being dismembered and dropped into the lake where the fish and other creatures could dine on him and his spirit and body could return to all things of this world. A more beautiful explanation than I could hope for. She said they always used a large rock with a sharpened edge to cut the body into pieces. This was a hell of an unexpected way to start a day.
I paid my respects to the dead, watched the sun finish rising, and then we got back into our truck and hit the road to see what other experiences waited for us in Tibet.
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