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Jhator, the Tibetan Sky Burial: Understanding An Odd Buddhist Death Ritual

Updated on November 28, 2013
Beautiful Tibetan artwork; a great introduction into Tibetan culture and the ritual of Tibetan sky burials.
Beautiful Tibetan artwork; a great introduction into Tibetan culture and the ritual of Tibetan sky burials. | Source

Jhator: the Tibetan Sky Burial

Deep within the heart of the Tibetan culture, Jhator is a ritual shrouded in mystery that is still commonly practiced; believe it or not. IT is considered taboo to much of the world and is also found to be rather disgusting to many modern cultures. However, it is a ritual centered within Buddhist beliefs that many Tibetan residents practice as a way of encouraging the ill fated individual's spirit to make their way through the afterlife.

Join us for a glimpse into the Tibet sky burial and the cultural and religious beliefs of the Tibetan people; and to see why this Buddhist death ritual is so important to these people. Even though Jhator may be considered as taboo to many of us, sky burials are actually a rather intriguing way to dispose of one's body in order to encourage reincarnation as is detailed in the Buddhist religion. Whether or not you believe in Buddhism (I am not religious myself!) it is still very interesting to learn about taboo cultures, practices, and rituals.

Have You Previously Heard of Tibetan Sky Burials?

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This Tibet Sky Burial site in the Yerpa valley is one of the most common places for Buddhist sky burials.
This Tibet Sky Burial site in the Yerpa valley is one of the most common places for Buddhist sky burials. | Source

What is a Tibetan Buddhist Sky Burial?

In a Tibetan Buddhist sky burial, the deceased individual's body is not actually buried; instead it is left in an open area for nature to take its course. Once an individual dies, his or her family will bring the body to a high altitude area (such as a mountaintop or plateau) and leave the body for scavengers. In order to make the process go by faster, the body will usually be mutilated and chopped into pieces so that the animals will be able to dispose of it faster. It is believed that when the body is disposed of, the soul will be free to pursue its first task in the afterlife: reincarnation.

A traditional Tibetan family. Here, you can see the treeless landscape. Since there is permafrost trees and traditional burials don't thrive; further encouraging the long lived Tibetan Buddhist sky burial.
A traditional Tibetan family. Here, you can see the treeless landscape. Since there is permafrost trees and traditional burials don't thrive; further encouraging the long lived Tibetan Buddhist sky burial. | Source

When Did the Buddhist Death Ritual of Sky Burials Begin?

Sky burials actually began much longer ago than you may have expected: evidence of the sky burials can be found over 11,000 years before the present time. Now, this has not been completely proven, but researchers have found that it is a very likely possibility that this Buddhist death ritual did occur this far back (archaeological finds demonstrate that flesh was removed from the human body in some ancient civilizations, such as Stonehenge or Göbekli Tepe).

The most incriminating evidence of Jhator is found in The Book of the Dead, which details the rituals and customs of death and reincarnation. This book was printed sometime during the 12th century, and is a Buddhist publication. The ancient Tibetan culture seems to be what pushed Tibetan sky burials into existence, rather than instances that may have taken place over 10,000 years ago. The Tibet sky burial is still a common form of burial amongst many people who remain in the region, and with the severe limits that the altitude and geography place on the local population, it is unlikely to come to an end.

A Beautiful Buddhist statue within a Monastery. What do Buddhists believe about the afterlife? You will find out very shortly!
A Beautiful Buddhist statue within a Monastery. What do Buddhists believe about the afterlife? You will find out very shortly! | Source

Why Do Sky Burials Occur in Tibet?

First we must take a look at the landscape within the region of Tibet. Tibet is located in the south western region of China, and most of the region has a very high altitude. Due to the altitude, it tends to stay cooler. This leads to a year round permafrost. Permafrost occurs when the ground remains frozen throughout the year, rather than thawing during the warmer seasons. The top few inches of soil will thaw allowing for grasses and some shrubs to grow; anything that has a shallow root system. Since trees require a deep root system, they simply do not grow there. Trees also do not thrive at higher altitudes, so having both of these characteristics hinders the ability for Tibetans to bury their loved ones in what we would consider a "traditional" fashion. There is not much lumber to build caskets, and the ground is frozen solid preventing burial. This is one of the biggest reasons that researchers believe this death ritual came about.

In addition to this, the Buddhist people do not believe that preservation of a body is necessary after death. This allows them to leave a body out in the open for scavengers to take advantage of. According to many Tibetan Buddhists, once the soul leaves the body it has no need for the body to be preserved.

Where Is Tibet Located?

A
Tibet, China:
Xizang (Tibet), China

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More About Tibet: the Home of the Famed Sky Burials

Tibet is located in southwestern China, bordered by Nepal and Bhutan. It is one of the highest regions on earth, which contributes to a vast permafrost ridden landscape free of trees. Its elevation is over 16,000 feet which helps you to understand why sky burials are some of the only options for death rituals and funerals.

Tibet was an independent empire during a few points in history, but it fell under Chinese rule. The area still holds strong Tibetan culture, along with many ancient practices that have yet to be destroyed by modern culture and influences. This beautiful region might have a shocking buddhist death ritual that causes western civilization to cringe, but that is not all there is to its image!

Video About Tibetan Buddhist Sky Burials

What Do Buddhists Believe About the Afterlife?

In order to understand the religious and cultural reasonings behind the sky burials in Tibet, you must understand what Buddists believe about the afterlife. In Buddhism, the body is considered to be a mere vessel to the spirit, which goes through reincarnation. It is designed to carry the spirit throughout its life and later be discarded once life is over. The body truly holds no meaning once the person is deceased. Instead it can become a burden; when it comes to the beliefs that back the tibetan sky burials, the remaining body can hinder the spirit's ascent to the next realm for reincarnation if it is not disposed of.

The Buddhist sky burials allow the families of the deceased to encourage nature to take its course with the family member's body. They will even carve the body into separate pieces to encourage scavengers to feast upon it to speed up the process. They believe that once the body is taken care of, the spirit can finally be free for reincarnation. This belief has kept the tradition of sky burials alive for many hundreds of years, and will continue to.

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    • Guckenberger profile image

      Alexander James Guckenberger 

      11 months ago from Maryland, United States of America

      I've heard that the Zoroastrians have traditionally had a similar form of disposing of bodies whose spirits have left.

    • angryelf profile imageAUTHOR

      angryelf 

      3 years ago from Tennessee

      Thank you for reading leah! I'm really glad you enjoyed this interesting hub!

    • profile image

      Leah 

      3 years ago

      Thank you for explaining in a respectful and insightful way.

    • Kukata Kali profile image

      Kukata Kali 

      4 years ago

      This was so beautifully interesting. Wonderful people with a strong culture, and lovingly expressed. Voted up~

    • angryelf profile imageAUTHOR

      angryelf 

      4 years ago from Tennessee

      Thank you for visiting Marie! Sky burial is a more common name for it, whereas Jhator is the proper term. It does have its practicality... but is shocking and dreadful for other cultures as well. I like to learn about all of the odd, strange, and taboo practices/rituals that I can.

    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 

      4 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      I enjoy learning about other cultures. The ultimate goal of Buddhism, from my understanding, is freedom from rebirth (reincarnation). Perhaps I'm mixing this concept with Hindu beliefs. The body, indeed, is a vehicle for the soul. I think most religious people see the body in this manner.

      As I read the description of the ritual, I realized I had seen the practice in a television documentary. I didn't recall the ritual as being called "sky ritual" or anything.

      I can see that if there's no fuel for cremation and there being plenty of scavengers, this method has its practicality. I dread the thought of having to carve up a loved one's body, however; perhaps that is why I wasn't born a Tibetan monk.

      Voted Interesting.

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