issue 168 - February 1987
'DESTROYED!' the monk had said. 'Destroyed! Destroyed!'
His deep voice made them jump. His eyes glittered in the candlelight. Calmly and slowly, he drew a scroll from beneath his chair and unrolled the old map across his knees. The bony finger jabbed at the golden temples the map showed around Lhasa. 'Destroyed,' the monk whispered.
Bet told the story between gasps as we climbed. Dawn began to lighten the sky, over the high mountains cradling the town. One yellow light burned in the few scattered houses edging Lhasa. 'The poor Tibetans,' she burst out. 'No wonder they're so friendly to us. What a contrast we make to the Chinese!' She gasped for breath, and then cried, 'Their invasion did its best to destroy Tibetan civilization altogether.' Nodding our agreement, our straggling group of young French and German and English travellers climbed slowly into the unspoilt Tibetan mountains.
So we glowered at the Chinese when they approached the burial ground. After all, we found the burial place first. About an hour out of town, the other travellers had told us, and then turn left through the rubbish tip. Tin cans jumbled among the thick strips of yak pelt and discarded bones.
Three Tibetan men stretched, uncurling from their quilts to greet the chilly dawn. Again they passed the bottle of white spirit around, grimacing as the strong alcohol burned its way down their throats. The fire blazed higher and flames licked up around the huge petrol drum propped over it Through slits cut in the metal, we saw the charred adult corpse crouched inside. Thin light smoke drifted up to heaven. Some of the French boys laughed, warming their hands against the flames.
'Hey Michel!' one cried. 'There's only this body burning here. There's no corpse for the sky burial. No one's dead. They've got no body. Can we use yours?'
Beneath a great boulder, a wrinkled woman chanted a strange funeral song. The vultures perched high above waited silently.
'The sky burial is a part of Tibetan Buddhism,' Bet explained to me. 'When a person dies, they chop the body to small pieces - or burn it, like that one over there. They chop the body ritualistically, starting with the feet and working up. They break the bones. They smash the skull in. Then they feed it to the vultures. So they commit the person to the sky.'
A van drove through the small crowd and towards the great scarred rock. Two men lifted the dead body from it. The old woman stopped her prayers for a moment to smile calmly at us. When we got too close, one man rushed at us, shooing us away. He was huge and fierce. 'The chief knife-man,' Bet explained, giggling. Pointing to a camera half-concealed around an English boy's neck, the huge man shook his finger grimly. 'No photos, at least until the chopping's done,' Bet explained.
When the men with knives stepped up to the corpse, I began to feel nervous. 'Same drill as yesterday,' Bet murmured smugly. The knives were very sharp. I began to back away. The French boys pushed forward, craning for a better view. Bet unzipped her jacket. Between the boys' eager backs, we could see the body clearly. The big man made the first long cut A loud click sounded. Bet's face was impassive. The boys looked too, but saw only our innocent faces. In the instant after she pressed the trigger, Bet's lens was hidden beneath her thick jacket 'Can you see from here?' I whispered in horror.
'Telephoto,' she murmured, 'and colour film.' A swathe of reddened flesh hung from the corpse. Bet's shutter clicked.
I heard the bones crunch. The men worked slowly and precisely, hammering the bones on the great rock. Then the Tibetans called the vultures. I looked up to watch them swoop down. But the black shapes stayed immobile, high on the mountain tops. The tourists giggled.
Suddenly there was a great roar, and the huge fierce Tibetan pushed through the crowd to charge up the rocky hillside. His knife gleamed in his hand. High up in the mountain, a blond head broke from behind a rock and a boy began to run blindly along the ledges. 'That's the American from our hotel!' cried Bet ' He must have scared the vultures off. What a nerve.' Swivelling suddenly, she turned her lens on the Tibetan leaping up the slope.
With the Tibetan leader gone, the uproar broke out. Cameras fished from pockets and handbags clicked all around me. The Chinese passed theirs from hand to hand, taking turns to pose beaming in front of the interrupted funeral. Gleaming lenses snapped the heaps of human flesh laid in ceremonial piles - as well as the Tibetans who stood, frozen, among the debris. The old woman wailed from her boulder, abandoning her prayer-book to cry out sadly.
Bet grumbled as she squeezed the trigger of her camera. 'Bloody Americans. After all my planning. The atmosphere of this place is just destroyed. Destroyed.'
Carol Fewster was a teacher in China in 1985 and then visited Tibet. This story is based on events during her visit.
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