Water Burial: A Controversial Tibetan Funeral Custom

Water Burial: A Controversial Tibetan Funeral Custom

Arranging: Bangqi

Format: A Cong’er

Picture: Bangqi (partially from the Internet)

Tomb-sweeping Day is coming, let’s talk about the funeral customs on the Yunnan-Tibet line.

This node talks about burial customs, which is very reasonable for the Han people in the Central Plains, because after death, people are buried in the tomb, and relatives of later generations agree to visit the tomb and worship the ancestors on this day. But for Tibetan compatriots in Tibetan areas, Tomb-sweeping Day is mostly just a holiday, because their traditional burial customs do not leave graves (with a few exceptions), so naturally they cannot “sweep graves”.


Is it inappropriate to talk about water burials on Qingming Festival?

Tibetans may have the most complicated burial customs among all the nations in the world. There are not only tower burial, sky burial, cremation, burial, indoor burial, urn coffin burial, tree burial, water burial, etc., but also “secondary burial” including burial, tree burial, cremation, and water burial. Inclusive, it can be called a museum of funeral customs.

Water Burial: A Controversial Tibetan Funeral Custom

▲Pagoda burial is related to Buddhism, and it is also found in the mainland. In Tibet, it is the highest level of Tibetan burial method. The eminent monk is buried in the pagoda in the dharma body

Water Burial: A Controversial Tibetan Funeral Custom

▲The urn coffin excavated by archaeology is named after the container containing the bones

Water Burial: A Controversial Tibetan Funeral Custom

▲This is the tree burial that netizen gaoyun412 saw near the 4028 camp in Bomi, Sichuan-Tibet County. Tree burial is also a very special burial custom, and I will introduce it later

Among these burial customs, sky burial is the most famous, the most common, and even the most unique. In a narrow sense, sky burial is a religious dismemberment of human corpses after ritual treatment to feed vultures. Vultures live on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau at an altitude of more than 2,000 meters to more than 4,000 meters (after their death, the bird god dissolves into the air and is regarded as a divine bird). Important testimony.

Water Burial: A Controversial Tibetan Funeral Custom

▲ Vultures spread their wings and can be up to two meters long. During the celestial burial, as the mulberry smoke is lit, vultures appear in groups

Although sky burials are indeed unique and mysterious, the practices and perceptions of sky burials by Tibetans everywhere are relatively consistent. In contrast, water burial is quite different. Water burial is not a common custom, but it is widely distributed. It is usually used as an auxiliary burial custom besides sky burial. A few areas do not have the conditions for sky burial, so it is regarded as another kind of “sky burial”.

Water Burial: A Controversial Tibetan Funeral Custom

Water Burial: A Controversial Tibetan Funeral Custom

▲Yamdrok Yongcuo, many travel notes mentioned the sky burial platform and water burial platform here

Its distribution range covers almost all Tibetan areas: the northern part of Tibetan areas (such as the pastoral area of ​​Xinghai County in Qinghai, Yushu at the source of the “Three Rivers”, and Huangnan Prefecture where the Yellow River flows); Shigatse in southern Tibet (such as Lazi County), Shannan City (such as “Holy Lake” Yamdrok), Nyingchi City (such as the Niyang River Basin beside National Highway 318); Qamdo (Jinsha River Basin) in the eastern Tibetan area, Aba in Sichuan (such as Zhuo Keji in the Minjiang River Basin), Ganzi (Jinsha River Basin) River Basin); and Deqin (Jinsha River, Lancang River Basin), Shangri-La (Jinsha River Basin), Yanjing (Lancang River Basin) and other places on the Yunnan-Tibet line in the southeastern part of the Tibetan area, all have water burial customs.

Water Burial: A Controversial Tibetan Funeral Custom

▲ Qinghai “Three Rivers Source”

Basically, the custom of water burial is not uncommon in Tibetan pastoral and agricultural areas where the main streams or tributaries of major rivers such as the Yellow River, Yangtze River, Jinsha River, Lancang River, and Yarlung Zangbo River flow.

Corresponding to the scattered range of distribution, there are different interpretations of Tibetan cultural concepts about water burial, which are even full of contradictions, and the specific operation methods are also different in different places. To some extent, the complexity of Tibetan culture can be examined through water burial.

Next, based on the research of current scholars and the reports of travelers, we will give a brief introduction to water burial, a Tibetan burial custom that is more unfamiliar to us. We hope that readers will reduce their prejudice and misunderstanding about water burial after reading it.

Do Tibetans eat fish?

About water burial, readers are actually not too unfamiliar. For example, many people may have heard similar stories like the following, and at least understand the cultural logic in them:

A chief retired and went to Tibet for vacation.

I like fishing and catch big fish in the river near the hotel. The hotel cooked fish for him to eat. The chief is very happy to eat this kind of pure natural and pollution-free fish.

The chief is interested in culture and wants to see water burials. So, he was taken to the river where he often fished.

After that, the chief never fished or ate fish, and even felt sick when he saw fish. (He Mingyi: “Let’s Not Say It” p255)

This fish-related story reflects many people’s understanding of Tibetan water burials.

After reading a lot of travel notes, I found that before travelers entered Tibet, the “common sense” in their heads basically included that Tibet does not eat fish, and that there are water burials, etc. About water burials, the impression of travelers is only on the issue of fish, which cannot but be said to be that the food culture in the Central Plains is too developed.

Water Burial: A Controversial Tibetan Funeral Custom

▲Fish in Tibetan water

Tibetans do not eat fish, whether it is related to water burial, and how it is related, we will not discuss in depth here, but I read a material, here is a counterexample:

Yangla Township in the north of Deqin is located on the west bank of the Jinsha River, across the river from Batang County and Derong County of Sichuan Province to the east, and Xuzhong Township, Mangkang County, Tibet Autonomous Region to the northwest. The locals here are all Tibetans. Apart from sky burial, there are various types of burial customs, including water burial, of course.

Water Burial: A Controversial Tibetan Funeral Custom

▲The Jinsha River entering Deqin

Some scholars observed around the water burial site and found that there are many kinds of fish in the water, including white fish, sharp-billed fish, Tibetan catfish, and large-mouthed fish. Bigmouth fish is 0.5 meters long and weighs more than 20 kilograms. These fish all eat the human body after water burial, but the local people do not stop fishing. “The local Tibetans have long formed a way of fishing in the river collectively to maintain their livelihood.” “People in this area have eaten fish since ancient times. They also have a variety of ways to cook fish, including steaming, deep-frying, frying with chopped green onion, and fish soup.”

Water Burial: A Controversial Tibetan Funeral Custom

▲ Released fish

Instead, the government explicitly prohibits Tibetans from fishing out of ecological protection. Along the banks of the Jinsha River, notices banning fishing can be seen everywhere, but they are repeated repeatedly. The local government even invited the Living Buddha to the river to perform rituals and cast spells on the fish. But even so, it cannot be banned. (Ye Yuanpiao: “Analysis of the Relationship between Funeral Beliefs and Confucianism, Buddhism, and Buddhism at the Western Edge of the Sino-Tibetan Corridor—Centering on Water Burial Cases in the Sichuan-Yunnan-Tibet Border Area”, 2017)

There may not be many places in Yangla Township where water burials are practiced and people love to eat fish, but at least there is this example, so we can’t say in general terms that “Tibetans don’t eat fish” or “the reason why they don’t eat fish is because of water burials”.

N reasons for water burial

Why is there a water burial?

Our serious discussion about water burial must start with this question.

But for this question, there is actually no single answer at present—there are many answers, but among scholars, one person said the answer of A, another said the answer of B, and another said the answer of C, each of which has its own truth.

Answer 1: Sky burials and water burials are both bodily donations in Buddhism. Sky burials are given to “divine birds” and water burials are given to “divine fishes”. There is abundant water, so they are buried with water. (Li Zhinong: Interpretation of Tibetan Funeral Customs in Yunnan from the Perspective of Cultural Periphery——A Case Study of Benzilan Village, Deqin County, 2009)

A friend of mine also holds this view. He has seen the water burials of many Tibetan elders in the Deqin area. People’s attitude towards water burials is similar to their attitude towards sky burials. He also said that Songzanlin Temple has a celestial burial platform, but without vultures, it cannot be held.

Water Burial: A Controversial Tibetan Funeral Custom

▲Songzanlin Temple in Shangri-La

Answer 2: The above point of view usually has a premise that water burial is a good and ideal burial custom. But in Tibetan areas, in more Tibetan areas, especially in areas where sky burials are possible, water burial is not considered a good burial custom. People who are economically impoverished or who died unexpectedly.” (Chilie Quzha: “Tibet Customs”, P171)

The saying of Chiliequza is relatively common. In most Tibetan areas, water burials are prepared for accidental deaths, childless persons, beggars, lunatics, destitute persons, persons suffering from infectious diseases, children, etc. In addition, death in summer and autumn is not suitable for other burial customs, and water burial will also be chosen.

Water Burial: A Controversial Tibetan Funeral Custom

▲The problem of water burial for infectious diseases varies from place to place. In the Sanyan area of ​​the upper reaches of the Jinsha River at the junction of Sichuan and Tibet, people like leprosy are not buried in water, but indoor (isolated) and burial

Answer 3: Some scholars, starting from Tibetan concepts and beliefs, believe that there are deep-seated reasons for water burial. For example, the Tibetans believe that water is the source of life, sacred and immeasurable merit (for the sake of respect, Tibetans seldom sleep late or play with snow), among which spring water is the purest, followed by river water. And river water has the function of purifying pollution. Therefore, the custom of water burial came into being naturally. In addition, water is one of the four elements that form the world, and water burial is a return to nature. In short, water burial, high mountains and valleys, and riverside grasslands are very natural cultural choices. (Chacang Gazang Caidan: “Tibetan Views on Life and Death and Funeral Customs”, P143-144)

Water Burial: A Controversial Tibetan Funeral Custom

▲In the Tibetan belief, there is a god in the water called “Lu”, and they do not eat fish, and water burial may be related to this belief

I have read a lot of descriptions about water burial, and there are many viewpoints involved, which can be summarized as follows:

There are Buddhist factors to explain the water burial culture, but Buddhism is not the only one; the different explanations for water burials within the Tibetans may be related to the two lifestyles of animal husbandry and farming, and the corresponding two ecological environments; the analysis of water burials, Indeed, it cannot be generalized. The concepts of Tibetans and Tibetan areas should be subdivided into different groups. The various factors affecting water burial require specific analysis of specific issues. In addition, when studying water burial, we should also examine other burial customs in order to see clearly what is inside this cultural system. The special function of water burial.

Water Burial: A Controversial Tibetan Funeral Custom

▲Nomadic Tibetans in Qinghai Huangnan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture

Water Burial: A Controversial Tibetan Funeral Custom

▲Tibetan villages engaged in agricultural production by the river valley

Three ways of water burial

The name of water burial hints at the final method of water burial, but there are still different practices in terms of specific operations.

One practice is to sprinkle the ashes in water after the body is cremated. This method is shared by all ethnic groups in the East and the West, but their understandings are different.

Water Burial: A Controversial Tibetan Funeral Custom▲The method of directly binding the whole body into the water is relatively primitive

The other is to tie the whole body directly and put it in the water. This kind of overall burial may be relatively primitive, and the specific methods vary from place to place. Some wrap the corpse casually, lift it to a high place and throw it directly into the water (such as the Sanyan area at the border of Sichuan and Tibet), while others put it into a coffin in a “sitting” posture, and then smash it to the water’s edge The coffins were thrown into the water (such as the Tibetans in Aba Prefecture), and after some people died, a knife was cut on the waist of the deceased immediately, and then they were tied up and sent to the water’s edge for burial as a whole.

Another method is to dismember the body buried in water, which is similar to sky burial. Generally speaking, where this method is adopted, the status of water burial is relatively high. These places include Diqing and the Niyang River Valley (the Brahmaputra River Basin) in Nyingchi, southern Tibet.

Water Burial: A Controversial Tibetan Funeral Custom

▲Tie stones to the corpse to increase gravity

Below, we look at two examples in detail. One is the second burial method, and the other is the third burial method.

In the upper reaches of the Jinsha River, 150 kilometers away from the aforementioned Deqin Yangla Township, in the Sanyan area on the border between Sichuan and Tibet, water burial is considered a bad burial custom, such as suicide, accidental death, and dystocia. .

Under such circumstances, family members usually deliberately keep the funeral in a low-key manner, and the burial is relatively fast. If you die on the same day, you may be buried the next day, which saves the long process of chanting scriptures, washing the corpse, and guarding the corpse. People seem to think that this kind of death is unclean and very polluting, and it may spread the bad luck like an infectious disease to those who come to mourn.

The corpse was only wrapped in a blanket that he usually sleeps in, put in a basket, and then carried to the water burial site. When they reached the height of the river, everyone removed the corpse from the basket, lifted the corpse and threw it into the river. The corpse was washed away by the water in an instant, and the water burial ended hastily.

If it is winter, the water level of all the tributaries of the Jinsha River in Sanyan will drop, and the water flow will also decrease, making it impossible to effectively wash away the body of an adult. Ten catties of stones, and then throw the body together with the stones into the river. During this process, individual family members will also invite lamas to help them recite scriptures. (Ye Yuanpiao: An Anthropological Interpretation of Water Burial Customs in Tibetan Areas——Based on Fieldwork in the Jinsha River Valley)

Another example occurred in the Yarlung Zangbo River Basin. A section of National Highway 318 passes through the Niyang River in Nyingchi. This river flows through Jiangda County of the Ministry of Industry and flows into the Yarlung Zangbo River in Nyingchi Bayi District. Tibetans in the Niyang River Basin practiced water burial. During this water burial process, a Tibetan doctor who worked in Nyingchi participated in many times and acted as the dissecter. He later wrote a very vivid memory of this experience.

Water Burial: A Controversial Tibetan Funeral Custom

Water Burial: A Controversial Tibetan Funeral Custom

▲The Niyang River on National Highway 318 is an area where water burials are practiced in Tibetan areas

One day in July 1977 at 10:00 am, after a quick knock on the door, Dr. Wang Tianyou knocked on the door of my room and said, “Ms. Wen, let’s go and bury him by the river!” I thought, I fell asleep again today. Don’t be lazy, it’s not the first time that you have to go to a water burial out of the blue.

The four of us carried the dead man covered with white sheets on a stretcher, walked through the bushes and bushes, and walked towards the Niyang River. Followed by five or six fellow Tibetans, apparently relatives and friends of the deceased. Along the way, they didn’t cry loudly, nor were they extremely sad, but their eyes were dignified and depressed. Compared with the funeral of the Han people in the mainland, it seemed much calmer. I learned that the deceased was a nearby herdsman named Nima Luobu, male, 66 years old, who had been in the infectious disease department for nearly 20 days due to tuberculosis, and died last night due to his illness worsening.

When we arrived at a relatively open river beach with flat pebbles, we put down the stretcher and stood silently facing the body of the deceased for a while, expressing our condolences to the deceased. Relatives and friends of the deceased lit a small pile of mulberry smoke, that is, burning pine and cypress incense sticks, about 10 meters away from us. They put their palms together in front of their chests, bowed their heads and chanted words silently, probably praying for the sins of the dead when they were alive, so that the soul could leave the world peacefully. After chanting sutras, several relatives of the deceased left the water burial platform by the river and asked their friends to stay here to supervise the whole process of water burial.

When we were about to dismember the corpse, a supervisor suddenly said: “Gera (teacher), please leave a trace of toenail first!” We cut a small piece of toenail from the deceased’s left thumb, and the supervisor immediately Wrap it in red cloth and put it in your arms. …

Water Burial: A Controversial Tibetan Funeral CustomWater Burial: A Controversial Tibetan Funeral Custom

▲Wen Zhida (right) and doctor Wang Tianyou (left) were dissected and buried in Niyang River (1977)

We followed the practice of the celestial burial masters, but instead of mixing tsampa and smashing the bones, we first took out the internal organs of the deceased’s chest and abdomen, inspected them, and threw them into the river one by one, letting the big water swirl away. …Then we dismember limbs and torsos, ready to be thrown into the river. At this time, the supervisor on the bank said again: “Gera (teacher), you are troubled by poverty!” We understood that it meant cutting into small pieces. Let the river float further toward the center of the river and drift farther, of course we will do it one by one. Finally, we carried water to wash away the blood and corpse debris in the crevices of the pebbles and on the stones. At this time, except for the sound of waves beating, the riverside was silent, and there was an occasional white cloud in the blue sky, and the river wind was slightly cool. On the way back, the supervisor offered butter tea and cigarettes to us. This means remuneration and satisfaction with the water burial.

The doctor’s name is Wen Zhida, and his description has many details. Today, if someone is lucky enough to see water burials in the Niyang River Basin, they can compare them to see if this custom has undergone further changes.

Funeral customs that can be freely combined, with strong vitality

When I was in college, one of my teachers who studied Tibet asked a question: polyandry or monogamy, which one is more advanced? The logic of this question can be used in funeral customs. Which is more advanced, the Tibetan burial customs based on celestial burial, cremation, burial, and water burial, or the burial customs of many other ethnic groups who practice burial?

The answer to the previous question is that Tibetans are more advanced. The rationale is that polyandry can be converted to monogamy after the death of one of the husbands, or in some other circumstances, and that, culturally, the former can tolerate the latter, but the latter can never tolerate the former.

My answer to the latter question should also be that Tibetans are more advanced. Because the above-mentioned burial customs are sufficient to cope with different situations, and various new combinations can appear according to customs, family wishes, and new era concepts. This can be seen from the case of “Second Burial”.

Water Burial: A Controversial Tibetan Funeral Custom

Water Burial: A Controversial Tibetan Funeral Custom

▲Benzilan in the valley of the Jinsha River is an important town on the Yunnan-Tibet line. The intersection of multiple cultures makes the funeral customs here one of the most open and inclusive areas in the entire Tibetan area.

In Benzilan by the Jinsha River in Deqin, a 40-year-old Tibetan woman, in an interview, described how she buried her father in this way:

“My father passed away more than ten years ago and was buried in the ground so that our brothers, sisters and mother could go to worship every year. If it was buried in water, there would be nothing left, not even a place to miss. There are no tombstones in Tibetan graves, and no The tomb is just a mani pole. Now, some people will build a small round tomb, and put up a small plaque with the name and the time of death. We used to celebrate the Qingming Festival, and there was no Spring Festival tomb-sweeping I am used to it, but now those who have someone buried in the family are happy to visit the tomb during the Qingming Festival and the Spring Festival.”

A 42-year-old man in Benzilan had a similar explanation.

“We have a lot of burials here, most of the old people are buried there, because there are old people buried there, the children and grandchildren can come to visit the grave, and the family can have dinner together. The burial is for the reunion of children and grandchildren, the prosperity of the family, and for the sake of auspiciousness. As long as The family is safe and auspicious, and there are those who have been buried for more than ten or twenty years before being buried in water. For those whose children are still young, they are generally buried in the ground, because if they are buried in water, there will be no trace at all, and they are worried that the children will grow up. Blame them for missing their parents. And those who have no children are often buried in water, especially those who died young, they can only be buried in water, because no one will take care of the graves and worship them.”

Burial is not the last form. After the burial, the remains can also be taken out for cremation (cremation), and the ashes can be sprinkled in water for water burial.

A 52-year-old Tibetan woman in Benzilan said that her father was buried in the ground before, and her mother was still alive at that time. After his mother died, he was buried in water with his mother. At that time, some of the ashes were scattered in the Jinsha River, some were scattered in the Ganges River in India, and some were scattered in the snow-capped mountains of Lhasa, fulfilling my father’s wish. (Li Zhinong: “Interpretation of Tibetan Funeral Customs in Yunnan from the Perspective of Cultural Periphery——Taking Benzilan Village, Deqin County as an Example”)

It can be seen that the Tibetans in Benzilan are changing the traditional burial customs. However, it is clear that its traditional burial customs have a strong ability to freely combine, so they can accept the customs and concepts of burial (tree graves) and the sweeping of the grave behind it, and can maintain the traditional belief in water burial.

This is the inclusiveness of Tibetan culture. This kind of inclusiveness makes the encounter between traditional culture and foreign culture not a life-and-death struggle, but a harmonious coexistence. In history, the emergence of various Tibetan burial customs may be the result of this inclusiveness.

Walking in Tibetan areas, one should really not look at Tibetan culture with the wrong mentality of “cultural primitiveness”. Tibetan culture, even today, is still thriving in the face of the powerful impact of modern civilization. This is by no means a fluke, nor is it accidental. In terms of burial customs, we also see its strong adaptability, which is a kind of wisdom that is difficult to imitate.