Tibet: An Accidental Pilgrimage

Nomad child in TIbet. photo by Ivan Cooper.

Tibet: An Accidental Pilgrimage

Traveling by Jeep and Horseback
Across Tibet’s Grasslands

After a false start working as a lab technician, Ivan Cooper spent several years kicking around Asia, including long journeys through Pakistan, China and India. In the following years teaching jobs in Taiwan and Korea sparked an enduring, if love-hate, relationship with oriental languages.

Growing fascinated with Tibet after visiting Buddhist regions of China and India, Ivan made his home for ten years in Dharamsala—the Indian headquarters of the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile, where he studied Tibetan, Sanskrit and Buddhist Philosophy. After moving back to England in 2009, Ivan divides his time between looking after his young son and instructing youngsters in the art of sushi making. Tibet: An Accidental Pilgrimage is about a journey through the rural parts of the country.

About the Book

Inspired by the work of Ippolito Desideri, a pioneering, eighteenth-century Jesuit who wrote the first detailed account of Tibet, Ivan Cooper travels by clapped-out jeep and on horseback across the remote grasslands of eastern Tibet. In the company of an itinerant painter of deities who serves as guide and mediator he encounters, amongst others, Lama Sonam, a living Buddha held in reverence by the surrounding nomads, who summarily condemns him to rebirth in one of the Buddhist hells.

In a chaotic monastic shanty town that has been illegally constructed around the residence of a living saint he narrowly avoids arrest. Alone and isolated in a land where few foreigners have set foot he is forced to re-evaluate both who he is and the fixed certainties of the culture in which he grew up.

On reaching the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, he attempts to locate a bell ransacked from an eighteenth-century Capuchin Mission. Soon after, participation in a sky burial, the traditional form of Tibetan funeral—corpses are disembowelled by specialist monks before being fed to the vultures—shocks him into a profound affirmation of his own identity while also reconciling him to the faith and piety of life on the Tibetan plateau.

Excerpt from Tibet: An Accidental Pilgrimage

The Birds

The monastery of Drigung Thil clings limpet-like to the slopes of a broad, fertile valley. Founded in the twelfth century, it has a long and prominent history as a centre of learning. Today, however, its monks are probably best known for their skill in disposing of the dead. After a night spent in the monastery guest house I am invited to witness a funeral.

A dirt track leads past a cluster of disused buildings and up the steep, grassy slope beyond. Close to the top I begin to encounter tangled masses of prayer flags — their original colours, once strikingly vivid, now bleached by the elements to a uniform shade of grey. A line of tall wooden poles rears up against the skyline; looking like so many ships’ masts, their long, narrow flags billow and roll in the wind like sails.

A deaf-mute from a village near Darong. A deaf-mute from a village near Darong. On passing through a gate (the funerary ground itself has been fenced off from the rest of the hillside), I am stopped in my tracks by the sight of a seething ocean of vultures on the hillside to my right.From here it’s only a short walk to the mortuary platform — a circular, slate-paved stage, about five metres in diameter and surrounded by a low wall — and to the single-roomed hut beyond, where a group of monks gathers around the doorway.

Of the grim collection of tools inside, none would look out of place in either a torture chamber or a slaughterhouse. Crouching over a pair of oversize cleavers, one of the monks hones down the blades on a grindstone until, satisfied with their sharpness, he lays them aside in favour of a long, razor-toothed saw. But, it is to two gigantic stone-headed mallets leaning against the wall that I find my attention principally drawn.I struggle to lift one, barely able to raise it off the ground. Then someone starts to laugh behind me.

Startled, I turn around.

Towering above me is a giant cyclops of a man, well over two metres tall with a ruddy, cheerful face and muscles that look like they were forged in a steelworks. Over faded maroon robes, he wears a long leather apron, bespattered in places with flecks of dried gore.

“Too heavy for you, eh?” he chuckles.Wiping a gargantuan palm on his robe, he handles the mallet with ease, lifting it up then swinging it through the air like a toy pendulum.

“The lads in the monastery say your Tibetan is pretty good… So I’ve decided to give you a little test.” Releasing his grip on the mallet, which falls to the ground with an unsettlingly loud thud, he detaches a sinister-looking knife from the strings of his apron, and starts to twiddle with the blade.

“Hey, get over here!” he summons his colleagues.

Then, parting his lips in a malicious grin, he directs the tip of the knife towards my forehead and asks, “What’s this called then?”

“Go.” I tell him.
“And this?” He aims the blade at my right eye.
“Good,” he says. “You’re doing well.”

In this way he moves down the body until, arriving somewhere in the region of my groin, he gives a little rococo flourish and jabs the blade toward my genitals.
“And how about this?” he asks.
“You’d better know the answer,” warns one of the spectators; his finger slices ominously through the air.

Nomad child from Ngag Go monastery. photos by Ivan Cooper.Nomad child from Ngag Go monastery. photos by Ivan Cooper.But when I do get the answer right, the giant withdraws his knife and congratulates me with a hearty clap on the back. “Very good,” he says. “Very good.”

It feels like being slapped on the back by an enormous beefsteak.

Cutting through the clamour of human voices, the laboured chugging of an engine sends an expectant ripple through the birds on the opposite slope. As the source of the racket, a red tractor with a small trailer in tow, appears from below the hill in the direction of the monastery, I spot two shrouded corpses bobbing up and down in the back.

When it pulls up beside the hut, the colossal leather-aproned monk heaves them one at a time onto his back and carries them over to the mortuary platform where he rather unceremoniously dumps them.

The Vultures

The sight, or more probably the smell, has an immediate effect on the vultures who, in a remarkably well-synchronized manoeuvre, follow one another into the air, glide over toward us and drop down to the ground a few metres away from the mortuary platform. With their long featherless necks and beady eyes, these creatures remind me of medieval grotesques or of those nightmare visions that people the Hell worlds of so many sixteenth-century paintings and I begin to wonder if the Day of Judgement might not look something like this.

The threat of encroachment galvanizes the mourners into immediate action; scouring the ground for any suitably-sized branch with which to arm themselves, they fan out around the mortuary platform in a defensive cordon. But the birds find the lure of fresh carrion just too enticing to resist, and the more audacious, or perhaps just hungrier, take advantage of any opening to make a break for the platform. Like this, to and fro, a contest develops between man and bird.

However, before anything can be done with the corpses, the lha-sang must be burnt. A shallow pit is stuffed with bundles of dried juniper and other aromatic shrubs which are set alight. Purifying them from ritual defilement, the monks pass their saws and knives, even the huge stone mallets, through the billowing clouds of smoke.

Next, with Cyclops leading the way, they immerse themselves in the fumes in order to ward off the polluting touch of the dead. As the rite draws to a close, handfuls of tsampa are thrown onto the fire and the bitter smell of burnt barley begins to overpower the lingering sweetness of the juniper.

A Pair of Cadavers

Events now proceed more rapidly. Peeled open, the white bundles disclose a pair of cadavers, knees tucked up tightly to the chest, ready to depart this world in the same cramped posture as they had first entered it. Fleshless ribs jut out like so many bony islands from a sea of flaccid skin.

And here with death’s icy touch almost palpable, I find myself acutely aware of my own body, of every minor ache and pain: the ankle I twisted last week in Lhasa gives a twinge; a bruise on my arm starts to throb; I can feel the labouring of my lungs as they struggle to extract oxygen from the thin air; even the touch of the breeze on my skin grows into a powerful tingling.

Planting a knee on the chest of the first body and putting his weight behind the thighs, Cyclops prises it open, eventually managing to straighten it. When the second body has also been straightened, the monks get to work, slicing open the soles of the feet, the flesh around the chest and back, and the base of the neck around the shoulders.

Mani stones in Lithang. Mani stones in Lithang. The birds, by now intoxicated with anticipation, hop up and down. And with the defensive cordon overstretched, a number manage to slip through and charge down to the platform. They meet their match in the corpse cutters, however, who kick and punch them back into line.

A pair of monks work with short, stubby knives on the hands, the wrists and the ankles, the more sinewy parts of each cadaver. Cyclops returns after they’ve finished, hook-toothed saw in hand.

Immediately the two bellies are open, a tremendous crash of beaks and feathers descends upon them. A frenzied, shape-shifting mass tears and twists and rips and wrenches; legs waggle in the air; heads pop up then disappear again. The screeching, the tremendous avian stink is almost too much to endure. An eyeless skull is thrown up from the scrum before being re-submerged; a group of birds chases down a detached hand which slides across the slate paving like an oversize lizard.

Two blood-spattered beaks rise above the mêlée, pulling on either end of a long stretch of intestine in a macabre version of tug of war.
After five minutes, I time it on my watch, only the inedible bits remain — a pair of fleshless skulls, scattered sections of skeleton and the knuckly parts of the hands and feet.

Ready for Cyclops

The larger remnants, gathered up and removed to a raised stone platform, are now ready for Cyclops and his great stone mallet. He dispatches the skulls first, each one pulverized by a single blow; the remains of the skeletons follow, and then the fingers and toes. While he smashes everything to an ever-finer pulp, one of his colleagues works handfuls of tsampa into the mixture which, after kneading it all into a doughy mush, he doles out for the birds to nibble on.

I feel dizzy and weightless; the cells of my body might be made of air. The stark truth about my own flesh, its bare nakedness, has never been so powerfully hammered home to me — skin and bones, sinews, arteries and veins, that’s all I’m made of. How little different from those cadavers, but for the ephemeral possession of consciousness, no different at all. Soon enough, my form too will return to the elements, left to linger only in the memories of those who survive me, to be recalled for some brief time by faded photographs before slipping into inevitable oblivion.

Ivan CooperLike most of us, I suppose, I’ve preferred to picture my own existence stretching without end towards an ever-receding horizon. Until today the only human corpses I’ve seen have been on the cinema screen: I’ve never even been to a funeral before. Yet, what I’ve just witnessed has left this smug illusion of security in tatters. It would be wrong, though, to suggest I felt horror, disgust, or even much fear. What lingers is the sheer, soul-crushing beauty of the occasion — the terrible finality of death over life.

From the smallest blade of grass to the mightiest tree, all will soon be gone, sucked up in the merciless whirlpool of time. And, for just a fraction of a second the world in all its tragic beauty, its ecstasy and its terrible pain seems to stand revealed before me. What follows is the most tremendous feeling of release, my return to the monastery an effortless glissade through sunlight and pure air.

Ivan Cooper lives and writes in Leeds, England. This is his first book.

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