The vultures arrived with the sunrise, circling high above the hillside burial site.
On a flat rock below, Tibetan undertakers were preparing a feast of human flesh and bone seasoned with yak butter for them.
The macabre rite, known as "sky burial," is practiced here every day, for few Tibetans are interred or cremated after they die. They prefer to leave no physical trace because a body without soul is considered meaningless by their Lama Buddhist religion.
Sky burial dates back centuries on the "roof of the world," and its wide popularity today is typical of the extraordinary pull of religion despite its repression during three decades of communist rule.
For most of their rule, Communists tried to drag Tibet out of its medieval world of sorcery and mysticism, where the wheel had long been banned for fear of scarring the earth and loosing demon spirits. To Mao Tse-tung's materialists, this was nothing but "feudal superstition" that had to be excised--by force, if necessary.
Mao's men all but destroyed Tibet in the name of saving it from its past. They razed more than 2,000 ancient temples, outlawed religious practices, persecuted thousands of lamas and blotted out the lilting sounds of Buddhist chants with such communist anthems as "The East Is Red."
For Tibetans, whose religion is their life's work, the advent of communism could only be likened to the Spanish Inquisition in harshness.
When Mao's successors looked back in 198 Tibet barely functioning and desperately poor, they had no choice but to begin tolerating the only spirit sti"We are Marxists and we believe in materialism," said a local Communist official, explaining Tibet's new police will no longer use administrative pressure to solve the problem.
"We believe religion has a period of eme and dying out, and nobody can deny this logic."
Although Tibetans remain under the tight control of Commun annexed their land in 1951, they have been allowed to resume a semblance of normal religious life free from od image makes it clear why the Communist bosses had to concede defeat: at any time of the day, the Jokhang Mont temple, is the scene of thousands of worshipers groveling in the dirt to demonstrate their devotion.
Lhasextended tent revival meeting, Buddhist-style, a faint reminder of the days of glory when pilgrims journeyed ho pray at this "city of light."
Here are teen-age boys perched in the lotus position on a curb, reciting suand shaved heads bobbing in perfect unison. Here are wizened matrons, their faces black from sun and a religioathing periods yearly, twirling prayer wheels, each turn designed to entreat divine blessings for the next cycOld women in candy-striped aprons etch scriptural sayings on pieces of slate called mani stones, which a few yist heretics to pave sewer drains.
Pretty girls who plait their hair in 108 braids as a form of devotion wear heavy turquoise amulets around their necks to ward off evil. Everyone is decorated with prayer beads, and even goats that roam freely through the streets wear prayer flags strung through pierced ears.
Children whose faces are coated with goat's blood as protection against the sun join their parents in the exhausting prostrations to shorten the road to nirvana.
Lhasa is full of dogs, which--like all other beine regarded by Tibetans as the reincarnation of other souls. The animals had disappeared in the 1970s after thethem "parasites," coaxed youngsters into stoning and beating them to death.
Only a few of Lhasa's once hugehave reopened for worship. But their dark grottos and again from yak-butter lamps dedicated to the countless deities.
Every Tibetan seems to carry a personal su, which also is dissolved in tea and mixed with the barley meal that is the staple food here. As a religious od together in animal skin or in heated thermos flasks for easy pouring into the silver urns.
The temples arls where lamas wrapped in carmine robes glide past the gold-leafed shrines and Buddhist figures as they once dby a theocracy of holy men and nobles.
Every fourth man was a lama in old Tibet, a celibate believed to be to guide the dead safely to rebirth, or to manage the weather by blowing on conches or to heal the sick with le, urine and yak butter.
Of the 120,000 lamas in 1959, only 900 remained in the calling by 1980 after the Today a total of 1,400 lamas serve as employes of the rebuilt monasteries, dividing their time between prayer.
Some temples have been allowed to initiate a few boy novices to keep the faith young, but the new Communi youngsters to be patriotic and to support the party.
Although their powers are curbed by Communist decree,dered saintly to Tibetans who seek their astrological guidance in naming children and their healing ways.
survives in rural areas: fraternal polyandry. According to local sources, the oldest brother in some families , who then becomes his brothers' wife as well.
The Lamaism that makes Tibetans among the world's most devouof the animist religion of Bon and Tantric Buddhism, which was imported from ancient India with its use of magchieve spiritual advancement.
Lamas traditionally derived their influence from the belief that only they coht of the spirit from one mortal body to the next. A special lama called "Podeb" would attend to the dying, waof passing, at which point he would yank the deceased's hair to draw his life's essence from his head.
Anotlled "Joba" would be called on to transport the body to a deserted mountain, where he would feed it to the vultures after praying, blowing a beating a drum.
In the old days, only the wealthy could afford the luxury of a sky burial. The family had 49 days of mourning after the ceremony, the biggest expense being oil for the monks' lamps. The poor were throen by the fish.
Today, the ancient rite has been democratized and slightly demystified, becoming the most common way of disposiaccording to Tibeten sources.
The ritual is observed every dawn at an isolated mountain ravine near the Sera Monastery, the last burial spot in Lhasa. The site is clearly marked by vultures flying overhead.
Although foreigners are prohibited from entering the area, I watched part of the ceremony from a nearby cliff. Police finally evicted me, but a Canadian television cameraman managed to record the entire event from a few hundred yards away.
No lamas were present. The service was performed instead by secular undertakers known as "dumden men." They brought the corpse to the site in a flat-bed truck, placed it on a broad rock and undressed it. Soon after they arrived, they started a fire and fed it with yak butter, apparently to attract the birds.
While dozens of vultures glided above them, the skilled undertakers began to cut up the body. Then they scattered the remains on the rock, signaling the waiting birds--now about 30 in number--to move in.
According to Tibetan folklore, it is a bad omen for the deceased's soul if any of the corpse is left uneaten.
It was unclear whether any of the deceased's relatives attended the rite. An old woman dressed in traditional Tibetan clothes was there, perhaps to oversee the service. Tibetans say close family members normally stay home and send a friend to make sure the funeral goes smoothly.
The Communists, who cremate their dead and tolerate little superstition in the rest of China, approve the Tibetan sky burial, although they seem intent on keeping it a secret from the rest of the world.
Three uniformed officers attended the ceremony and were direct in telling foreign correspondents that they were unwelcome.