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Tibet to strengthen protection for ancient burial rite

Phuntsog Tashi and Palden Nyima in Lhasa
Updated: Jan 24,2015 10:09 AM     China Daily

Legislators in the Tibet autonomous region will draft a regulation to further protect and regulate a traditional Tibetan practice known as sky burial, in which the body of a deceased person is left in the open, exposed to birds of prey that, according to Tibetan belief, carry the remains to heaven.

The decision on Jan 22 by the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress of Tibet aims to strengthen legal protections for the ritual, which is practiced widely on the Tibetan plateau and occupies an important place in regional culture.

The move arises from incidents involving tourists in recent years. Aggressive visitors have created problems, particularly for grieving families and burial masters, by taking pictures.

“Out of curiosity, many tourists want to witness a sky burial in Tibet. Local people consider this to be disrespectful to their tradition and to the bereaved,” said Tenpa, a guide who uses only one name.

To reduce such conflicts and to preserve the traditional rite, the regional government first issued a regulatory notice in 1985, but the need to strengthen it became apparent over the next two decades.

A second rule was issued in 2005 prohibiting onlookers from taking photos, filming, recording or reporting for print or broadcast media, or publishing via the Internet. A further regulation was passed in 2013.

The proposed new regulation, which has yet to be drafted, will set detailed rules on ritual procedures, environmental protection and the registration of funeral masters, according to the regional people’s congress.

“The proposed regulation will be handed to the Ethnic, Religious and Foreign Affairs Committee of the people’s congress first, and it will report to the standing committee,” said Samdrub, delegate and director of the Human Affairs Work Committee.

Samdrub also said the legal protections for sky burial are a way to ensure that the age-old Tibetan tradition is respected and preserved.

“Every place has its own burial customs, and it is essential to enact an exclusive regulation for this one,” said Yeshi Tabkhei, 44, a monk at the Gyalri monastery in Tibet Nyingchi prefecture. “Legal protection can help ensure that the legitimate rights and interests of parties involved in such activities are not hurt.”

The region’s Civil Affairs Department paid nearly 1 million yuan ($163,000) for infrastructure improvements at some large sky burial grounds, Xinhua News Agency reported.

A survey conducted by the government showed that Tibet has 1,638 operational sky burial grounds and more than 1,093 sky burial executives, or masters, and managers at the sites.