The Shroud

We walked in, down on our knees through the small door into a courtyard, a small clearing with walls on four sides. There were no doors leading to any of the surrounding houses. It was bare, firewood stacked up on the wall to our right and a few mats laid out neatly against the wall. A few guests were expected for dinner that night a boy informed us in broken Chinese; we could sleep on the mats after they left.

A little later hot water and tea arrived, always a welcome sign. It was the middle of winter and though it was hot during the day by the evening it was very cold and even though we had a tent between us I always looked forward to sleeping inside the comfort of a home. That evening we ate a simple gruel for dinner; rice cooked in water and salt. I ate hungrily, warmed by the little fire the villagers had lit, I thought of home, the days of walking along the silent roads, of people I had met, warm and at times indifferent, of mundane things, things I had done and hoped to do when I was back. 

We were about to retire to bed, when the guests arrived. The children quickly placed the mats in a circle around the crackling fire. There was a sense of urgency and all the children were running around following our hosts instructions who kept shouting at them to move things and bring food and bring things from the house nearby. A large crowd had gathered and the elders among the group began to take their seats by the fire. The flasks of chhang waiting in the corner were soon uncorked and served in small bowls placed in front of the mats; raw meat was carved from the leg of a lamb and served to those who had just arrived. People were conversing animatedly, using their hands to describe things they had seen probably talking about the long journey they had made, laughing and often looking towards us raising their glasses to acknowledge our presence. A few were already drunk on chhang and attempted to talk to us, it was difficult to follow what they were saying try as I could to understand from their gestures, laughing at times at each other, at our inability to comprehend what we were saying and then overcoming this inability by simply clinking bowls and drowning it in chhang showing in the end a sense of camaraderie. To me it was an overwhelming to say the least, we hardly knew anyone and within a few hours were sitting side by side welcomed to an evenings gathering we hardly knew anything about. When everyone was seated, our host made a little speech and then walked slowly around the circle drinking a glass of chhang with each member to show his gratitude. 

The boy seated next to me skillfully carved out a piece of raw meat for me, and leaning forward as he passed me the meat, he whispered in a mix of Chinese and Tibetan ”wo men de aya xihuan ni sa”, one of the ladies has taken a liking for you, he laughed loudly pulling at the dress of a young girl walking in front of him to grab her attention. She turned and snapped at him as he tugged at her skirt, walking away to the other side of the fire. I smiled, stretching my cold arms towards the fire, trying to catch a glimpse of her as she served the guests, the tail of her apron danced in the fire, the fire smoking and leaping as the wind blew. Before I could bask in this moment of an unknown intimacy my friend, as he insisted I call him pulled me towards him to discuss a recent Hindi film he had seen, humming loudly what he imagined were the words of a song. 

As the night progressed more food followed. Noodles with cabbage and vegetables, a rare treat; it was indeed a special occasion. The children served us taking turns to replenish our bowls; this could well be the last hot meal in a few days. Leaving Gyantse in the morning I had heard today was an auspicious occasion and there would be festivities on for a few days. The boy seated next to me confirmed this. 

Towards the close of the evening, our hostess kneeled before a long-haired man, the most important in the gathering, given the mat he was seated on and his position by the fire, offering him money, her hands held out towards him beseeching him to take the offering. He in turn requested her to offer it to the others gathered around the fire; they refused, shaking their heads animatedly, murmuring notes of disapproval under their breath and then a few stood up requesting him on behalf of all assembled to accept the money. He reluctantly took the notes from the outstretched hands of our hostess, slipping the notes into his coat pocket. Drinking a last glass of chhang with our hostess he left shortly. 

My friend beside me, turned to me and said, “Shuo shi hua…” to tell the truth an old man died in the village yesterday, his last rites were performed by elders from the village early today. 

I was a little taken aback, uncomfortable and at the same time touched by the kindness of the villagers who had taken us in and given us shelter for the night given the intimate nature of the incident. I had mistaken the festivities to be part of a festival in Gyantse. The mood had seemed upbeat but in hindsight it would’ve been difficult to tell given that the villagers spoke in Tibetan. The ‘guests’ had performed the sky burial in accordance with Tibetan custom. I had witnessed the same a few years ago in Gansu. I remember standing a fair distance away and walking closer towards the site only once the villagers performing the ceremony called out to me to do so. The vultures had nearly eaten the body but it was still possible to indentify from the bones, from a piece of flesh of what must have been a hand or a toe of a human being, the birds eating away at the body, skin and bone hanging from the edge of the mouth. I had prepared myself for the possibility of witnessing this site, but when confronted by it at first I felt uneasy and remember walking away towards a monk reciting prayers in the near distance. The ‘rogyapas’ walked across the burial site, throwing bit of flesh and bone to the birds. There was no sense of hesitancy in their movement as they went about their work, no uneasiness, just a sense of purpose. Seated as we were comfortably beside the fire, it was such a far cry from my memory of the sky burial, satiated by a hot meal held in honour of a man, someone I had never known or would ever know. 

After all the guests had left, the young man who had first welcomed us at the head of the road, took out two blankets from a large sack, a bag, a few clothes, those of the deceased and ceremoniously waved them around in the smoke of the dying flame; the belongings exhumed were then put back into the sack.

“You will be cold”, he said turning to us; we had our sleeping bags but the thought of additional warmth made us accept his offer of more blankets. Reaching for the sack near his feet, he pulled out two blankets and gave them to me. 

Sleeping under the stars, the flames now fully extinguished by my side, ash swirling in the wind I said a prayer for the deceased, comfortably warm in my sleeping bag armoured by the blankets that once belonged to another, protecting me from the cold…

The essay with a selection of photographs was first published in ‘First Proof 4’, an anthology of new Indian writing by Penguin, India.