I hear him before I see him. “Ahhh, Dechen,” he says as if he were expecting me. As if he came to this hill everyday. As if it was perfectly normal that I was venturing up the hill at noon on a workday. I squint up towards the direction of the voice, the sun beating down oppressively. Overhead, dozens of vultures swirl around against the bleached blue sky, their flight casting gliding shadows over the flower-strewn plateau. A monk is sitting on the side of the hill, his back to me. I make my way slowly towards him. In front of us, on the opposite hill, there are over a hundred vultures, squabbling, shoving and pecking as four figures throw chunks of meat at them.
“Dechen, Dechen,” the old monk mumbles as he stares across to the top of the hill opposite us. “I’m on the hill alone today, because I am sad.” He pats his hand against his chest but doesn’t look at me. His legs are stretched out and below us is the deep and narrow valley where the base of our hill meets the foot of the burial hill.
I sit down beside him, and nod, staring across at the squabbling vultures. Something startles them and suddenly they are in the air, a swarming army. The four men look exposed and vulnerable without the vultures around them.
Agu Choedak is 71 years old this year. I had never spoken to him directly before, out of respect, even though for years he has been coming to Norlha to bless and initiate every building constructed for the atelier. I did seek his help years earlier when Norzin suffered screaming fits in the middle of the night. I would pace back and forth with her in my arms, trying to sooth her, but her writhing body would get too heavy and finally I had to put her back in bed and pull the covers over my head to muffle her howling cries. One day Norzin’s baby sitter suggested that I take her to Agu Choedak for blessings and the three of us went to visit him at the village monastery.
He had a simple courtyard house with three rooms that he shared with two disciples. Once in his room, my eyes fell upon his shrine and then to the floor where there were two large dents in the shape of footprints, marks from countless prostrations. Agu Choedak’s day starts at four in the morning with a series of prostrations and recitations. During the rest of the day, nomads and villagers come to him for advice, for help appeasing crying children, for example, to healing ailing limbs and blessing new houses. His carefully chosen words, promoting basic Buddhist principles, sprinkled on the nomads in moments of vulnerability, might not heal their creaking limbs but his use of superstitious belief as a vehicle embeds in them a deeper understanding of Buddhism. The desperate get hope where otherwise there would be none. From the day I took Norzin there, I concentrated on the nights she didn’t cry rather than those that she did.
“Do you have binoculars on you?” Agu Choedak asks.
I pat my pockets as if binoculars will miraculously materialize and then look around desperately. “Ummm, I have this,” I respond pulling from around my shoulder the camera I carry everywhere I go with its telephoto lens.
‘Take some pictures,” he says waving his hand towards the sky burial. I click one or two and pass the camera over for his approval.
“I can’t see,” he says handing the camera back with a disappointed sigh. “The sun is too bright. Can you tell an old monk how many vultures there are?”
“Over a hundred,” I answer and he seems pleased.
“I was so worried that they wouldn’t come.” He rearranges his robes. “We could go over there but then I will have to cleanse for seven days and with Rinpoche coming it’s just not possible.” His eyes look confused, apologetic, a little bewildered. “I’ve been here since nine this morning,” he finally admits. “There were no vultures early this morning and I got worried. How many vultures do you think?” he asks again, waiting for the reassuring answer from a pair of young eyes.
“Well over a hundred. More than I’ve ever seen around here,” I add with authority. After all, I live in the house closest to the sky burial.
He laughs at this and for a moment looks happy. “Let’s sit for a little longer.”
I nod and we sit in silence for a while, watching the vultures and the men; too far to see the gory details, but close enough to take in the spectacle. I wonder where the vultures live. The closest cliffs are at least 100 miles away. How do they get the vultures to notice a burial? No wonder it is a stressful endeavor.
“Dugmo Kyi’s mother?” I ask breaking the silence.
“Both of them. Today is an auspicious day so we are doing both of them.”
I nod again. Dugmo Kyi is a weaver of ours. For months her mother suffered a slow death. Finally a few days ago, in the early hours of the morning, she passed away to her family’s relief. It was agony watching her suffer. She was 74 years old and Agu Choedak’s sister-in-law. Similar in age, he must have seen her trudge through a life wrought with suffering. She had buried five children, before finally she herself went in a slow and painful death. Her last months were spent in the monastery, where she eventually died. He must have suffered in her suffering. His last wish for her was that at least her body would make the clean and swift departure that sickness had denied her. It was crucial that the vultures come.
I didn’t know much about the other lady. She had died a day earlier and was in her eighties. It was a busy time for the monks.
“That’s Jampa’s father,” Agu Choedak says pointing to one of the figures feeding the vultures. “They brought the bodies early this morning by tractor, before sunrise so no one had to see them.”
I follow a vulture as it glides above us, the wildflowers quiver in a breeze and I think of the tractor rattling up with the naked bodies, hands and feet bound together.
Agu Chodak sighs again. “I was so worried the vultures wouldn’t come,” he repeats. “Sometimes the men have to spend a few nights on the hill if the vultures don’t come on time. I just had to be here to see for myself.”
One of my friends once described sneaking to a sky burial. It had been two days and there were no vultures. A monk had been summoned. My friend said he saw him reciting prayers and then doing a wild dance with his hands spread out like a big bird. A few hours later the vultures descended.
“They have to sleep there?” I ask.
“Yes, of course. The job has to be finished and clean before they can leave, especially on a site as close to the village as this. There can’t be any evidence, not even a hair, not even a bone.” He stops as a loud clanging sound echoes through the valley. “Ahhh,” he seems relieved. “They’re breaking the bones. That’s good. That means the vultures have finished. I think I can go now.” He looks around a little dazed. “You should go on up the hill, the flowers are out in full bloom.” He stops and looks at me as if he’s finally realizing my presence. “Do you like it here? How long have you been here? Ten years now? Are you happy with your new house?”
“I am very happy. I am very lucky to have the life I have,” I answer.
He laughs and then begins mumbling, “138…” He trails off and then starts again. “138 …” He’s trying to remember a phone number. “Can you call? But I can’t remember the number.”
“It’s ok. I’ll call Dunko,” I offer.
“Oh, but he must be so busy.”
“Don’t worry. Do you want him to pick you up?”
“Yes, yes. But he must be so busy.”
Dunko, my production manager and the son-in-law of the deceased woman, is very confused on the phone as to what I am doing on the hill with Agu Choedak during our lunch break. But the motorbike appears a few minutes later. I offer my arm as Agu Choedak makes the steep climb down the grassy hill. He pauses midway.
“What do you recite?” he asks.
“I try and go over The Way of the Boddhisatva.”
He smiles at this. He starts reciting his favorite verses from The Way of the Boddhisatva as we descend the hill.
“There were over a hundred vultures,” he says happily to Dunko who nods and leads him to the motorbike.