A vulture at a sky burial in 2013 for a Tibetan monk (photograph by Chensiyuan, via Wikimedia)
Sky burial isn’t a burial at all, of anything. It’s the act of leaving a corpse exposed to the elements, often in an elevated location, and only a few different cultures do it, for different reasons and in different ways.
The concept's been on my radar for a few years thanks to happening upon the Vajrāyana Buddhist bya gtor practice primarily found in Tibet —and less so in China and Mongolia. It can be shocking to see — ex-human beings being dispassionately dragged up a mountain, chopped up, and thrown to a venue of waiting vultures.
But then I started to think (and read) about it. One of the main tenets of Buddhism is compassion, which includes kindness toward all animals. So the idea at work here is that, if your body is just a shell for your spirit, which will be reincarnated anyway, and if your spirit has left it and it could nourish another creature, then it should. Bya gtor literally translates to "alms for the birds" in Tibetan. It’s considered important to not waste the opportunity to help another living thing.
Sky burial site in Yerpa Valley, Tibet (photograph by John Hill)
A depiction of sky burials in Litang monastery (photograph by Antoine Taveneaux)
Once the body is kept in a sitting position for two days and a lama recites the necessary prayers, the corpse’s spine is broken so that it can be folded and carried to the sky burial site, which is usually quite a schlep. Family members may accompany the dead on this journey, beating double-sided drums and chanting. Once arrived at the site, the rogyapa, or body breakers, first burn juniper to attract vultures. The corpse is placed face-down on the stones, its hair removed, and the ropyagas begin to chop up the limbs with axes or sledgehammers, sometimes flaying meat from bones and throwing it to the waiting vultures.
When only bones remain, they’re pounded into a pulp, mixed with barley flour, tea, and yak butter, and given to the crows and hawks, after the vultures have had their fill of meat. It’s a bad omen if the vultures won’t eat, which can be a problem if the body has been treated with disinfectant or medicine, as it might be at a hospital. Typically, the yak that is used to transport the body is supposed to be set free after the ritual, which is yet another reason that sky burial can be a costly process. Most of the times that it’s practiced in Tibet, therefore, it’s a commuted version of leaving the corpse on the stones to be ritualized by the birds instead.
Sky burial is currently the preferred practice in Tibet when a loved one dies. Religion aside, a few other factors come into play here: generally, the soil in Tibet is a layer of permafrost only a few centimeters deep, and it covers solid rock, making it hard to dig. Wood is also difficult to come by, as most of Tibet is above the tree line, so cremation is a difficult process.Read More
Image from the 1884 "Atlantic Ocean Pilot" (via British Library)
The ocean has a rich rhythm, but it's something that's hard for us humans on land to connect with. Yet in three different places we can hear this movement through music. In Croatia, San Francisco, and England, the shores contain instruments played by the waves.
photograph by Mike Reger
Zadar, Croatia, has its Sea Organ leading right into the water. Designed by architect Nikola Bašić and opened in 2005, it uses some 35 pipes of different sizes that are louder or softer depending on the turbulence of the sea.
Some people say the sounds are like whale calls, but whatever they are is haunting and airy with a touch of melancholy. The steps of the organ, which are lined with perforations to let out sound, were cut into a somber concrete wall installed during post-World War II restorations. Adding to the revival of the sea shore is another work by Bašić — the Sun Salutation — which has glass panels collecting sunlight all day to put on an ethereal light show representing our solar system.
photograph by EyeofJ/Flickr user
THE WAVE ORGAN
San Francisco, California
photograph by Simon Gibson
Over in the San Francisco Bay, the 1986 Wave Organ is the Sea Organ's precursor. Created by artists Peter Richards and George Gonzales, it turns the bay's buoyant movement into a sonorous island.
The organ's jetty is actually built from granite and marble that is all that remains from a cemetery that was destroyed. It's not quite as elegant as the newer Sea Organ — its over 20 pipes that go into the water are PVC and concrete — yet its sound is low and rich. It responds to the changing tides, with lower being bubbly and the higher more resounding, impacted by the resonating air.Read More
Detail of a 1523 anatomical illustration by Jacopo Berengario da Carpi (via Wikimedia)
In Brooklyn's Green-Wood Cemetery, on a well-worn headstone, you can barely make out the inscription "The Martyr" above the name Washington Irving Bishop. The rest of the long epitaph below is too deteriorated to read, but the late Bishop was renowned in his time as one of the great mentalists of the 19th century. Yet it was his curious death that would be his greatest mystery.
Washington Irving Bishop's grave in Green-Wood Cemetery (photograph by the author)
Bishop was born in 1855 and although the American started out in the spiritualist world — assisting and then managing the famed medium Anna Eva Fay — he later flipped to the side of contemporary magicians like Houdini in exposing spiritualism as superstition. In 1880 he published a one shilling book called Second Sight Explained, in which he wrote:
"There is, indeed, much reason in favour of an explanation of Clairvoyance, because knowledge of the process is still sufficiently obscure to enable unprincipled persons to use the influence that this supposed power gives them for improper purposes. Nothing can be more detrimental to morals than the prevalence of superstition; and there is scarcely a phenomenon in existence which operates so largely to the encouragement of superstition as the supposed power of Clairvoyance."
His own act was pitched as "thought reading," and he emphasized that it was not anything supernatural but instead his careful reading of the movement of the human body. Known as "muscle reading," he learned his skills from mentalist J. Randall Brown and soon soared to his own fame with a distinctly frenetic performance style, one that had an added drama with his suffering from cataleptic fits. He kept a note in his pocket that stated his seemingly catatonic state was not death, although the presence of that note on a fateful performance in 1889 would lead to a great debate of what really brought down the mentalist.
Washington Irving Bishop (via the University of Texas)
It was May 12 and Bishop was at the Lambs Club, a theatrical society that was then at 70 West 36th Street in Manhattan. Bishop was said to have fallen into unconsciousness early in the act, and then recovered to continue. However, a second attack came from which he did not quickly recover. According to reports, an autopsy took place at 3:45 pm, just a few hours after the supposed death. This included the removing of Bishop's brain.Read More
Potsdamer Platz ghost station (Max Gold / Futurerhythm, via YouTube)
The old adage of “what you see on the surface tells only part of the story” couldn’t be more true for a city like Berlin.
Having endured two World Wars, being divided by the Iron Curtain, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and rapid gentrification — all in the scope of a century — the German capital is drenched to the proverbial bone in history. Because of this, unlike other major cities like New York or Paris that have a more conventionally beautiful exterior, Berlin’s wonders are underneath the hustle and bustle of the daily grind and within the bowels of the city itself — in its century-old subway system.
Taking a ride on Berlin’s U-Bahn and S-Bahn is like stepping into a time machine, being propelled out of 2014 and into the Cold War-era where West Berliners traveled under East Berlin socialist territory on a daily basis through "ghost stations," known as "Geisterbahnhöfe."
Dimly-lit ghost station (photograph by Helmut Caspar)
When the East German GDR government constructed the Berlin Wall on the morning of August 13, 1961, not only did it end the freedom of movement between East and West Berlin, tearing apart lovers, families, and friends for nearly three decades, it also split Berlin’s public transit network into two. Some U- and S-Bahn lines fell entirely into one half of the city or the other, and other lines were divided between the two jurisdictions, with trains running only to the border and then turning back.
However, three lines — today’s U6 and U8, and the Nord-Süd Tunnel on the S-Bahn — passed through a relatively short stretch of East Berlin territory in the city center. This meant that passengers actually travelled from West Berlin beneath East Berlin. However, they were not able to leave the train until it reached West Berlin again.
"Potsdamer Platz S-Bahn Station: Ghost Station From 1961 to 1989 "
Just imagine: You’re on your typical morning commute to work when suddenly a warning comes over the loudspeaker: “Last stop in West Berlin!” You then descend slowly into the underground of a foreign country under socialist rule where you see phantom-like armed East German guards on dimly lit platforms peeking back at you through narrow slits in bricked huts. It’s no wonder these eerie stations were soon dubbed as “ghost stations” by West Berliners.Read More
all photographs by the author
On the northeast margin of Lake Baikal in Siberia, a scattering of log buildings fills the narrow strip between shore and mountain. Blue and turquoise window frames sport elaborate matching fretwork in true regional style, and on eaves and gables folk carvings of bearded men, bonneted peasant women, and strange, fanciful animals appear.
There is no one about, and shoulder high grass fills most of the yards and gardens. The vegetation casts the three dozen structures in a sea of pale yellow-green that waves in the breezes off the lake, while around the clearing the silent taiga forest stands guard. It is a place on the doorstep of decay. Its purpose would be opaque to the casual visitor, but there are no casual visitors here. In fall and spring, for nearly half the year, the place is inaccessible because of the thin and shifting ice. In winter, trucks can be driven a hundred miles on the surface, like the temporary railroad that once carried the Trans-Siberian across the frozen lake to the south. In summer, boats can gamble the crossing, but rarely do anymore.
This is Davsha — Давша — and it has been abandoned for almost a decade. Once, more than 200 people lived here: scientists, rangers, families, schoolteachers, radio operators, and huntsmen. In this land of extremes — of extreme solitude, and extreme weather — these people looked after the animals of the forest. In 1916, Czar Nicholas II was so worried that the sable was going extinct that he carved out a wilderness on the shores of Baikal, declared it forbidden to hunters, natives, and settlers, and built Davsha, a miniature village in the heart of the reserve for the rangers and biologists he sent to manage it.
The indigenous Evenks were moved out of the reserve and relocated north of the Tompa River, echoing similar moves of American Indians in the early days of the National Park System in the United States. This was the first zapovednik — or nature reserve — in Russia, and it lasted long after Nicholas’ execution and the fall of the Empire the following year. Throughout the Soviet era and into the Federation, it was a revered — and well-funded — post.
Why protect the sable? This small fur-bearing cousin to the marten and the weasel was the key to Siberian settlement for hundreds of years. Its priceless fur was the golden promise that drew the Cossacks over the Ural Mountains in the 1580s, and what spurred them to the Pacific in only 60 years. In contrast, it took the trappers, explorers, and settlers of the United States four times as long to go half the distance. As a result, this little black-furred creature — martes zibellina —was in steep decline by the start of the 20th century. Long before the idea of environmental protection took hold elsewhere, this landscape of mountain, taiga, and lake was set aside to shelter one of its smallest — and most valuable — denizens.
Today, the Barguzinskii Biosphere Reserve has no permanent residents. In 2005, its funding was cut, and the tenuous existence Davsha had maintained for almost 90 years was over. Almost overnight, the settlement was evacuated by boat, the population leaving many of their possessions in place.Read More
In the Photo of the Week feature, we highlight an exceptionally amazing photograph submitted by an Atlas Obscura user.
When Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans with flooding and destruction, one of the larger casualties was the Dixie Brewing Company, a local staple that was forced to abandon its massive production facility in the wake of the storm. Since its abandonment, the facility has become a hotspot for graffiti artists and urban explorers.
Atlas user blwilde took a picturesque snapshot of the unfortunate relic saying this about the view:
"I took this while doing a photoshoot for my friends' band. On the other side of the lens you can see the entire city of New Orleans."Read More
A Tanuki far from home, in Brisbane, Australia (photograph by the author)
The signs and symbols of Japan can be disorientating, as Western signage such as the striped barber's pole and the green/red man of traffic lights is blended with more traditional symbols, such as the hanging drapes that indicate onsen (traditional baths), the red-caped kitsune (fox-gods), and jizo (statues of dead children, dressed to stay warm against the cold of the grave.)
One of the more curious symbols is the tanuki, a raccoon dog that represents a traditional Japanese prankster god. The tanuki is known in the West best from Super Mario Brothers 3, which features a tanuki suit that allows Mario to change form into a statue and to fly, as well as from the Studio Ghibli film Pom Poko, which is about a gang of tanuki (although in the English language version of the film they were misrepresented as badgers.)
The real tanuki (photograph by Emily/Flickr user)
Tanuki in Shigaraki, Japan (photograph by akaitori/Flickr user)
The tanuki has a mixed reputation in Japan. Statues of the full-bellied (and large-testicled) tanuki can be found throughout Japan, even if pollution and urban sprawl have taken their toll on the actual animal after which the trickster takes its name and form. The tanuki is a shape-shifter, and his testicles play an important role in his shifting. Tanukis have legendarily been known to use their testicles as makeshift raincoats, as weapons, and as drums. They knead and massage them into the shape they desire, and often impersonate humans to buy alcohol and delicacies, which is where the tanuki fits into modern Japanese culture.
Myths and legends surrounding the tanuki are commonplace around Japan — the mischievous creature's antics even feature in a traditional Japanese children's song (sung, for some reason, to the tune of an old Baptist hymn): “Tan Tan Tanuki no kintama wa/Kaze mo nai no ni/Bura bura.” The lyrics translate as: “Tan-tan, the Tanuki's testicles ring/the wind has stopped blowing/but still they swing-swing.”
1881 tanuki woodblock print by Yoshitoshi (via Wikimedia)Read More
The Exosuit (courtesy Nuytco Research, Ltd)
The depths of the ocean still remain one of our planet's great mysteries, despite our world mostly being water. A new atmospheric diving suit — the Exosuit — is allowing humans to descend into the sea further than we've ever gone before, perhaps changing what we know of life on Earth.
The suit created by Nuytco Research, Ltd. looks a bit like if an early diving bell-style suit — such as that from 1882 by the Carmagnolle brothers, on display at the Musée de la Marine in Paris — was crossed with the ASIMO robot. This week it made a special stop this week at the American Museum of Natural History which culminated in a discussion with researchers John Sparks, curator at the AMNH; David Gruber, research associate at CUNY; and Vincent Pieribone, research associate at the Pierce Laboratory-Yale. They noted that this was the first time an ADS system was being deployed for scientific research since the 1980s.
The suit is constructed from aluminum alloy, weighs in at 530 pounds, is entered through the torso, can contort at several rotorary joints, and even has curious little foot pads that have pressure sensitivity — of which there is quite a bit, some 30 times that on the surface, at the 1,000 foot depth to which a human inside can safely reach. What makes it even more advanced is that it has 50 hours of life support, meaning researchers can actually spend time viewing marine life at that depth. And what they are looking for is bioluminescence.
A test of the Exosuit is planned for July of 2014 on the Stephen J. Barlow Bluewater Expedition off the coast of Massachusetts. The team has already discovered eels and sharks and other creatures with unexpected bioluminescence and biofluorescence in a previous expedition. But why does it matter that there are these little glowing creatures far beneath the waves? While every bit of our world that we understand more changes in some way our greater picture of life, bioluminescence research has already had great impact in medical research, particularly with cancer where bioluminescence imaging has revealed cell activity that was previously invisible. What next we can discover in nature may break through another barrier with this innovation in technology.
The Exosuit at the American Museum of Natural History (photograph by the author)Read More
Preparing for the Seattle World's Fair (via Seattle Municipal Archives)
World's Fair Street Scene (via Seattle Municipal Archives)
Unlike other host cities, Seattle planned its infrastructure for the 1962 Century 21 Exposition to be a permanent city improvement. Seattle’s fair came shortly on the heels of a dramatic population and income boom, following the establishment of Boeing’s manufacturing plant in the city. However, many new Boeing workers settled in the suburbs, leaving Seattle’s downtown desolate. City planners hoped the 1962 fairgrounds could transition into a revitalized downtown civic and cultural center, rejuvenating the city itself.
World's Fair Grounds Under Construction (via Seattle Municipal Archives)
Their gamble paid off — the entire fairgrounds, and most of its infrastructure, became today’s Seattle Center, a 74-acre park with museums, performance spaces, public art, and sports complexes. Also unlike other host cities, Seattle managed to turn a profit with its 1962 fair. Some of the original fairground have since been torn down or heavily remodeled, but a number still stand.Read More
Grotesques from Reims, France, photographed by Joseph Trompette (ca. 1870-90) (via Cornell University Library)
Mermaids, unicorns, and fairies have been romanticized through the ages, but what about the Pennsylvanian Squonk? Here is a motley assortment of mythical beasts and beings found in folklore from around the world. From soul-sucking cats to child-thieving shape-shifters, these are the oddballs found in the magical bestiary that haven't gotten much love.
The Squonk as featured in "Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods, With a Few Desert and Mountain Beasts" by William Thomas Cox (via Wikimedia)
This sad, mythical creature hails from the legends of northern Pennsylvania. The Squonk was said to be a hideous forest animal with grotesquely loose, scaly skin entirely covered in warts and blemishes. The animal was so miserable over its own gruesome appearance and lack of companionship that it almost constantly wept. Local legend had it that the Squonk was quite easy to track; you could pretty much just follow the sound of the animal's sobs and salty, tear-strewn trail through the woods. Capturing one proved much harder: when greatly distressed the Squonk was said to literally dissolve into a puddle of its own tears.
The Tiyanak takes various forms in Philippine mythology. In one version it is an evil dwarf-like creature posing as a human baby, in another it is an actual demon child. The Christian take on this mythical monster turns Tiyanaks into the restless ghosts of children who have died unbaptized. In any case, the Tiyanak is said to mimic the cries of a human baby to lure its victims in. Once picked up, out come the fangs and things get gory.
The Tiyanak also enjoys confusing travelers into losing their way, leading them deeper and deeper into the Philippine jungle with its cries. If you ever find yourself being lured astray by this monster baby, the traditional trick for escape is to turn your clothes inside out. According to Philippine lore, this amuses the Tiyanak to no end, and he may just think that you're funny enough to let you live.Read More