Tibetan Skeleton Dance

1925 photo of a Tibetan skeleton dancer

The Skeleton dance is a sacred Tibetan dance ritual found in Himalayan Buddhist lineages. It is intended to reflect the transient nature of things, including states of mind and the body itself. The monk pictured in the above photo, taken in 1925, seems to be performing the dance known as Durdak Garcham, “Dance of the Lords of the Cemetery.” The dance celebrates the liberation that comes from acceptance of our impermanence.

The skeletons depicted in the dance are Chitipati, a pair of lovers known as the Lord and Lady of the charnel ground whose dance represents the eternal dance of death, as well as the attainment of perfect consciousness. They are worldy guardians, They are typically depicted as skeletons, each with a third eye of wisdom, holding scepters made of human heads and spines in one hand and a blood-filled kapala, sometimes with a still warm brain inside, in the other hand.

The Lord and Lady can usually be distinguished from other skeleton deities by the crowns with five small human skulls, as well as the fan-shaped ornaments on their ears. They represent a “dynamic vision of death and transformation” and a “joyous freedom from attachment” rather than “morbid pessimism” as the imagery conveys in Western societies.

Tibetan skeleton dancers performing in 1925

Tibetan Skeleton Dance

Tibetan monks of the Drepung monastery perform the traditional skeleton dance in this video from the 2002 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

Some ritual skeleton dances are secret, having never been seen by the public. They are performed by chod initiates before they are sent off by their teachers to practice alone in cemeteries or other charnel places.

Thanks to the Cabinet of Curiosities Podcast for sharing these photos and bringing my attention to this fascinating tradition.

Aghori: Cannibal Sect of Hindu Monks

The Aghori monks are a Hindu sect known predominantly for their taboo practices such as the ritual cannibalism of the dead.

An Aghori man drinks ritual alcohol from a human skull

The Aghori are Shaivites, ascetic sadhus devoted to Shiva. They believe the Hindu god of transformation through death and destruction is the supreme being, embracing death and devoting their lives to living in filth. They often live in or near cremation sites, covering themselves in ashes of the dead, and use bones to make bowls and jewelry.

More: Cannibalism on Cult of Weird

An Aghori man with a human skull

An Aghori man with a human skull

Human remains for the Aghori rituals are gathered from the sacred but highly polluted Ganges river, where the ashes and bones of cremated dead are thrown from the Varanasi ghats. During cholera epidemics of the past, thousands of uncremated bodies were dumped into the river.

Still today, the bodies of holy men, pregnant women, people with leprosy/chicken pox, people bitten by snakes, people who have committed suicide, the poor, and children under 5 are not cremated at the ghats but weighted down in the Ganges. The bodies eventually come loose and float down the river.

The corpses are worn, used as alters, or consumed to serve as a reminder of mortality and the challenge to transcend the duality of life and death. For an Aghori sadhu, they are symbolic of himself.

The flesh is eaten raw or cooked over an open flame.

Drinking alcohol from a human skull, known as kapala, is another common tradition in Aghori ritual, as is drinking urine and eating fecal matter.

Tibetan engraved human skull

Tibetan Engraved Skull

Ornately engraved Tibetan skulls were used as talismans that were believed to lift a family curse or guide a soul gone astray.