Vultures at Wat Saket

Many tourists visiting Bangkok have been to Wat Saket and the nearby Golden Mount. But, how many know details of its gruesome past? In a later blog, I will tell you about the elaborate ceremonies for the funeral and cremation of Thai people. However, in the old days, for the poor people, there was no such ceremony. They were taken to Wat Saket which was built especially for the cremations that were prohibited inside the walled city. For example, people who died a violent death, by epidemics, by suicide or by accidents.

The following is a narrative of a visit to this temple by Carl Bock in a book called “Temples and Elephants” which was first published in 1884. A little word of warning, although I have abbreviated and toned down much of the grisly details, it might not be a good idea to read this while you are eating your breakfast!

The first time I visited Wat Saket, as I entered the grounds, I met two Siamese coolies, carrying, on a bamboo stretcher, the dead body of a native pauper or criminal, followed by a couple of dozen of Siamese, some of them monks.

One or two of the group were dressed in white clothes, the national colour of mourning, with heads completely shaven in token of grief. The bearers of the corpse and the monks were the only persons directly interested in the last scene of all in the unknown history of the dead man. But, high up in the air hovered a dark group of aerial beings, who were to take a very active part in the proceedings. Circling directly over the heads of the corpse-bearers was a flight of vultures, eagerly watching the scene. When the coolies reached the selected spot they cast the dead man’s body on the ground, and the next moment the air was darkened by the ghastly, greedy vultures, as they swooped down and stood in a semicircle around the body.

During a moment’s delay, while an official, after sharpening a huge knife, approached the body, the vultures became impatient, hustling and fighting each other for a front place; once or twice they came quite close to me, and I had to keep them off with my stick. Then the official stooped down and cut the body open. The sight of the blood and entrails was too much for the filthy vultures, which began to flap their wings. A monk then advanced and chanted a few words, holding a fan and pipe in his left hand, and in his right a piece of bamboo which he touched the body.

No sooner had he uttered his last words than the vultures seemed to know their time had come, and, with a frantic rush and a horrible scream, swept forward and hopped and fluttered round the mangled corpse, each trying to get his full share of the feast. Not more than ten minutes had been occupied in this horrible feast, when the vultures retired a few feet, and the human “butcher” came forward a second time and cut the back open, followed again by the monk who performed the same actions as before. There was then a second feast for the vultures.

Eight minutes later and little remained except the head and the bones, which were collected together by the attending friends, whom I left gathering a few sticks with which to burn them.

8 responses to “Vultures at Wat Saket

  1. That’s a sad and gruelling story. Actually, it gives me the chills just looking at the picture.

  2. actually, what’s the difference between vultures eating you up or worms eating you up? just because we don’t see it, it’s all there. but we can desperately hold on to the last illusion of the dead lying in a firm coffin with nice lining, in his / her best clothes. we cannot let go. we cannot grieve properly. we are not allowed to cry and mourn and scream in despair and pain. funerals are just meant to be a nice social occasion, and we try to spare ourselves facing reality, and then end up with nightmares and psychologists and anti-depressants. I have always had the feeling asians know better how to die and how to deal with it….

  3. As gruesome as this sounds to us westreners this practice seems to have some connection with Buddhist beliefs as well as economic.

    The Suta on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness prescribles contemplating the 9 stages of decomposition of a corpse, which encludes it being torn apart by vultures, crows and the like, to see the body as impermanent and not self.

    I have heard of a”Sky burial” performed in Tibet where the deceased is “parted out” and left on the mountain tops. I would venture to guess that there is some merit obtainrd by this.

    Those are just guesses on my part and now I am very courious and will ask Ajahn tomorrow.

    Intresting story by the way!

  4. I know about “แร้ง วัด สระ เกศ เปร ตวัด สุทัศน์” . It’s happened when Cholera outbreak in thailand, about 100 or 150 years ago in time of King Rama IV. In that time at least 100,000 Thai peoples died. There were corpses everywhere and too much to handle so they gathered corpses and keep in Wat Saket but they were too many to buried or cremated. Vultures took advantage for thier foods and bred. When epidermic endes there were more than ten thounsand vultures in area of Wat Saket.

  5. แร้งวัดสระเกศ เปรตวัดสุทัศน์

    it mean “vultures in Wat Saket Pred in Wat Sutat”
    if you want to see in thai.

  6. BKK Inkslinger

    Definitely not meal-time reading. Gruesome.

    Thanks for the interesting read Richard. Really enjoy these historical narratives, gives a bit of Thailand that you normally don’t read elsewhere.

  7. I remember seeing a Television documentary a couple of years ago, where this practice is still accruing in India to this day, but they were having a problem, as the Vultures numbers had dwindled so much due to human interference with nature, they were having a problem getting enough vultures to attend the funerals

  8. Yes, in India, this way is the religious way for the Parsi community. Every city has a well where the dead are put for the vultures. Parsis are the community which found refuge in India following persecution in Middle-east many years ago. They are today one of the most respected business men… known for their people management, trustworthiness and fair mind. Unfortunately, just as the vultures are getting extinct… the parsis themselves face depletion in their population. They are just a few 100000 around the world!!