Watch CBSN Live

Tibetans Break Tradition, Cremate Dead

Monks wearing face masks set ablaze piles of the blanket-wrapped bodies of China's earthquake victims on a mountaintop Saturday, as necessity forced local Tibetans to break with the tradition of leaving their dead out for vultures.

Hundreds of villagers sat on the hillside, watching as the flames leapt skyward, while monks chanted and prayed for the dead.

The mass cremation marked the start of the community's recovery even as rescue workers continued to pick through rubble - and found at least one survivor - in a remote corner of western China.

The death toll from Wednesday's quake rose to 1,339, officials told reporters at a briefing Saturday afternoon, with 332 still missing. Officials said 11,849 were injured, including 1,297 seriously.

Moved by the disaster in the overwhelmingly Tibetan area, the Dalai Lama said Saturday he would like to visit the site. The Tibetan spiritual leader fled Tibet after a failed 1959 uprising against Chinese rule and has never returned.

"To fulfill the wishes of many of the people there, I am eager to go there myself to offer them comfort," the Dalai Lama said in the Indian hill town that is home to the Tibetan government-in-exile.

There was no immediate comment from China's government. It has accused the Dalai Lama of fomenting separatism in Tibetan areas, making it very unlikely that he would be allowed to visit.

The Dalai Lama also commended Chinese officials, especially Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, for their quick response to the earthquake.

Tibetans in the region traditionally perform "sky burials," in which bodies are chopped into pieces and left on a platform to be devoured by vultures. But a monk, Zewang Jimei, said the large number of corpses made that impossible Saturday.

"There are not enough vultures for all these bodies, so the bodies will become very dirty and it is not good for the souls to rest in peace," Zewang said. "Therefore, we think the mass cremation is the best funeral for all these earthquake victims."

Monks at the cremation were not able to give an exact number of bodies burned.

In town, rescue workers pulled out a single survivor from a ruined hotel, China Central television reported.

Relief goods continued to arrive along the single, traffic-clogged main road from the Qinghai provincial capital, 12 hours away. However, Vice Transport Minister Gao Hongfeng told reporters in Beijing that it may rain and snow in the next few days, making it more difficult to transport the injured out and relief goods in.

Police said they have increased security at areas where relief supplies are being handed out after reports of fighting among survivors for aid.

"We will severely attack the looting of disaster relief materials and the stealing of victims' property," provincial Deputy Police Chief Liu Tianhui told a news conference held in a tent in Jiegu on Saturday.

Liu said there were cases of looting right after the quake, but the situation had improved and "is stable now."

He said the biggest challenge is getting enough clean drinking water and food for the estimated 100,000 people affected by the earthquake.

Though the government was reaching out, many residents turned instead to the monks and their traditions, rather than the central authority dominated by the majority Han Chinese. The groups are divided by language - the government has had to mobilize hundreds of Tibetan speakers to communicate with victims - as well as by culture and religion.

Cultural differences might have contributed a sharp rise in the official death toll Friday. In a telephone call with The Associated Press, rescue officials seemed surprised to hear that hundreds of bodies were at the Jiegu monastery, taken there by Buddhist families. The new official death toll was announced hours later.

(AP Photo/Ashwini Bhatia)
Residents of the largely Tibetan town pointed out repeatedly that after the earthquake, the monks were the first to come to their aid - pulling people from the rubble and passing out their own limited supplies.

(Left: The Dalai Lama speaks during a press conference in Dharmsala, India, Saturday, April 17, 2010. The Tibetan spiritual leader said that he would like to visit the site of the earthquake that hit Western China which is overwhelmingly Tibetan.)

The area in Yushu county is overwhelmingly Tibetan - 93 percent by official statistics, though that does not include Han migrants who have moved in temporarily to open restaurants, take construction jobs or work in mines.

The region largely escaped the unrest that swept the Tibetan plateau in 2008. But authorities have periodically sealed it off to foreign media and tourists.
By Associated Press Writer Anita Chang; AP writers Chi-Chi Zhang and Cara Anna in Beijing contributed to this report

View CBS News In