Hundreds of victims of an earthquake that struck western China were cremated on Saturday as necessity forced local Tibetans to break with centuries-old “sky burial” traditions.
About 1,000 monks were on hand on a mountain beside Jiegu, the hardest-hit area by Wednesday’s earthquake, to chant Buddhist prayers as the bodies were set on fire.
While the cremation took place, rescue workers were still searching through rubble in this remote western region in a bid to find any remaining survivors, with officials saying the death toll had climbed to 1,144.
The quakes struck an ethnic Tibetan area, where people traditionally perform sky burials, which involve chopping a body into pieces and leaving it on a platform to be devoured by vultures. But one monk, Zewang Jimei, said the large number of corpses made that impossible.
“This is very special as there are too many bodies from earthquake victims, and we can’t have sky burials for all of them at the same time,” Zewang said.
“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,” he said. “Therefore, we think the mass cremation is the best funeral for all these earthquake victims.”
Hundreds of villagers sat on the hillside watching as the flames leapt skyward.
Monks at the cremation were not able to give an exact number of bodies burned.
Relief goods continued to arrive, having come along the single main road from the Qinghai provincial capital, 12 hours away. However, Vice Transport Minister Gao Hongfeng told a news conference 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 had increased security at areas were relief supplies were being handed out.
“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 morning.
Mr. Liu said there were cases of looting right after the quake that shook the area Wednesday, but that the situation had improved and “is stable now.”
He said the biggest challenge was still getting enough clean drinking water and food for estimated 100,000 people affected by earthquake.
Though the government was reaching out, many residents turned instead to the monks and their traditions, rather than a 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 culture and religion.
Cultural differences might have contributed to Friday’s sharp rise in the death toll. In a telephone call with The Associated Press on Friday, 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.
Residents of the largely Tibetan town pointed out repeatedly that after the series of earthquakes on Wednesday, the monks were the first to come to their aid - pulling people from the rubble and passing out their own limited supplies.
Yushu county, the area impacted by the quakes, 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 area largely escaped the unrest that swept the Tibetan plateau in 2008. But authorities have periodically sealed off the area to foreign media and tourists.
China Central Television reported on Saturday that a survivor had been detected in a hotel in Jiegu, with workers trying to reach the person. CCTV said a 13-year-old girl was pulled from the toppled two-story hotel on Friday after a sniffer dog alerted rescuers.
State media said more equipment to check for signs of life was on the way, along with 40,000 tents - enough to accommodate all the survivors.