Last week, when Indian police arrested a gang of smugglers, they confiscated an unusual cache of ill-gotten goods—hundreds of human skulls and thighbones.
Authorities believe the remains had been gathered in Varanasi, a city in northern India. (See below.) There, Hindus bring their dead to be cremated on the banks of the holy river Ganges. Unfortunately, scavengers are often lurking nearby. Bones pulled from the river and plucked from funeral pyres have been sold for centuries—for use in traditional medicines or medical experiments. This time, however, the bones had another destination.
The smugglers confessed that they were on their way to the remote kingdom of Bhutan, nestled high in the Himalayan Mountains. There, they planned to sell the bones to Buddhist monasteries (like the one shown below). Monks (practitioners of a particular school of Tibetan Buddhism) would transform the femurs into horns used in religious ceremonies. The skulls would be used as drinking chalices in rituals.
Gruesome! (I should point out that Buddhism has many different schools. This practice is would seem as unusual to most Buddhists as snake-handling would seem to most Christians.)
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(Below: A Tibetan skull cup and a horn made from a human thighbone.)