Hundreds of Tibetan monks are working side by side with mostly Han rescue workers to find survivors in quake-ravaged Yushu county. Television footage and witness accounts revealed the role being played by monks joining the frantic search for survivors and helping to ferry bodies to monasteries. Premier Wen Jiabao was shown holding the hand of a monk as he urged rescuer workers to step up their efforts. He later visited one of the largest temples in Yushu. China Central Television also reported that Tibetan monks from outside Yushu had rushed to join the rescue effort. But as hopes of finding survivors fade, Tibetologists and activists have called for monks and monasteries to be given a major say in future operations, particularly how to deal with the hundreds of bodies. More than 90 per cent of the 80,000 people in Yushu are Tibetans. The magnitude-7.1 quake that struck the county on Wednesday morning has claimed 1,144 lives, with more than 400 still unaccounted for last night. With the death toll expected to climb now that rescue operations have passed the crucial first 72 hours, the authorities face having to strike a delicate balance between pushing on with the clean-up to minimise the risk of epidemic outbreaks and showing sensitivity towards Tibetan culture and traditions. Mainland authorities have often been criticised for playing up national unity at the expense of sensitivity to the unique cultures and traditions of minority ethnic groups. It is a source of tension underscored by the rioting in Lhasa in March 2008 and Xinjiang in July last year. The sensitivity of the matter was highlighted by a guideline document hastily released by the Qinghai authorities on Thursday detailing how to deal with the quake dead. The provincial government called for respect to be given to the burial traditions of ethnic minority groups, but also authorised civil affairs departments and state-run funeral parlours to look after the bodies. The directive also authorised police and public health authorities to promptly cremate unidentified and unclaimed bodies after proper documentation. However, Tibetans observe unique and extremely elaborate burial traditions. Shi Shuo , deputy director of Sichuan University's China Tibetan Studies Institute, said that at least five burial rituals were practised in Tibetan communities on the mainland, including sky burials, cremation, water burials and earth burials. He said Tibetans paid less attention to how bodies were dealt with than the Han, but emphasised the spiritual aspects of rituals to make sure the human soul could leave the body for heaven, via elaborate prayers and religious rituals including reciting chants, or sutras. 'Given the overwhelmingly high number of bodies in the wake of the quake, the wishes of their families and Tibetan lamas and monks should be duly respected and widely consulted,' Shi said. 'So I think it's better to leave it to their families, or lamas and monks if they don't have family, to take care of the bodies.' While sky burials are the dominant ritual among Tibetans in Yushu, Shi said that water burials were sometimes reserved for those who died young, and that those who died of infectious diseases or unnatural causes were normally given earth burials. Cremation was reserved for senior monks and aristocrats. He said that another issue would be how the Tibetan lamas and monks interpreted the deaths from the earthquake, which would be a major factor in deciding the form of burial ritual to be used. 'So I think this process is very important, because it will have a bearing on how well quake survivors can heal themselves,' Shi said. He said the authorities could bring in respected lamas and senior monks from neighbouring monasteries to help out with the process and conduct collective prayers for the deceased. Tserang Woeser, a Beijing-based Tibetan activist and blogger, said the Tibetans in Yushu county were Kangbar Tibetans who traditionally favoured sky burials. However, she said they might not be able to practice those rituals because of a lack of burial sites, and the fact that Yushu airport was not far from a major sky burial site and scared off the vultures. 'The vultures can't eat them all anyway and there might not be enough vultures,' she said. 'I reckon cremations are a likely option.'