For Parsi culture, it’s all a matter of life and death

Published on the web by Star on August 29, 2005

Mumbai – Hundreds of vultures once circled above a sacred area in one of India’s poshest suburbs, waiting to feed on the remains of followers of an ancient religion that does not allow its dead to be buried or burned.

Older members of the small-but-prominent Zoroastrian Parsi community of Mumbai say it usually took only half an hour for the vultures to finish their part of the ritual, cleaning a dead body of flesh deemed to be spiritually contaminated.


But the birds have almost been wiped out by urban development and accidental poisoning, leaving Parsis divided on how best to treat the dead and stay true to the faith.

The Parsis are caught in a tug-of-war between pragmatism and tradition that goes beyond funerals to questions about conversion and racial purity. Having fled Iran centuries ago, there are about 40 000 Parsis in Mumbai, representing over a quarter of all Zoroastrians.

The “towers of silence” or “dakhma”, where Parsis place their dead, is in the Malabar Hill neighbourhood overlooking the sea, home to film stars, and politicians, making debate about it all the more charged.

Parsis also struggled to reach a consensus on other key issues, including marrying outside the faith and conversion, without which modernisers fear the religion will perish.

“The community is divided,” said Minoo Shroff, chairperson of the city’s Parsi Punchayet, the largest community trust.

Zoroastrians believe death is not just part of life, but the temporary triumph of evil over good, which means a dead body would pollute the sacred: earth, water or fire.

But after playing its ritual role for centuries, South Asia’s vulture population has plunged because of a certain painkiller, diclofenac, used on the cattle they eat.

Without vultures, Mumbai’s dakhma now relies on solar concentrators to magnify the sun’s effect on the bodies, which Khojeste Mistree, a Parsi scholar, sees as a problem.

“Who are they fooling? They’re actually burning the body,” he said. “… Theologically, it’s totally wrong. The body is totally charred, like a burn victim.”

Shroff dismisses this and argues the blackening effects of exposure on a body are similar. He also said something had to be done quickly because the Punchayet faced threats of lawsuits from deep-pocketed local residents complaining about the smell. “We are not looking at it as scholars,” he said. “We have to look at it from an administration and hygienic point of view. We have to look at the entire community, not just the Parsis.”

They had also briefly tried using chemicals, but pall bearers refused to take part because of the “ankle-deep sludge” left behind, Punchayet trustee Dinshaw Tamboly said.

Another proposal was for a huge aviary around the dakhma where vultures could be bred. But the Punchayet says it has little money to support it given its obligations to subsidise Mumbai’s Parsis from cradle to grave. “Our priority is towards the living, not towards the dead,” Tamboly said.

The Punchayet sponsors a fertility programme and increases subsidies as families grow, for the community faces its own survival battle. Almost one in three are older than 60 and their well-educated offspring have fewer children and get married later, if at all.

The women often marry non-Parsis, and Mistree worries about reformists who want to accept their offspring into the fold, so he set up the World Association of Parsi Irani Zoroastrians to rival the more liberal world body.

“If ethnicity goes, the identity goes,” he said. “And if the identity goes, we believe our religion will die.” – Reuters

Article by By Braden Reddall

Published on the web by Star on August 29, 2005. © Star 2005. All rights reserved.

  • True Orthodox Zoroastrian

    Quote:Without vultures, Mumbai’s dakhma now relies on solar concentrators to magnify the sun’s effect on the bodies, which Khojeste Mistree, a Parsi scholar, sees as a problem.

    “Who are they fooling? They’re actually burning the body,” he said. “… Theologically, it’s totally wrong. The body is totally charred, like a burn victim.”
    Mr. Mistree is now a TRUSTEE OF B .P. P. since over a year and a half.
    Why has he not discontinued the system of Solar Concentrators?
    Is he and the other WAPIZ trustee not contintuing what was “THEOLOGICALLY W R ON G” even after 5 years from the date of this article?
    Is it because of upcoming new building on ownership basis in Godrej Baug?
    Why are genuine traditionalists keeping quiet. We orthodox have been ride and feel cheated.

  • ContraDhongi.

    True Orthodox Zoro,
    Do you mean to say, you relied on utterances of such mealy mouthed persons. What a pity.

  • Ava Billimoria

    As a Parsi I’m utterly shocked and saddened by the way these present Trustees of BPP are handling the issue of Dakhma system which is one of the pillars of our faith. How can anyone tolerate Solar Panels at Dakhma when its not mentioned in our holy books? Shame on hypocrites like Khojestee Mistree who makes tall claims and promises about Aviary project to get votes from us, and does nothing about it once he is elected. I voted for him thinking he would be man of words, but the fact is , badha chor company che, all they want is community wealth in their pockets. Shame on them and shame on those who support such crooks in name of Zarathosty Faith

  • Zerxes Dordi.

    In FPJ ad page a letter from one imaginary Mrs. Cooper (without first name and address) states that she found surroundings of Doongerwadi peaceful. Well what did ‘she’ expect -a Jazz band or a symphony orchestra? All burial grounds are serene in atmosphere. ‘She’ also claims that she did not find any foul smell. This proves that bovine urine can suppress stench of rotting corpses.
    But the million dollar question that True Orthodox Zoroastran has raised, (though one does not agree with this blogger) what if Solar reflectors are discontinued as they are theologically wrong.
    @ Ava,
    The dakhmas are equivalent to Fire Temples as far as sacredness is concerned. They are consecrated. So can they be defiled by bovine urine being thrown about? Secondly, though persons like you can repent at leisure about your electoral choice, just think – one is not supposed to donate eyes or other parts since the body has to return to the Maker in the condition, He made. Then what about the disfigurement caused by ‘herbal powder’?

  • Altaf Pardiwala

    Are BPP elections round the corner? Of late there has been a desperate but vain attempt to paint the present trustees in bad light by a small group of bloggers under fancy Parsi names. The Parsi community as a whole is more than satisfied with the performance of the trustees whom they have elected with Adult Franchise. Ofcourse it is a pity that the AFP did not win, but they did expect to lose as they were a bunch of losers. Their food boxes were not as good, the WAPIZ ones were better ! The AFP candidates…….the less said the better.

    It is these losers who are “voicing” their opinion where nobody really bothers to listen to them. Relax guys, the elections are 5 years away and the community will once again unite to show you reformist guys the door at the right time.

  • Farzana

    Khojeste Mistree won the election by merely 5,000 votes from Bawas living in mumbai only …and he thinks he represents Parsi community world wide!!

  • BOMAN

    What a funny and myopic thinking on the part of a person with not so ‘fancy’ a name like A. Pardiwalla. He thinks that ALL those PERSONS who expose the shortcomings and
    non -fulfillment of poll promises of present set of Trustees are all sympathizers of defunct AFP. Wonder what makes him assume that AFP candidates if elected would have been better performers and they (AFP Guys) would have been spared of criticism. Views of persons of Pardiwalla and his typpes is akin to those of ex President Bush – if you are not with us, you are with our opponents. Petty minds can never visualize existence of independent persons with impartial views.

  • BOMAN

    @ Farzana.
    Left to himself, persons like Pardiwalla would like to obliterate what ever his idol said and has appeared on Parsi Khabar in August 2005. But he can not do so and thus can not be instrumental in sparing the faults of his idol being highlighted. Try to understand ‘discomfort’ of such persons.

  • M.Dastoor.

    I HAPPEN TO BE TRADITIONAL MINDED AND DO NOT BELIEVE IN CRITICISM FOR THE SAKE OF IT.BUT HERE THE ISSUE IS THAT PERSONS LIKE ME FEEL BADLY LET DOWN. So, dear Pardiwlla, do we not have a right to express our anguish?.I did not vote for a single AFP Candidate knowing their preoccupations, if not any other reason.
    And Altaf Pardiwala says ‘It is these losers who are “voicing” their opinion where nobody really bothers to listen to them.’
    So Altaf or who so ever you are, YOU HAVE CERTAINLY ‘bothered to listen’. You, Sir have listened NOT to LOSERS but to those who feel misled and who have spoken their minds on assurances and past ‘opinions’ of this ‘scholar’.Otherwise, would you have taken the trouble of once again blowing the bugle ‘WE WON’ howsoever slender the margin?
    At that time of Victory of Traditionalists, I too was overjoyed but that joy has been curtailed by broken promises of transparency and non declaration of Assets by victorious candidates
    Do you desire that Voice of the disillusioned Orthodox be supressed at the altar of flattery?
    And I find from comments of others that this focussing on reneging on assurances is directed only against one Trustee and so no question of criticism of remaining Trustees. And I repeat,.And mistake me not, ALL those who point out the facts of false promises are not REFORMISTS. Remove this misconception from your mind, dear Sir.

  • Adarbahman

    To,
    PARDIWALLA.
    If we go by your beliefs, then since UPA government came to power after winning elections, opposition should sit with its hands folded and not perform its duties of pointing out legitimate faults. In this case of our community, the type of focusing the faults is not directed against all the Trustees but only against ONE for whatever he has assured and made commitments in the past.
    Give up this Nazi mentality of silencing the real concerns of those who are only doing their duty, out sense of commitment for the larger good of the community.Persons like you have criticised reformists and now want to label us staunch traditionalists too as Reformists?

  • Altaf Pardiwala

    Once again the same pijan patlo……..ok lets make things easier for you oldies to grasp.
    You can criticize someone if you can perform better than the person you criticize. Simply put, if you pass a negative remark for an athelete’s performance, you should be able to cross that mark or do better than him. So, if you guys seriously would like to point a finger at these trustees, put your shoulder to the wheel and show the bawas that you can do it better. Armchair critics are avaialble in plenty, it takes sheer hard work, zest and a will to achieve that makes all the difference.

    We at ZYNG never crib, play dirty politics or pull a fellow bawa down. This style is typical of you oldies who have lived your life, now retired and have nothing better to do. Even at this age do something constructive, let people praise you for YOUR good work and don’t wait or desire for accolades. Recognition will come automatically if you can prove your worth.

    sorry for this nalle mone motti vaat.

  • TRADITIONALIST

    How dare Pardiwalla brand us conservatives as reformist when all we want is restoration of traditional pristine system as per Religious tenets with birds of prey and shutting down of solar cookers.Pardiwalla is b no better than the Reformists AFP if he is not in favour of pulling down solar cookers and opposes setting up of Aviary. Expecting a election promise to be carried out is not too much. I am not for personal criticism of any particular Trustee but only desire that anti religious practice be stopped forthwith. Is it asking too much?

  • Zerxes Dordi.

    I learnt the concept/definition of youth as adopted by ZYNG with a chuckle. Now Altaf opens my mind.
    ZYNG as alleged by the uncharitable is a nursery for future politicians oops Trustee material based on dynasty. Now it so turns out that this GROUP is perhaps set up for brainwashing youngsters.
    I do not know if Altaf has entered corporate world for if he had, he would surely know that every corporate has a Performance Appraisal System in place. When the actual performance is below expected performance, the outcome is not very pleasant to describe.He should read pink papers for gaining knowledge in sphere of HRD.
    I am neither retired nor faltoo as Altaf assumes other boarders to be but he can not buy silence of others by his political rhetoric.
    If one goes by logic of Altaf,then all Cricket selectors would be considered unfit since most of them have played lesser matches, got lesser wickets and scored lesser runs then the current players because the frequency of matches in the past were fewer.Should these selectors cease to be selectors for this reason?
    Adarbahman has dwelt rightly about the role of opposition. Possibly.Altaf did not have the opportunity to study subject of CIVICS in his School .
    Sorry Altaf, pointing out failures is not pijan patlo. Your objective of silencing those who elected the present 7 will be in vain for your comparisons are absurd to say it mildly.

  • Dorab.Unwalla

    Strange as it sounds, Pardiwalla, on the 9th instant talks of ZYNG being proactive and constructive. Be that as it may, is it not the same boarder who talked about Reformists etc etc in the post dated two days earlier. He comments about top executives and professionals in a manner of contempt when he says ‘The AFP candidates…….the less said the better’. Is Pardiwalla himself gainfully employed since his post of 9th is showing the time 12.55. p.m.? If ZYNG is above communal politics, then why he comes out to defend the indefensible on the subject which is political?
    It is not a case of ‘nale mone motti vaat’, it is ‘nale mone khotee vaat’ as a defence spokesperson.

  • NEMESIS.

    Since I am active on Face Book, I read a profile of a ZYNG ‘activist’ It is stated that he passed his ICSE in 1974 , i,.e. School Leaving.
    Assuming his age then to be sixteen in 1974, his present age would be 52. ZYNG really is full of youthfulness. Youthfulness ‘redefined’ ROFLMAO

  • farzana

    Haaahaaaa!! at 50+ appro Altaf is still a teenager!Though mentally he sure is… 😀

    Hey Altaf, nobody is forcing you to take part in ‘Pijun patlo’, unless you want to…and have your reasons to do chamchaagiri for the trustees.

    The above article openly says-

    “Without vultures, Mumbai’s dakhma now relies on solar concentrators to magnify the sun’s effect on the bodies, which Khojeste Mistree, a Parsi scholar, sees as a problem.”

    So now that Khosjestee Mistree is a trustee, shouldn’t he be getting rid of solar concentrators that he was openly questioning when he was out of power??!!

    After all if he pretends to know religion better than others, he should have known that in absence of vultures, dakhma system can not work…and piling of dead bodies without an alternative system in place, is a sin. Besides solar reactors are not subscribed in the scriptures…If the bodies are to be charred by the solar reactor, than how is it different from cremation?

    So Mister Altaf, what are your reasons to defend Khojestee Mistree and his schemes? are you on his payroll?

  • Agp

    Dorab.Unwalla, so Mr. so called bold & brave as per your Wrong & failed logic a person who post a message late at night is unemployed? Yet another depiction of your low class thinking.
    Its seems you don’t have a habit to digest the truth, no problem, non can even expect the same from you, people who sell their values & suggest others to fake wearing a sudro kusti are not expected to do that.
    I dont know in case of others as you have mentioned, but surly in your case it is “khote modhe bhogwan ni vat”.

  • Altaf Pardiwala

    Nowadays it seems to be a fashion to declare one’s self as a traditionalist or conservative without even coming close, just to be in the good books of the community. Everyone knows the contempt with which the reformists are being treated.. During the second BPP elections the contestants were Armaiti Tirandaz Vs Maneck Engineer, AZA waved the trump card of “traditionalism” but they lost. People could see through the farce. Your ideas distinctly contradict any hint of traditionalism, so save those lies for some other time. Adarbahman Uncle are you listening?

    Farzana aunty,
    ZYNG membership is only between 18-35 so obviously I can’t be 50. Use that grey matter, for a change, if available. I don’t need to do any “chamchagiri” to use your choice of language for anyone. The man’s deeds and actions speak for themselves. Attend one of Khojeste’s lectures, hear and imbibe what he has to say, then form your opinion. We at ZYNG are extremely happy and fortunate to have him in our midst, and your opinion or lack if it is not going to make any difference. Got it? Khojeste is presently working on the Doongerwadi and has made many positive changes. Just visit the premises once to find out what the changes are. Anyway he does not force any bawa to use Doongerwadi, people are free to use whatever system they like.

    Dorab-jee Uncle,
    How does it matter what time I write or post?

    Zerxes Uncle,
    Your example of the cricketers is just not relevant here. You have failed to grasp the analogy provided. If you can do better, prove it or else don’t waste my time and yours. It is not my intention to silence anyone here. On the contrary the more your write the more blurps and blunders you create. I should not be teaching you, it should be the other way round, but then age is not the deciding factor as can be seen.

    Nemesis (Uncle or Aunty ??)
    Sorry, I am not on Facebook, so all your efforts have gone down the drain.

    Agp, you are the only Rational person around here. Thanks.

  • Concern Zorastrain

    This time in the ellection for sure the BPP’s monarchy BIG BULLY’S will pay the price. And all the big talks of the so called messayair will be swallowed with a gulp since he himself did not use the dakma system for his dead mother (may she rest in peace) double standard big mouth. Stop playing polities with peoples feelings.
    By the way ” NO VULTURE NO CULTURE” think about it…..

  • farzana

    Dorab, you should have advised that gentleman to contact Kurosh Aryana. He conducts Sedreh Pooshi-Navjote ceremony of all those who wish to join Zoroastrianism.

    http://bozorgbazgasht.com/English-Events-London.html

  • Zerxes.Dordi

    Farzana,In all likelihood this person never imagined even in his wildest dreams that he would become a Trustee by sheer chance and will have to eat his own words. Alataf uses the word ‘retired’ against others but himself finds time to post messages in the noon.If he feels that reading posts here is a waste of time, he may ignore them but he can not expect every person to toe his line of flattery or should I say sycophancy.And when he talks of contestants, winners & losers in election, he surely gives away how ‘distanced’ he is from politics of the community.Somebody having the C.D. of Parsee electorate should ascertain if the person calling himself as Altaf is registered as a Voter.
    Age certainly is not the deciding factor when a mind is motgaged for selfish reasons.However hard he may try to silence others, the proof of what Mistree said in 2005 and has not implemented his own version of true religion remains.

  • Zerxes,

    Altaf, here you seem to be having a big problem even if others who write more and ‘commit more blurps and blunders’ . Please do not worry your head for my well being.Those who write here are matured enough to separate wheat from chaff.

  • Dorab.

    Apg.
    It is not my practice to discuss matters with those who wear ‘burkhas’ and use pen names.
    @Farzana,
    Pardiwala finds Agp to be the only ‘rational person’. Just give a thought A for = _ P for= _. I feel it is one and the same person praising his own self. What say you? Hi, Hi, Hi.
    No further post from my side. I dislike faceless persons who are afraid of mentioning their names in full.

  • Meher Vesuna

    Why is everyone getting so worked up over this Altaf Pardiwala? Do not give him any attention. He knows not what he is talking about.

  • NEMESIS.

    Pardiwala,
    In my post of 9th, I do not think I have mentioned any name. But if the ‘cap’ fits you, I am helpless.So the issue of my effort going in vain or drain is your imagination. People do assume identities of third parties who are unaware of their misuse.
    @Meher,
    English Dictionary has a word called Henchman and every politician or an upstart needs them.And so Farrzna, pl use a polished word of henchman and not Chamcha. Its a bit crude.

    I fully agree with you Meher that some people ‘know not what he is talking about’. Here Pardiwala says that ‘ Armchair critics are avaialble in plenty,’ So in 2005, does not the person whom he admires falls in the same category as an arm chair critic of the then Trustees?
    Now who is writing more and making/creating/adding to blunders?

  • Agp

    @ Dorab Unwalla, Mr. so-called Brave & bold, I am so happy to hear about your irritation from burkhas which is nothing much more then another fake note from you, because from your few previous post it sounds to me that you seem to support the ill intentions because of which we had to flee from iran, that in turn means that you support the burkhas! In short you have a true right to be labeled as a shameless traitor. Your own doing.

    Dorab its seems your are out of answers, as usual, and therefore like a scared duck are trying to avoid me by bogus excuses, I should have understood the same, my fault, didn’t know you were so barefacedly LAME.

    Regarding your time trial theory, its still not worth to understand the same, people do wake up at night and work, don’t they! As matter of fact I do consider this that people who can’t be loyal to their own faith, how can they be loyal to their own work, and therefore expecting people like you to know what over time means is awfully useless…

  • Behram Aga

    Altaf Pardiwala,
    Congratulations young man! Way to go. I admire your grit and style. I can see that you are excellent future trustee material yourself, we want youngsters like you to lead us. Get ready to work for the community 5 years from now. I am one of the “oldies” as you put it but admire the way you have taken the Parsi Khabar gang head on. Keep it up.

  • Byram. Sidhwa

    Zerxes/Dorab, Meher,Ferzana,& Nemesis,
    Some are ‘retired’ from active service and are being advised by a ‘youth’ to do something ‘constructive’. But what about those who are perennially on doles, never worked/earned for a honest living but enjoy staying in posh apartment of a charity building and moving in a D Segment car, without any established and a known source of income?

  • farzana

    Sorry to say Altaf baba I find no Altaf Pardiwala on the ZYNG member list too. May be you are too young to be eligible being not even of 18 years… tskkkk.. Hope you grow up soon..intellectually too…But if you keep listening to fairy tales of Khojestee Mistree’s lectures on Parsism, chances of growth of your mental faculties are very dim as you have already demonstrated to us, baba.
    You want us to judge Khojestee by his deeds …… but that is exactly what we are already judging him by!!
    We had foreseen his attempts to take the community for a free ride and now even the hard core Traditionalists have woken up with a sense of disillusionment of your idol going back on his documented assurances. Now you are attempting to hoodwink bawas here assuming that all bawas are simpletons and will remain so forever. Nice try.
    So as remarked by another blogger, your master was himself an arm chair critic in 2005 of the previous team of Trustees and he doesn’t seem to be farsighted just like his chamchas…ooops!! hatchmen ..darn!

  • Hosi.Pardiwala

    Pardiwala is a surname common amogst Bohras as well as Parsees. I have never heard of name like Altaf amongst Parsis. Is ZYNG membership open for other religious denominations ?

  • Boman

    Hosi, here we have a person congratulating a spokesperson who has no genuine identity of his own.And the height of absurdity is that such fictitious ID is considered as a fit Trustee material.

  • Dorab.

    Now that safeguards of logging have been introduced, hopefully,bogus messages from so called nick names with just three alphabets as ‘name’ should stop.

  • Adarbahman

    In last Sunday’s issue of Jame Views paper Dr. Sidhwa, a well known radiologist has expressed the view that only learned priests are capable of guiding us in matters of religion and not fekum fek self style scholars. Wonder who is the author referring to as self styled Scholars. Quite a tongue in cheek remark, I must say.

    Moreover, since, B.P.P. is actually a Trust intended to manage Trust properties, reserving a post for a Priest will not serve any purpose as BPP is not a religious body. Is writ, at best can run in Mumbai. What about other places in India, let alone abroad…I wonder how many priest, with INTEGRITY can, these days actually qualify as LEARNED.

  • Voice of Reason

    Adarbahman,
    You are slightly off the mark about last sentence of your post. We certainly do have a few if not many LEARNED Scholar priests. But they have different yardsticks for persons with different status, on religious issues. For them it is immaterial if one is born of both parents being Parsees or otherwise. They believe in the motto of money makes the mare go.
    Question of reserving a post for BPP Trusteeship is out of question for as it is family members of existing trustees are on a paperless WAITING LIST since they have no alternate scope of gainful employment. As somebody remarked BPP will soon become a Partnership with Limited Liability.

  • Boman Patel

    Yes, indeed, as subtly mentioned by Adar, Jame is now a Views Paper not a News Paper. Actually, I understand that Vernacular News papers get benefit from authorities in procuring News Print. But these days, one observes that contents of Jame are articles predominantly in English and even Classified Advertisements too are mostly in English.It has ceased to qualify as a vernacular.
    Some time back, when it was suiting certain vested interests, it was called a ‘weakly’.

  • piloo_2

    Altaf Pardiwala or whosoever is his actual name is says
    ‘ Simply put, if you pass a negative remark for an athelete’s performance, you should be able to cross that mark or do better than him”
    In other words he wants us to give false promises, take an audience of bawas for a ride and outdo the person who asked ‘Pardiwala’ to write something in his defence? That way we can ‘prove ‘ and show that we can do ‘better’ hoodwinking. Right ??
    I asked a Parsee youngster, a member of ZYNG to let me know if there indeed as a member by name Altaf Pardiwala in ZYNG. The answer was NEGATIVE. Now no prizes for guessing who was behind the posts of Altaf. And he has the audacity to say that persons who post their opinions here ‘play dirt politics’. So Altaf or whosoever you are, is this your concept of CLEAN POLITICS.?
    Have your posts got you recognition and accolades from those on whose behalf you attempted to run down the educated and thinking sections of our faith?