Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

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.