A Crisis for the Faithful

The Parsi bodies are piling up in India. Parsis are modern adherents of the ancient Zoroastrian faith that emerged in the 6th century B.C. in Persia, predating Christianity and Islam. According to many scholars, Zoroastrianism influenced these religions and Judaism with its fundamental concept of a dualistic world of light versus darkness, with a good God pitted against the forces of evil.

Article by Meera Subramanian for the Wall Street Journal

In the earthly realm of humans, Parsis also believe in the ritual purity of fire, soil and water, elements that shouldn’t be sullied by pollution from a defiling corpse. So while virtually all other cultures dispose of their dead by burial or cremation, Parsis have followed a more unusual method. Yet after millennia, that method now has been called into question, forcing a crisis of faith whose only answer is adaptation.

In a ritual so old it was described by Herodotus, Zoroastrians have laid out their dead atop Towers of Silence to be exposed to sun, sky and—most importantly—vultures. These massive harbingers of death with eight-foot wingspans once numbered in the millions across South Asia and could strip a corpse to the bone in hours. Yet their service has come to an abrupt end in the past decade as the vulture population plummeted due to a fatal reaction to a common painkiller given to the livestock and humans that the birds eventually feed upon. Ongoing habitat shrinkage has exacerbated the decline. With vultures virtually extinct, the Parsis are left struggling with the question of how to preserve traditions when modern forces conspire against them.

This threatened custom is just one more blow to a religion already perched on the edge of annihilation. Though tens of millions of Parsis once lived across Asia, now there are only an estimated 140,000 world-wide, with the majority in India and the next-largest group in the U.S. Most are based in Mumbai, where they own 155 pristine, park-like acres that shelter the squat stone Towers of Silence amid a dappled sunlit forest.

Vultures haven’t been seen in Mumbai for years. The Parsis have attempted to replace the service that the birds provided so seamlessly, for so long, with a series of failed technologies, including ozone machines and chemicals to accelerate decomposition. They’ve settled on solar reflectors directed at the bodies to speed up the process of decay without violating the fundamental tenet of their religion to avoid fire. The most orthodox of priests disapprove even of this, claiming that it’s tantamount to cremation.

Priests aren’t the only ones holding the line against modernization. "People say the Towers of Silence are antiquated, that we should move on to cremation and forget our tradition," says Khojeste Mistree, an Oxford-educated Parsi scholar. "I’m totally opposed." Prof. Mistree and others in the Parsi governing body insist that the solar collectors are working.

Not so, according to Ms. Dhan Baria, a 70-year-old Parsi. After her mother’s death in 2006, and following the leads of rumors about accumulating bodies, she hired a photographer to sneak into the towers. Gruesome photos confirmed the gossip. Now an active reformer, Ms. Baria believes that Parsis should have access to burial or cremation, with full rites permitted on the sacred grounds, in order to avoid the fate of her mother’s body, which remained on the towers long after her death, exposed through the treetops to some high-rise apartments of upscale Malabar Hill. In December, I walked through the grounds surrounding the towers with Ms. Baria. She pointed into the forest, where peacocks strutted about, and lamented repeatedly, "Why can’t this space be used as a cemetery?"

Ms. Baria is typical of a growing group of Parsis who believe their faith must adapt in order to survive. Her photographs of decaying bodies heightened the divide within a dwindling community already fractured over other matters of tradition, including conversion and intermarriage, that vex various religious communities, including American Jews, in the face of modernity.

With the conventional Parsi priests offering what are, in effect, one-stop funeral services at the Towers of Silence, reformers feel unable to effect change within their religious community. Instead, some are turning to the Indian legal system. In a discrimination case now before the Gujarat state high court, a Parsi woman who married a non-Parsi is suing for the right to enter fire temples and to participate in last rites for her parents—practices that have traditionally been forbidden to non-Parsis or to those whose faith is questioned because of intermarriage.

"This powerful, vociferous minority of reformists doesn’t know the religion," responds the Oxford scholar Mr. Mistree.

But what is "the religion"? To persist for millennia, Parsis have adapted many times over, emigrating from their native Persia in the 10th century and adjusting to India. They then spread out in a global diaspora to places where they have adopted burial and cremation because there simply are no Towers of Silence or circling vultures. Tradition is the bedrock of faith, observances and ritual the fundamental and physical manifestation of belief. Yet there are circumstances where, in order to uphold convention, it is necessary to reshape the foundation, carve here and add there, so that "the religion" might endure for millennia to come.

Ms. Subramanian is a free-lance writer and senior editor of KillingTheBuddha.com, an online literary magazine about religion.

  • Dr. Pallan Ichaporia, Ph.D., D.Phil

    Following is the most correct answer to modernists and reformists. The 3500 years old traditions can not just be discarded because modern Parsis do not like it

    “People say the Towers of Silence are antiquated, that we should move on to cremation and forget our tradition,” says Khojeste Mistree, an Oxford-educated Parsi scholar. “I’m totally opposed.” Prof. Mistree and others in the Parsi governing body insist that the solar collectors are working.”..

  • piloo

    Pallan since you happen to be highly educated can you suggest a remedy for expeditious disposal of corpses since there are no vultures.
    Do you consider the spraying of bovine urine on corpses as conforming to our religious tenets?. It is fallacy to assume that all who are questioning the present mode are pro cremation.Just as we can not pollute fire, can we pollute and defile consecrated dakmas which are as sacred as our places of worship.
    I am all for observing the tenets of our religion and many orthodox Parsees like me consider burial to be a better and dignified mode.

  • Dorab

    Dr. Pallan Ichaporia,
    Having said that Solar Collectors as working, are you aware of climatic changes that have taken place during last decade in India. Monsoons having become a curse. Sun remains behind clouds for more than 3 to 4 months.
    And if the solar devices were working,what caused the fire in dakhmas in 2OO8.?
    Let it be known that except for those who admire Mistree why should others be dictated by Mistree or anbody
    Next, Community members will be told from which Medical practitioner or hospital they should approach when they fall ill?
    You or Mistree are not masters of any other person’s soul, remember that.

  • Hosi.Pardiwala

    Dr. Pallan, it seems you have not read the current issue of Parsiana wherein it is mentioned that bovine urine is being procured from Panjrapole to prevent the stench of rotting corpses from spreading. This is SHOCKING. Especially with news articles appearing in secular tabloids saying the dead bodies are piling up. Is this our 3500 years old tradition? I meant, rotting dead bodies piling up and bovine urine sprinkled on them to prevent the stench of rotting corpses from spreading? Can you show us if this practice of bovine urine being thrown on corpses having existed 3500 ago?
    You have also referred to Solar Panels. In Bombay there are rain clouds for four months.
    And my last question, can Solar Panels destroy bones especially skulls.?

    Thank you.

  • Zinob

    Dr. Ichaporia had no business to provoke a debate when none from the Reformists side had started a comment. He has given a ready opportunity to such persons to begin commenting for which convincing answers will be hard to give.

  • Adarbahman

    Whatever has been stated by Dr. Ichaporia is not as an outcome of his scholarship but because of his leanings for a Parsi group having fixed beliefs.
    I believe Ichhaporia is living in U.S and is he going to practice and implement his impractical ideas in USA, right? Persons sitting in ivory towers and mouthing arm chair criticism of persons facing problems here hardly helps in mitigating the problem.Why should someone listen to Mistree or any other person when our body belongs to us and not to such fekologists. His expertise is in conducting tours to Iran.
    One has to just ask for state of affairs of Dungerwadi to any pall bearer in Mumbai.
    All this time we have been told that we should listen to high priests in this matter in the same manner as we heed the advice of a lawyer or a Doctor when we have legal or health problem. I ask ,do priests carry the corpses or pall bearers? So who is better informed., our priests or pall bearers?
    And as yet no body has explained why Er Balsara has been just warned and why stringent action has not been initiated against him.
    I will conclude at this stage itself as of now but if somebody puts up any further nonsense, I will expose the matter more throughly.

  • Voice of Reason.

    Please Dr. Ichaporia do come down to pay a visit Mumbai and ask for permission to inspect the inside of Dakhmas. I agree with Adarbahman that it is easy for you Sir, to pontificate sitting at Womseldorf unaware of what prevails here. Further, I can not but state that in my humble view, mentioning academic qualifications is regarded here as, sorry to say, downright cheap.

  • Burjor Elavia

    The last bastion of the “orthodox” is crumbling. The fall is fast and sure and no one can stop it.

  • Beroz Dhabhar

    (dear moderator, ive made few changes from the earlier comment posted at 6:01 pm. Also I’ve added my second name which i’d like to appear, so please accept this comment and delete the earlier one. Thank you)

    Yes, Hosi Pardiwalla is absolutely correct. Dr. Ichaporia , you seem to be unaware of ground realities. The situation at Doongerwadi is out of control. Copses are piling and supressing this fact by using of bovine urine is insulting the departed souls. Can the Trustees of B.P.P. assure the community that corpses are not being misused for wrong ends? On another subject on Parsi Khabar, I have mentioned about the Kapal Kriya performed among Hindus.
    Dr. Ichaporia we all are aware of the beliefs of Mr. Mistree. So you have said nothing innovative by repeating them. Just because he could become a Trustee of BPP with less than 5,300 votes does not mean he can pose as a mentor for the remaining 39,000 members of our community. You are free to admire him but that does not imply that everybody should.
    Dr. Ichaporia you are sadly mistaken if you believe that by flaunting your qualifications you are going to impress. Such mention of qualifications in fields other than the subject under discussion does not add weight to the forcefulness of the arguments.

  • Zerxes

    How can any person repose faith in K Mistree because he has gone back on his poll promise to disclose his assets if elected. Now mate than 17 months have passed but it appears he has forgotten contents of his manifesto.

  • Jimmy Sanjana

    How about dropping the corpses into a tank full of Pirhhana fish? They are not extinct as yet.

  • Zerxes.

    @ Burjor Elavia,
    The last bastion of real Orthodoxy is our Iranshah and other Fire Temples and no Bawa worth his salt and ever imagine the same to crumble.
    Some time back, if I mistake not, during the heat of 2008 BPP elections, I used to read Facebook. There I found a person, though I can not recollect his name speak very sensibly. He had said that our Religion will see hard days not because of behdins but because of Priestly class. His prediction was that ultimately only 11,000 Parsees will be left to uphold the true religion and that they would be Behdins.I wish I can recollect his name and congratulate him for his foresight.

  • Rashna_M

    “How about dropping the corpses into a tank full of Pirhhana fish? ”
    An example of a daruj mind?

  • Yazdy Palia

    Dear Rashna,
    Yours has been a most creative suggestion however, it would be going against one of the tenets of our religion. Polluting water. I had a similar idea.
    If being useful after death, not polluting the five elements of nature, then what could be better than donating the corpse to The Medical colleges?

  • Nozer J. Cambata

    Actually, Jimmy Sanjana might well be on the right track. I have no idea what a ‘daruj mind’ is – but if it means an ‘open mind’, then Rashna_M is also on the right track!

    But you have to admit, neither solar panels nor vultures nor pirahna are nearly as dignified as tigers and lions! So how about it – do we have any takers for a truly dignified exit?

  • Rashana_M

    Mr. Palia,
    I have NOT made the said suggestion you attribute to me. I have actually questioned the wisdom behind the absurd suggestion made by Sanjana.Please go through Jimmy Sanjana’s post.

    And Nozer, let us not trivialise the issue. Solar panels are no substitute for vultures and breeding vultures has become impossible. So Nozer no use being caustic. Make positive suggestions, if you can.
    I am surprised how such preposterous comments escape the scrutiny of the Moderator.

  • Siloo Kapadia

    Our numbers are dwindling, younger people are marrying outside of the religion, and as their partners are rejected by the bawaji bullies, they too depart. Gone is a lot of the entreprenuerial spirit. Many Parsis live in poverty.

    Yet desite all of this, the community is still concerned with the topic of vultures and the dead. No wonder we are being laughed at, ridiculed, and becoming extinct. Damed shame!

  • Darayas Malegam

    Crisis for the faithful ????? Does that mean going into a Dokhma is a sign of one being ” Faithful ” and what about all the good souls from our community who choose alternate means of disposal ? do they become ” traitors ” ? Whats happenning to us ?

  • Adarbahman

    Nozer, Tigers & Lions are as endangered as species as Parsees themselves but they adapt to laws of nature unlike dhongi Ervard bawas. If these poor species are offered Bawa meat particularly of Lazy bone Priestly class,then in all probability they will suffer from an ailment called E.D. and veterinary Viagra has not been discovered as yet.

  • Jerou Rammohan

    My dear Zarathushties
    Having read through all the comments (some rather rude and some quite nasty), my humble and positive opinion is that the only CONSTANT is a CHANGE. In the olden days when the system of DAKHMA was evolved(an excellent system indeed),people did not drug themselves, they did not have the types of dreadful diseases of the present day,to affect the birds and bees and make them extinct.Undoubtedly the exposure to the Sun as well as other natural elements was an excellent and most effective way of disposal and so also disin
    tegration by Solar energy.It is absolutely true and considerate towards other living beings not to pollute the elements of Nature such as air and water,but unreasonable to even think Scientifically that Fire can ever be polluted ,which has its greatest quality to burn and destroy everything that comes into contact with it and thereby ever remain unpolluted and holy. Our folks those days hadn’t discovered Microwaves or Solar power panels and we are still ignorant of the other Energies that are yet to be discovered, to disintegrate the bodies into its constituent particles. The wisdom having evolved over the past several millenia, one should expect to progress Scientifically along with Spirituality of the Wise and bring about necessary changes to suit the present day, where natural elements are becoming scarce. Any form of thermal energy used to disintegrate what’s left over of the bodies, after donating all useful organs to the hospitals of choice and the rest for research to Medical Science laboratories would be a good idea, as, “Parsi thy name is Charity” and what better charity is there other than to donate one’s whole self for the good of others.
    “Others Lord just others,
    Let this my motto be,
    Help me to live for others,
    That I may live for Thee. ”
    Ushta te.
    With warmest regards and all good wishes to my most charitable and benevolent community,
    Yours in divinity,
    Jerou

  • Burzin

    I am appalled at the comments made by my fellow zarthoshtis regarding our ancient and doctrinally mandated mode of disposal for the dead.

    While man made conditions have made the dokhmenashini system function sub-optimally, it becomes our duty to strengthen this time tested method.

    As an educated and a thinking community lets strengthen the hands of the BPP in their efforts rather than running them down (I agree with Dr. Pallan Ichaporia).

  • farzana

    “He who refuses to learn deserves extinction.”
    Rabbi Hillel

  • Piloo

    Conspicuous by their absence are a couple of bloggers who endlessly talked of certainty of Aviary Project a few months ago and used critical adjectives for those who questioned their “WISDOM”
    And for all the issues raised on this subject on this portal, the Public Relations Deptt of BPP seems to be in a comatose state.

  • Byram Sidhwa

    Burzin,
    I fully concur with you about the language of comments made by certain persons here.But surely, pouring bovine urine on the corpses can not be justified in terms of OPTIMIZING a non functional mode. Hoe does the alleged action of spraying bovine urine, expedite decomposition, Burzin?
    We would very much appreciate to learn of any concrete suggestions to reactivate the system. Does BPP have any proposal except to allow things to drift in the belief that no action is the best action.

  • Zerxes Dordi

    It does not occur to some persons that what is food for one can be poison for another.Do we have to be over bearing and impose our ideas in the garb of ‘doctrinally mandated’ and debar priests from performing ceremonies for those who opt for other methods of disposal. Yes, Byram is on dot. Is it doctrinally mandated to pour bovine urine to suppress the stench, Burzinjee?
    What is your reply to a question of non functioning of Solar Panels during cloudy days whose duration is at least 3 months. And are solar panels doctrinally mandated.
    The tenets prohibit fouling up the environment. Pouring bovine urine on consecrated places tantamount to defiling the land and during rainy season, the rain water being absorbed by corpses means making water impure. Is this your concept of doctrinally mandated?
    It has become synonymous with some blocked minds ( I do not mean you Burzin) to categorize those who want to opt for other methods as Reformists as if those who want to be impositionists are born of greater God.
    In this hour of diminishing numbers , we all can least afford is conflict. It is time to reflect and cease to be overbearing.

  • Meher J. Havewala

    Mr. Burzin, How will you explain to Vultures your TIME TESTED Doctrine? The bodies are piling up and no vulture to eat them.
    If such doctrines were from Ahura Mazda, would He let it fail? But if such doctrines were invented by man in the past, why are you and Palan making a big deal about changing it? After all there are so many other Z-traditions cited in the books. Do you religiously follow all of them?

  • Dorab.Unwalla

    If Mr. Pallan had conviction about what he said in the first message dated the 1/5/2010 and had facts by his side, he would have refuted with reasoning and proof many questions raised by several persons on this portal.
    So Zubin only one person CAN NOT BE RIGHT DESPITE OVERWHELMING EVIDENCE ABOUT THE FAILED SYSTEM.
    If so many of us are wrong factually or doctrinally, please prove that.