With conservatives allegedly barring reformists from prayer halls in the Malabar Hill Doongerwadi, the civic body has allotted space to them in the Worli crematorium.
The BMC has allotted 3,700 square feet of land inside the Worli crematorium for a prayer hall for Parsis who opt to cremate their dead.
Mumbai’s Parsi-Zoroastrian community traditionally disposes of its dead by leaving them exposed in the Tower of Silence to be devoured by vultures. In recent years, a small number of people from the community have been opting for cremation instead of this traditional method.
But conservatives have allegedly barred this small group from using the bunglis (prayer halls) inside the Doongerwadi at Malabar Hill for the essential fourday funeral prayers for the dead. The first and second day prayers are performed in the evenings. The third day rituals are performed in the afternoon and the final day prayers are performed at the crack of dawn, when it is believed the soul reaches heaven’s gate.
Barred from the bunglis, those who favour cremation approached the BMC seeking land to build prayer halls and were allotted the space in the Worli crematorium.
“The four-day prayers are performed at particular time slots after a person’s death,” said Dinshaw Tamboly, who has formed the Prayer Hall Trust, and was instrumental in persuading the civic body. “We are attempting to meet the community’s unmet requirement. There are many Parsis who want to opt for cremation but fear they will not be allowed to perform prayers in the bunglis.”
Six trustees of the PHT and other wellknown personalities from the community have committed to raise Rs 1.75 crore to build and maintain the prayer halls. The trust has also called for donations from the community.
“As per the BMC norms, the prayer halls will remain open for all faiths but preference will be given to Zoroastrians during certain time slots,” Tamboly said.
The traditional Parsi method of disposing of the dead – known as dakhma -became a point of debate in the community in the last decade when Mumbai’s vulture population began to drop drastically and cases were reported where corpses began to rot in the Tower of Silence.
At one point in 2000, Malabar Hill residents lodged a formal complaint with the BMC about the stench emanating from the Doongerwadi. “There was a time when the vultures would eat up the flesh within 45 minutes,” said Tamboly. “Now, it takes days despite the installation of solar panels to accelerate the process.”
In 2006, an elderly Parsi woman, Dhun Baria, released photographs of bodies rotting inside the towers. The Bombay Parsi Punchayet, however, insisted there was no problem with the traditional method.
“The system is working perfectly with the help of sun rays,” said Dinshaw Mehta, chairman, BPP. “The vultures are a secondary option. The BPP does not encourage or discourage the community from opting for cremation. But we believe fire is scared and the dead body is impure and thus cremation is not allowed in our religion. Those who opt for it can perform the prayers in the halls outside and we do not have any objection to it.”
The BPP had planned to build two aviaries inside the Doongerwadi to boost vulture population but little has progressed on that front. “The main aviary was supposed to come up at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park and ours was going to be a subsidiary. The government has not been able to provide land for the main aviary as yet,” said Mehta.
Meanwhile, the reformists sought to assuage the widespread fear that the community will lose the 55-acre sacred Malabar Hill plot if they begin opting for alternative methods of disposal of the dead.
“The plot was gifted to the Bombay Parsi Punchayet over 200 years ago,” said Vispy Wadia, founder of the reformist group Association for Revival of Zoroastrianism. “There is no question of the community losing the land or the government taking it over.”
In a random sample survey carried out within the community last year, 28 per cent opted for cremation provided prayer hall services were made available. Annually, 775 Parsis die in Mumbai, of which 30 to 35 are cremated.