Defunct Tower of Silence lives on in the heart of an Andheri residential colony

The article has an UPDATE since it was first published. Read below

At Malabar Hill, the Parsi Towers of Silence are shrouded in mystery— and thick foliage — with few community members ever spying the stone walls of the seven ‘dokhmas’ or roofless towers where the community’s dead are laid to rest.

Article by Nergish Sunavala | Times of India

However in Andheri’s Salsette Parsis Association Colony, six-storey residential structures form a tight arc around a defunct dokhma. Children swing and slide just a few feet away and plans are underway to create a grassy patch alongside the tower’s wall where the colony’s youngsters can play football or an impromptu game of cricket.

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Residents explain that their nonchalance about living alongside this structure — which is meticulously cleaned by a band of young Parsi men every few years – stems from the fact that the 83-year-old dokhma has remained unused for well over half a century. Exactly when it fell into disuse, however, remains a matter of conjecture. “It was open for only a few years because it was hard to get pallbearers to come all the way from Bombay to perform the last rites,” says 79-year-old Ardesher Patel, whose paternal grandfather was instrumental in setting up the dokhma. He estimates that only 10 bodies were laid to rest within the stone wall of the Andheri tower.

In his book, “History of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet 1860-1960”, Sapur F. Desai explains what happens to the body after it’s placed on one of three concentric rings encircling the central well. “The body is disposed of within an hour or so by scores of birds, mainly vultures, and only the bones remain,” he writes. These are then swept into the well, which is connected via drains to four exterior wells. Each one is fitted with layers of sand and charcoal to filter out residual impurities before they enter the soil. “The Zoroastrians consider air, water, earth, trees and all natural elements as sacred and not to be polluted. The Dokhma serves that purpose,” he explains.

Before the Salsette Tower of Silence was built, Parsis who had moved to Andheri and Santa Cruz to escape the 1896 plague faced great hardship while transporting deceased family members to the Kemp’s Corner Doongerwadi via horse cart. Fortunately for them, the Salsette Parsis Association (SPA) came to the rescue. The trust secured a nine-acre, hilly plot from the government in Andheri’s Moghra village and began raising over Rs 1.5 lakh to fund the project. The Tower of Silence opened in 1931 and “from the early hours of the morning till late in the evening endless streams of Parsi devotees visited the place,” reported the Times of India.

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Ardesher Patel’s grandfather played a key role in setting up the tower.

Patel’s grandfather and SPA founder-trustee, Ardeshir Bhicajee Patel, was a Versova resident, who owned a jewellery-cum-curio shop at Apollo Bunder. Besides helping set up the dokhma, he also established a fire temple in memory of his deceased son, and a residential colony for poor Parsis. His grandson, who is chairman emeritus of the SPA, says that at one time the only structures around the dokhma were prayer halls for mourners and a priest’s quarters. Construction on the current housing complex, which has six residential buildings and houses about 800 Zoroastrian families, didn’t begin till 1994. Even at that late date, a few community members wrote in to the “Parsiana”, a community magazine, asking that the dokhma be revived rather than redeveloped.

Though the Tower of Silence was completed in 1931, its foundation stone was laid on April 24, 1927. About 10,000 Parsis — that is a fourth of Mumbai’s current Parsi population — attended the three-hour-long ceremony, which had not been performed since the last Tower of Silence was erected in Bombay more than 80 years ago. A Parsi battalion worked alongside troops of Parsi Boy Scouts and Girl Guides to control the crowd, and the Bombay, Baroda, and Central India Railway (BB&CI) arranged to run “six special trains” to ferry the visitors to Salsette. The ceremony concluded with Parsis forming a queue to inspect the foundation. “Each person threw some money into the pit as a small contribution to the fund, which is regarded by the orthodox Parsis as an act of great piety,” wrote TOI in their detailed report on the day’s proceedings.

 

UPDATE

Fredoon Sohrab Bhote of Kansas, USA wrote in with more info…

“…The Dukhma was built by my mother’s grandfather Ardeshir Bhicaji Patel in Salsette Village Andheri East and it was constructed by Nadirshaw Guzder our neighbour from Andheri and his son Dorab Guzder is 94 yrs old and lives in Cincinnati Ohio and I do talk to him. All the Patel family members that passed away in the 1930s and 40s were put in the same Dukhma.

My mother’s father Dr. Kaikhashroo Hormusji Elchidana took care of the Patel estate and the Andheri Agiary and all their properties after the passing away of Maneckshaw Ardeshir Patel in 1935 who was his wife’s only surviving brother. Dr Elchidana was the first trustee of the Patel Estate and served the same till his passing away in 1964,also his nephew Ardeshir Patel and his other nephew Dhunjishaw P Moos served as trustees and Dhunjishaw passed away but Ardeshir Patel is still alive and continues to serve the estate and they also have an Agiary in Mahua in Gujrat.

Ardehir Patel was a businessman and in his days had dealerships for Willys and Studebaker cars, jewellery store in Phiroze Building opposite Dhanraj Mahal at Apollo Bunder near the gateway of India and he owned properties in Dadar Parsi colony and Deolali and Mahua and of course Andheri west. Ardeshir’s brothers Edulji, Hormusji and Khershedji also owned properties close to him in Andheri and I met their children and grand children during their lifetime.

Hormusji Patel’s grandson lives in Boston his name is Kavas Mody. Porus Cooper and his brother Khershed and his sister Khorshed Bhote are also Ardeshir Patel’s granddaughter Coomi Cooper’s children. Porus and Khershed live in the USA and Khorshed in the UK.

Sincerely

Fredoon Sohrab Bhote, Kansas, USA
( Grandson of Dr K. H. Elchidana )