Reformist Parsis get a funeral prayer hall of their own in Worli, Mumbai India

Barred from prayer halls inside Doongarwadi for opposing the traditional method of disposing of dead or for marrying outside the community, the liberals build their own space to pray for the dead.

Article by Jyoti Shelar | Mumbai Mirror

A 3,700 square foot prayer hall, built especially for those Parsis who have been denied access to such a facility for choosing to dispose of their dead by non-traditional methods and for marrying outside the community, is now ready for use.

01-01The facility, built at a cost of Rs 1.5 crore inside the Worli crematorium, held its first ceremony on Monday, attended by a large group of Parsi reformists and senior officials from the BMC, which allotted the piece of land for the prayer hall. The hall will be open to adherents of other faiths as well, with preference being accorded to Parsis, said Dinshaw Tamboly, a member of the Prayer Hall Trust and a former trustee of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet. It will become available for funeral rites in a few days, he added.

Traditionally, the community disposes of their dead by placing them in the Tower of Silence in Doongerwadi to be devoured by birds, particularly vultures. However, with the city’s carrion-eating bird population shrinking over the years, several Parsis have taken to other methods like cremation or burial. This chafed traditionalists in the community, who barred these reformist Parsis entry into bunglis or prayer halls inside Doongerwadi to offer the four day funeral prayers prescribed by the religion. Relatives of Parsis who belonged to other religions were also barred entry into the prayer halls.

“Over a period, many Parsis have married people from other communities. And there are some who also feel that the Doongerwadi system has failed with the vultures gone,” said Tamboly. “This facility means a lot for such people who were extremely upset for not getting access to the prayer halls inside Doongerwadi.”

Built with an endowment from the AH Wadia trust, the prayer hall will remain open for people from all faiths. “Subject to availability, when there is a request for use of the hall, members of the Parsi Irani Zoroastrian community will be given priority to use the hall from 7-9 am, 3-8 pm and 4-6 am, in perpetuity, if it is not in use at the time,” said Tamboly, adding that the hall will be opened for use in the next few days following the completion of paperwork required by the BMC.

Community members say that the idea of such a prayer hall was proposed in the 1980s when Jamshed Kanga, the then municipal commissioner was approached by JRD Tata inquiring about suitable facilities in the city appropriate for the obsequies and funeral of his brother DRD Tata, who had expressed the desire to be cremated rather than placed on the Tower of Silence. At that time, the crematorium at Dadar was tidied up, but JRD Tata stressed upon Kanga the need for better facilities.

Parsis perform the four-day prayers at particular time slots after a person’s death. The first and second day prayers are held in the evenings; the third day rituals in the afternoon; and the final day prayers at dawn, when it is believed the soul reaches heaven’s gate.

“Since entry to the Doongerwadi bunglis was barred, we were forced to carry out the prayers at home,” said Dasturji Khushroo Madon, a priest known for his liberal views and who performs prayers for Parsis who chose alternative methods of disposing the dead. “The Doongerwadi system has failed completely with the bodies rotting inside. Not everyone wants to opt for it,” said Madon.

In 2006, an elderly Parsi woman, Dhun Baria, had made public photographs of bodies rotting inside the towers. At the time, the Bombay Parsi Punchayet insisted there was no problem with the traditional method.

“Now the community members at least have an option. Gradually, most Parsis will opt for such alternative methods,” said Madon.