The dying profession of disposing of the dead

The gradual disappearance of vultures years ago almost led to the collapse of the Parsi ‘s doongerwadi system of disposing the dead. While the tradition now continues with the help of solar panels, the community may face yet another setback – a shortage of pallbearers.

Article By Jyoti Shelar | Mumbai Mirror

Pallbearers or khandias are the ones who carry the dead inside the tower of silence. However, social exclusion combined with meagre salaries makes the job unattractive. Even the existing 18 pallbearers are on the verge of giving up.

“We are treated like untouchables. Worse is that the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) does not even work towards our upliftment,” said 58-year-old Kersi Barjorji Kohla, a senior pallbearers at doongerwadi — a 55 acre plot in Malabar Hill that houses bunglis (prayer halls) for funeral ceremonies, and seven dakhmas (Towers of Silence), where bodies are laid. Nearly 32 years into the job, Kohla’s monthly income has just about touched Rs 20,000. “The community members drop the money in our hands from a distance,” said Kohla. “Nobody wants to marry off their daughters to a khandia anymore,” he added, saying that he was fortunate to get married to a Parsi woman way back in 1987.

The fight for rights of the pallbearers has now been undertaken by a union called Mumbai Mazdoor Sabha. “Khandias are the last connection with god, according to Parsi traditions. Yet the attitude towards them is terrible,” said Dhunji Naterwalla, general secretary of the union, adding that they should be considered at par with the priests for their role in disposing the dead.

In the four-day Zoroastrian funeral ceremony, after prayers by the priests, khandias dressed in crisp white attire carry out other rituals such as sprinkling cow’s urine on the dead and then dressing them for the final journey. The khandias then lift the body and start the one-km uphill walk towards the Tower of Silence.

“Khandias work in three shifts, each eight hour long. With an average of three bodies per day, we definitely need more khandias, ” said 38-year-old Sam F Vesuna, a khandia for the last 18 years. But his bigger gripe is the threat of infections. “Forget other benefits, the BPP does not even provide us with masks and gloves,” he said.

The Mumbai Mazdoor Sabha is now demanding increased pay, medical facilities, retirement benefits, education funds for their kids, and better gear to dispose bodies. While the union president Cyrus Jamshed Antia said there was a shortage of at least 10 khandias, BPP chairman Dinshaw Mehta said the numbers were adequate. “Our staff members are sent to rural areas to seek Parsis who may want to take up the job,” added Mehta.