Parsis: The Zoroastrians of India Pakistan and The World

Lose the vultures, and lose the soul

By Bachi Karkaria

As an Indian Parsi Zoroastrian, I’m proud to belong to a tiny minority widely admired for its material success and its philanthropy.

But I feel a closing sense of siege. The vicissitudes of modern life are threatening our group’s ethnic identity and ancient ways.

The vulture, our main accomplice in death for nearly 4,000 years, excites a largely morbid curiosity about our sect. Parsis are descended from Zoroastrians who, 1,200 years ago, fled religious persecution in Persia after the Muslim conquest and emigrated to the Indian subcontinent. Zoroastrianism reveres all elements, especially fire, so we don’t cremate our dead, or pollute the earth with burial.

We offer our dead to vultures, laying the bodies in so-called Towers of Silence – high-walled, slatted pits shrouded in mystique and sylvan acres that are known as Doongerwadi, or hill groves, which the Parsis set up on the outskirts of their Indian settlements. The practice may seem macabre, especially in as Westernized a community as ours, but it is swift and eco-friendly.

Now these ancient funeral rites are doomed because the population of the South Asian vulture has plummeted by 97 percent in 15 years. The killer is Diclofenac, a livestock drug developed in the early 1990s. Even minute traces in cattle carcasses causes kidney failure in the giant scavenging birds. The Indian government banned Diclofenac in May 2006, but the move came too late for the vultures – and for the Parsis.

Today Mumbai, the community’s stronghold, is the epicenter of the problem. Solutions for disposing of the dead at the city’s historic and spectacular Doongerwadi have ranged from an abortive effort to breed vultures in captivity at an on-site aviary to installing giant solar concentrators.

Because entry into the actual, consecrated towers is forbidden to all except the indigent and socially excluded class of pall-bearers, we lulled ourselves into believing that these solar discs were indeed dehydrating bodies to a speedy conclusion.

Last August, however, our community was stunned by the publication of photographs by Dhun Baria, who had taken photos of the Doongerwadi where the body of her deceased mother had been placed a couple of months earlier. Shattered by what she saw, she stuffed the photographic evidence into community mailboxes from where they swiftly found their way into the larger, national media.

Traditionalists denounced the photos as fakes and Baria was verbally savaged as a pawn in the hands of reformists. But that was only the equivalent of shooting the messenger.

The controversy generated by the August photographs heightened the community’s paranoia. It exposed our problems to the outside world, and increased the risk of an official, or private, takeover of our exclusive properties. Mumbai’s Doongerwadi, established in 1672, sprawls over what is now the highly valuable, 54 acre property of Malabar Hill.

So, how can we honor both the dignity of our dead, and a tradition dating back to our ancient roots? A growing but still-small number of Parsis have reluctantly opted for the electric crematorium – ugly, soulless, and run by insensitive municipal corporations.

Reformers have failed in their attempts to set up an exclusively Zoroastrian crematorium within Mumbai’s sanctified Doongerwadi grounds. Aggravating the angst is the fact that those choosing any method of disposal other than the Towers of Silence are denied the ultimate rite – prayers for the soul’s safe passage.

Parsi Zoroastrians in other areas have opted for other rites. In Delhi, where no Doongerwadi exists, the dead are buried in their own cordoned Zoroastrian cemeteries. The long-established community in England buries its dead at the Brookwood cemetery in Surrey. Parsi Zoroastrians in North America, Australia and New Zealand usually opt for exclusive ash-scattering grounds. Die-hard traditionalists back home denounce this heresy, but there’s no choice.

Bachi Karkaria is a consulting editor and columnist of the Times of India

Original article here