Hundreds of vultures once circled above a sacred area in one of India’s poshest suburbs, waiting to feed on the remains of followers of an ancient religion that does not allow its dead to be buried or burned.
Older members of the small-but-prominent Zoroastrian Parsi community of Mumbai say it usually took only half an hour for the vultures to finish their part of the ritual, cleaning a dead body of flesh deemed to be spiritually contaminated.
But the birds have almost been wiped out by urban development and accidental poisoning, leaving Parsis divided on how best to treat the dead and stay true to the faith.
The Parsis, long known for their philanthropy, are caught in a tug-of-war between pragmatism and tradition that goes beyond funerals to questions about conversion and racial purity.
“Our last act of charity was with the vulture,” said Khojeste Mistree, a Parsi scholar. “That’s the tradition that we have grown up to follow, and that tradition has come under threat.
“When you look at most cultures, the vulture’s seen as a scavenger, in a very negative light, whereas to us the vulture’s a religious bird because it’s… performing a religious service.”
Having fled Iran centuries ago, there are about 40,000 Parsis in Mumbai, representing more than a quarter of all Zoroastrians.
They have played a formidable part in the history of India’s largest city and financial capital, known as Bombay until 1995.
Prominent Parsis range from famed industrialist J.N. Tata, who built Mumbai’s landmark Taj Mahal hotel, to rock star Freddie Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara, who studied just outside the city.
The “towers of silence” or “dakhma,” where Parsis place their dead, is in the Malabar Hill neighbourhood overlooking the sea, home to film stars, politicians and stock brokers, making debate about it all the more charged.
Parsis also struggled to reach a consensus on other key issues, including marrying outside the faith and conversion, without which modernizers fear the religion will perish.
“The community is divided,” said Minoo Shroff, chairman of the city’s Parsi Punchayet, the largest community trust. “We don’t have a pope here. We are guided by very many people.”
Zoroastrians believe death is not just part of life, but the temporary triumph of evil over good, which means a dead body would pollute the sacred: earth, water or fire.
Mistree notes this is both practical for a religion rooted in a region where wood and clean water and soil were often in short supply, and also an extension of the faith’s egalitarian ethics.
“Rich or poor, the body is exposed naked to the rays of the sun and birds of prey,” he said. “It’s the same.”
But after playing its ritual role for centuries, South Asia’s vulture population has plunged because of a certain painkiller used on the cattle they eat. India moved to ban the drug, diclofenac, for animals this year.
Nick Lindsay, head of the arm of the Zoological Society of London that runs a vulture conservation centre in northern India, notes the diclofenac problem is unique to the region because it is home to tens of millions of cows living full lives and thus requiring treatment in their old age.
“That’s because of their sacred status. So you’ve got a whole load of cattle and therefore many more carcasses than if the cattle had been used for purely commercial farming,” he said.
Without vultures, Mumbai’s dakhma now relies on solar concentrators to magnify the sun’s effect on the bodies, which Mistree sees as a problem.
“Who are they fooling? They’re actually burning the body,” he said. “It’s like a cheap fix, but theologically totally wrong … The body is totally charred, like a burns victim. It’s terrible.”
Shroff dismisses this and argues the blackening effects of exposure on a body are similar. He also said something had to be done quickly because the panchayat faced threats of lawsuits from deep-pocketed local residents complaining about the smell.
“We are not looking at it as scholars,” he said. “We have to look at it from an administration, managerial, hygienic point of view. We have to look at the entire community, not just the Parsis.”
The dakhma had also briefly tried using chemicals, but pall bearers refused to take part because of the “ankle-deep sludge” left behind, panchayat trustee Dinshaw Tamboly said.
Another proposal, backed by environmentalists and traditionalists alike, was for a huge aviary around the dakhma where vultures could be bred.
Supporters say no more than 75 captive birds would be needed to consume the average three Parsis who die every day in Mumbai, while skeptics say that figure is 100 vultures short.
The panchayat says the aviary idea remains on a back-burner, but insists it has little money to support it given its obligations to subsidise Mumbai’s Parsis from cradle to grave.
“Our priority is toward the living, not toward the dead,” Tamboly said.
The panchayat sponsors a fertility programme and increases subsidies as families grow, for the community faces its own survival battle.
Almost one in three are older than 60 and, in a problem familiar in the West, their well-educated offspring have fewer children and get married later, if at all.
The women often marry non-Parsis, and Mistree worries about reformists who want to accept their offspring into the fold, so he set up the World Association of Parsi Irani Zoroastrians to rival the more liberal world body.
“If ethnicity goes, the identity goes,” he said. “And if the identity goes, we believe our religion will die.”
Original article here