On a high hill in the city I grew up in, there’s a tall tower we call the Dakhma, “Tower of Silence,” veiled by tall trees and situated in the middle of a forest inhabited by peacocks. In this serene setting, the Parsi Zoroastrians of Mumbai, India, continue to practice a funerary tradition that remains almost entirely unchanged after thousands of years. Ask any Parsi about what has changed, and they’ll point to the sky—reminding you that there were once rings of vultures once eagerly circling this Tower, now seemingly out of sight.
Article by Rhea Dhanbhoora | Countere
The Dakhma. Art by Saucier Studios
Followers of the Zoroastrian faith, my ancestors, the Parsis, fled religious persecution in the ancient Persian Empire during the rise of the Islamic Empire. They eventually sought refuge in India—the exact date of their arrival is somewhat unclear. Still, most sources put it between the 8th and 10th century AD.
Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest religions in the world, is based on the teachings of prophet Zarathustra, who lived between 3000 and 3500 years ago. It was the dominant religion in Persia over several dynasties, including the Achaemenids (most famous for King Cyrus), Sassanians, and Parthians, and its teachings and traditions are kept alive by small Zoroastrian communities across the world, including the Parsi Zoroastrians, despite our declining numbers.
One tradition I find myself increasingly attached to is the funerary practice that we call dokhmenashini. As part of this millennia-old tradition, the dead are carried up a tall, circular structure with three concentric rings on its roof and a central ossuary pit in the middle. This is the Dakhma, and bodies here are exposed to decomposition via the elements and carrion birds that feed on the flesh of the dead. Most people likely know it as a “sky burial,” also practiced by other cultures—Tibetan Buddhists, for example.
As a Parsi who grew up in Mumbai, I’ve been visiting what we casually call “the Tower” my entire life. At one of the most popular sites here, the 300-year-old circular tower is situated on a hill amidst 54 acres of forest land called the doongerwadi, which is shrouded with trees and populated by birds and animals. It’s also home to a row of cottages where the funerals are held.
I’ve been to the doongerwadi several times, bidding farewell to family passed on, watching priests intone over motionless bodies wrapped in muslin and placed on wooden pallets before being carried off to the Dakhma. I wished I understood more of the spoken Avestan, this long-dead language from our fragmented past now only used for prayers.
I spoke to Arzan Sam Wadia, New York-based architect and President of Fezana (Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America), about our shared experiences at the Dakhma. In 2018, for his mother’s funeral, he flew from New York to Mumbai, then from the airport to the doongerwadi to see her laid to rest. “It was the first time I had spent a full four days there,” he says. “The whole place is just—it’s perfect. It’s kind of sad to say it’s gorgeous, but it is.”
When I mention that it felt to me like loved ones were being lifted up into the sky, he nods, adding, “You’re following someone who is carrying the body to the Tower; it’s surrounded by greenery and peacocks. The last vision you have is of this body passing on to another world in a very metaphysical way…It feels like they’re being set free. That stuck with me, especially with my mom—that’s the last memory I have of her. And it’s a beautiful memory.”
Both Wadia and I are in New York, thousands of miles from one of the last working Dakhmas. Still, for both of us, this is the ideal way to go, and given a choice, one we’d pick in a heartbeat. Whether we’re able to or not when our time comes is the real question.
Sky Burial Specifics
To understand why an over 2500-year-old tradition has come under perceived threat in the past few decades, one must first understand the system. Originating in ancient Persia and referred to as early as in Herodotus’ Histories, sky burials existed in Iran as recently as the 1970s, before they were deemed illegal during the Shah’s regime. Now, the practice is kept alive in Asia, primarily by Parsi Zoroastrians in India.
What looks like a simple, circular structure is a lot more complex of an operation from the ground up, Khojeste P. Mistree, an acclaimed Zoroastrian studies scholar from Mumbai, explains during a Zoom conversation. When building a Dakhma, “they dig up to 11 feet, and a series of rituals is performed, including one called the Tana ceremony, where 301 nails with eyelets are placed [in the ground],” Mistree says. “There’s a cord with 101 intertwined threads that goes to the eyelets of the nails…in a sense, a spiritual bridge is created before the Dakhma actually comes into operation.”
Once the Dakhma is completed, bodies are carried up the circular structure, placed in concentric rings at the top, left to decompose in the sun for several days, and fed on by carrion birds—primarily, vultures. Even for me, not the most devout Parsi, this act feels more settling, like a final act of charity to feed the birds. That it is also ecologically sound helps plenty.
My conversation with Pakistani biologist and scientist Aban Marker Kabraji begins along these lines. “From my point of view as an environmentalist, Zoroastrianism is one of the clearest, in terms of its philosophy of dust to dust. What you take from the earth, you return to it,” she says, adding that with a religion that has prayers to the moon, the sun, the waters—all the natural elements—it’s consistent in its disposal of the dead as well. “It all goes back to the heart of the fundamental philosophy, that life is a struggle between good and evil, and every death is the temporary triumph of evil,” she says.
“In various communities and cultures that practice sky burials, it’s the same thing; you give back to the birds,” Kabraji adds. “It’s a ‘cycle of life’ sort of ritual, and therefore pertinent in its philosophical understandings to challenges like climate change and biodiversity loss. By giving the human body back to the elements, you’re following a certain kind of human instinct, feeding the vultures, and avoiding polluting the elements.”
Tradition Under Threat
When the Dakhmas were first constructed, they were well separated from urban centers. With urbanization, you can imagine how visible these towers now are, drawing more attention to a system still so strange for those unfamiliar with it. The Parsi practice gained even more controversy in the last two decades, thanks to the endangered status of the once-ubiquitous vultures. As a painkiller drug called diclofenac (now banned in Nepal, India, and Pakistan) began to threaten the birds’ survival, those circling the Dakhmas started to disappear.
Even in small doses, diclofenac can cause kidney failure in vultures. Although it was prescribed as painkillers to humans too, Parsis were often advised not to take it because of its toxicity to the birds, mitigating the issue there. However, diclofenac was also fed to livestock as a painkiller and anti-inflammatory drug. As Kabraji explains, “Vultures feed together, which means that one infected animal could take out several birds at a time. That’s why they fell in such high numbers so quickly,” she says.
Once the vultures began to disappear, rumors began to swirl about a delayed decomposition process. There was talk about the bodies piling up at the top of the Tower, and smells permeating the urban jungle that had developed quickly around the doongerwadi in Mumbai. None of the rumors were ever confirmed.
Conservation & Other Ideas
Still, to preserve the tradition, it’s essential to save the vultures. For Kabraji, she attempted to help several years ago: “I met with the Bombay Natural History Society, who had access to the top vulture expert in India, who had been working on bringing the vultures back with a promising rehabilitation program.” The plan was to set up a small breeding colony in a park in the city, habituating the birds to the Dakhma, making it their feeding ground.
Unfortunately, community reticence and politics left the idea as just that—an idea. But Kabraji says vulture conservation and rehabilitation is in process across Asia, and numbers are slowly rising. While Kabraji remains hopeful about the vultures, she’s still not sure they will return in time: “To bring the birds back naturally could take decades. But if there had been a breeding colony on the property of the Dakhma…” Still, she believes reviving the rehabilitation project remains feasible, adding that what the community really needs is strong leadership.
For Parsis, there are other options. I spoke to Dinshaw Tamboly, who founded the Prayer Hall Trust, an alternative system for those who wanted to opt for cremation. “There is no doubt that if the vultures had not vanished from the skies, there could have been no better system for disposal of the dead than dokhmenashini,” he emphasizes. “However, when an existing system becomes ineffective, it would only be prudent to accept the prevailing situation and adapt.”
Another effort in this direction began in the early 2000s, when solar reflectors were installed at the top of the Tower. They were meant to help speed up the process of decomposition by concentrating heat on the body; the body would begin to dehydrate and break down faster. However, the efficacy of the solar reflectors has been disputed, even by those like Tamboly who believe in alternative methods. “The solar panels play an effective role during the summer months, but are ineffective during the monsoon and winter months,” Tamboli explains.
For most, there’s no separating the Dakhmas from the vultures. “It was indeed one of the most ecologically friendly systems till the end of the last century,” Tamboly says. “The vultures stripped clean all flesh on the corpses within a few hours, or at most a couple of days. The rays of the sun dehydrated only what little was left.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Zoroastrians have not been able to use the Tower of Silence. They have been cremated or buried. It has historically been difficult to combine this with traditional last rites, as some priests refuse to perform the ceremony anywhere but the doongerwadi.
When Tamboly set up the Prayer Hall Trust, it was to reconcile this dilemma. “Having always held that the departed should be given a dignified farewell,” he says, “and as a believer in the efficacy of our prayers—especially the first four day obsequies which were denied to those opting for cremation—I felt it was a great injustice being done to families.” At the Prayer Hall Trust, priests administer the proper rites to Parsis choosing cremation.
Still, for many, sky burial is the only option. For Mistree, cremation is a complete no-no. The issue is that the body is being burned, which according to his reading of the ancient texts, is forbidden by the religion. It’s another reason he’s not a fan of the solar concentrators either.
While Mistree believes the “correct” Zoroastrian practice is the dokhmenashini system, I ask him about what options people like I may have—who live far from working Dakhmas. He describes an alternative process, already used in areas like Iran where sky burial is prohibited: they “build a stone sarcophagus under the earth” that keeps the soil from getting polluted.
However, Mistree maintains there may not be a need for these other methods at all. According to him, the sun has historically played a more important role than people presume. He believes that while critics attribute all the decomposition to vultures and are thus unsettled by their disappearance, it is “important to bear in mind that the sun is…an excellent mode of disposal.” He is also hopeful that the COVID-19 issues with the system will end soon, and brings up a report published in the Mumbai Gazette during the plague in 1896. “[A British medical officer] said that he knew of no other quarantine as good as the Parsi Dakhma system, where the bodies were consigned to the Tower, and no disease came out of it,” he says. “It’s a system which works on several levels.”
Arzan Sam Wadia adds a thought about the ritual that echoes my own, through the course of my conversations—“If you don’t like it, there are other ways, and if you do, I hope that this remains. Neither side of the camp is necessarily right or wrong. However, when it comes to tradition, this is a beautiful one, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t still exist going forward.”
Read more of Rhea’s writing on her website.
Rhea lives and writes in Upstate NY. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in various publications including Chronogram, Peripheries Journal, Capsule Stories, The Spill, and JMWW. Rhea is an editor at NutriSense, on the board for literary organization Quiet Lightning, and is working on several projects, among which is a linked collection of stories about women.