Bury funeral ritual: Parsi woman

A centuries old custom has triggered off a bitter debate within Mumbai’s influential Parsi community.

The Parsi community is now divided over how to dispose off their dead. The bodies are kept in a well for vultures to feed on in a tradition called Dokhmenishin dating back to the 16th century. Under community law, the Towers of Silence are forbidden tOnly Khandiyas, the men who carry the bier, are allowed to enter the Towers – a practice that Baria decided to break after her mother died in November last year. “The pall bearers told me that my mother’s body was still inside, nothing had changed. But that if they spoke about it they would lose their jobs,” says she. Baria’s pictures from inside the towers of silence reveal a shocking story of hundreds of dead bodies lying in a heap decomposing inside the well. “The bodies are lying in a heap, decomposing. These were our people, our loved ones. They ate, drank and laughed with us. How can we tolerate them being robbed of their dignity after their death,” says Baria in her defence. In 1998 the Bombay Parsi panchayat asked the experts from BNHS to find out why the vultures had disappeared, but the experts could not enter the premises as many in the community opposed this.o members of the Parsi community. However, many Parsis are now alleging that the Towers are becoming unhygenic and succumbing to decay.

The vultures, who are supposed to eat the bodies, are in fact disappearing and as a result, dead bodies are rotting for years. Recently, photographs that show the inside of the Towers of Silence have surfaced. These photgraphs – though forbidden – are creating ripples in the small community. The woman who took the pictures, Dhan Baria, a resident of Marzban Parsi colony, says that she is not going to keep quiet about the state of the bodies in the Towers

Where have I sent my mother,” moans sixty-five-year old Dhan Baria, who had consigned her mother to the Towers almost a year ago and was shocked to hear from people working in the Towers that her mother’s body was still rotting there.

“When I asked the workers there if my mother had gone, they said, ‘She’s going to be here for years.’ I was in complete shock,” says she.

Vultures, which traditionally prey on the bodies, are fast vanishing due to disease. The problem that this is creating for the Parsi community has resulted in many of them asking their leaders to allow them to cremate or bury their loved ones at the Towers’ premises.

“If your wife, who you sleep with, or your son who you have lived with, were to die tomorrow, would you be able to bear it if they were in that state?” questions Dhan Baria.

However, the Bombay Parsi Punchayet maintains that they cannot go against the wishes of the community’s religious leaders.

Only Khandiyas, the men who carry the bier, are allowed to enter the Towers – a practice that Baria decided to break after her mother died in November last year. “The pall bearers told me that my mother’s body was still inside, nothing had changed. But that if they spoke about it they would lose their jobs,” says she. Baria’s pictures from inside the towers of silence reveal a shocking story of hundreds of dead bodies lying in a heap decomposing inside the well.

“The bodies are lying in a heap, decomposing. These were our people, our loved ones. They ate, drank and laughed with us. How can we tolerate them being robbed of their dignity after their death,” says Baria in her defence. In 1998 the Bombay Parsi panchayat asked the experts from BNHS to find out why the vultures had disappeared, but the experts could not enter the premises as many in the community opposed this.

– Baria says that she was sent the pictures anonymously and received threatening telephone calls over her campaign to persuade senior figures to allow cremation or burial. Her actions have horrified the orthodox wing of the community which condemned her for making public a sacred place for the Parsis, part of the 3,500-year-old Zoroastrian religion.

– Says member, World Alliance of Parsi and Irani Zarthoshtis, Anahita Desai, “For her to do something like is this is hurting the religious sentiments of the community. We are appalled she has done this. You don’t take pictures of dead bodies and distribute them to the media, and in the community like this.”

– According to advocate Berjis Desai, “Traditionalists are more vocal about their views. The middle-of-the-roaders and liberals are not very vocal. Only because Dhan Baria has launched this crusade the expose has resulted in action being contemplated.”

– Another advocate, H P Ranina, adds, “The land is only meant for those who follow this disposal method. It is not meant for any other disposal method, because our forefathers donated this land only for this reason.”

– Adds editor, Parsiana Jehangir Patel, “It’s a hygienic issue, not a religious one. As long as you’re following the Parsi prayers, the method of disposal should not be the subject of controversy.”

Original article

  • ADIL J.MADON

    Actually I am in favour of Dokhmenashini. If the present system does not work,let us find a way to makeit work then wash dirty linen in public please. I have athought inmind to make the system work in dokhmas better than solar concentrators. If someone wants to share the thought can emailme at adlmdn@hotmail.com.
    And well after we all die we are no one but just a lifeless piece of trash that included me too. So lets not say that the person who has gone tothe dokhmas is our loved one. No they exist in soul form,the body is just trash.
    Dadar Ahura Mazda.
    Regards,
    ADIL.

  • Delna

    Dhan Baria is nothing but a bitch. What does she expect to see in “The Tower of Silence,” a bed of roses?
    Why didnt she show her mother’s body? Such a lady has no right to be called a Zorastrian. She has never respected the religion & hence used to stay with a MUSLIM MAN. She has no idea of our rich cultural heritage.

  • shirin desai

    i think dhan baria is right. the community should change the laws

  • Boman Irani

    Dhan Baria, Adil, Desai all have expressed the correct views, which, I believe many Parsi/Irani Zorastrians will endorse. We should move with the Times & we cannot follow the past way of disposal When there are no more Vultures & the Dead Bodies just Rot when they are placed in the Well. Time to Wake Up especiially our so called Learned Friends who still follow very orthodox views on such an important subject.

  • a.rustomjee

    Shirin,
    I think the community will have to wait indefinitely because those who have a say in this regard derive perverse pleasure in denying prayer facilities to those opting for alternative methods. These cussed persons want litigation and then display injured innocence. They can not understand what is rational and be realistic.

  • Dear Boman,
    The ‘learned friends’ are NOT ORTHODOX, they are plain rigid. Worst they selectively ‘relax’ rules for usage of Bunglis of Towers, for offering prayers.
    Even ‘banning’ of two Priests has been discriminatory because Priests who performed Uthamna of late J.R.D. have not been banned.
    It is double standards and actions out of caprice and whims.

  • JImmy

    If the trustees didnt murder the birds so that the need of a bird sanctuary would be no more (so they can sell our land for billions).. then we wouldnt be having this conversation in the first place.

    Bring back the birds and let nature take its course. Our religion had it right, its man who messed it up.

  • JImmy

    Also, why is it that the people who deny rituals are the cursed…what about people who go against the religion and do what ever they want knowing full well that isnt the right thing to do? There are actions and consequences. People have got to start realizeing that instead of being rar-ee par-oo’s.

  • Carolyn

    Please forgive me as I am not Parsi but I think you should keep your tradition of the Tower of Silence as it is. The money and effort should be spent on trying to heal the environment and bringing back the vultures. Don’t let modern day errors such as pollution destroy a 3000 year old custom.

    As for the woman who took the photographs, if she opened a coffin she would find something even worse. My own dear parents died years and years ago and were buried in sealed coffins. Without exposure to air or nature, I am horrified to say that their bodies have probably turned into slime. Like a piece of meat left too long in a plastic bag. Is that better? Death is never a pretty sight.

    With great respect and warmest regards,
    Carolyn

  • Vastryoshan

    Carolyn,
    Since you have stated that you are NOT a Parsee, if so why do you hesitate to state your full name. The wrongly branded Reformist Parsees do not believe in hooliganism, so what is the reason to be afraid of?
    Our community has many genuine scholars and our own Zoroaster has professed freedom as the core of our faith based on good thoughts, good words and good deeds. Thanks for your views but we Parsees are fully capable of deciding our internal issues without being influenced by members of other religions. But I can not resist saying, though at the possibility of offending you, that you seem to sound as if someone has prompted you to pen your above post since there is no dearth of ‘babas’ in our community who want to foist their thinking on others at any cost.

  • carolyn

    Greetings to Vastryoshan,

    I must say that I am suprised yet also delighted by the passion of your response. Is this typical of Parsees? I only know one and she is quite passionate about her views and loves a good argument yet somehow is also the politest person I ever met. Such a wonderful combination. That is what I have grown to admire about the Parsi. (Am I spelling this correctly? Is the plural Parsees, not Parsis?)

    I admire the core of your faith very much. If all the world followed – Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deed – many of the current problems would never have come to pass.

    As to my original point about whether to maintain the Tower of Silence, I am passionate about healing the environment far more than about rituals. It seems to me that the vultures of India are like the canaries the miners used to carry with them to let them know when the mines were unsafe. When the canary died, the miners knew it is time to leave. Unfortunately, we cannot leave earth.

    As for my full name, as a woman, I avoid giving out personal information over the internet. If if were simply me and you, I would not hesitate to give you my name.

    Thank you very much for writing. Please write again.

    Your friend and admirer,
    Carolyn

  • Vastryoshan.

    Carolyn.,
    Apologies, if you found my earlier post to be offensive. I did not mean it that way. But all along I do feel that since you say that you are passionate about healing the environment and since Land for burial is getting scarce, HAVE YOU MADE YOUR SUGGESTION TO YOUR CHURCH AUTHORITIES TO FOLLOW THE PARSEE SYSTEM. If so what has been the reaction of authorities of your Religion?
    Do let us know for benefit of all readers of this Board.

  • Carolyn

    No worries. I was not offended. Quite the opposite. I appreciate your response.

    I will indeed talk to people here and let you know their reaction.

    Warmest regards,
    Carolyn