Giving New Life to Vultures to Restore a Human Ritual of Death

Fifteen years after vultures disappeared from Mumbai’s skies, the Parsi community here intends to build two aviaries at one of its most sacred sites so that the giant scavengers can once again devour human corpses.

By GARDINER HARRIS | NYTimes

 vultures1-articleLarge Construction is scheduled to begin as soon as April, said Dinshaw Rus Mehta, chairman of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet. If all goes as planned, he said, vultures may again consume the Parsi dead by January 2014.

“Without the vultures, more and more Parsis are choosing to be cremated,” Mr. Mehta said. “I have to bring back the vultures so the system is working again, especially during the monsoon.”

The plan is the result of six years of negotiations between Parsi leaders and the Indian government to revive a centuries-old practice that seeks to protect the ancient elements — air, earth, fire and water — from being polluted by either burial or cremation. And along the way, both sides hope the effort will contribute to the revival of two species of vulture that are nearing extinction. The government would provide the initial population of birds.

The cost of building the aviaries and maintaining the vultures is estimated at $5 million spread over 15 years, much less expensive than it would have been without the ready supply of food.

“Most vulture aviaries have to spend huge sums to buy meat, but for us that’s free because the vultures will be feeding on human bodies — on us,” Mr. Mehta said.

Like the vultures on which they once relied, Parsis are disappearing. Their religion, Zoroastrianism, once dominated Iran but was largely displaced by Islam. In the 10th century, a large group of Zoroastrians fled persecution in Iran and settled in India. Fewer than 70,000 remain, most of them concentrated in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, where they collectively own prime real estate that was purchased centuries ago.

Among the most valuable of these holdings are 54 acres of trees and winding pathways on Malabar Hill, one of Mumbai’s most exclusive neighborhoods. Tucked into these acres are three Towers of Silence where Parsis have for centuries disposed of their dead.

The stone towers are open-air auditoriums containing three concentric rings of marble slabs — an outer ring for dead men, middle ring for deceased women and inner ring for dead children. For centuries, bodies left on the slabs were consumed within hours by neighborhood vultures, with the bones left in a central catchment to leach into the soil.

Modernity has impinged on this ancient practice in many ways. That includes the construction of nearby skyscrapers where non-Parsis could watch the grisly scenes unfold. But by far the greatest threat has been the ecological disaster visited in recent years on vultures.

India once had as many as 400 million vultures, a vast population that thrived because the nation has one of the largest livestock populations in the world but forbids cattle slaughter. When cows died, they were immediately set upon by flocks of vultures that left behind skin for leather merchants and bones for bone collectors. As recently as the 1980s, even the smallest villages often had thousands of vulture residents.

But then came diclofenac, a common painkiller widely used in hospitals to lessen the pain of the dying. Marketed under names like Voltaren, it is similar to the medicines found in Advil and Aleve; in 1993 its use in India was approved in cattle. Soon after, vultures began dying in huge numbers because the drug causes them to suffer irreversible kidney failure.

Diclofenac’s veterinarian use has since been banned, which may finally be having an effect. A recent study found that for the first time since the drug’s introduction, India’s vulture population did not decline over the past year.

Still, the numbers for three species have shrunk to only a few thousand, a tiny fraction of their former levels. With so few vultures left, the Parsi community set up mirrors around the Towers of Silence to create something akin to solar ovens to accelerate decomposition. But the mirrors are ineffective during monsoon months. So an increasing number of Parsis are opting for cremation, a practice many Parsi priests believe is an abomination since fire is sacred and corpses unclean.

Desperate to maintain one of their most important rituals, Parsi leaders have created detailed plans to build the aviaries near

the Towers of Silence, each housing 76 vultures. Parsi leaders say they are waiting for formal approval from community members, doctors and priests before beginning construction, approvals they expect to receive over the next several weeks.

But Homi B. Dhalla, president of the World Zarathushti Cultural Foundation, has promised to fight the plans. He helped to develop the tower solar collectors and said they were working well. And he is worried that once the government provides vultures for Parsi aviaries, bureaucrats will try to seize the land.

“Why endanger our property?” Dr. Dhalla asked. “Who is going to fight the government?”

Another concern is whether Parsis can be persuaded to stop using diclofenac. Nearly all of the roughly 800 bodies brought annually to the towers come from two Parsi hospitals, and doctors and family would have to certify that the deceased had not been given diclofenac in the three days before death. There is no simple test to detect the drug, and if vultures in the aviaries die from diclofenac poisoning after eating Parsi corpses the government has promised to end the effort.

Parsi medical leaders were cautious in their comments about the vulture program. “As a hospital,” said Dr. S. K. Dhingra, superintendent of B. D. Petit Parsee General Hospital, “we cannot tell our patients, ‘You can do this, or you can do that.’ ”

Khurshed Dastoor, one of five Parsi high priests, said that he was not sure members would adhere to a diclofenac ban.

“For 10 years, I have been trying to educate the community to turn off their cellphones before they go inside our most sacred fire temples, and I have failed,” he said. “And now we think the community will give up diclofenac in a couple of months?”

Other Parsi leaders, however, said they were pushing ahead because of the importance of restoring the tradition.

“We must hope for the best,” Mr. Mehta said.

  • disqus_FIP1OTkpUp

    It is an unfortunate development. It is bound to fail. Mr.Dinshaw Mehta and his fellow trustees should concentrate more efforts towards living than on the dead. They should spend their efforts and money towards making the life of majority middle class Parsis comfortable. They should try to promote more community sense within community members. This is totally absent in the Parsi Community. Which is why more and more community members are deserting the community and marrying outside. Look at the community sense of other communites. This is because other communities do not make life a living hell of other less fortunate community members of their own community. They (BPP) are hell bent on wasting precious charity money for pursuing unattainable and foolish target of bringing the vultures back. Once the Govt. gets a foothold on the properties, the same are as good as gone. The Govt. has always failed to uphold its promises to the people ie. majority community as well as minorities. Our community is especially the most vulnerable as we do not have the street power due lack in numbers. Once this project starts which will be eventually a failure, we should kiss goodbye to the Doongerwadi properties as the Govt. will grab them under some guise or other. We should look at past track record of the Govt. and then proceed.

    -Piloomani

  • disqus_FIP1OTkpUp

    It is an unfortunate development. It is bound to fail. Mr.Dinshaw Mehta and his fellow trustees should concentrate more efforts towards living than on the dead. They should spend their efforts and money towards making the life of majority middle class Parsis comfortable. They should try to promote more community sense within community members. This is totally absent in the Parsi Community. Which is why more and more community members are deserting the community and marrying outside. Look at the community sense of other communites. This is because other communities do not make life a living hell of other less fortunate community members of their own community. They (BPP) are hell bent on wasting precious charity money for pursuing unattainable and foolish target of bringing the vultures back. Once the Govt. gets a foothold on the properties, the same are as good as gone. The Govt. has always failed to uphold its promises to the people ie. majority community as well as minorities. Our community is especially the most vulnerable as we do not have the street power due lack in numbers. Once this project starts which will be eventually a failure, we should kiss goodbye to the Doongerwadi properties as the Govt. will grab them under some guise or other. We should look at past track record of the Govt. and then proceed.

    -Piloomani

  • Barak Aga

    “…………. opting for cremation, a practice many Parsi priests believe is an abomination since fire is sacred and corpses unclean ……”
    But these same shameless, unscrupulous, phony High Priests and their charlatan friends will merrily tuck in to “margee-naa-farchaa’ and “patraa-nee-machee” even though these are the corpses of chicken and fish, cooked on a fire.
    Let these charlatan priests stop eating cooked food, and eat raw meat and fish so as not to pollute fire. The Dokhmas should be converted in to loony bins, and these phony priests, mountebanks and bleeding-hearts locked in there. Crazy monkeys on the loose.

  • Barak Aga

    “…………. opting for cremation, a practice many Parsi priests believe is an abomination since fire is sacred and corpses unclean ……”
    But these same shameless, unscrupulous, phony High Priests and their charlatan friends will merrily tuck in to “margee-naa-farchaa’ and “patraa-nee-machee” even though these are the corpses of chicken and fish, cooked on a fire.
    Let these charlatan priests stop eating cooked food, and eat raw meat and fish so as not to pollute fire. The Dokhmas should be converted in to loony bins, and these phony priests, mountebanks and bleeding-hearts locked in there. Crazy monkeys on the loose.

  • Piloomani, I do not agree with your statement that “Parsis make life a living hell for other less fortunate members of our community”. In fact it is because of the various subsidies and doles enjoyed by our community that we have so much of disunity and don’t care attitude towards our traditions or lack community sense which you rightly say is totally absent. Those who enjoyed these goodies themselves are today bad mouthing the Parsis.

  • Piloomani, I do not agree with your statement that “Parsis make life a living hell for other less fortunate members of our community”. In fact it is because of the various subsidies and doles enjoyed by our community that we have so much of disunity and don’t care attitude towards our traditions or lack community sense which you rightly say is totally absent. Those who enjoyed these goodies themselves are today bad mouthing the Parsis.

  • *Let’s all be masters of our mouths, so that we won’t be slaves of our words.* So now cooking on the fire is the same as disposing of the dead body in the fire. Even monkeys are known to have better inteligence as compared to these pseudo enlightened ungratefull pariahs of unknown origins.

  • *Let’s all be masters of our mouths, so that we won’t be slaves of our words.* So now cooking on the fire is the same as disposing of the dead body in the fire. Even monkeys are known to have better inteligence as compared to these pseudo enlightened ungratefull pariahs of unknown origins.

  • Alborz

    Those of us in the diaspora have no option but to cremate. So conservative Parsis probably beleive we in the diaspora are headed towards eternal damnation, through no fault of our own. And Iranian Zoroastrians have been burying for centuries. Are they – descendents of original Zoroastrians- also “bad” Zoroastrians headed for hell? Sky burial is theoretically a beautiful nature-respecting practice. But all rituals change throughout time and culture.

  • Alborz

    Those of us in the diaspora have no option but to cremate. So conservative Parsis probably beleive we in the diaspora are headed towards eternal damnation, through no fault of our own. And Iranian Zoroastrians have been burying for centuries. Are they – descendents of original Zoroastrians- also “bad” Zoroastrians headed for hell? Sky burial is theoretically a beautiful nature-respecting practice. But all rituals change throughout time and culture.

  • Berjis

    Wearing a Chatta haath in Saree was also a Tradition..In fact wearing a sree itself was a tradition as was Dugli and Pugree. But how many persons do you see even in Fire Temples with such attire? I agree with Aga, Since Fire is pure, obviously, we would be defiling it by relishing Tandoori food.By the way, I would consider cremation, even electric one as polluting and would vote for Promession for all religions.

    Panthaki is further incorrect, many like me are not enjoying ot availing of “goodies’ from B.P.P.

  • Berjis

    Wearing a Chatta haath in Saree was also a Tradition..In fact wearing a sree itself was a tradition as was Dugli and Pugree. But how many persons do you see even in Fire Temples with such attire? I agree with Aga, Since Fire is pure, obviously, we would be defiling it by relishing Tandoori food.By the way, I would consider cremation, even electric one as polluting and would vote for Promession for all religions.

    Panthaki is further incorrect, many like me are not enjoying ot availing of “goodies’ from B.P.P.

  • There are other options in large numbers even in Mumbai. The issue here is insistance of use of a private property for modes other than for which it was meant to, inspite of such others options available in plenty. It is more of an “EGO” issue than anything else. Let us leave the eternal damnation or hell out of it.

  • There are other options in large numbers even in Mumbai. The issue here is insistance of use of a private property for modes other than for which it was meant to, inspite of such others options available in plenty. It is more of an “EGO” issue than anything else. Let us leave the eternal damnation or hell out of it.

  • Berjis Daruwalla

    JUST MENTION THE ‘ALTERNATIVES’. Unless a Parsi adopts Islam or Christianity burial is ruled out. Cremation is the only alternative.

    For a moment, let us forget Doongerwadi. Why are Priests from non BPP Fire Temples pressurized not to perform first three days sacraments for persons NOT opting for rotting.

  • Berjis Daruwalla

    JUST MENTION THE ‘ALTERNATIVES’. Unless a Parsi adopts Islam or Christianity burial is ruled out. Cremation is the only alternative.

    For a moment, let us forget Doongerwadi. Why are Priests from non BPP Fire Temples pressurized not to perform first three days sacraments for persons NOT opting for rotting.

  • Berjis Daruwalla

    JUST MENTION THE ‘ALTERNATIVES’. Unless a Parsi adopts Islam or Christianity burial is ruled out. Cremation is the only alternative.

    For a moment, let us forget Doongerwadi. Why are Priests from non BPP Fire Temples pressurized not to perform first three days sacraments for persons NOT opting for rotting.

  • Barak Aga

    Panteki you are the mistress of “foot-in-the-mouth”. As you are a pariah with scandalous origins, and intelligence less than a dodo, and unscrupulous to boot, you are best treated as a buffoon. Stop monkeying around, you have even stopped evoking laughter. Begone you fake, phony, windbag. If roasting or grilling is not broilling the corpse of a dead bird or fish over a fire, what is it? You should know since whatever little brain you had was roasted a long time ago.

  • Barak Aga

    Panteki you are the mistress of “foot-in-the-mouth”. As you are a pariah with scandalous origins, and intelligence less than a dodo, and unscrupulous to boot, you are best treated as a buffoon. Stop monkeying around, you have even stopped evoking laughter. Begone you fake, phony, windbag. If roasting or grilling is not broilling the corpse of a dead bird or fish over a fire, what is it? You should know since whatever little brain you had was roasted a long time ago.

  • Options are available for cremation also. Madon and mirza will perform the sacraments for those opting for BBQ/tandoor

  • Options are available for cremation also. Madon and mirza will perform the sacraments for those opting for BBQ/tandoor

  • Barak Aga

    With the amount spent on vultures at the cost of investing in education and job skills for the youth, the vultures may be resurrected but the Parsi will become extinct, and the vulture will have no one left to eat. It is time these Sad Sacks, charlatans, wolves-in-priests’-clothing, lower caste converts from Nargol were reined in.

  • Barak Aga

    With the amount spent on vultures at the cost of investing in education and job skills for the youth, the vultures may be resurrected but the Parsi will become extinct, and the vulture will have no one left to eat. It is time these Sad Sacks, charlatans, wolves-in-priests’-clothing, lower caste converts from Nargol were reined in.

  • Khushrau Jilla

    Let us first separate 2 issues i.e tradition from real estate.
    Real Estate.I believe that The Mumbai Tower of Silence must exist in whatever form, Vultures or Solar to protect our heritage and our land. If we loose this,then that will be the starting point from where we will loose so much that we will be finished. The logic is the real estate and not religion. Dasturs need to understand this danger more than any other and stop getting involved in controversies regarding religious interpretations. If this land goes we all go.
    Tradition. It says the dead have to be thrown to wild beasts and scavengers IMMEDIATELY to complete the circle of life. Accepted logically, as that was the fastest way to dispose the dead body in ancient Central Asia, without cutting trees for cremation, using agricultural land for burying and ensuring that the earth remains green and not diseases are not spread.We need to dispose our dead today,in the cleanest and fastest manner if we want to follow real interpretation of our Religion. Purity of Fire, Vultures etc and all these ideas put forth in garb of religion, demeans the greatest scientific philosopher to have ever lived,namely Zarathustra. This greatest of Humans saw and understood the working of the Dynamic Universe, which is never constant. The only constant in this Universe is TRUTH. Follow the TRUTH and you are a Zoroastrian in spirit, religious beliefs come after this.

  • Khushrau Jilla

    Let us first separate 2 issues i.e tradition from real estate.
    Real Estate.I believe that The Mumbai Tower of Silence must exist in whatever form, Vultures or Solar to protect our heritage and our land. If we loose this,then that will be the starting point from where we will loose so much that we will be finished. The logic is the real estate and not religion. Dasturs need to understand this danger more than any other and stop getting involved in controversies regarding religious interpretations. If this land goes we all go.
    Tradition. It says the dead have to be thrown to wild beasts and scavengers IMMEDIATELY to complete the circle of life. Accepted logically, as that was the fastest way to dispose the dead body in ancient Central Asia, without cutting trees for cremation, using agricultural land for burying and ensuring that the earth remains green and not diseases are not spread.We need to dispose our dead today,in the cleanest and fastest manner if we want to follow real interpretation of our Religion. Purity of Fire, Vultures etc and all these ideas put forth in garb of religion, demeans the greatest scientific philosopher to have ever lived,namely Zarathustra. This greatest of Humans saw and understood the working of the Dynamic Universe, which is never constant. The only constant in this Universe is TRUTH. Follow the TRUTH and you are a Zoroastrian in spirit, religious beliefs come after this.

  • zerxes

    Why some Parsees can never think beyond burning of the corpse can not be understood. Are their mental faculties stunted?. Though electric cremation is not BBQ or Tandoor, though bawaas relish to hog Tandoori food at Election meets, there is a better way for disposal called Promession. So better update your knowledge instead of becoming a butt of criticism

  • Byram Sidhwa

    Why only Madon and Mirza? Why restrictions on other Ervards though they are not under BPP regime? Is that not arm twisting and blackmail of behdins as well as those Ervards who know that it is wrong to deny sacraments to any Jarthostee merely because he or she departs from Mumbai or in Gujarat but same sacraments are performed for those who breath their last abroad or say in Delhi. IT IS RANK HYPOCRISY. No other word.