Parsis are the followers of the ancient Zoroastrian religion, whose ancestors settled in Indian 1,000 years ago to escape persecution in Iran (erstwhile Persia) that had turned Islamic. They brought along their tradition of leaving the dead exposed in the open for scavenging birds to feed on.
Of the 138,000 Zoroastrians left in the world, 80% live in India. This small but prosperous Indian Parsi (for people from Persia) community remained a torchbearer for the Zoroastrians, preserving unique rituals including sky burial.
Parsis believe exposing corpses to scavenging birds and the sun ensured the sacred elements of earth, fire and water are saved from pollution by decaying flesh. The Parsis consider land and water to be sacred and they must not be “polluted” with a dead body.
However, like all other cultures across the world, the Parsis are also trapped between conservatism and modernism. As a result, Liberal Parsis of Navsari, Gujarat, have now decided that members of the community would be given the option between a earth and sky burial.
The foremost reason is the dwindling population of vultures in and around the Damkhas (tower of silence, the sky burial site). India has four towers of silence. These structures mainly comprise three circular wells — one each for children, men and women – where dead are placed for the vultures to feed on. However, India’s vulture population has steadily declined and has been replaced by ravens and kites. Therefore, bodies take longer to deflesh (excarnate) and the towers of silence tend to contain partially decomposed bodies.
It was initially presumed that vultures were disappearing due to the mushrooming of concrete jungles. However, some research has suggested that vultures were dying of kidney failure after consuming the carcasses of cattle that has been treated with a banned drug Diclofenac In the past 15 years, India’s vulture population has declined by a whopping 99 per cent. There are currently about 100,000 vultures left in India, compared with 40 million in the 1980s.
Some years ago, one of the towers of silence introduced panels to dehydrate the bodies as the sight and smell of the decaying flesh had caused considerable debate and concern. Conservatives in the community had viewed this step as a violation of Zoroastrian tenets and demanded that vultures be reintroduced into the towers.
The Indian Government is also worried because vultures play an important role in maintaining the ecological balance in a country largely dependent on farming and lacking in modern techniques for disposal of cattle carcasses.
The Indian government introduced an ambitious project last year to restore the vulture population. The government hopes the program will restore India’s vulture population to 40 million in the next decade.
Zoroastrianism, at 3,500 years old, is one of the world’s oldest religions. Its practitioners worldwide follow the teachings of the Prophet Zarathustra as well as ritual practices that have come down from Sassanian times.
Parsis in England, Africa, Singapore and other places bury their dead in specially lined graves and even in Iran, the dakhmas are in disuse.