Buried in the Sky
Some Parsi Zoroastrians are having a hard time accepting changes to traditional death rituals.
Reprinted from the September 2004 issue of Science & Theology News. Used with permission.
MUMBAI, India - The Parsi New Year, celebrated by the world's 120,000 Parsi Zoroastrians on August 20, brought to an end 10 days of prayers - calledMuktad
- for the souls of their dead.
Traditionally, the dead are left in the Towers of Silence, ordakhmas
, for the elements of nature - the sun and wind - and birds of prey to dispose of.
"The mode of disposal of the dead is designed to ensure theological correctness, ecological safeguards and spiritual fortification," said Ervad Ramiyar P. Karanjia, the principal of the Athornan Boarding Madressa, a Zoroastrian seminary in Mumbai.
Zoroastrianism, at 3,500 years old, is one of the world's oldest religions. Its practitioners worldwide follow the teachings of the Prophet Zarathushtra as well as ritual practices that have come down from Sasanian times. The religion has, in many ways, been protected by the small group of Zoroastrians in India - called Parsis - who left their homeland of Persia, now modern-day Iran, in the 10th century to escape oppression by Islamic conquerors.
For Zoroastrians, the laws of purity and nature are paramount: cremation of the body is believed to desecrate the element of fire, burying the body defiles the Earth and drowning the body pollutes the waters. Dakhma Nishin, or sky burial, is the doctrinally preferred practice. In dakhma, after decomposition, only bones are interred.
Dakhma also accounts for the possibilities of infection from the process of disposal of corpses by harnessing the powers of disinfection of the sun and the wind, Karanjia said. However, in absence of towers, Parsis in England, Africa, Singapore and other places have buried their dead in specially lined graves for several centuries. Even in Iran, the dakhmas are now in disuse.
India has only four Towers of Silence; the people who can't get their dead to these places dispose of them in specially sanctioned graveyards, called Aramgarhs, said Maneck Burjorjee, an 80-year-old originally from Mumbai. These days, she continued, they <> are not observed as much in people's homes as in the Fire Temple - where Parsis gather for services; and even then, most in attendance are older people, she said.
Mickey Bhatia, a Parsi psychoanalyst who married outside the community, is very clear on wanting to keep with tradition, but only if it's adapted. Traditionally, non-Parsis are allowed on the premises of the towers, but not allowed to participate. "I would opt to be consigned to the Tower of Silence - which has solar panels that work efficiently - provided my husband and children are permitted to participate in my last rites," she said. "Otherwise, I would prefer to be cremated in the cold, clinical crematorium," she said.
In Mumbai, the addition of solar panels to dehydrate the bodies was seen as a violation of tenets. Khojeste Mistree, a Zoroastrian scholar and the founder of the Zoroastrian Studies institute in Mumbai, feels strongly that disposing the dead at the towers "is doctrinally right: it spreads harmony in the environment, which is what modern man calls ecology. I think one must not abandon a system but ensure that it works. It would be ideal for vultures to be reintroduced into the towers."
In 1870, Sir Monier-Williams of Oxford University wrote that, "it took vultures less than five minutes to consume the flesh of a new corpse." Since then the situation has changed because the Oriental White-backed and Long-billed vulture populations have diminished by 96 percent in India and neighboring countries. In-depth studies by the Bombay Natural History Society, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and the United States-based Peregrine Fund have shown that their deaths were not due to any assignable causes like DDT or bird flu.
In Mumbai, the towers that were once outside the city limits are now in the midst of a teeming metropolis. The sight and smell of the decaying flesh that crows and the few remaining vultures drop in inhabited areas has caused considerable debate and concern, even within the Parsi community.
Despite the decrees of high priests that death rituals should not be performed for those who choose to be cremated, Almitra Bilimoria, a marketing executive at a premier art quarterly said, "As an educated and modern Parsi Zoroastrian, I would like to have an option of being cremated at the Doongerwadi Towers of Silence in Mumbai."
She added: "The religion should move with times and open its doors to change. A person who dies a Zoroastrian should be able to have prayers recited irrespective of the mode of disposal."
In the United States, Zoroastrians have few choices, said Yasmin Kevala, a financial planner and realtor in Potomac, Md. When she lived in Dubai, people would take the bodies of the dead back to India for the holy rites. "Here, the body is taken to the morgue, lain in a coffin and the priest performs the prayers," said Kevala, who would prefer to be cremated.
"As a community we are too few to have a Fire Temple or a Tower of Silence. We celebrate our new year in a community center," said Kevala, who is trustee-at-large of the Zoroastrian Association of Metropolitan Washington.