September 28, 2006


Although I hail from Bombay (now Mumbai), home of > 50% of the world's Parsees, I did not have any Parsee friends growing up and other than the fact that they had come to India fleeing persecution in Iran many many centuries back, there was little I knew about the history of Zorastrians, exposure to silly stereotypes in movies and familiarity with legendary names in Indian history, aside . My 2c on this is that I have always thought of them as a very anachronistic sect of people, albeit very talented, honest, hard-working and great human beings, who are doomed to dwindle to extinction sooner rather than later... thanks to their strict narrow-minded ways!

Today, I happened to read on Parsi Khabar (new blog I just found through my daily reading of India Uncut!) about a recent controversy in the Parsee community, that stems from their rather 'bizarre and morbid' custom of disposing the dead*...

The controversy stems from the fact that there is a growing pile of bodies in Bombay's Towers of Silence’... and this was highlighted to the Parsee community by pictures taken by a 65-year-old Parsee, Dhan Baria, of the Tower of Silence. Another Parsikhabar post has a video from CNN-IBN on the Towers of Silence Controversy - some disturbing imagery and therefore caution is needed when viewing the video.

Though the problem of undisposed bodies in the ‘Towers of Silence’ has been known, the matter came to limelight last fortnight after a community member clandestinely took photographs of the pile up in the Mumbai’s ‘Tower of Silence.’ “Vultures are supposed to eat away the bodies. But they have become virtually extinct because they consume diclofenic while feeding on cattle carcasses and disappearance of their habitat,” said an analyst. Sources in the Parsi community say that not only in Mumbai but even in Hyderabad there could be a pile up of bodies in the two ‘Towers of Silence’ (or dakhmas) located in Bhoiguda and Parsigutta. Vultures were last seen in Hyderabad two decades ago.

The problem has been recognized by the Parsee community and some solutions have been sought
In Bombay, the Parsi council has installed giant solar reflectors to hasten the process of decomposition of corpses because there are just not enough vultures around to consume all the bodies. It is also starting a vulture aviary on the premises with help from an overseas expert. Currently in Bombay there is an average of three Parsees dying every day and the handful of vultures at the towers are overfed. Experts say about 100-120 birds would be needed to deal with the daily intake of bodies.

A related news item that I recall reading at the BBC website some time back reported the virtual disappearence of vultures in India, with the population declining from 45 million only a few years ago to the verge of extinction.

Wildlife experts in India have been urging the Indian government to ban a widely used veterinary drug in order to save vultures from extinction after New Scientist reported studies that proved that the catastrophic decline of griffon vultures in south Asia was caused not by a mysterious disease, as had been thought, but a common painkiller given to sick cattle. 

Anyways, reading this led me to think that it is a shame that I do not know much of the history of the Parsee people or the reasons for the customs of the Parsees. So, I set upon an expedition through Wikipedia (Not to add fuel to the fire, but in today's world where information is only a mouse-click away, subscriptions to Britannica do not make sense when you have the power of wiki and the collective wisdom of experts from around the world at hand!), to learn more about Parsees, their culture, and their history.

Here is a short snippet from the wiki article on Zoroastrianism

The Avesta is the collection of the sacred texts of Zoroastrianism. The contents of the Avesta are generally divided into five categories. The divisions are topical and are by no means fixed or
canonical. Some scholars prefer to place the five categories in two groups, the one liturgical, and the other general.

  • The Yasna, the primary liturgical collection; includes the Gathas, which are thought to have
    been composed by
    Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) himself.
  • The Visparad, a collection of supplements to the Yasna.
  • The Yashts, hymns in honor of the divinities of Zoroastrian angelology.
  • The Vendidād, describes the various forms of evil spirits and ways to confound them.
  • Shorter texts and prayers, the five nyaishes "worship, praise", the siroze "thirty days" (see Zoroastrian calendar) and the afringans "blessings".

Ahura Mazda is the beginning and the end, the creator of everything which can and cannot be seen, the Eternal, the Pure and the only Truth.

Some major Zoroastrian precepts:
  • Equalism: Equality of all, irrespective of gender, race, or religion
  • Respect and kindness towards all living things. Condemnation of the oppression of human beings, cruelty against animals and sacrifice of animals.
  • Environmentalism: Nature is central to the practice of Zoroastrianism and many important Zoroastrian annual festivals are in celebration of nature: new year on the first day of spring, the water festival in summer, the autumn festival at the end of the season, and the mid-winter fire festival.
  • Hard work and charity: Laziness and sloth are frowned upon. Zoroastrians are encouraged to part with a little of what would otherwise be their own.
  • Loyalty and faithfulness to "family, settlement, tribe, and country."

Central to Zoroastrianism is the emphasis on moral choice, to choose between the responsibility and duty for which one is in the mortal world, or to abjure this duty and so facilitate the work of druj. Similarly, predestination is rejected in Zoroastrian teaching. Humans bear responsibility for all situations they are in, and in the way they act to one another. Reward, punishment, happiness and grief all depend on how individuals live their life. Good transpires for those who do righteous deeds. Those who do evil have themselves to blame for their ruin. Zoroastrian morality is then be summed up in the simple phrase, "good thoughts, good words, good deeds" (Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta in Avestan), for it is through these that asha is maintained and druj is kept in check.

It was Achaemenid era (648–330 BCE) Zoroastrianism that later developed the abstract concepts of heaven, hell, personal and final judgement, all of which are only alluded to in the Gathas.

And this insight into their belief system and customs followed to date..
Inter-faith marriages: As in many other faiths, Zoroastrians are strongly encouraged to marry others of the same faith, but this is not a requirement of the religion itself. Some members of the Indian Zoroastrian community (the Parsis) contend that a child must have a Parsi father to be eligible for introduction into the faith, but this assertion is considered by most to be a violation of the Zoroastrian tenets of gender equality, and may be a remnant of an old legal definition (since overruled) of Parsi. However, to this day, some priests will not perform the Navjote ceremony - i.e. the rites of admission into the religion - for children of mixed-marriages, irrespective of which parent is a non-Parsi. This issue is a matter of great debate within the Parsi community, but with the increasingly global nature of modern society and the dwindling number of Zoroastrians, such opinions are less vociferous than they previously were.

Death and burial: Religious rituals related to death are all concerned with the person's soul and not the body. Zoroastrians believe that on the fourth day after death, the human soul leaves the body and the body remains as an empty shell. Traditionally, Zoroastrians disposed of their dead by leaving them atop open-topped enclosures, called Towers of Silence, or Dokhmas. Vultures and the weather would clean the flesh off the bones, which were then placed into an ossuary at the center of the Tower. Fire and Earth were considered too sacred for the dead to be placed in them. While this practice is continued in India by some Parsis, it had ended by the beginning of the twentieth century in Iran. In India, burial and cremation are becoming increasingly popular alternatives.

Also via Parsi khabar - A very interesting slide show on Zoroastrianism from the New York Times, as an interactive accompaniment to the article - Zoroastrians Keep the Faith, and Keep Dwindling
And this article provides a brief account of the Parsis after the downfall of the Sasanian Empire at the hands of the Arabs and gives possible reasons as to why only those migrants to the West Coast of India have managed to survive while others have disappeared without trace

* Per the Dakhma-nashini is the only method of corpse-destruction: this is the destruction of the dead body in the stone-enclosed Dakhma, by the flesh-eating bird or the rays of the Sun, the most spiritually powerful method as commanded by Ahura Mazda to Zarathushtra. Dakhma-nashini is believed to be hygienic and ecologically-sound, because it prevents the world from being spiritually or materially polluted by decaying dead matter

Related quote but I do not think of it as being reflective in any way of the character of the Parsee community or their customs!

"There is perhaps nothing else so distinctive of the condition and character of a people as the method in which they treat their dead." - William Tegg 1876 (Quote via.)

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