For three centuries Mumbai’s vultures disposed of the dead and ushered their souls through the cosmic transition inside the circular stone walls of the Towers of Silence. Today, however, the vultures have vanished, and India’s Parsi community is struggling to retain their 3,000-year-old funerary traditions.
In the 1980s, Mumbai’s vulture population mysteriously began to vanish. This was particularly alarming due to the fact that the local Parsi community relied on the scavenger birds to clean up their dead.
The 3,000-year-old Zoroastrian tradition Parsis follow regards all elements as sacred, so burying or cremating a body defiles nature. Instead, they practice dokhmenashini, a system that includes the use of circular stone structures called Towers of Silence, or dakhma. There, bodies are laid in concentric rows for the vultures to consume. They believe the dead are contaminated by evil spirits, and the soul is purified for it’s cosmic transition through the mystic eye of the vulture.
Before the vultures began to disappear, a body could be reduced to bone within an hour. Now, however, bodies rot in the hot sun for weeks while smaller birds such as kites and crows pick at the remains.
In 2007, it was discovered that a drug being given to cattle was actually toxic to the birds feeding on the carcasses. It was quickly banned by the Indian government, though by that point it was already too late. The vulture population had been decimated by 99%.
In Mumbai’s Doongerwadi forest, a lush wooded area surrounded by high-end high-rises, the Towers of Silence are making neighbors squeamish. One dakhma has already been closed, and air purifiers are required to deal with the smell. Solar concentrators have been introduced to help dehydrate bodies, but the process is slow.
Sanctuaries and breeding programs to restore the vulture population have not yet had any success. The end of the Zoroastrian tradition may be imminent.
How does the Tower of Silence work?
Within the tower’s high walls, bodies are arranged in three rows – men on the outer row, women on the second, and children on the inner row. The dakhma in Doongerwadi forest are capable of holding 250 bodies at a time.
After a hungry flock of vultures picks the bodies clean, the bones are into the center well, called the bhandar, where they are left in the sun to return to the elements. Putrefying matter is washed into channels at the bottom of the well that lead to four outer wells. There the water filters through a thick bed of sand and charcoal, leaving the other material to collect in the underground chambers.
A small, “untouchable” sub-caste of Parsis called khandhias are the only ones allowed to handle the bodies, as dead matter is considered “unclean.”