Vanishing vultures create burial crisis for Bombay's Parsees

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The big, hideous birds gather in the trees as the white-clad pall-bearers lug the Parsee's mortal remains into the stone tower.

The big, hideous birds gather in the trees as the white-clad pall-bearers lug the Parsee's mortal remains into the stone tower. In the lee of the tower's high walls, the bearers lay the corpse down and remove the white sheet that swathes it.

Within seconds the vultures descend, brownish wings flapping like trenchcoats, heads naked and necks long and scrawny, ripping the flesh to shreds, screeching and hissing, elbowing for position. Within a couple of hours there is nothing left but bones.

According to Zoroastrianism, Persia's pre-Islamic religion, death is the temporary triumph of evil, and to dispose of the dead through burial or cremation is to pollute those sacred elements. Instead they allow birds of carrion to do the job.

When Zoroastrians fleeing Islamic persecution came to India over a thousand years ago, they brought their rituals with them, and even today these special towers, known as Towers of Silence, are found in all the cities of the subcontinent where Parsees (the word means simply "Persians") live.

But now a mysterious viral illness that has wiped out nearly all India's whitebacked vultures has thrown the biggest of these communities, the Parsees of Bombay, into crisis. With the vultures gone, Dokhmenashini, as the ritual is called, has become obnoxious. "The system is not working," admits Jehangir Patel, editor of a monthly Parsi magazine. "The scavengers do not come in large numbers so the bodies lie there rotting. There is quite a stench, and it is offensive to people living in the area."

Bombay's Parsees number only 50,000 but include many prominent business tycoons, doctors and lawyers. Bombay's Tower of Silence is tucked away in the middle of Doongerwadi, 50 acres of woodland owned by the community on Malabar Hill, south Bombay's most select residential area, and the gruesome spectacle of disposal is hidden far from curious eyes. But now the disappearance of the vultures and the resulting stench is persuading more and more Parsees to change their ways.

A group has been formed called Disposal of the Dead with Dignity Action Group, demanding the construction of a crematorium in the grounds of Doongerwadi and the right of Parsees who are cremated to have prayers read for them in the prayer halls there.

But conservatives in the community fiercely resist the changes, and some see a diabolical plot behind the urge for reform. "Ahura Mazda [the Zoroastrian godhead] commands all Zarathustris to follow the Dokhmenashini method of body disposal and no other," Porus Homi Havewal wrote to Bombay's Mid-Day newspaper, "so that the earth, fire and water are not polluted by decomposing matter. The ancient method has been followed by our forefathers for tens of thousands of years. These age-old principles will stand as a rock and not be changed by us."

And a respected scholar in the community, Khojestee Mistree, says: "In my personal opinion, the rich and prominent Parsees who are singing the tune of modernity may not have any high moral ground. I suspect that a handful of realtors have a 15-year plan in mind. If Dokhmenashini could be proved ineffective, the enormous land in the heart of the city can slowly be taken away for building purposes."

Doongerwadi's governing body recently passed a resolution permitting mourners of those who have been cremated to say their prayers there, but after an outcry by the clergy the final decision has been put on hold.

The conservatives are hoping that a scheme to rear vultures in captivity will keep the problem at bay. But more and more prominent Parsees are leaving instructions that they should be cremated.

"It's quite an emotional issue for the community," admits Mr Patel. "How can I convince them?" rages one exasperated conservative about his liberal co-religionists. "They don't believe in hell!"