Shortage of vultures threatens ancient culture: Many Parsees are questioning the tradition of sky burial. Tim McGirk reports from Bombay on a bitter life-and-death debate

Tim McGirk
Tuesday 15 September 1992 23:02

THE fickle habits of Bombay's vultures may soon force the Parsee religious community to abandon its 1,200-year-old custom of leaving the dead to be devoured by birds.

The Tower of Silence looks as forbidding as it sounds. A grim, stone tower, it sits in a private jungle park on Bombay's Malabar Hill. Here, on a high, round platform, the bodies are stripped naked and left for the vultures. After the birds have feasted, the human bones are swept off the ringed platform into a dark, deep well in the Tower of Silence.

Every day for centuries a corpse or two has been placed on the Tower of Silence, and the birds have learned to participate in the Parsee funeral ceremonies with extraordinary punctuality. Even before the dead man was brought out last Tuesday, the vultures and kites had alighted from their eyries atop Bombay's skyscrapers and were gliding in a slow circle high above the tower. With their spiralling pattern of flight, it was as if the hundreds of vultures, kites, crows and sparrows had assembled to create their own Tower of Silence in the air.

In the afternoon, four white- clad pallbearers carried a corpse along a path through the Doongerwadi jungle of palms, banyan trees and vines leading to the tower. As they climbed the tower's outside stairway to the funeral platform, a few crows and kites swooped on to the rampart and were jerking their wings in a spasm of hungry anticipation.

The Parsees, who venerate fire, laid the corpse tenderly on the platform. The only ornaments on the Tower of Silence are lines that beam out from the centre well, and it looked as though the dead man was caught dangling in the rays of a dark sun. As the birds moved in on the corpse, it became apparent that these beams were in fact gutters whose function is to wash the blood into the well.

Sky burials date from the eighth century when the Parsees, also called Zoroastrians, were forced by their Muslim conquerors in Persia to leave their dead unburied. Parsees believe that in the sky burial the corpse is prevented from polluting the sacred elements of fire, air, water and earth.

To escape Muslim persecution, the Parsees sailed to India, taking this custom with them. Letting scavengers devour a corpse on a remote hilltop may have been swift and hygienic, but carrying out the same practice today in densely crowded Bombay is distinctly less so.

Many Parsees believe that this funeral rite has lost its dignity. The vultures, they say, are to blame. Jehan Daruwala, the editor of the Bombay Samachar, a daily that serves the city's 50,000 Parsees, said: 'I speak with authority, rancour and force, and I say that I would not want my dog to be disposed of in this manner - never mind one of my loved ones.'

The problem is that there are now too few vultures adequately to remove the corpse. 'It's like Dante's Hell,' said one Parsee mourner who visited the funeral edifice. 'There are hardly any birds and the bodies remain in an identifiable state for weeks - even months.'

He added: 'There was such a foul stink that I went home and bathed, but for the rest of the night, I still couldn't get that smell out of my nostrils.'

Inhabitants of the skyscrapers that ring the Tower of Silence are unhappy too. Those in the lower floors are hit by the stench, while the penthouse-dwellers sometimes find that a kite has dropped some morsel of human flesh on to their terrace.

Chased away by aeroplanes from the nearby airport, and deprived of the central Bombay slaughterhouses, which have been moved to the outskirts of the city, the vultures are now shunning the Tower of Silence.

Gautam Narayan, an ornithologist with the Bombay Natural History Society, explained: 'When they shifted the slaughterhouses out of Bombay, the vultures went with them.

'The Parsees approached us about this matter a while back and we suggested contructing an aviary over the Tower of Silence, keeping the vultures inside. But nothing came of it.'

The white-backed gyps bengalensis also loses its appetite during the three months of monsoon and vanishes from Bombay to breed. The disappearance of the Tower of Silence's scavengers has sparked off a fiery row between orthodox Bombay Parsees and reformists.

One community leader who visited the Tower of Silence, and was revolted by what he saw, suggested that the Parsees abandon sky burials in favour of cremations. 'I received telephone calls at night from other Parsees, saying they would splash my face with acid,' said the man, who did not want his name published.

The job of pallbearer has traditionally been hereditary, but the Parsees today are a rich, dynamic community that includes doctors and industrialists (the late Freddie Mercury, the pop star, was also a Parsee) and few are willing to haul carcasses up to the Tower of Silence for pounds 16 a month.

Minoo Chhoi, a Parsee actor, spoke recently to a pallbearer, who said: 'My grandfather and father did this job, and so did I - but not my son. He's not carrying any corpses. He's working as a bank clerk.'

(Photograph omitted)

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