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Wednesday, 18 July, 2001, 13:43 GMT 14:43 UK
Parsis turn to solar power
Parsi towers
The Towers of Silence are closed to outsiders
By Sanjeev Srivastava in Bombay

The Parsi community of Bombay - who leave their dead out in the open to be consumed by vultures - have turned to science to aid them in their unique centuries-old ritual.

Vultures are declining in number
The Bombay Parsi "panchayat" or council has installed giant solar reflectors to hasten the process of decomposition of corpses because there are just not enough vultures around to consume the bodies.

Initial results of the solar reflector are good, according to Jamshed Kanga, a former municipal commissioner of Bombay.

"The solar reflector helps to concentrate the sun's rays on the bodies and hasten the decomposition process. Within two days, the bodies on which the reflectors were trained were successfully disposed of," he said.

Religious belief

It is against the Parsis' Zoroastrian faith to either bury, burn or submerge their dead in water.

Death, according to them, is not the work of God but of the devil.

Parsi priest
Some Parsis want to preserve traditions
And as the elements - fire, water and earth - are regarded as sacred, they cannot be defiled by the dead.

So the Parsi dead are disposed of by keeping the body in a "Tower of Silence."

These large cylindrical towers built out of rock with a pit in the centre are closed to all outsiders.

This is where the dead are left to be consumed by birds of prey.

But the lack of vultures means that bodies which are normally consumed in a day are now left lying around for much longer.

Vultures in India, as elsewhere, have declined in numbers largely because of disease.

Short-term measures

There is now a fierce debate in the 50,000-strong Parsi community between the orthodox clergy and reformists, even prompting some of the latter to bury their dead

Another ingenious Parsi, a US-educated chemical engineer, has also put to use an ozone-generating machine to help combat the stench that has started to arise from bodies left out for long periods.

The $30,000 machine has been installed in one of the Towers of Silence and is showing good results.

But as respected Parsi scholar Khojestee Mistry says, "these are only short-term measures".

Vulture breeding

Mr Mistry told the BBC the only long-term solution to the problem is the building of an aviary, where vultures will be bred in captivity.

These aviaries - for which permission has been obtained from the government after the Parsi council approved the project last year - will be built over the Towers of Silence.

"That will be really cutting-edge technology," Mistry says.

Plans are already afoot to bring young birds from the wild and rear them in the aviary.

The process of breeding will start in about two years' time and the first home-bred vultures should be helping the community dispose of its dead in about six years from now.

See also:

11 Jan 01 | South Asia
India's Parsis ponder future
28 Jan 00 | South Asia
Saving India's scavengers
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