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Last Updated: Monday, 30 October 2006, 10:27 GMT
Parsis split over disposal of dead
By Monica Chadha
BBC News, Mumbai

Dhan Baria released photographs of bodies lying inside the Towers of Silence.

It is a matter of life and death for India's dwindling and tiny Zoroastrian Iranian or Parsi community in India's financial capital, Mumbai.

There are only 130,000 Parsis left around the world, of whom about 43,000 reside in Mumbai.

With deaths outweighing births, Parsis may be a dying community demographically but they are quite high on the Indian social ladder.

Leaders have been battling the group's steadily declining population for years and are encouraging members to increase their numbers to prevent their race from dying.

Now they must deal with the issue of how best to dispose of their dead as the centuries-old tradition of leaving the corpses to be devoured by vultures does not seem to work anymore.

With an average of three bodies being taken up daily to the Towers of Silence - the funeral place of the Parsis - and the vulture population in the city nearly extinct, a corpse takes months to decompose.

The issue has sparked off a furious debate within the community specially after 65-year old Dhan Baria released photographs of bodies lying in big heaps, half-eaten by other scavengers inside the Towers.

The graphic pictures show rotten, uncovered bodies in vivid detail.


Ms Baria says she decided to pursue the "sensitive matter" after being told that her mother's body would take a year to decompose as there were not enough vultures in the city to consume the corpses.

"My mother died in November, 2005. Next month, it will be a year since her death but I know that her body is still lying there, uncovered, amongst numerous other bodies. Is this how we want to treat our loved ones?" she asks.

Baria mother
Mrs Baria died a year ago but her body is still lying in the Towers

Ms Baria is appalled: "From the pictures you can see how the bodies are lying in an open, rotting state. They are none other than our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, daughters and sons. After their death, do they not deserve to be treated with respect and dignity?"

While the photographs have shocked the community, what has surprised them even more is how Ms Baria managed to get the pictures of an area where only the designated pall-bearers are allowed to go.

Ms Baria says she did not take the pictures herself, but has received them from an anonymous sender who believes in her cause.

Now she has demanded that the community's governing council, the Bombay Parsi Panchayat, allow burials or cremations within the funeral grounds.

Her demand has divided the community right down the middle.

A large number of Parsi liberals are supporting Ms Baria and her cause.


Editor of community-based Parsiana magazine, Jehangir Patel, says the issue has touched a raw nerve and people are beginning to get concerned about the failure of the system.

"Most Parsis are becoming vocal about the issue of leaving the bodies of their loved ones in the towers. They sense that they have compromised for too long so now they want change and are willing to fight for it."

But the conservatives believe tradition has been followed until now for a reason and the prevailing system should not be altered to suit modern needs.

Parsi woman
A Parsi woman walks past the fire temple in Mumbai
Managing trustee of the Zoroastrian Studies Institute in Mumbai, Khojeste Mistree, says people are free to dispose of their dead in whatever manner they deem suitable but it is unfair to ask the governing council to legitimise something that is wrong.

"I don't think it is right for the liberals to expect change by infringing on the religious sentiments of the majority," he says.

Meanwhile, the Parsi Panchayat has said it will set up a committee comprising both liberals and conservatives to try and find a solution to the problem acceptable to both sides.

Parsis, followers of Zoroastrianism, are a small religious community which exists mostly in Mumbai. According to their faith, death is seen not as the work of God but the temporary triumph of evil over good.

Since the earth, fire and water are regarded as sacred elements, they cannot be defiled by the dead. Therefore, the bodies are left in the Dokhmas or large cylindrical stone towers, with a pit in the centre, to be consumed by vultures.

But the vulture population across the country has fallen rapidly in the last few years. The decline has been linked to the birds eating animal carcasses containing traces of an anti-inflammatory chemical, diclofenac.

The community has put up solar panels in the Towers to ensure speedy decomposition of the bodies.

But this has been only partially successful as the panels get little sun during the monsoons and do not work efficiently during the rains.

India's Parsis ponder future
11 Jan 01 |  South Asia


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