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Parsi Disposal of Their Dead: Tower of Silence in Mumbai

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The author is an air warrior, military historian and writer on warfare and military history

parsi-disposal-of-their-dead-tower-of-silence-in-mumbai
Zoraster fire temple

Zoraster fire temple

The Parsi's

The Parsis are a community that follows the Zoroaster religion. Zoroastrianism or Mazdayasna is one of the world's oldest continuously practiced religions. The tenets of this religion are based on the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster. The religion dates back to the 6th century BCE and thus predates Judaism and Christianity. The teachings of the prophet are enshrined in a book called the Avesta.

Zoroastrianism is a mix of paganism and monotheism. The central place of worship is the Fire Temple which has eternal flame lit. At one time, this religion held sway over a vast area that corresponds to modern Iraq, Turkey, and Iran. The epicenter was Persia now known as Iran. Some of the most formidable emperors of that era like Darius and Xersis ruled there. Zoroastrianism was the state religion of the Persian empire for more than a millennium, from around 600 BCE to 650 CE. After this period it began to decline, following the Islamization of Persia by conquest during 633–654.

Most of the population converted to Shia Islam and those who did not want to convert fearing persecution escaped to India. That is the reason that 90% of all Parsis reside in India mostly in Gujerat and Mumbai. The Parsis brought their religious beliefs with them including their customs. As the Hindu kings were secular the religion has survived in India for 1500 years.

Zoroastrianism is a fascinating religion with some beliefs that may look weird in the present age. In particular, their beliefs of disposal of the dead are unique and flow from their belief that a man must donate his body to the world, even after death. To facilitate this, a Parsi's body is left to animals and nature. The place where the dead are interred is called the Tower of Silence.

parsi-disposal-of-their-dead-tower-of-silence-in-mumbai

Death rituals

The Parsi temple and place of disposal of the dead is often referred to as the Tower of Silence. One of the most significant Towers of Silence is in Mumbai. It is situated on prime land at Malabar Hill. The man responsible for coining the word ‘Tower of Silence’ goes to a Britishers named Robert Murphy. He coined the word in 1832. It is a translation of a similar meaning word Dakhma from the language of the Parsis Avesta.

Parsi Tradition

Zoroaster (Parsi) tradition has a unique system of disposal of the human body after death. To keep the body pure after death Zoroarstrism stipulates that believers leave the body in the open, exposed to nature. Most of these towers of silence are vast open spaces with a temple at the entrance. The vast open spaces are home to vultures that eat the flesh of the dead.

The tower of silence will have a perimeter wall that encloses the place where the bodies are kept. Inside there are 3 concentric circles. The bodies of the men are arranged on the outer circle and the women in the middle circle and the children are placed in the innermost circle. Nobody is allowed to enter the sacred burial place and only special pallbearers are allowed inside.

The principle behind leaving the dead body to nature and birds is supposed to be the last act of charity of a Parsi, wherein he donates his body to birds for food. The body of the dead Parsi is brought in a coffin to the Tower of silence and after a ceremony is taken inside by the special pallbearers. The body is then left in the open. Nobody can visit the body again once it is committed to the Parsi Tower of silence.


parsi-disposal-of-their-dead-tower-of-silence-in-mumbai

Parsi Tower of Silence Mumbai

The Parsi tower of silence in Mumbai is a landmark of the city. It is almost hidden in a maze of dense trees and bushes. The Mumbai tower of silence has a bleak look and one can easily recognize it with the vultures hovering over it.

The Parsi towers of silence date from the earliest times. The concept was brought w to India by the Parsis who escaped from Iran to save themselves from conversion and persecution. But in the Tower of silence in Mumbai there is now a dearth of vultures and many Parsis would like their bodies to be buried instead of being left in the open to elements of nature. The famous Indian army commander Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw was a Parsi. He is remembered in world history as the man who defeated the Pakistan army and helped free the oppressed Bengali Muslims by creating Bangladesh. He and his wife opted to be buried.

In India, apart from Mumbai, there are quite a few Towers of Silence. These are located at Surat, Calcutta, and Navasari. There is even a Tower of Silence in Karachi but with just a handful of Parsis left it is mostly empty.

Parsi girls

Parsi girls

Last word

I have been observing that the Parsi community in India is declining. There is a possibility that in the years to come the Parsi Temple of Silence could become just a tourist monument. The Bombay Municipal Corporation(BMC) has published figures in 2013 of the birth and death of the Parsis. 74 Parsi births took place in 2013 in Bombay The number of dead consigned to the Dakhmas in 2013 was 711. These figures show that the Parsi population is declining at an alarming rate. Due to the sensitive nature of the subject, the BMC has not published the latest figures of birth and death.

The last census shows only about 60,000 Parsis left in India when at the turn of the last century they numbered close to 500000. One of the reasons for this decline of the Parsi population is the rigidity with which it is enforced. Any woman who marries outside the Parsi religion is excommunicated and her children are not allowed to be Parsi's. Another big stumbling block is that nobody can convert and become a Parsi. This has its own effect on the demographic profile of the community.

Alarmed with the decline in the Parsi population, the Indian government has started a pilot project to help the community grow but it doesn't seem to be leading anywhere.

Comments

MG Singh (author) from UAE on April 17, 2021:

Thank you Shehnaz, for reading and giving your persepective.

Shehnaz on April 17, 2021:

I liked your article. Very objective. I am a Parsi and will opt to be cremated.

MG Singh (author) from UAE on May 19, 2014:

Thank you Mayank for your comment

mayank patel on May 18, 2014:

Really parsi community in my country is very great and sweet I like parsi but I never show after death how disposal dead body

Chanchal Aggarwal on April 02, 2014:

thanks for information

MG Singh (author) from UAE on September 17, 2013:

I am glad I could be of some help to you

himadri on September 17, 2013:

thanks this information has helped me a lot for my history project

MG Singh (author) from UAE on September 04, 2013:

Nice of you to have commented Maninder.

MG Singh (author) from UAE on September 04, 2013:

Nice of you to have commented Maninder.

maninder on September 04, 2013:

After death as a human thinking I suggest to all religion too just wipe out all entire body by burning its saving of land & memory of past person which is good thing to move further

MG Singh (author) from UAE on April 28, 2013:

Thank you Alisha for reading and commenting

Alisha Patel on April 26, 2013:

this information has helped me greatly for my project. So thanks!!

MG Singh (author) from UAE on February 03, 2013:

Thank you Amit for reading and commenting

amit on February 03, 2013:

salute to parsi community..

MG Singh (author) from UAE on December 24, 2012:

Thank you Mala

Mala on December 24, 2012:

A friend at work had mentioned this to me. He didn't have all the details though. I wanted to know more and that is why I am here. Thanks for providing such in-depth information.

MG Singh (author) from UAE on June 19, 2012:

Thank you Nell for commenting

Nell Rose from England on June 19, 2012:

Fascinating and grim place. Every religion or race have their own way of burying their loved ones. I have seen this on TV, I am not sure that in this day and age it is appropriate, but who am I to say? as long as the people living around it are fine with it, then that's the main thing, thanks nell

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