Facing a growing crisis over the lack of enough vultures to consume corpses at the traditional Towers of Silence, a small band of “reformists”, including priests, from the shrinking community of Parsi Irani Zoroastrians have begun supporting alternate modes of disposing the dead.
For the first time, some priests have agreed to perform last rites even for those who have been cremated or buried at a new Rs 1.5-crore prayer hall that will become fully functional from this month-end.
This gradually swelling group includes priests who had earlier flatly refused to pray for the dead during the four-day mourning period if the body was buried or cremated, which is strictly prohibited in the community.
Among them is Dastur Framroze S Mirza who has invoked the ire of the Bombay Parsi Panchayat for breaking with tradition.
“I have been a priest for 48 years and decided enough is enough. I know my duties and I am willing to pray for the dead soul during the four days of mourning, even if the body has not been sent to the Towers of Silence,” Dastur Mirza told The Indian Express.
“I have been conducting such ceremonies at Mumbai, Pune and Surat, and even travel abroad if people seek my services,” Dastur Mirza said.
“We do have another seven to eight priests who are willing to perform the last rites at the new prayer hall that will be functional by August-end at the Worli crematorium,” he said.
It has been the traditional norm for Parsis to take dead bodies to the Towers of Silence, to be consumed by vultures — it was considered an individual’s final act of charity, one that does not “defile the sacred elements of earth, fire and water”.
However, due to lack of vultures, the dead bodies are taking much longer to decompose even though solar panels were installed in the Towers of Silence to hasten the process.
The prayer hall, set up with donations from the A H Wadia trust, is now being hailed as a crucial moment in the history of the community.
“Over a period of time, there will be a quantum leap in the number of Parsi Irani Zoroastrians opting for alternate modes of disposal,” said Dinshaw K Tamboly, chairman of the Prayer Hall Trust and former trustee at the Bombay Parsi Panchayat, who was instrumental in setting up the hall.
“Over the years, the state of affairs within the Towers of Silence at Mumbai became public knowledge as to how bodies were piling up and not getting decomposed. That was when Parsis started considering alternate modes of disposal,” Tamboly said.
“During my tenure as BPP trustee (November 1996-2008) we debated the need for allowing funeral prayers to be performed at Doongerwadi and thereafter permit family members to dispose of the corpse through alternate modes of disposal, cremation or burial. The issue, however, could not move forward due to pressure from the clergy and sections of traditional Parsis,” Tamboly said.
According to Mabrin Nanavatti, secretary of Poona Zarthoshti Seva Mandal, there are about 60,000 Parsis left in India, mainly in Mumbai, Pune, Surat, Navsari and Ahmedabad. And, panchayat trustees at Mumbai and Pune are trying to ensure that the traditional way of disposal of the dead is adhered to.
Poona Parsi Panchayat trustee Shahrukh Irani has even installed an improved system of solar panels “to ensure speedy decomposition” of bodies at the Towers. According to Bombay Parsi Panchayat records, 396 dead bodies were sent to the Towers of Silence in Mumbai and 40 in Pune, from January to June this year.
“Still, it’s time for Parsis to consider alternate methods because bodies are lying there for weeks and months,” said Mumbai-based cardiologist Dr Purvez Grant, whose father Dr K B Grant was buried in January at the Zoroastrian cemetery in Pune’s Koregaon Park.