Omim Debara was nine when he attended his father’s funeral. This was in the 1950s when India’s Zoroastrians — or Parsis as they are locally known — left their dead on roofless stone towers. Hungry vultures waited on these dakhmas, and within hours, picked unclothed corpses clean to the bone.
For generations, families like the Debaras have upheld this 3000-year-old tradition. “Nothing much changed,” Omim tells me. He is now 77 and in charge of the Parsigutta Tower of Silence. “Except the vultures.”
‘We Are Still Believers in Dokhmenashini’: Leaving the Dead for Vultures in India
Dokhmenashini, or ‘sky burials,’ originated in ancient Iran, the homeland Zoroastrians fled during the 8th and 10th centuries. Fearing religious persecution, they set sail to the Indian subcontinent, belting this funerary practice, along with their sweet maska-glazed buns and bellowed laughter, onto new land. Here, they flourished in cities like Bombay, Kolkata, and my hometown, Hyderabad, as a tiny yet distinct ethno-religious community of Persian emigres or Parsis. In the 70s, Iran’s millennia-old towers were declared illegal, making Indian metropolises some of the world’s last places where this medieval desert ritual is kept alive.
“…thousands of Zoroastrians have long relied on vultures, nature’s clean-up squad, to deal with their dead.”
“It’s the most natural and ecological way to go,” Dr Ramiyar Karanjia, an ancient Iranian history researcher, explains. According to prophet Zarathushtra, contaminating elements — earth, air, fire, water — with decaying bodies is nothing short of sacrilege. Because of this, thousands of Zoroastrians have long relied on vultures, nature’s clean-up squad, to deal with their dead. That is, till they disappeared.
“In the 1970s, I used to see them in droves at the Bombay Tower of Silence,” recalls Jehangir Bisney. In 1983, the Bisneys — Jehangir’s mother, father, and sister — packed their suitcases and moved to Hyderabad. Back then, these birds, he tells me, still towered over India’s expanse. But in 1991-1992, the species suddenly dropped from an estimated 40 million to near extinction, sending shock waves among global scientists and government officials. It took many years, and international research, to find the culprit — a livestock version of diclofenac given to cattle as pain medication. When vultures fed on their carcasses, they ingested small doses of the drug, causing kidney failure in a matter of days. India officially banned the veterinary use of diclofenac in 2006, but it was too late. By 2007, between 97% and 99.9% of India’s three most common vulture species were wiped out in what was dubbed “the fastest decline of any bird species ever reported anywhere in the world.”
At the centre of this seismic shift was the world’s oldest religion — still practised by a few hundred families in the sleepy corners of Hyderabad.
“When we used to bring the body in, vultures immediately knew why we were there,”
“Earlier, as soon as we left the dakhma, five or six, sometimes even twenty vultures, used to swoop down and eat the bodies,” Zubin Kapadia, a Parsi pallbearer, tells me. He inherited this unusual job from his father and now works for the two Towers of Silence in Hyderabad — one in Bhoiguda and the newer one in Parsigutta or Zamistanpur. Alongside six other pallbearers — the few actually permitted inside dakhmas — Zubin silently tends to the community’s deceased. When someone dies, Zoroastrians consider the body ‘unclean’ or nasu. Because of this, they have long banked on pallbearers, a special class of workers, to bathe the deceased, dress them, and most of all, carry the body to its final resting place. “When we used to bring the body in, vultures immediately knew why we were there,” swears Zubin. “It’s why they never attacked us. They knew what our job was — to donate the body.”
But with no scavengers left, bodies were left to decay naturally, which took unpleasantly long — up to six months in some cases. For Parsis, who see dokhmenashini as the cleanest form of excarnation, this news was shocking, rushing high priests and reformists to spar over a dreadful future — being cremated.
Thankfully, they’ve found a way to avoid that. Following India’s vulture crisis, local Anjumans, the religious bodies which manage dakhmas, tried out solar concentrators as a solution. Hyderabad got its hands on these machines too, and though they’re not as quick as vultures, they do the job. “Solar concentrators dry up the body fast,” Omim explains. When these panels are rotated and angled, they focus the sun’s rays on individual corpses, which speeds up the decomposition process without burning them. It’s not a perfect alternative, especially during monsoons or cloudy days. But since there are fewer than 500 Parsi families in Hyderabad, and according to Omim, just 20 deaths a year, the city has made things work so far.
Across India though, opinions aren’t as cut and dried. Recently, concerns over the solar concentrators’ efficiency have prompted many Parsis to opt for burials and cremations instead. In Mumbai, funerals like this were last estimated to account for 15% of deaths in the community. By contrast, only one crematorium death was reported in Hyderabad the same year.
Meanwhile, Parsis are also battling their own mortality. Once the world’s strongest religion, Zoroastrianism has dwindled into one of the smallest. In 2006, the New York Times reported that there were likely less than 190,000 followers worldwide. In India, where most Zoroastrians live today, numbers are projected to be down to 9,000 by the end of the century.
“As traditionalists, we still are believers in dokhmenashini,” Jehangir staunchly tells me. He is now in his 60s and a trustee of Hyderabad’s Zamistanpur Tower of Silence. “But we have to live with reality.”
Today, reports suggest vulture numbers are slowly rising, but as Jehangir mournfully admits, he, like many other Parsis, might not be around to see it. Moreover, modernisation poses a new set of challenges. “Previously, there was a jungle above. Now it’s giant buildings, complexes. Even if they were to return, where would they go?” asks Zubin.
But Parsis are no strangers to this landscape. In fact, the tiny community has been at the forefront of India’s industrial growth. Backing these fortunes is an age-old Zoroastrian tenet: Make money, then put it to good use.
Now, the same belief has turned into a steel-like reverence. Whether that’s Jamsetji Tata, the 19th century’s biggest industrialist turned philanthropist, charitable funds, or hospitals, schools, and libraries slapped with Parsi names. For hundreds of years, one of India’s smallest minorities has generously shared its wealth across various humanitarian undertakings. In many ways, dokhmenashini, where they ‘return corpses to nature’, is no different; it’s one final act of charity.
Before we say goodbye, I try to ask Zubin if seeing vultures up close scared him. But he quickly cuts in, “No, there’s no fear like that among us. Look, we all die someday, don’t we? Some religions bury their dead, and others cremate them. Parsis don’t. We give ourselves to the birds.”