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Photos open eyes to plight of the dead

Birds' decline hits a funeral custom

Zoroastrians shared a June prayer rite in Iran. About 82,000 followers of the religion live in India, most of them in Mumbai.
Zoroastrians shared a June prayer rite in Iran. About 82,000 followers of the religion live in India, most of them in Mumbai. (Raheb Homavandi/ Reuters)

MUMBAI, India -- For centuries, the Zoroastrian dead have been wrapped in white muslin and left at a leafy funeral ground on downtown Mumbai's Malabar Hill, where they are devoured by vultures. Only then, according to the tenets of the ancient religion, can the soul be freed.

But with just a handful of the endangered birds remaining in the city, and with solar panels installed to speed up decomposition working poorly during the monsoon rains, some Zoroastrians are demanding a change.

Pictures of corpses piled at the funeral grounds, secretly snapped by a mourning woman, have sparked a furor over the ancient rituals.

When Dhun Baria learned her mother's corpse would take at least a year to decompose, she slipped into the grounds -- a place few Zoroastrians are allowed to enter -- and took photographs and video footage that have shocked her community.

Orthodox elders of the religion, whose followers are also known as Parsis, say the funeral system is working fine.

But Baria challenges that with her stack of pictures, a 15-minute video clip, and thousands of handbills she has been distributing in the community showing decomposing remains.

``Would you like to have the bodies of your mother, father, daughter piled up in a horrible state?" asked Baria, whose mother died nine months ago.

``It is a terrible sight, the stench is horrible. It's as if the bodies have been tortured. The dead have no dignity," she said.

Since 1673, Parsis have placed their dead in a ``dhokma," or Tower of Silence, to await the vultures at Malabar Hill, now the city's wealthiest neighborhood.

Followers of the Bronze Age Persian prophet Zarathustra, Parsis consider fire a symbol of God's spirit, so cremating the dead is a mortal sin, while burial is seen as a contamination of the earth. But the vulture is precious to Parsis, who believe it releases the spirits of the dead.

Over the past 15 years, millions of South Asian vultures have died from eating cattle carcasses tainted by a painkiller given to sick cows. Conservationists estimate that more than 90 percent of India's vultures have died, creating havoc for Parsis' funeral rites.

The IUCN-World Conservation Union lists India's three species of vulture -- the oriental white-backed, long-billed, and slender-billed vultures -- as critically endangered, the category for animals closest to extinction. It could not provide exact population figures.

Three to four Parsis a day die in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, a city of 16 million. It is clear that there are nowhere near enough vultures to consume the corpses.

While bodies are coated with lime, scattered complaints are now heard about odors wafting through the affluent neighborhood.

Baria and others are demanding that the Parsi Panchayat, or council governing the community's affairs, permit burial or cremation within the funeral grounds.

She says that to allow bodies to decompose for months is a violation of the tenets of the religion, which says souls join the spirit world four days after death.

``After four days, the bodies of your loved ones should mix with the earth or how will their soul be released?" asked Baria.

But Burjor Antia, a Panchayat trustee, says Baria has committed a religious offense. ``Naturally you will find dead bodies there, and not a valley of flowers," he said.

Antia insisted, ``We cannot cremate or bury -- that is breaching our sacred religious injunction."

Orthodox members are upset that Baria entered the Towers of Silence, amphitheater-like-structures set on pillars amid the lush 55-acre garden cemetery atop Malabar Hill.

Antia acknowledged the solar panels don't work well during the annual rainy season, but said the elders were working out a more advanced system to dehydrate bodies and speed decomposition.

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