A Burning Question
Tamboly asked other trustees to visit the spot to impress upon them the need to find a solution. “But very soon,” he says, “all of us realised that the entire system had collapsed.” As information of rotting corpses became common knowledge, he realised that many Parsis were increasingly turning to cremation. In response, he urged other BPP trustees to build an electric crematorium within Doongerwadi, and if not, at least allow the families of those who had been cremated to pray for their souls in the community’s prayer halls. “But the high priests forbade any of that. They said cremation was sacrilegious and couldn’t be permitted. Neither was a crematorium allowed nor the prayer halls opened to all,” he says. “They said the soul of the cremated would be lost forever.”
The issue has created a deep rift within the community. Zoroastrian high priests have strictly forbidden cremation and burial, branding all those who choose or advocate these as ‘renegades’; fire and earth are holy under the tenets of the faith and are not to be defiled.
Those who advise cremation, however, say the traditional method of disposal has failed, and so a pragmatic option is needed. They complain that the high priests have not only prohibited cremation, they have barred priests from performing funeral prayers for those who are cremated. According to Zoroas- trianism, four days of prayers must be held after a family member dies. It is believed that this helps the soul reach and cross a mythical chinvat bridge that lies between the two worlds of the living and the dead.
Since the high priests would not hear of cremations and the BPP was reluctant to allow them space, about two years ago, Tamboly and some like-minded Parsis started negotiating with Mumbai’s municipal authorities to let them build a prayer hall for cremated Parsis. Last year, Tamboly formed the Prayer Hall Trust, and a few weeks ago, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corp allotted them space in a public crematorium complex in Worli to set up a prayer hall for all faiths. This hall is expected to cost about Rs 1.7 crore and will be ready in 15 months. The trust will employ priests to conduct prayers for those who opt for cremation. And while use of the hall will be open to all faiths, Parsis will be given preference at certain hours. The hall will also be open to those Parsis who marry outside the community and for their children, another contentious issue among Parsis, since the high priests do not consider children Zoroastrian unless both parents are by birth. “I don’t think the traditional-minded will be too happy,” says Tamboly.
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