How a lack of vultures threatens Mumbai’s ‘Towers of Silence’

In exclusive Malabar Hill, the city’s dwindling Parsi community continues with the Zoroastrian tradition of disposing of dead bodies by exposing them to scavenger birds. How much longer can this 3,000-year-old tradition survive?

Dokhmenashini originated in ancient Persia, the homeland which the Parsis fled, circa 900 AD, to protect their ancient faith from an emerging Islam. The practice survived in pockets such as Yazd, but Iran’s dakhmas were declared a health hazard and illegal in the 1970s because urbanisation had marched upon these once-desolate ‘sky burial sites’. Mumbai’s Doongerwadi broods on despite its luxe location. But the towers are now far from silent.

The threat hasn’t come from the health department of the municipal corporation or external protest. It has arisen from the dokhmenashini system’s chief accessory. India’s vulture population had seen a steady decline due to habitat destruction caused by that omnibus aggressor, urbanisation. But it precipitated thanks to the livestock version of the drug Diclofenac, developed in the early 1990s. It proved toxic for the vultures feeding on bovine carcases. The drug was banned in May 2006, but by then it had decimated 95% of these birds. And plunged the towers of silence – and an aging community – into seismic controversy.

The Towers of Silence in Mumbai (and places such as Hyderabad) have found an alternative in powerful solar concentrators which desiccate the corpse admittedly not in the half-hour that a hungry flock of vultures accomplished, but which still keep to Zarathushtra’s injunction not to defile the elements. The solar-concentrator option has mercifully retained the religious relevance of the real estate goldmine of Doongerwadi. No Parsi would want the mystic eye of the vulture to be replaced by the rapacious one of the land shark.

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