Khandias : The Keepers of Doongerwadi
Among Parsis, Khandias are a group of people spoken about only in hushed tones. It is their job to bathe and carry the deceased of the community to the Towers of Silence for vultures, and then tend to the mortal remains, pushing them ritually into a deep pit at the centre of the circular ‘tower’ (for retrieval and burial elsewhere later). Zoroastrian corpse bearers have been at work for millennia. But in Mumbai, home to most of India’s Parsis, no vultures have been sighted for years around the city’s Towers in Doongerwadi near Malabar Hill. This exposes the corpses to the ravages of nature that make the job increasingly nerve wracking. It is rumoured that what Khandias do can be so gruesome that it cannot be undertaken without the aid of alcohol as a calming agent.
Outdated as it sounds, dokhmenashini, the 3,000-year-old tradition of disposing of the dead by exposing them to scavenger birds, remains an important tenet of the Zoroastrian faith— for it is this that’s said to assure safe passage to the after-life. In the process, however, Khandias have become the ‘untouchables’ of an otherwise casteless community. Many of them live in Doongerwadi, where the ancient tradition is practised, in close-knit quarters of their own. For centuries, they have lived under a cloak of secrecy and in near isolation of the outside world, carrying out an ancient custom hidden away in a patch of woods in the city.
On a recent weekday, I find myself sitting beside a Khandia. He’s far from a man of frazzled nerves that I had imagined. He is old and wears a pair of large dark soda glasses. I also begin to realise that he is half-deaf.
“You can’t become a Khandia,” Kersi Kohla tells me, “you are not Parsi.”
“No sir, I’m asking why you became a Khandia.”
“Why didn’t you say that?” he responds, “Well, I had a love marriage. And then I had a court marriage.”
The towers of silence are located in a verdant sprawl of 54 acres at the eastern edge of Malabar Hill. When the first dakhma, a well-like structure where bodies are laid out for vultures to consume, was built here in 1670, this area was still nowhere close to the city, and it is said tigers and hyenas were frequently spotted. More wells were built over the years, and the land itself was purchased and called Doongerwadi, a Gujarati word for ‘orchard on the hill’. The name ‘Towers of Silence’ was coined later by a 19th century British translator.
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