The Parsi, and a Macabre Way to Dispose of the Dear - Departed

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Two white backed vultures at rest
Two white backed vultures at rest
Artist's rendering of the area
Artist's rendering of the area
Showing the ancient "burial" grounds
Showing the ancient "burial" grounds

Not enough healthy vultures to dispose of the dead

When the vultures resting in the trees by the Parsi Burial Wall in Bombay (Mumbai) discussed going out to have an Indian, they used to mean just that, not, as in Britain, a nice curry in a local restaurant, but they were off to feast on another body “buried” in Parsi fashion.

I visited the “Towers of Silence,” where the ceremony and disposal takes place back in the 1970’s. There were plenty of the huge, ugly “White Backed Vultures” then. You can’t actually see the birds at work, but you can see them swoop down to a sheltered place behind the Tower walls where the corpse now lies, the white-coated pallbearers having removed the shrouds.

In about 2 hours, the birds made their way back to their roosting spots in the low trees behind the wall. Their work was done and all that was left was a pile of bones ready to be added to the thousands of remains piled up against the wall.

I wrote “used to mean,” in the opening paragraph, because the imposing birds have been decimated by a viral disease, so much so that bodies of the Parsi’s deceased were recently reported as lying until they begin to decay, stinking up the entire neighborhood.

The Parsi, or Zoroastrian religion, is a very ancient one, preceding Islam in Persia and being brought to India by refugees more than 1000 years ago.

Many larger cities in India have practitioners of the religion and, to outsiders, what are rather grisly rites The area in Bombay is called Malabar Hill, and is a secluded and wooded property of some 50 acres.

A fierce discussion is in place with some of the 50,000-strong Parsi’s ranks in Bombay who want the old ways to be abandoned in the interests of dignity and hygiene and a crematorium put in place.

Traditionalists claim to bury or cremate the dead will defile them and insist the old practice continues, perhaps with vultures reared in captivity, until the wild stock recovers from the avian epidemic. One wonders just what they will be fed on while growing to the size needed for their release, and will they be any use by then? After all, the wild vultures must have developed their taste for human carrion from when they were fledglings.

Suspiciously, realtors in the area have been making overtures about developing the site if the tower and walls, etc., are removed. Bombay has a huge space problem and the Parsi site is worth a whole lot of rupees. Not that I would like to own a home there. Did you see the great horror movie, “Poltergeist, where a family moved into a home above an Indian (American) burial ground? I’ll never forget that beast that came out of the TV…or the beefsteak moving like a slug! It might be disturbing to wander onto the balcony and find a huge vulture perched there, one merciless eye on you, reminiscing about the good old days!

Note:

There may be a good deal of horse-sense in disposing of the dead in this manner. I don't know whether plague was a problem in Persia when the custom began, but putting diseased bodies in shallow graves is not as logical as having them devoured in short order by scavengers whose digestive processes would wipe out any human pathogens. There is often more than meets the eye in some of these old customs.


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Comments 21 comments

Mr. Happy profile image

Mr. Happy 4 years ago from Toronto, Canada

I have much respect for Ancient knowledge and this story reminded me of a tribe of Natives who lived along the Amazon and they cleaned a dead body of everything except the bones by submerging it in the water and letting the piranhas do their work. Clean skeletons would be pulled out of water in the net they were put-in within minutes.

I love condors and all vultures, eagles, hawks ... Their Spirit rests within me. We are ourselves scavangers, I have no problem with that.

Interesting article, I did not know about all this neat information. I certainly want to visit that place in India and I will keep it in mind.

Thank You very much for writing this Mr. Diogenes. All the very best!


DanaTeresa profile image

DanaTeresa 4 years ago from Ohio

Bob - Thank you so much for sharing this unique story. Truly fascinating. I am saddened to hear that the vultures are lacking and the the tower is at risk. I for one think it is a little silly to bury people each in their own private grave. Quick, natural, complete disposal seems like the way to go. You don't have to have the body in the cemetery to pay tribute to and remember someone.


diogenes profile image

diogenes 4 years ago from UK and Mexico Author

Hi Mr Happy

Hi Dana.

Great comments, as always. I have remembered this place through all the intervening years as it left me with significant memories as did Bombay in its entirety.

Bob


Angie Jardine profile image

Angie Jardine 4 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

Aw, poor vultures!

I found this hub absolutely fascinating, Bob, and I must admit that if you have the right amount of vultures it does seem like a most efficient way of dealing with the dead.

There is no pollution from incineration or ground taken up with rotting, diseased bodies.

Now, I want to look up more information about this practice ...


diogenes profile image

diogenes 4 years ago from UK and Mexico Author

Glad you found it interesting, Angie. It's a fascinating city all round with wonderful people, as the poor of the world generally are.

Bob


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 4 years ago from North-East UK

Bob, enjoyed this hub which was fascinating. As macabre as it seems, it is an efficient way of disposing of the dead and as long as there are no hygiene issues to those in the area, it should be allowed to continue. It's a shame that the vultures have succumbed to this illness - maybe it was something they ate :o) Voted up.


Angie Jardine profile image

Angie Jardine 4 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

Don't you mean someone, Jools?


diogenes profile image

diogenes 4 years ago from UK and Mexico Author

Ha! Jools...and Angie...have you no respect for the partially digested?

Maybe this is where shooting someone the bird came from.

Bob


Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 4 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

There is an ordinance in Texas that says only one body may be buried on my property. I could get a variance I suppose so that both my husband and I could be buried here. But I wonder if it would be possible to just lay our bodies out and feed the birds and ants and other critters. It's not considered burial, so I should be able to make this arrangement for both of us, right? I am going to check on it. It's the perfect solution.


cathylynn99 profile image

cathylynn99 4 years ago from northeastern US

natural burial is catching on in the states. an unembalmed body is shrouded in cotton or other biodegradable material and buried in a nature preserve to fertilize the flora. i plan to have my remains dealt with in this way.


diogenes profile image

diogenes 4 years ago from UK and Mexico Author

Star. Good idea.

Cathylynne. I think you mentioned this previously and its good.

As Diogenes says,

"When from the man there steals life's heat,

Why all the clamour to bury the meat?"

Bob


Healthy Pursuits profile image

Healthy Pursuits 4 years ago from Oregon

Entertaining and informative hub. Thanks for writing it.

I read an article that said the vultures are getting the viral disease because their immune systems are ruined after they feed on dead animals that have been killed by some poison the Indian farmers are using. Have you heard anything about this?

I wrote a hub about new burial practices not to long ago. The Tibetans do vulture "burial", too. They call it sky burial. I'm opting for either my own yard or the nature preserve.


diogenes profile image

diogenes 4 years ago from UK and Mexico Author

Hi HP INteresting. N, I have ony heard of what I researched after a visit there many years ago. Nothing about today's world surprises me, except the occasional acts of compassion and kindness. There is always someone, or some organization, trying new trickery in order to benefit their miserable selves.

Bob


Genna East profile image

Genna East 4 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

The history of such customs is fascinating, and you write about these birds and their compelling story in ways that capture our interest and imaginations. The virus they appear to have succumbed to is curious, and one wonders from where it originated.

The natural burial Cathy mentions are called "green funerals," and are indeed catching on in the states.


diogenes profile image

diogenes 4 years ago from UK and Mexico Author

Hi Genna. I think, "mid-Pacific burial" might be a good idea, too; put back some of the protein we steal by the hundreds of tons every day. Whe I was in the Navy, I always though burial at sea was a decent, clean way to finish a life.

Bob


moonfroth profile image

moonfroth 4 years ago from Rural BC (Canada) & N of Puerto Vallarta (Mexico)

As usual, well-written and very interesting. Unique topic, and an excellent reminder that whatever fascination the body might have held in life, evaporates at death. Good on the vultures! Thanks for the information, Bob.


diogenes profile image

diogenes 4 years ago from UK and Mexico Author

Hiya Moon. Glad you enjoyed the hub. Writing it took my mind off women for a few minutes!

(Sarcastic? Me?)

Bob


moonfroth profile image

moonfroth 4 years ago from Rural BC (Canada) & N of Puerto Vallarta (Mexico)

Bob--as long as your type with both hands, I'll regard your obsession as being well massaged . .er, excuse me! "well MANaged" (Oh Cook! you slay me. . . . .!)


diogenes profile image

diogenes 4 years ago from UK and Mexico Author

I do, indeed, type with two hands, Moon. Fortunately I am able to multigrasp quite well as was born with three arms.

Bob


JamaGenee profile image

JamaGenee 4 years ago from Central Oklahoma

Well, this discussion deteriorated faster than a body left to rot in Bombay, didn't it? Now I feel like a wet blanket for wanting to interrupt you boys' fun with a comment about this most interesting and informative hub! lol!

Voted (the hub) up and awesome! ;D


diogenes profile image

diogenes 4 years ago from UK and Mexico Author

Hey Jama. Yeah, that's Moonfroth for you, he is a bit elemental.

Keep going, still 319!

Bob

I will read some of your stuff this weekend.

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