The Odd Ritual of the Parsis: Sky Burial (Dakhma) in India
To any Westerner, vultures are nasty looking scavengers. They, and other animals are often found at a Dakhma, which is essentially a "sky burial" site made of stone and circular. They are of the remnants of ancient Zoroastrian belief that a dead human remains should not pollute the Earth. They believed the soil and water were sacred. Burning a body with fire was considered the ultimate desecration.
Thus, they built large Dakhmas for their "sky burial" of people who died. The dead were carried into it and laid down and left to the elements and vultures, who were the first ones on the scene. Other animals would follow until what remained was the skeleton.It would take up to a year for this to happen. The bones were then pushed into the center of the Dakhma. It was considered the final gift of charity for those who died.
Such places, amazingly, still exist. Iran allowed them until 1970. India seems to be the last country that allows them to be used. One exists near Mumbai, a very modern city. Most of them are located away from populated areas and are very old.It is located in Malabar Hill, which is an upper rich class area. But the thought of leaving your loved one for vultures and animals to rip apart and eat is just abhorrent, then and now, except to the 40,000 Parsis in Mumbai. They represent more than a quarter of all Zoroastrians left.
However, India’s vulture population has plunged because of Diclofenac, a painkiller, used on the cattle that the vultures generally feed on. While the drug has now been banned, huge damage has already been done to the bird population. It takes between 50-100 vultures about one hour to eat the flesh to bone of a human. So, the lack of birds has made the whole weird process problematic. To combat this, the Parsis have tried chemicals on bodies, which are dangerous. They now use solar panels to aim sunlight concentrations onto the bodies. The problem with this is that the bodies actually are burned, which is against their belief. Now, the Zoroastrian organization is under threat of a lawsuit from those living near the dakhma for its stench of rotting bodies and other environmental concerns.
This is a perfect example of ancient customs conflicting with the modern world.