Feeding Dead to Vultures to Resume in India's Parsi Community

Yann/CC BY-SA 2.0

What's the greenest way to dispose of a body, after a natural death and hopefully after a long life, of course? Burial? Cremation? Both have a long proud tradition, but there's another tradition being revitalized by the Parsi community of Mumbai.

The New York Times reports how two new aviaries for vultures, brought to the brink of extinction by exposure to veterinary drugs, are being built, so that the ancient tradition of leaving corpses in so-called Towers of Silence to be picked apart by the giant scavenging birds can resume.

The plan is the result of six years of negotiations between Parsi leaders and the Indian government to revive a centuries-old practice that seeks to protect the ancient elements — air, earth, fire and water — from being polluted by either burial or cremation. And along the way, both sides hope the effort will contribute to the revival of two species of vulture that are nearing extinction. The government would provide the initial population of birds. The cost of building the aviaries and maintaining the vultures is estimated at $5 million spread over 15 years, much less expensive than it would have been without the ready supply of food. [...] The stone towers are open-air auditoriums containing three concentric rings of marble slabs — an outer ring for dead men, middle ring for deceased women and inner ring for dead children. For centuries, bodies left on the slabs were consumed within hours by neighborhood vultures, with the bones left in a central catchment to leach into the soil.

Indian vultures have suffered population declines of 97-99%, with the annual rate of decline of 16% in the first part of this century, all because of exposure to the drug diclofenac, given to farm animals to reduce joint pain and allow them to work longer. When the farm animals die and vultures scavenge the bodies, the become exposed to the drug, causing kidney failure.

For those not up on their history of religion, Parsis are members of the Zoroastrian faith, the traditional religion of what's now Iran, before being exterminated by Muslim invasions. A millennia ago a group of Zoroastrians fled persecution in their homeland and settled in India, primarily in what's now Mumbai.

Wikipedia gives a decent overview of traditional Zoroastrian beliefs regarding the elements (not the periodic table-type elements, but the broader classes of matter) and disposal of corpses:

In Zoroastrianism, water (apo, aban) and fire (atar, adar) are agents of ritual purity, and the associated purification ceremonies are considered the basis of ritual life. In Zoroastrian cosmogony, water and fire are respectively the second and last primordial elements to have been created, and scripture considers fire to have its origin in the waters.

Both water and fire are considered life-sustaining, and both water and fire are represented within the precinct of a fire temple. Zoroastrians usually pray in the presence of some form of fire (which can be considered evident in any source of light), and the culminating rite of the principle act of worship constitutes a "strengthening of the waters". Fire is considered a medium through which spiritual insight and wisdom is gained, and water is considered the source of that wisdom. [...] In Zoroastrian scripture and tradition, a corpse is a host for decay, i.e., of druj. Consequently, scripture enjoins the safe disposal of the dead in a manner such that a corpse does not pollute the good creation. These injunctions are the doctrinal basis of the fast-fading traditional practice of ritual exposure, most commonly identified with the so-called Towers of Silence for which there is no standard technical term in either scripture or tradition.

Tags: Endangered Species | India | Pollution