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Zoroastrianism, vultures, dead bodies

Parsi's to use solar panels for disposing of dead bodies

By Padma Bhargav, Freelance Journalist
Thursday, June 22, 2006

ahmedabad, India--Zoroastrianism, the religion followed by Parsi's was once spread across the western part of the Iranian plateau to the Persian Gulf. Today it is practiced in South asia and Iran. Large numbers of Zoroastrians left Muslim invaded countries and came to India. They requested to live like refugees in the present state of Gujarat. The then Hindu king of Sanjan (the name of his kingdom) agreed to give them shelter on the condition that the Parsi's would not continue with the missionary activities and marry only in their community. This community began to be known as Parsi's. Tata, Godrej, Wadia families are some of the popular business conglomerates in India. Presently their population is estimated to be around 2 to 3.5 million. In India they number to around 70 thousand.

The religion believes in proximity with nature. This can also be seen in the practice with respect to death and burial. The Parsi's leave dead bodies in an open place located at a certain height, where they can be disposed of by the natural scavenger bird, the vulture. The principle behind this practice is quick disposal of the body. Parsi's believe that this method is eco-friendly. The vulture being a decomposer bird, it eats up the whole body within no time, and this is considered to be a scientific method of disposal.

The basic principle is to dedicate the dead body to the Sun, which is the supreme source of energy. This community does not believe in burial or burning the body, unlike other religions in India. This religion does not permit dedication of the body to the five elements, namely air, water, fire, earth and ether. The dead bodies are kept on marble platforms inside the Tower of Silence known as Dakhma, where they are then devoured by vultures and subsequently cleaned by the environment.

However, the fast rate of urbanization has resulted in the construction of high rise buildings. The huge birds are unable to adjust themselves amidst the increasing human population and are leaving the urban areas. This was supposedly a cause of great worry for the Parsi community in following the last rites of their dear ones.

During the last decade the vulture population in India has seen a dramatic fall of almost 95 per cent. Observations by the avian experts have shown that after laying eggs, the parent vulture dies due to exhaustion as they find difficulty in rearing the newborns. Without them, their young is also dying off. The postmortem results of the dead vultures revealed symptoms of viral disease. The decline in vulture population is a world phenomenon. With the fast reduction in the population of vultures Parsi's are looking out for alternative methods of disposing their dead.

The community is making efforts to install solar panels as a replacement. The solar panel diffracts the sunrays on the body in equal quantity, which ultimately destroys the body. The biggest quality of the solar panel is that it tilts towards the sunrays automatically. It is now being used in Mumbai and ahmedabad. This method is not totally flawless. The time it takes for disposal of the entire body can be as long as four days, and in rainy season it is very difficult to collect the sunrays. alternatively, they are also trying to come up with storage batteries to store the sun energy, which can be used even at nighttime. This is still in the initial stage and would take some time to become fully operational. Plans are also in full swing to convert solar energy into electric energy and practice electric cremation.

(Based on the discussions with Noshin Daboo, renowned scholar in ahmedabad Parsi Community)

Padma Bhargav is a freelance journalist and can be reached at e-mail: [email protected]

Canada Free Press, CFP Editor Judi McLeod