Waiting for Vultures

by Uzra Khan:

In 2006, some gruesome photos surfaced in Mumbai that shocked all who saw them. Taken by a woman named Dhan Baria, the photos revealed rotting dead bodies piled on top of each other. Some had been left to decompose for years and had eyes that had been gouged out by crows.

Baria is a Parsi, part of the Zoroastrian tradition that emigrated from Greater Iran to South Asia over a thousand years ago.

Today the Parsi community in India is small: some 65,000 remain and have integrated themselves into society. Believers in cosmic dualism, Parsis maintain a strict division between forces of good and evil; nothing related to sadness or suffering can come into contact with the pure natural elements of fire and earth. A deceased human body, infested with the hostile demon of putrefaction, cannot be burned or buried. Instead, it is to be left in the Parsi “Towers of Silence,” giant open-roofed mausoleums, to be devoured by vultures. When Baria’s mother died in 2005 her body was left here. When Baria found out that it could take nearly a year for her mother’s body to decompose, she went to investigate.

(Courtesy Tom Thai/Flickr Creative Commons)

While the system worked for many years in Mumbai, Baria’s photos exposed the current state inside the Towers of Silence—a horrifying lack of decomposition. No one but a handful of corpse bearers had witnessed the problem until Baria managed to get inside the Towers after doling out a generous bribe. So why weren’t the bodies decomposing?


Over the years, the number of vultures in India has fallen drastically. “When I was first married, the trees bordering the Doongerwadi land [the location of the Towers] could be seen from my house,” said Kulsum Dubash, who lives close to the Towers of Silence in Mumbai, “and used to be full of vultures. But for many years now there have been none.”

The culprit is Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug used with humans to treat pain and swelling caused by arthritis, as well as with livestock. Diclofenac has been shown to kill vultures that eat the flesh of these humans and animals. By 2003, the vulture population on the Indian subcontinent had declined by 93 percent, and 99 percent by 2008. “Parsis speak of a time when vultures would be waiting for bodies at the Towers of Silence. Today, there are none,” said Yuhan Vevaina, lecturer of Zoroastrian Studies at Harvard University.

The governments of India and Pakistan have banned Diclofenac, but workarounds to the ban are commonplace. “The same chemicals are being sold for veterinary use in different brand names. In effect, it is Diclofenac being sold under different names,” said Rishad Naoroji, an expert on birds of prey in India. In any case, the damage was done years ago.

The effect that the decline in vultures has had on the Parsi mortuary practices is grimly obvious. The bodies can no longer be disposed of effectively. “Bodies were supposed to be totally consumed within hours whereas they now decompose gradually over nine months to a year,” said Homi Khusrokhan, a Parsi who advocates thinking practically and changing these rituals to adapt to changing times. Bodies piling up in the Towers not only raise questions about dignity of the deceased and the emotions of the bereaved, but also practical concerns, like the stench of rotting flesh that arises from the Towers. Cremation and burial are other options that some Parsis are turning to. “In a theological sense, it shouldn’t matter to a Parsi if his body lies in the Towers, for his soul has escaped. But it is, of course, an issue of emotion,” said Vevaina.


The Bombay Parsi Panchayat (BPP), a mostly conservative group of trustees who oversee the affairs of the Parsi community in Mumbai, opposes changes in death rituals. A vocal trustee of the BPP, Khojeste Mistree, said that “over 97 percent of Parsis living in Mumbai prefer to take the Tower of Silence route versus cremation, despite the reformists and media mischievously seeking to sensationalize and mislead the reader.”

Taking an active stance against reform, the BPP even banned from the Towers two priests who have been performing ceremonies at Parsi cremations and burials. There is currently a case in the Bombay High Court against the BPP, stating that the ability to exclude priests exceeds their jurisdiction as a body of trustees. “They say that undergoing a cremation defiles the holy fire. Well, I ask them, do they eat tandoori chicken? By roasting it, they defile fire too. Their logic is completely irrational,” said Khusroo Madon, one of the two excluded priests. “I live near the Towers of Silence, and I can smell the stench of bodies from there. Vultures were the best, eco-friendly method, but we are running out of options now.” There is no stigma attached to cremations done for non-Indian Parsis, which has also brought the logic of the BPP into question. Some believe that a large part of the BPP’s resistance to cremation stems from a fear of losing the valuable property of Doongerwadi to the government or to developers, if the Towers become unnecessary.

Complaints about putrid smells around the Towers of Silence were lodged by nearby residents, and as the situation continues to deteriorate, some solutions have been proposed. Solar reflecting panels have now been placed inside the Towers, and these help to dehydrate the corpses once they are there, reducing the role of vultures in the mortuary process. However, these are ineffective in the monsoon months from June to September and have been criticized as being a means of ‘backdoor cremation,’ supported by the BPP, which so strongly condemns outright cremation.

Despite the ineffectiveness of the solar panels, there has been a gradual reduction in the smell around the Towers of Silence. This sparked rumors about whether the khandias, the corpse bearers who are the only people with access into the area where the corpses lie, were using special chemicals on the bodies. No one is quite sure.

Another potential solution would be to breed vultures in captivity: “The majority of the community want the BPP trustees to bring back the vultures in Mumbai and house them in a giant aviary over two of the three functional Towers of Silence,” said Mistree, who also claimed that the proposed solution would cater to ecological conservation. For many reasons, though, this solution has been deemed unrealistic. The ongoing use of Diclofenac, the lack of a forest environment amidst Mumbai’s high rises, and high levels of noise pollution would make the project difficult.


The debate goes further than ecological concern: Differences in opinion on solutions to the problem of body disposal represent a deep rift between the traditionalists and the progressives in the Parsi community today. The vulture conundrum only exacerbates an ever-expanding clash of opinions that is “dividing our community,” according to Madon.

With an aging population and strict rules governing marriage and lineage, the Parsi community faces extinction. At the same time, an end to the controversy about how to handle the death ritual is nowhere in sight. Unless deeper rifts are resolved, bodies will continue to accumulate in the Towers of Silence, until one day there are no more Parsis to die in Mumbai.

Uzra Khan ’12 is a Psychology major in Trumbull College. Contact her at uzra.khan@yale.edu.