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Vanishing Vultures A Grave Matter For India's Parsis
NPR ^ | 5 September 2012 | eliot Hannan

Posted on 09/24/2012 8:16:30 AM PDT by Cronos

Zoroastrian priests pray to honor the dead inside a temple in Pune, India, on Aug. 18, 2010. Each of the dead is represented by a vase filled with flowers. Parsis forbid images of their funeral ceremonies, where the deceased are taken to the Tower of Silence and consumed by vultures and other birds of prey.

Kainaz Amaria/NPR

Zoroastrian priests pray to honor the dead inside a temple in Pune, India, on Aug. 18, 2010. Each of the dead is represented by a vase filled with flowers. Parsis forbid images of their funeral ceremonies, where the deceased are taken to the Tower of Silence and consumed by vultures and other birds of prey.

For any religion, keeping up traditions in the modern world can be a challenge. The Parsi community in India, however, faces a unique obstacle.

Parsis, who came to India from Persia (Iran) a thousand years ago with their Zoroastrian faith, have gone to great lengths to maintain their unique funeral rituals. But they've had to make a few adjustments to keep up with the times and to not upset the neighbors.

Parsi funerals begin in a way familiar to many faiths: prayers are chanted and mourners pay last respects.

But that's where the similarities end, says Khojeste Mistree, head of the Zoroastrian Studies Institute in Mumbai. img src="http://media.npr.org/assets/img/2012/09/05/towerofsilence_01_enl-6557902c8e6757c463d830e33959c9d189024731-s51.jpg" title="This image shows a Parsi Tower of Silence, circa 1955, near Mumbai, India. The bodies of the dead are left here to be disposed of by vultures." alt="This image shows a Parsi Tower of Silence, circa 1955, near Mumbai, India. The bodies of the dead are left here to be disposed of by vultures." />

"We have an unusual method of disposal of the dead. The Parsi corpse is exposed to the rays of the sun, and the corpse is consumed or devoured by birds of prey — vultures, kites and crows," Mistree says.

For Zoroastrians, burying or cremating the dead is seen as polluting nature. So for centuries, the Parsis in Mumbai have relied on vultures to do the work — that is, until the entire population of vultures in the city vanished.

Man-Made Alternative Poses Problems

Without the vultures, the Parsis have had to rely on man-made ingenuity.

"To dehydrate the body faster, the trustees introduced solar concentrators to focus heat," Mistree says. "But during the monsoon season, the solar concentrators don't work because of the clouds."

The solution isn't perfect — the solar concentrators can only work on several bodies at a time — but it has helped keep the tradition alive.

At the top of a wooded hill in Mumbai's Doongerwadi forest, Parsi bodies are laid outside on a platform in what's called the Tower of Silence.

Mistree says the tower is similar to a tiered amphitheater that can hold more than 250 bodies at a time.

There are still smaller birds like crows, which also will consume the bodies. But the solar concentrators often keep them away during the day because it's too hot. They're also less efficient than vultures.

And that, too, has created problems for the Parsis, says Zoroastrian priest Ramiyar Karanjia.

"Vultures are very quick in eating away the flesh. Now it's working a bit slowly. From an emotional point of view, it is disturbing to some people," Karanjia says.

So a job that would take hours for a flock of vultures now can take weeks. And as Mumbai has grown into a megacity, slowly decomposing bodies have made some neighbors squeamish.

One of the towers was closed because it was visible from new high-rises that peer into the forest. And air purifiers had to be installed to minimize the smell.

Push To Revive Vulture Population

These man-made fixes have helped but haven't solved the problem that started in the 1980s, when the vulture population across India began to mysteriously disappear.

By 2007, the number of vultures had fallen by 99 percent. The disappearing vultures confounded scientists, until studies found that a drug administered to cattle in India killed the vultures when they fed on the carcasses.

The Indian government banned the drug and set up reserves for the birds. The success of the program has led to a new proposal to start a vulture sanctuary in Doongerwadi. And that could make life easier for the Parsis and their neighbors, says Homi Khusrokhan, president of the Bombay Natural History Society.

"For years, Parsis have been trying to manage without vultures," Khusrokhan says. "But obviously, if the vultures could be brought back, [the Parsis] would be delighted. And it's always been an impossible task, so this is the first time it's really become feasible to do."

Even if a sanctuary is approved, it would take time before the vultures could be released into the wild. And when that happens, Parsis are hoping nature will once again take its course.



TOPICS: Current Events; Other non-Christian
KEYWORDS:
Zoroastrians believe that fire is holy and that the earth is the source of life, so the best way to dispose of a body is to let the vultures eat it.
1 posted on 09/24/2012 8:16:34 AM PDT by Cronos
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To: Cronos

If Iran was still ran by Zoroastrians it would be a LOT easier to deal with it.


2 posted on 09/24/2012 8:20:16 AM PDT by GraceG
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To: Cronos

Have they considered fire ants?


3 posted on 09/24/2012 8:21:48 AM PDT by NonValueAdded (Taranto: "The whole point of the metaphor is that if you can hear the whistle, you're the dog.")
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To: Cronos

Makes as much sense as burying the bodies and letting bacteria and worms eat it.

For a really interesting way of dealing with a corpse, check out sky burial in Tibet.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sky_burial


4 posted on 09/24/2012 8:24:16 AM PDT by Sherman Logan (Perception wins all the battles. Reality wins all the wars.)
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To: Cronos

yet one more reason why I won’t ever visit that country


5 posted on 09/24/2012 8:24:56 AM PDT by driftdiver (I could eat it raw, but why do that when I have a fire.)
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To: Sherman Logan

I think so too.


6 posted on 09/24/2012 8:26:40 AM PDT by Cronos (**Marriage is about commitment, cohabitation is about convenience.**)
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To: driftdiver

because there aren’t enough vultures? :)


7 posted on 09/24/2012 8:28:03 AM PDT by Cronos (**Marriage is about commitment, cohabitation is about convenience.**)
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To: Cronos

“...until studies found that a drug administered to cattle in India killed the vultures when they fed on the carcasses.”

I was curious if the drug was given on purpose to kill vultures or a side effect. I guess it was a side effect.

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/01/29/world/a-drug-used-for-cattle-is-said-to-be-killing-vultures.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

Freegards


8 posted on 09/24/2012 8:32:12 AM PDT by Ransomed
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To: GraceG

Too bad the Zoros are dying out. Interesting religion.


9 posted on 09/24/2012 8:47:26 AM PDT by brooklyn dave ( OBAMA IS A SOCIALIST PERIOD.)
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To: GraceG

Too bad the Zoros are dying out. Interesting religion.


10 posted on 09/24/2012 8:48:28 AM PDT by brooklyn dave ( OBAMA IS A SOCIALIST PERIOD.)
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To: Cronos
We've got plenty in Illinois. Maybe I should go into the
buzzard export business.
11 posted on 09/24/2012 9:01:40 AM PDT by CrazyIvan (Obama's birth certificate was found stapled to Soros's receipt.)
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To: driftdiver
"yet one more reason why I won’t ever visit that country"

Your loss! And Mickey D does not serve beef. And the Tower of Silence is fairly near the center of Mumbai. And they burn bodies by the Ganges and throw the ashes in. And they have a bigger film industry than Hollywood. And they have the world's biggest (and successful) 'heart hospital'. And one of the world's biggest steel industries. And they own Jaguar and Rover cars. And they make the cheapest car. And .. and .. and. As I say - your loss.

12 posted on 09/24/2012 9:04:27 AM PDT by I am Richard Brandon
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To: I am Richard Brandon

and they advertise jobs as public rat catchers, and have 30,000 people with college degrees apply for a job involving a flashlight and a stick to kill rats.

I’ve meet many fine people from India. They don’t want to live there either.


13 posted on 09/24/2012 9:11:41 AM PDT by driftdiver (I could eat it raw, but why do that when I have a fire.)
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To: hinckley buzzard

Business opportunity here.


14 posted on 09/24/2012 9:16:15 AM PDT by Tijeras_Slim
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To: Cronos

Freddie Mercury was a Zoroastrian, and supposedly had a traditional funeral. I wonder if he got this treatment too?


15 posted on 09/24/2012 9:39:20 AM PDT by Boogieman
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To: driftdiver

I have absolutely no desire to visit any flies-on-your-face country.


16 posted on 09/24/2012 9:43:27 AM PDT by Bigg Red (Pray for our republic.)
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To: Bigg Red

“I have absolutely no desire to visit any flies-on-your-face country.”

Heard about Obama’s “Circle Fly” problem?


17 posted on 09/24/2012 10:29:19 AM PDT by GladesGuru (In a society predicated upon freedom, it is necessary to examine principles."...the public interest)
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To: I am Richard Brandon
And they burn bodies by the Ganges and throw the ashes in.

Unfortunately, the bodies are not always thoroughly burned before being tossed in. Fuel is expensive, you know.

18 posted on 09/24/2012 10:51:41 AM PDT by Sherman Logan (Perception wins all the battles. Reality wins all the wars.)
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To: Sherman Logan

I used to know a fellow (now deceased) who was a veteran of the China-Burma-India theater. The only war story he told me was of when his unit boarded a troopship anchored in the Ganges at Calcutta to head home. He said that the only water the ship took on in the Ganges was for engine cooling...he and his men were on emergency water rationing from the moment they boarded the ship until they were out in the open ocean. Even at that time, the river was so polluted that it would have wiped out the ship’s water distillers within minutes.


19 posted on 09/24/2012 11:47:59 AM PDT by M1903A1 ("We shed all that is good and virtuous for that which is shoddy and sleazy... and call it progress")
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To: Cronos
The Parsis should consider the dermestid beetles which are used to clean flesh from animal to produce skeletons for anatomy classes.


I once had a comparative anatomy professor who was given a dead horse. He hauled the horse up to the roof of the science building, and set the demestids on it to clean away the flesh. Unfortunately, the beetles couldn't keep up with the rot, and the odor began to descend floor by floor down through the building. It got to the point where the students and other professors couldn't stand the stench, and the poor anatomy professor had to hire a tall crane to lift the horse’s remains off the building in order to dispose of it in a landfill.
20 posted on 09/24/2012 11:55:28 AM PDT by Hiddigeigei ("Talk sense to a fool and he calls you foolish," said Dionysus - Euripides)
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To: GladesGuru

Heard about Obama’s “Circle Fly” problem?

**
:)


21 posted on 09/24/2012 3:18:08 PM PDT by Bigg Red (Pray for our republic.)
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