Thursday, Jan 20, 2022
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Dead Men's Rites

Parsis demand a more decent disposal of their dead, even as the clergy deems it heresy

Dead Men's Rites
Photograph courtesy: 'PARSIS' by Sooni Taraporevala
Dead Men's Rites
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

The Parsi tradition provides for a system of disposal of the dead that is called the Dokhmenashini. It requires that a cadaver be kept in large open wells or Dakhmas, in the confines of what is called the Tower of Silence. The body is exposed to sunlight and left to be consumed by birds of prey—vultures being the most agreeable in the community perception. But the drastic decline of the vulture population over the year, feels a section of the Parsis, has caused bodies to putrefy in Doongerwadi—the commodious environs of the Tower of Silence—near upscale Malabar Hill in south Mumbai. Emotionally and socially charged by images of their beloved lying in such a state for many days, some eminent Parsis have become part of the Disposal of the Dead with Dignity-Action Group (dddag). Their demand is that Parsis be allowed the right to dispose their dead through alternate modes, like cremation. They also believe that Dokhmenashini is primitive and barbaric, especially since a spate of high-profile Parsi cremations in Mumbai. The eminent journalist and editor of Afternoon Despatch and Courier, Behram Contractor, for example, left specific instructions with his family that his body not be disposed of at the Tower of Silence.

There's no disputing the fact that nothing stops the dead from going the way they want to. What has become a cause of dispute is that the clergy deems alternate modes of disposal unethical, especially when Mumbai has a Tower of Silence. Ergo, heretic mourners should not have the right to say the final prayers in Doongerwadi. Zoroastrians believe that death is the triumph of evil and the deceased body is contaminated by something they call nasu, which generates itself in the corpse. Alternate modes of disposal, they feel, defile sacred elements like fire, earth and water. However, a few days ago, the trust that governs the Doongerwadi—the Bombay Parsi Panchayat (bpp), which is independent of the clergy—passed a 6:1 resolution permitting the mourners of those who have been cremated to say the final prayers in Doongerwadi. By this pronouncement, they broke a 350-year-old tradition barring such prayers. However, following an outcry spearheaded by the community's eight high priests, the bpp put its decision on hold last week. The clergy has also interpreted the dddag's demand for a crematorium to be built inside Doongerwadi so that cremations and prayers can happen within its holy environs as a desire "to have the cake and eat it too".

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