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Dearth of vultures provokes outcry

Burial rites in an Indian city depend on the birds. A woman calls for change as bodies are left to rot.

Published September 8, 2006

MUMBAI, India - For centuries, the Zoroastrian dead have been wrapped in white muslin and left at a leafy funeral ground on downtown Mumbai's Malabar Hill, where they are devoured by vultures. Only then, according to the tenets of the ancient religion, can the soul be freed.

But with just a handful of the endangered birds remaining in the city, and with solar panels installed to speed up decomposition working poorly during the monsoon rains, some Zoroastrians are demanding a change.

Pictures of rotting corpses piled at the funeral grounds, secretly snapped by a mourning woman, have sparked a furor over the ancient rituals.

When Dhun Baria learned her mother's corpse would take at least a year to decompose, she slipped into the grounds - a place few Zoroastrians are allowed to enter - and took photographs and video footage that have shocked her community.

Orthodox elders of the religion, whose followers are also known as Parsis, say the funeral system is working fine.

But Baria challenges that.

"Would you like to have the bodies of your mother, father, daughter piled up in a horrible state?" asked Baria, whose mother died nine months ago.

"It is a terrible sight, the stench is horrible. It's as if the bodies have been tortured. The dead have no dignity," she said.

Parsis have placed their dead in a "dhokma," or Tower of Silence, to await the vultures at Malabar Hill - now the city's wealthiest neighborhood - since 1673.

Followers of the Bronze Age Persian prophet Zarathustra, Parsis consider fire a symbol of God's spirit, so cremating the dead is a mortal sin, while burial is seen as a contamination of the earth. But the vulture is precious to Parsis who believe it releases the spirits of the dead.

Over the past 15 years, millions of South Asian vultures have died from eating cattle carcasses tainted by a painkiller given to sick cows.

And with three to four Parsis dying daily in Mumbai, a city of 16-million, it is clear that there are nowhere near enough vultures to consume the corpses.

Many are worried.

"It's not as if death is something you can control," said Homi Mehta, a 32-year-old Parsi architect. "If someone I loved died during the monsoon, I wouldn't want them to be left hanging there."

[Last modified September 8, 2006, 02:12:51]

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