Vanishing Vultures A Grave Matter For India's Parsis

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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.

"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.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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