The Effects of a Changing Ecosystem on Parsis End of Life Rituals

Tower of Silence

The Parsis people of India came from Persia over one-thousand years ago and brought with them their Zoroastrian religion and burial practices. These practices, similar to the Tibetan Sky Burial practice, include the use of vultures in what is known as the Tower of Silence. For the Parsis people, after prayers and a ceremony, the dead are taken to the Tower of Silence. It is at this tower that the corpses are exposed to the sun, elements, and birds of prey. Largely, vultures have filled the roll of cleaning the meat from the bones of the dead as the Parsis feel that traditional burial or cremation pollutes the environment. This practice has been threatened in recent years as the vultures across India have been disappearing. By 2007 the vulture population across India had fallen by 99 percent. This loss was due to an NSAID called diclofenac that was given to cattle to help with joint pain. This drug causes kidney damage and death in vultures taking a massive toll on populations. This change in ecosystem has left the Parsis people with the problem of how to deal with their dead and honor their traditions.

The Parsis people have had to turn to man-made ingenuity to help compensate for the absence of the vultures in the form of solar energy concentrators. These devices help to speed up the dehydration and decomposition of the bodies but only on days where the sun shines. This causes problems during monsoon seasons in India. Without the help of vultures the process of cleaning a body and returning it to the earth goes from hours to weeks. It has also caused problems with neighboring communities who take issue with the sight and smell of a Tower of Silence. Several Tower of Silences have already had to be relocated because of issues with the smell and sight. The Indian government has outlawed the use of the drug responsible for damaging the vulture populations and vulture sanctuaries have been working for the past several years to breed and release populations back into the wild. For the Parsis people of India, the reintroduction and reemergence of the vultures would mean the continuation of their religion and end of life rituals.



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