Eating the dead: the Parsees of India

Bad Day at the Vulture Club is the fifth novel in my Baby Ganesh Agency series. In this one, Inspector Chopra investigates the murder of a wealthy Parsee. Parsees are a small but influential community in India. Originally from Persia they are unique on the subcontinent because they do not cremate or bury their dead. Instead they leave them out in stone structures called Towers of Silence in a wooded area in the middle of Mumbai for vultures to eat. This process is called excarnation. I found this community incredibly fascinating when living in India, and thought it would make a great backdrop to a murder mystery.

The book is out now and you can buy a copy at your local bookseller (which would REALLY help them during the current post-lockdown economic situation) or by clicking here.

So who exactly are the Parsees and why do they hold vultures sacred?

BDATVC_PB3_FB

Parsees believe in a deity called Ahura Mazda – the wise lord. Fire is a physical representation of that deity. The principal prophet of Ahura Mazda was a man named Zoroaster – or Zarathustra – who lived around 600 BCE. He spoke about the concept of judgement after death, and of heaven and hell, greatly influencing some of the later Abrahamic religions. When Muslims conquered Persia in 640 CE and began slowly persecuting the Parsees – destroying their fire temples, initiating the jizya tax on non-Muslims, and, worst of all, mistreating dogs, an animal revered by Parsees, it proved to be the final straw. The Parsees fled Iran and headed towards India where they eventually settled, first in Gujarat and then in Bombay.

The community has been central to Bombay/Mumbai’s history and development for centuries. In fact, with luminaries ranging from industrialist Jamsetji Tata to Freddie Mercury, the Parsee community has helped shape the course of both India and the wider world.

Today, Parsee heritage and influence can be found in every nook and cranny of Mumbai – from the various Parsee businesses that have steered the growth of the city – including the Tata group, responsible for iconic buildings such as the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel – to the city’s historic Parsee cafés. Parsee figures from the city ranging from Sir Sorabji Pochkhanawala, one of the founders of the Central Bank of India, and Pherozeshah Mehta, one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress, to Cowasjee Davar who set up the country’s first cotton mill, leave behind a rich legacy.

Parsees consider fire and earth holy and thus do not bury or cremate their dead; this distinguishes them from Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, and Christians in the country. Parsees allow vultures to perform this rite. Vultures, abhorred my many, are incredibly valuable members of the ecosystem, and not just for Parsees. They perform a vital service in cleaning up carcasses – think of all the roadkill that is cleaned up each year seemingly by magic! They are amazing creatures, with an astonishing sense of smell. They have been much maligned in fiction, routinely equated to lawyers and newsmen … which, frankly, is an insult to vultures. (After all, I’ve never heard of a vulture printing false stories or bending the truth in court.)

Alas, Indian vultures have been on the Critically Endangered List since 2002. The population was decimated by manmade chemicals such as Diclofenac. Diclofenac was given to working animals to reduce joint pain – basically to arthritic cows and horses in order to keep them slaving for longer. The drug is believed to be swallowed by vultures with the flesh of dead cattle. 99.7% disappeared in less than 10 years, making it the fastest collapse in any avian population ever recorded.

towers of silence

As the vultures have declined the Parsees have had to adapt in surprising ways. How? That’s exactly what Inspector Chopra finds out as he investigates the murder of Cyrus Zorabian, a grandee from the Parsee community, a man who appears to have harboured dark secrets…

 

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