Inside India #18: Eating the dead – the Parsees of India

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here

The Parsees of India 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 for vultures to eat. This process is called excarnation.

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

Picture attribution: Tower of Silence, Bombay by GSV, Creative Commons

Parsees originate in Persia, in the region we now call Iran. They are known as Zoroastrians and 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 BCE, they gradually began persecuting the Parsees – razing their fire temples and initiating the jizya tax – a levy on non-Muslims. When they began to mistreat 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. 

In many ways, the Parsees have helped shape the course of modern India, with a particularly strong influence in the development of Bombay (now Mumbai). Today, Parsee heritage and influence can be found in every nook and cranny of the city – from the various Parsee businesses that have powered Mumbai’s economic growth to the city’s historic Parsee cafés. (No visit to Mumbai would be complete without a trip to Britannia & Co, the famous Parsee joint on Sprott Road whose recently-deceased and gloriously eccentric owner, an Anglophile Parsee by the name of Boman Kohinoor, kept a painting of Queen Elizabeth II on the wall side-by-side with a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi.) 

Bombay’s Parsees leave behind a rich legacy. There’s Sir Sorabji Pochkhanawala, a pioneer of Indian banking (he helped establish the Central Bank of India), and Pherozeshah Mehta, one of the founding members of the Indian National Congress; Cowasjee Davar who set up the country’s first cotton mill; more recently, Ratan Tata, descendant of the legendary J.R.D Tata, who, aside from building one of the country’s biggest conglomerates, was also India’s first licensed pilot and established the nation’s first airline in 1932 – Tata Airlines (now Air India), and Cornelia Sorabji, Bombay University’s first female graduate, the first woman to study law at Oxford University, and India’s first female legal advocate… the list goes on.

The first Parsee I met was during my years living in India. His name was Homi and we bumped into each other at a management workshop in Bombay. During the breaks, we chatted and I became instantly intrigued by Parsee culture, knowing little about it until that point. For instance, I had no idea that Parsees consider fire and earth holy and thus do not bury or cremate their dead. This distinguishes them from Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians in the country. Instead, Parsees dispose of their dead by allowing vultures to consume the corpse after it has been laid out in a dakhma, a circular stone structure also called a Tower of Silence. 

Vultures, like dogs, are considered holy by Parsees, who recognise that these incredible animals, abhorred my many, are valuable members of the world’s ecosystems. Blessed with an astonishing sense of smell and iron stomachs, they perform a vital service in cleaning up carcasses – for keeping India’s roads free of roadkill alone they deserve to be lauded. Instead, they are maligned in popular culture, routinely equated to lawyers and newsmen, which, frankly, is an insult to vultures. (I’ve never heard of a vulture printing false stories or bending the truth in court.) 

Indian vultures have been on the Critically Endangered List since 2002, the population decimated by manmade chemicals, such as Diclofenac. Diclofenac was once administered to working animals to reduce joint pain – 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. The result? An astonishing 99.7% disappeared from the Indian ecosystem in less than 10 years, making this the fastest collapse in any avian population ever recorded.

As the vultures have declined, the Parsees have had to adapt in surprising ways, just one of many changes this small but powerful community has had to make to survive in the modern world, a world where dwindling Parsee numbers threaten their ancient heritage.  

I explore the Parsee community and the Towers of Silence in the fifth book of my Inspector Chopra series, Bad Day at the Vulture Club. In this one, Chopra investigates the murder of a wealthy Parsee. You can buy a copy at your local bookseller or by clicking here.

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, Midnight at Malabar House, is set in India, in the 1950s, and introduces us to India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the murder of a top British diplomat in Bombay. Available from bookshops big and small and online, including here.

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