19 September 2021

The Guardian: “The last of the Zoroastrians”

As recently as the 80s, hungry vultures had swooped into the dakhmas and picked Parsi corpses clean in a matter of days. Then, in the space of a decade, the birds died out, mainly owing to the use of diclofenac, a drug fed to livestock that poisoned vultures when they fed on the carcasses. Bodies inside the dakhmas were instead left to decompose naturally, which could take several months. On certain days, people living nearby could catch a putrid whiff of decaying human flesh from their windows. In 2006, someone sneaked a camera inside one of the dakhmas and leaked photographs of the gruesome sight online. Even the staunchest advocates of dakhma consignment were horrified, and began thinking up possible solutions.

Eventually, angled solar reflection panels were installed at the top of the dakhmas to speed up the decomposition process, but a small group of Parsi reformists believed a more dignified option should be available. They raised money for a funeral hall, which was opened in the suburb of Worli in 2015, and that was where my grandfather chose to be cremated two years later. A little over 10% of the Mumbai Parsi community now opts for this method, mainly those who want to ensure that relatives who have married outside the faith will be able to attend their funerals. The priest who presided over my grandfather’s funeral was one of two who agreed to work at the new prayer hall. The conservative majority was furious, and banned them from performing ceremonies at the Towers of Silence.

I’m sorry to say, said Mistree, in a tone that was notably unapologetic, that those Parsis who opt for cremation will go to hell. Later, he clarified that Parsis who lived abroad could choose alternative methods, though never cremation, as it sullied fire with the evil spirits present in a dead body. But for those who lived in Mumbai, like my grandfather, there was no excuse. In Mistree’s severe reading of Zoroastrianism, a man who had spent most of his 95 years on Earth steeped in prayer, and abiding by the exhortation to good thoughts, words and deeds, had been despatched to hell.

Shaun Walker

Fascinating incursion into the current state of one of the oldest surviving religions and cultures – and one of the first monotheistic religions – including their, shall we say, unconventional burring rites. Not unlike the Jewish people, Parsis were driven out of their homeland in Iran, finding refuge in India. But unlike Jews, Zoroastrian priests are much less willing to accept outsiders into their community, going as far as excluding woman who marry outside the faith and all their descendants. And this dogmatism will likely lead to the slow extinction of the ancient religion, as young people are less inclined to follow inflexible and arbitrary rules and choose life-long partners exclusively from a shrinking group of coreligionists.

A Parsi fire temple in Mumbai, India
A Parsi fire temple in Mumbai, India. Photograph: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

This kind of patriotism has helped the Parsis to remain unscathed as India’s turn towards Hindu extremism intensifies under prime minister Narendra Modi. Their love is without condition, without any expectation, and therefore the purest possible, Modi said back in 2011, when he was still chief minister of Gujarat, suggesting that the Parsis were a model minority that others would do well to follow. Money has also helped: the Tata group has been the most lavish donor to Modi’s BJP party in recent years, with one of the Tata trusts giving 3.6bn rupees (£36.2m) in the 2018-19 financial year. The Parsis have long prided themselves on being able to get along with the rulers of the day, whoever they may be, and even the Parsi origin story reflects this knack for astute political messaging. When the refugees from Persia landed, so the tale goes, the Hindu king of Gujarat produced a full glass of milk, to signal that there was no space for new arrivals. The Persians stirred a spoonful of sugar into the milk without spilling any, to show they would sweeten the kingdom without disturbing it.

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