Dakhma The Tower of Silence

The ‘Towers of Silence’, or dakhma, is a circular, raised structure built by Zoroastrians for excarnation – that is, for dead bodies to be exposed to carrion birds, usually vultures. This tower repose in the 300-year-old Doongerwadi, the garden on the hill. Doongerwadi is now at the centre of a busy part of the city, with tall residential buildings around its edges. Non- Zoroastrians are strictly forbidden from entering the area and there are always guards who reprimand those who try. The English language term "Tower of Silence" is a neologism attributed to Robert Murphy, a translator for the British colonial government of India in the early 19th century. The prophet Zarathushtra insisted on a reverence for all elements. None of them is to be defiled. A corpse is considered impure not just physically on account of infection and decay, but also because it is swiftly colonised by evil spirits. Therefore, cremation and burial on land or sea are unacceptable. 

Aerial View
The circumference of the dakhma, a roofless structure, with only one iron door with a padlock and about 18-feet high wall, is about 300 feet. This open-air auditoriums containing three concentric rings of marble slabs — an outer ring for dead men, middle ring for deceased women and inner ring for dead children. 

For centuries, bodies left on the slabs were consumed within hours by neighborhood vultures, with the bones left in a central catchment to leach into the soil. It could be less, but not much, for birds of prey like vultures to swoop in and out. 

Tower of Silence (Malabar Hill)
After vultures have picked the bones clean, they fall into a pit below, thereby fulfilling the injunction that a corpse must not suffer contact with either fire or earth.

Towers of silence can be found in Iran and in India, where Parsi communities exist. In Iran, towers of silence were in use until this funerary practice was banned by the government during the 1970s. In a report from 2015, it was written that India has a Parsi population of around 61,000. Of these, 45,000 live in Mumbai. Hence, it is in this city that several towers of silence may be found. But in Mumbai, home to most of India’s Parsis, no vultures have been sighted for years around the city’s Towers in Doongerwadi near Malabar Hill.

This exposes the corpses to the ravages of nature that make the Khandia's job increasingly nerve wracking. Among Parsis, Khandias are a group of people spoken about only in hushed tones. It is their job to bathe and carry the deceased of the community to the Towers of Silence for vultures, and then tend to the mortal remains, pushing them ritually into a deep pit at the centre of the circular ‘tower’ (for retrieval and burial elsewhere later). Many of them live in Doongerwadi, where the ancient tradition is practised, in close-knit quarters of their own. For centuries, they have lived under a cloak of secrecy and in near isolation of the outside world, carrying out an ancient custom hidden away in a patch of woods in the city.

India once had one of the world’s largest vulture populations. The birds, it is said, thrived here because cattle slaughter is forbidden in most parts. But when the painkiller diclofenac began to be used extensively in the 90s on the country’s cattle population, the drug caused vast numbers of vultures that fed on carcasses to die of renal failure.

As vultures started vanishing from the skies, corpses at Doongerwadi began to pile up and rot in the open. The occupants of neighbouring buildings began to complain about an overbearing stench emerging from the area. With the absence of vultures, crows became more abundant. But unlike vultures, they would picked at small parts like the tongues and eyes. Sometimes they would fly off with body parts like fingers or toes, which would occasionally be found dropped in balconies and so on. Khandias would then have to go to these buildings to retrieve those parts.


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