A Travellerspoint blog

March 2015

Funeral Traditions of Zoroastrians In Iran and India

The Towers of Silence of Yazd, Iran...................................................................Ramdas Iyer

In my earlier blogs, I had written about funeral practices in Mali and Indonesia. These articles had more than 16000 visitors each. Therefore I decided to present here yet another interesting funeral practice of Persian Zoroastrians of Iran and India( Parsis) .I have always been fascinated with Persian culture, especially the age of Aryan migration from the central Asian steppes region into India and Iran. Despite the perceived difficulties of travelling in Iran in 2014, I applied for a visa and made a private tour of most of the country. While traveling , I was treated with respect, kindness and hospitality,and also given that my face betrayed my Indian extraction.
Zoroastrianism was the main religion across the Iranian plateau from 6th century BC to the Arab conquest in the 9th century AD. Founded by the Iranian prophet and reformer Zoroaster in the 6th century BC, Zoroastrianism contains both monotheistic and dualistic features. Its concepts of one God, judgment, heaven and hell likely influenced the major Western religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is also credited with being the oldest monotheistic religion.

Starting my working life as an engineer in Bombay in 1979, I was exposed to Parsis ( a community of Zoroastrians that fled Iran in the 10th century to avoid Islamic incursions in Persia and its aftermath), who are today mainstream Indians but still practice the Zoroastrian traditions. They number 70000 in India out of a World population of 200000. I lived in Andheri, in the street that housed the largest Parsi colony in Bombay.

One of the most striking facets of their religion is the disposal of the body after death in Towers of Silence; a special place on a hill where the body is returned to nature without polluting land, water or fire, by committing the body to putrefaction by sunlight and to be consumed by birds of prey.
As a young man I was fascinated to see these structures around the Malabar Hill area of Bombay where even today these rites are performed. Now, 35 years later while in Yazd and Kerman provinces in Iran I visited some historic Towers of Silence. I wanted to share with you the knowledge I acquired along with a few photographs of the Yazd monuments in this article.

First, I need to discuss the commonality shared by the ancient Persians and ancient Indians. The source of the English word Aryan comes from the Sanskrit word ārya, which is the self-designation used by the Vedic Indic people who migrated into the Indian subcontinent from the European Steppes about 1500 BCE. The religious scripture of Zoroastrians, The Avesta and that of the Hindus, The Vedas, were more or less composed around 1000BC. The languages of the two scriptures, the Zoroastrian Avesta (old Persian) and Hindu Rig Veda (Sanskrit), are similar(50% common words) but not identical, indicating that at the time of their composition, the people of the Avesta and the Rig Veda were related and close neighbors.

It is said that the similarity of the cultures over millennia that enabled the Parsis to settle in India under the protection of Gujarati and Sind kings in the 10th century.

A guiding principle in Zoroastrian funerary practices, is to prevent rotting flesh from coming into contact with the soil, water, and fire. In Zoroastrian dakhmas or towers of silence, the majority of the flesh of the dead is consumed by birds and the rest disintegrates through the action of sunlight and heat. The bleached and dried bones are then placed in an ossuary. The ossuary is either a central pit in the dakhma - a communal way of disposing of the bones - or a container, tomb, pit or cave - a private method for disposing of the bones.

Private, container ossuaries were subsequently placed in the home in a niche, on a special site in a family's property, in a mausoleum as part of a necropolis, or buried. The grand example of these rock-face ossuaries were the Achaemenian royal tombs in Pars, which I visited while in Iran.

Orthodox and egalitarian communities such as Yazd and Kerman appear to have opted for communal disposal where rich and poor were united in death. Other communities seem to have used the optional private ossuary method for those who could afford the choice or where families had hereditary ossuaries, say caves carved out of rock hill faces.

While in Bombay, I could only look at these interesting monuments from afar but while in Yazd, Iran, I had the opportunity to visit these monuments.

The Towers of Silence ( Dakhma in Persian, Cheel Ghar in Hindi) where this ritual is performed is often on a hilltop in the outskirts of town. In Yazd, Iran I visited the two massive towers built nearly a 1000 years ago when Zoroastrianism was the state religion of Persia and practiced from present day Iraq (Babylon) to the Indo-Pakistan Border near Tajikistan (Sogdiana).
Yazd is one of the highlights of any trip to Iran. A UNESCO World Heritage city, it is wedged between the two great deserts of Iran, Dasht-e-Kavir and Dasht-e-Lut. It is a silk road town of historic streets and lanes with over 2000 mud brick homes and unique wind towers, badgirs, that keeps the homes cool. Yazd has been known for its silks and other products long before Marco Polo stopped here in the 12th century.
The city was definitely a Zoroastrian centre during Sassanid times (225-650 AD-post Alexander). After the Arab Islamic conquest of Persia, many Zoroastrians migrated to Yazd from neighboring provinces. By paying a levy, Yazd was allowed to remain Zoroastrian even after its conquest, and Islam only gradually became the dominant religion in the city. It is home to the second largest population of Zoroastrians in Iran (20000 out of 90,000) and home to the sacred fire burning since 470AD.

It was a hot afternoon as I made my way past ritual buildings, ossiuaries, and the the water reservoir before ascending the ramp to the top of the massive tower. Each Yazd city neighborhood (formerly villages around Yazd city) had a mortuary where the body of the deceased was bathed and wrapped in a shroud. When the body was brought to the dakhma, sixteen individuals (presumably men) carried the body to the top in teams of four individuals (taking turns). At the door of the dakhma, the body was placed on a platform after which the priest prayed for the departed's soul. Two salars ,traditional pallbearers and care takers of pollutants as the name signifies, took the body into the dakhma where the laid the body at its appointed place and removed the shrouds, leaving the body naked.
After thirty or forty bodies were consumed by birds of prey, the bones were gathered and placed in the central ossuary pit.When there is adequate population of birds, the body is completely stripped of its flesh within a couple of hours (often sooner). The bones are allowed to dry and bleach in the sun.

Once the bones are completely stripped of their flesh either by birds or by rain and sun, the dried bleached bones are gathered by the salars and placed in the central well where they reduce to a powder, a process sometimes aided with the addition of lime. As stated above, the disintegration of the bones is so complete, that after forty years, one tower's central well had only five feet of accumulated residue.

The central well goes down in depth to the base of the tower. At the base of the well are filter layers of sandstone, sand and charcoal. Fluids and rain water that collects in the well are filtered by these layers and drain through grates on the well's side into four underground channels, each sloping towards underground pits at four corners of the tower - just outside the its walls. The bottom of these pits also have a thick layer of sand covered with layers of sandstone and charcoal, which are replaced from time to time. The filtered water leaving the pits is clear and free or any contamination. In wet climates, gardens surrounding the towers absorb the filtered water.

These towers were last used in Yazd in the early 1970s. The pressure from the Islamic communities brought a gradual end to this practice. The Zoroastrian dead are now buried under stone and concrete layers as an alternative to sky burial. It should not be forgotten that the sky burial was also a last act of charity to donate ones physical self to birds of prey.

For the interested readers, I have shown illustrations of the Bombay Tower of Silence (Cheel Ghar). The funeral process is elaborate and has changed little over thousands of years. First, the Parsis wash and then wrap the body in a shroud. The family then pays its last respects and a dog, regarded as faithful and loyal, visits the body to confirm death. In ancient times bodies were fed to the dogs, but now a token piece of bread is given to the dog that follows the corpse. The body is then taken to the Dakhma by an even number of bearers dressed in pure white, carrying the body on a metal slab with curved side edges. The family follows behind, turning back when they reach the tower, heading for the prayer house. Inside the tower, the bearers then place the body in the designated section according to their age and sex. The inner ring is for the children, the middle ring for women and the outer ring for men.

While the tower of silence method of laying to rest the body of the deceased and the disposal of the body draws the attention of non-Zoroastrians, it is the fate of the soul and remembrance of those who have passed away, that occupies the minds of Zoroastrians.

Those who have passed away are not memorialized by monuments, but in the prayers of Zoroastrians. Memorial prayers are recited both at the home of the deceased's family and at the fire temple on the tenth day after death, after a month, and then annually on the death anniversary of the deceased. The prayers are seen as an essential part of keeping the memory of the individual alive. This method is very similar to the Hindu tradition, including lack of permanent memorials, a 10th day ceremony followed by annual rituals and prayers.

In conclusion, it is interesting to note that we are all born alike: in a manger, a hospital, a hut or even in a police car. We call it the miracle of life. But when we die we celebrate our time on earth through a range of rituals and funeral practices that are affected by religious traditions, geographic locations where burial is impossible in winter like Tibet or philosophical considerations much like the Zoroastrians. The disposal of one's remains to the birds (sky burial) is seemingly macabre.These rituals are practiced only in India and certain parts of Pakistan where secularism is alive and well. The Parsis are an upstanding community of India and I wish they can maintain this tradition as long as they desire. In a Nov 2012 article in NY Times by Gardiner Harris " Giving New Life to Vultures to Restore a Human Ritual of Death"( w.nytimes.com/2012/11/30/world/asia/cultivating-vultures-to-restore-a-mumbai-ritual.html?_r=0), reveals the desire and efforts of the Bombay Parsi leaders to repopulate vultures so that their ancient funeral practice lasts forever. The End

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Towers of Silence: JC Atkinson and Molly Russell
Zorostrian Heritage by K.E. Edujee
Wikipedia, Lonely Planet Iran.
Photos: heritage Institute.com/ bulletinasiainstitute.org/ truthcliff.com
Ramdas Iyer Travels- 2014

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:23 Archived in Iran Tagged sky of towers burial iran yazd silence avesta ramdas iyer zoroastrians parsis aryans parsees Comments (0)

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