Zoroastrianism is one of the world’s oldest monotheistic religions. It was the first religion to introduce the concepts of Heaven and Hell, final judgment, physical resurrection of the dead, and God vs Satan.
The Zoroastrians (aka Parsis) system for disposal of dead bodies is unique. It is based on the Zoroastrian principle that the elements, fire, water, and earth must never be defiled and be maintained pure. The guiding principle is: sanitation, segregation, and purification. Their tradition considers a dead body, in addition to cut hair and nail-clippings, to be unclean. Specifically, the corpse demon was believed to rush into the body upon death and contaminate everything it came into contact with.
In ancient Iran, mountaintop structures were utilized for the disposal. Large voracious birds like vultures would eat the flesh and sinews, leaving only the skeleton. The bones remained exposed for a year until they became quite dry. They were then buried as “bone meal manure” in fields; no tombs were permitted on the spot. The structures still exist today but they lie in ruin. The religion is no longer widely practiced in Iran due to the introduction and prevalence of Islam.
In keeping with this ancient custom, the Parsis of India erected enclosures known as “Towers of Silence” or Dakhma, to dispose of the dead. In the Towers of Silence, vultures come and eat the flesh. The towers are also intended to utilize the sterilizing rays of the Sun. The system is called Khushed-negireshna, meaning “exposure to the sun in order to return the body’s vital essence to its source”. There are 3 separate concentric circles in which bodies are placed: one for men, one for women, and one for children. The corpse is left exposed for 1 year until all of the flesh and sinews have been removed by vultures and the bones have been bleached by the sun. The bones are then moved into an ossuary pit at the center of the tower, assisted by lime they gradually disintegrate. The remaining material along with run-off rainwater runs through multiple coal and sand filters before eventually being washed out to sea.
The structures still exist today. There are currently 3 within a 55 acre forested area called Malabar Hill in South Mumbai (the 3 white/gray dots on the map picture). Malabar Hill is located in the heart of an urban area of South Mumbai. Due to urbanization, the vulture population in India has become scarce. Some efforts have been made to breed more vultures in conservatories. Many modern day Parsis opt to be cremated instead of being placed in the Towers of Silence.
1st Picture is of Iran, the rest are of India.