The differences between BPP [Bombay Parsi Panchayat] administrators, between reformists and conservatives, have led to inappropriate bickering over the past decades. One of the main sources of contention was the operation of the Towers of Silence at Doongerwadi.
According to the Vendidad, Zoroastrianism has a unique system of eliminating the dead – dokhmenishini – because cremation pollutes the fire, which is considered sacred, and the burial is not hygienic. In ancient Iran, bodies were left on hilltops in pits so that they could be devoured by wild animals or scavenging birds. In the 1940s Iranian monarch Reza Shah banned this method of eliminating the dead, but in India the Parsis still cling to this tradition in cities that have dakhmas.
The system has worked effectively in Bombay for centuries, thanks to the city’s large population of vultures who pounced on the bodies almost as soon as they were delivered to the dakhmas. But by the end of the twentieth century, India’s vulture population practically disappeared.
This drastic drop was attributed to the anti-inflammatory drug Diclofenac, which was frequently given to cattle and other farm animals, but also prescribed as a pain reliever for humans. Since the vultures primarily feed on carcasses of dead cattle and buffaloes, they have been slowly poisoned, a syndrome known as ‘drooping neck’.
The disappearance of the vultures had an immediate impact on the dakhmas. Residents around Doongerwadi have complained about the unpleasant smell emanating from the decomposing bodies in the wells. From some vantage points in the lavish skyscrapers that lined the area, apartment dwellers could glimpse the rotting corpses. Someone even managed to secretly take pictures inside the dakhmas.
The gruesome photographs of decaying corpses have surfaced to the horror and embarrassment of the community as a whole and to the fury of the Orthodox. The cream of the Parsi community, led by eminent doctors, has warned that in the absence of vultures, this ancient method of eliminating the dead was a major health hazard and could lead to an epidemic.
Respected Parsi professionals have launched a campaign for religion to allow cremation. But high priests and Parsi conservatives like Mistree were horrified by the suggestion. Polluting the fire with dead matter was an unforgivable sin. Dastur Feroze Kotwal, a learned, pious and stern high priest and, like Mistree, a pupil of Mary Boyce, described the acceptance of the new standard as “an attack on the very foundation of our religion”. On his advice, the BPP did not allow the Doongerwadi “bunglis” to be used to organize prayer ceremonies for the corpses that would ultimately be cremated.
To regenerate the city’s vulture population, Mistree, then a BPP administrator, brought up the idea of an aviary. The punchayet flew to raptor expert Jemima Perry Jones, director of the National Birds of Prey Center in Gloucestershire, to help find a solution. But she quickly passed her welcome, with her candid comment to a newspaper describing the dakhma system as “bizarre” and media speculation that she was the first non-Parsi to visit the Towers of Silence.
Then, to speed up the decomposition process, the BPP started using chemicals and solar panels. But the issue remained controversial and controversial. The BPP banned two priests, Framroze Mirza and
Khushru Madan, to perform ceremonies in Doongerwadi because they had agreed to lead funeral prayers for those who had been cremated as well as to perform navjotes for children whose mothers had married outside the community. The directors said they took advice from such respected high priests as the late Dastur Kaikhusroo Jamasp Asa and Dastur Kotwal.
The late Jamsheed Kanga and Homi Khushrokhan, a respected senior official, filed a complaint against the BPP administrators, challenging the right of the punchayet to regulate the performance of religious rites and ceremonies. Most of the leading Parsi lawyers sided with the reformists, and the Bombay High Court handed down a scathing judgment against the BPP.
The high priests issued a statement calling it an attack on the religious freedom of the community. When the case went to the Supreme Court, the country’s highest court was reluctant to rule on a religious matter and instead referred it to a court-appointed mediator. After years of costly litigation, neither side was happy with the mediator’s final order.
The agreement prohibited the BPP from prohibiting Parsi priests who wished to work in the Doongerwadi complex and the two fire temples under its jurisdiction even if the priests had committed “irreligious acts” outside Doongerwadi. Ironically, the two priests on whose behalf the case was originally filed were the only exceptions to the rule.
Khushru Madan issued a public statement refuting allegations made against him by six senior priests, BPP and WAPIZ in Mistree – they had claimed that Madan was converting people to Zoroastrianism for money. In his statement, the reformist priest, described as a “renegade” by conservatives, cited many translated stanzas from the Gathas and prayers to illustrate that Zarathustra preached tolerance and, although he did not advocate force to spread religion , he thought it should be open to everyone.
For the benefit of one of his detractors, the late Kaikhusroo Jamasp Asa, he quotes the letter written by Jamasp Asa’s grandfather who had executed Suzanne Tata’s navjote and also celebrated his marriage with RD Tata according to Zoroastrian rites in 1903. The high priest wrote to the then BPP secretary in 1901, stating that religion does not prohibit the acceptance of non-Zoroastrian converts into the fold.
Interestingly, Madan did not refer to a transgression against the Orthodox belief that another of his detractors, Dastur Kotwal, had tolerated – the late navjotes of wealthy industrialist Neville Wadia and his son Nusli Wadia, both baptized Christians. . The Liberal lobby and the Parsi press scoffed at these double standards – one rule for the rich and another for ordinary people. The fact that Kotwal was allocated a Cusrow Baug apartment out of tower by the BPP and the Wadia committee was seen as a quid pro quo. This was a case where the ultra-Orthodox in the community were not on the same side as some of the Orthodox priests.
Extracted with permission from The Tatas, Freddie Mercury and other Bawas: an intimate history of the Parsis, Coomi Kapoor, Westland Non Fiction.