In ancient Persia where the religion was founded, pre-Islam, it was almost certainly the custom to leave dead bodies untended on some open ground where they would be eaten rapidly by wolves, jackals and vultures. The alternatives were impractical anyway. Presumably, wood for funeral pyres would have been scarce. Rivers would have been seasonal. And the often arid, rocky ground would not have lent itself to easy burial. In India, where most Parsis settled in the 8th century having been ousted from Persia, the process became ritualised at stone towers built specially for the purpose of encouraging vultures to consume their dead quickly. After all, vultures were then incredibly abundant, perfect for the form of body disposal central to their faith. Nor would the vultures have needed much encouragement to stay around. Because, in Mumbai, the Parsi community is slowly depleting as its population ages and because it doesn’t usually accept converts to the faith. You have to be born a Parsi. And not enough are being born; up to 900 of them die annually in the city.
When vultures were abundant at the towers, after each laying of a body its flesh would have been consumed within an hour, leaving the skeleton to desiccate in the hot sun. After a few weeks the corpse bearers would return to sweep the brittle, powdering bones into the tower’s central pit where they would join those of thousands of other Parsis. The process was rapid, hygienic and non-polluting. Earth, air and water had not been defiled; it offered natural food to nature’s scavengers; it produced no false sentimentality, no fuss, no monuments, no epitaphs, no urns … and it was cost-free. It couldn’t have fitted their traditions better.
I had come to Mumbai to try and understand the implications of the loss of India’s vultures and it soon became obvious to me that its impact on the Parsi community was not only huge but divisive. Mumbai’s nearly 46,000 Parsis – their largest single community in the world – still carry on the Zoroastrian tradition of laying out their dead on the towers. But they were now relying on the sun’s heat to desiccate the corpses because the only other carrion eaters still around – Black Kites and House Crows – were taking far too long to devour the bodies. And this lingering was producing odours, anathema to Parsis.
I talked to Khojeste Mistree, a leading Parsi academic of Iranian descent living in Mumbai. ‘When the vultures disappeared, I suggested that we should construct a large netted aviary around one or more of the towers. With the necessary licences to capture a few remaining birds we would have bred vultures there and kept them on site so that our traditional practices could continue,’ he said. ‘But the Bombay Parsi Punchayet [their ruling body] eventually turned down the idea because of concerns that diclofenac residues in human bodies might kill the vultures. It’s very disappointing.’
Vulture experts I talked to mostly agree that although diclofenac breaks down within days in any animal, further breakdown stops at death. So livestock or humans given the drug shortly before death to relieve pain might retain enough in their vital organs to kill vultures. And that’s a risk if vultures were reintroduced and kept here because diclofenac (as Voltarol) is still marketed for human use even though it has been banned now for animal treatment in India and its neighbouring countries.
The Punchayet has a novel – and controversial – solution: solar reflectors installed on three of the four towers concentrate the sun’s heat on the bodies in order to desiccate them more rapidly so that there is no smell of slow decomposition. But Mumbai’s Parsi community is divided. Some think the solar reflectors are a practical response to the fix they’re in. Others like Mistree disagree. ‘I contend that the bodies must burn, contrary to our beliefs’ he told me. ‘They get heated to 125°C. It’s like a grill. It’s heretical. It’s so hot that the crows and kites can’t even land there until sundown. Then in the monsoon months, of course, the reflectors don’t work at all. Allowing kites and crows to eat the bodies, albeit much more slowly than vultures, would be acceptable. Most of the priests agree with me but their views have been marginalised. It is so wrong.’
To get another view I spent a morning on Malabar Hill with Dr Viraf Kapadia, a Mumbai Parsi and homeopath. ‘Most Parsis are concerned that using the reflectors isn’t appropriate but they feel it’s inevitable,’ he explains. ‘They want the bodies to dry rapidly to eliminate any decomposition odours that they fear if slow consumption by kites and crows is the only alternative’.
The massive loss of millions of vultures has dismayed conservationists. Luckily, a few of each rapidly declining species were captured in order to breed from them in purpose-built aviaries, mostly in India, Nepal and Pakistan. This captive breeding is going well and the first releases of vultures back into the wild are expected soon providing large areas of land can be guaranteed to have no traces of diclofenac in any water buffalo or cattle corpses. But it is unlikely that these scavengers, which everyone took for granted for centuries, will ever again become commonplace. They haven’t gone the way of the infamous Dodo, but it has been a close-run thing and their decline has been even more rapid than the Dodo’s.
No one, though, had given any thought to the implications of the vultures’ disappearance on the Parsi community, not even the Parsis themselves, until they had gone. And their loss has precipitated what might well become a rethink of their long-held traditions. Will it ever again be possible to dispose of their dead as they had for millennia? Is it anyway feasible to do so within a large and sprawling urban conurbation? And do they have to consider whether – like some Parsis in other parts of the world – they adapt their traditions and consider burying their dead as a more practical alternative?
Vultures aren’t the most attractive birds to look at and they don’t have many admirers. But they do perform a free, efficient and hygienic disposal service in many tropical and subtropical countries around the world, a service that many developing countries cannot replicate in their absence, with huge implications for limiting disease spread. Without them, rat, feral dog and insect-borne diseases affecting humans are very likely to proliferate. And who would have guessed that the demise of these scavengers would have had such a profound impact on one of the world’s very oldest religions?