It wasn’t long before the metronome-like rhythm of the prayer chanting, led by the two white-robed priests in their tall hats, became soporific in the leaden heat of the late afternoon. A Nassesalar – a corpse bearer – also dressed in a white cotton tunic, trousers and cap sat reverently at the side of the dead man on the cool stone floor. The sacred dog, a small tan and white mongrel, was led in, sniffed around the body to check that there was no life remaining, and was led out again in a ritual as important to the Parsis – the followers of Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest religions – as what would follow later.
Outside the low, whitewashed building occupied by the family and close friends of the old man who had died the previous night, gardeners in their mud-brown uniforms went about their everyday business, watering exotic shrubs and scarlet-flowering climbers while the heady aroma of cypress trees hung heavy in the air. To me, hardly used to such events, it all seemed rather surreal.
I had come to Mumbai to research a feature for The Telegraph Magazine about the enormous die-off of nearly all the vultures across India and its adjacent countries. It had been totally unexpected. What had caused it was a common and very cheap painkiller, diclofenac (marketed usually as Voltarol for human use), administered to cattle and water buffalo – the most abundant livestock in India – to treat lameness and mastitis. What no one could have predicted was that many species of vulture are particularly sensitive to the drug; it gives them severe gout and they die, almost certainly – and ironically – in pain due to kidney failure. Before diclofenac was marketed, there were an estimated 40 million of the most common species of vulture, the Oriental White-backed Vulture, in India alone. Now it’s hard to find one.
The link between the cattle and buffalo, the painkiller and vultures was simple enough. In India and adjacent countries, whenever a cow or water buffalo dies, they are left for vultures to eat. Constantly soaring in the sky on the lookout for some carrion to devour, a pack of a hundred or so would reduce the dead beast to bones in less than an hour. It was free, there was no fuss and because disease didn’t have a chance to spread courtesy of flies, rats or other vectors, it was hygienic. The farmer only had the bones to get rid of. No vultures equals no cattle corpse consumption. And, in a hot and often humid climate, that means decomposing cattle or water buffalo corpses attract a plethora of rats, feral dogs (that often here carry rabies) and diseases ranging from plague to typhus. In recent years, the feral dog population in India has burgeoned and become a widespread problem; some nasty diseases have almost certainly increased too, although documentation is shambolic.
So what, you might well be thinking, does this have to do with attending a Parsi funeral as I was invited to do?
Indian farmers weren’t the only people to make use of the ability of vultures to eat bodies rapidly and, therefore, hygienically. The Parsis – adherents of Zoroastrianism founded in what is now Iran in the 6th century – believe that their dead must not pollute air, water or land. And while Parsis in other parts of the world do things differently, their largest single community, in Mumbai, has always used vultures to consume their dead. The process became ritualised at the so-called Towers of Silence at Malabar Hill in central Mumbai, a peaceful, wooded area of land, and the largest green lung in this overcrowded, noisy, sprawling and – too often – squalid city.