Sun, Sep 03, 2006 - Page 1 News List

Woman ignites row over photos of Parsi burial custom


An Indian woman has ignited a furious row over the centuries-old tradition of using vultures to dispose of the dead by sending gruesome pictures of rotting corpses to hundreds of homes.

About three bodies a day from the dwindling Parsi community in India are left to be stripped clean at a private 18-hectare complex in Mumbai, but the practice is threatened by a dramatic decline in vulture numbers.

The issue erupted after scenes from inside the Towers of Silence were revealed by Dhun Baria, 65, who printed leaflets with grainy pictures of bodies and distributed them to 2,000 Parsi homes in Mumbai.

She said she only learned what happened behind the walls of the squat circular towers after her mother's body was taken when she died eight months ago.

"The staff told me everything. They said: `Madam, it's a hell inside,'" she said.

"I was crying a whole day and a night. It's the biggest mistake of my life that I have put my mother inside there. I thought I must help to change this system," she said.

The Towers of Silence are off limits to all save pall bearers and the vultures who once circled overhead in large numbers before they dramatically died off.

Pictures circulating within the community are understood to show several dozen bloated and blackened bodies arranged around the upper platform of a tower and decomposing bones of other bodies in a well about 6m below.

The process, known as Dakhma, dates back to ancient Iran where earth, water and fire were considered sacred and not to be polluted by the bodies of the dead.

Bodies were first put on top of mountains and later on to specially built towers. It is not practiced by Parsi migrants in other countries.

But the process that once took a few hours or days now takes months, according to reformers, with crows and snakes taking over from vultures.

Baria said she was sent pictures anonymously and received threatening telephone calls over her campaign to persuade senior figures to allow cremation or burial.

Her actions have horrified the orthodox wing of the community which condemned her for making public a sacred place for the Parsis, part of the 3,500-year-old Zoroastrian religion.

"It's not going to be a big garden of roses inside," said Anahita Desai of the orthodox World Alliance of Parsi Irani Zarthoshtis. "But we feel she's exaggerating the situation."

But the Parsis' troubles are minor compared with the vultures that have suffered the biggest decline of any animal species in the world, from millions in India to just a few thousand in little more than a decade, according to the Bombay Natural History Society.

The drop has led to continuing debate over how India's Parsi community should dispose of bodies.

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