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‘Dealing with the dead’ in a new way! Declining vulture numbers led to a change in centuries-old Parsi customs

Vulture population declines have resulted in a significant shift in how some progressive Parsi members treat their dead. On Tuesday, Cyrus Mistry, former chairman of Tata Sons, was cremated following his death in a car accident two days earlier.

Many Parsi funerals have taken place since 2015 at a specially made electric crematorium in the financial capital, a departure from the previous practice of ‘sky burials,’ in which a body was left in ‘Towers of Silence’ for the vultures to feast on. After performing rituals according to Zoroastrian faith procedures, the dead person’s mortal remains are fed into the electric machine, and the same was observed in the case of Mistry as well.

Mistry’s mortal remains were taken to the crematorium, which is located across the street from a star hotel built by the community in the last decade, where a family priest performed the rituals before the body was placed in the electric machine. Because of the decline in vulture populations that fed on the corpses in the last decade, some people in the otherwise conservative community took up the call to build the crematorium, and many pragmatic families, such as the Mistrys, have embraced the new way of dealing with their dead.

According to reports, the country’s vulture population has decreased to 19,000 in 2017 from 40 million in the 1980s, indicating a shift in the community’s attitude toward the dead. The government has launched a sustained initiative to halt the decline of vultures, which are an important part of the food chain, through the National Vulture Conservation Action Plan 2020-25, which has had some success.

The use of Diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug used to treat cattle, is being blamed for the decline in vulture populations. Since the 1990s, vulture populations have been impacted by birds that gorged on dead cattle that had consumed the drug while alive. The drug was banned in 2006, but its devastating impact on vulture populations had already begun.

The declining vulture populations posed a formidable challenge to the Parsis. While vultures cleaned the flesh off a body in a matter of hours, crows and kites only pecked at dead bodies, causing many of them to rot in the wells for months and leave a stench. Despite the economic clout of many in the community, the number of Parsis is rapidly declining. According to the 2011 census, there were 57,264 Parsis in the country. The government’s Ministry of Minority Affairs has launched a scheme called ‘Jiyo Parsi’┬áto combat the community’s decline through budgetary allocations.

Over 1,000 years ago, Parsis fled persecution in modern-day Iran and settled on India’s western coast. They brought a flame, which is said to be still burning in a fire temple in Udvada, Gujarat. Mistry was driving back from that town when the tragic accident occurred. Jehangir Pandole’s mortal remains, who was also killed in the car crash on Sunday, were left at the Doongarwadi Tower of Silence in south Mumbai on Tuesday because his family preferred the traditional way of dealing with the dead.

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