The tight knit Parsi community's last rituals for their dead has now come under threat of becoming obsolete and being discontinued because of the alarming depletion of India's vulture population. The endangerment of the bird and its subsequent effect on the Parsi community has been the cause of much concern over the last decade.
The centuries old community that originated in Persia are now witnessing an important religious custom face extinction.
Like any other community, the Parsis have their own unique manner of mourning the passing of a member. This is where the Towers of Silence come into play. Believing in the Zoroastrian faith, a deceased body is offered up for a sky burial where the flesh is devoured by vultures and the remaining bones bleached by the sun. This ritual is considered to purify the remains and put the soul to peace.
The ritual is now under threat of being rendered obsolete and uneconomic, with the near extinction of vultures in India.
Beginning in the late 1990s, the vulture crisis in India witnessed a terrible decline in the avian creature's population. The country estimated a 99% loss, back in 2006, in vulture population, due to a particular drug that turned out to be poisonous for the bird.
It was a drug called Diclofenac that was responsible for the mass poisoning.
An anti-inflammatory medicine administered to cattle in farms, the painkiller found its way into the vultures' systems as they feasted on the carcasses of dead cattle. The drug eventually caused kidney failure across the bird population and a ban on the drug had to be sanctioned by the government in 2006.
But, by this time the damage had already been done.
This year, as reported by NDTV, parts of the community have been forced to abandon the traditional sky burial and turn toward cremation. Truly a hard decision to make, since their belief systems consider it inappropriate. Something that the orthodox faction of the community has protested against. With the reduction of the community's population to almost half since 1940, Parsis are now split when it comes to deciding whether cremations or burials are an acceptable custom.
With the numbers of the community dwindling, the preservation of this custom is extremely important to their culture.
Although, sky burials still technically work, they work much slower and pose possible problems regarding pollution. Khojeste Mistree, an orthodox scholar said, "If the vultures were still here then things would be different, but now this is the best way to let the body pass," he told AFP, as reported by NDTV. Slowly, more and more Parsi families are now looking at cremation as the only remaining alternative.