Friday, May 26, 2006

shrinking flocks of vultures spoil ancient culture's funeral rituals

By Jason Overdorf
Special to The Globe and Mail

MUMBAI -- Smack in the middle of the thicket of ultramodern high-rises that make up Malabar Hill, one of Mumbai's most exclusive neighbourhoods, followers of an ancient religion are fighting to preserve funeral rites that go back thousands of years.

The Parsis -- so called because their ancestors immigrated from Fars, or Persepolis, in Iran -- are Zoroastrians, who believe that earth, water, air and fire are sacred elements. For that reason, their religion forbids them from burying or cremating their dead.

Instead, in a ceremony that no outsider is allowed to witness, pallbearers followed by a procession of mourners in flowing white robes carry the body to one of five tremendous stone structures, evocatively named the Towers of Silence, where the corpse is laid out on a marble slab to be dried up by the sun and devoured by carrion birds.

A great flock of white-backed vultures used to strip the bodies of the dead in less than an hour. But today, India's vultures are nearly extinct due to accidental poisoning, and the flock that once served the Towers of Silence is no more.

"When I was young, there were so many birds that they used to swoop down at you," says Minoo Shroff, the white-haired chairman of the city's Parsi Punchayet, the charitable trust charged with maintaining the funeral grounds, or doongerwadi. "There used to be 50 to 70 vultures on a well. Now, other birds like kites and crows are there, but seeing a vulture is very, very rare."

According to the United Kingdom's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the near extinction of South Asia's vultures happened faster than any other on record. Between 1988 and 1999, the region's eight vulture species declined by as much as 95 per cent -- the birds dying out so rapidly that millions were reduced to a few thousand in little more than a decade.

"The speed and scale of the vulture declines across South Asia has been totally unprecedented," says Chris Bowden, director of the RSPB's vulture program, who visited India recently. "For such formerly abundant birds in the space of just 10 years to be facing the real possibility of extinction is almost unbelievable."

For many years, the reason for the vultures' disappearance was a scientific mystery, with researchers blindly looking for an unknown contagious disease. But in 2004, scientists of the U.S.-based Peregrine Fund discovered that the vultures were being poisoned by an anti-inflammatory drug called diclofenac, which local farmers use to treat sick cattle. One feeding from a tainted cattle carcass is enough to cause fatal renal failure in the birds.

The culprit identified, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called for a universal ban of diclofenac in 2005. But so far the Ministry of Agriculture has been dragging its feet even though scientists have identified a harmless substitute, conservationists say. "For well over a year, the Ministry of Agriculture has done nothing," says Rishad Naoroji, a Parsi naturalist.

A handful of state governments have banned diclofenac, but only a national effort will be effective, according to Asad Rahmani, director of the Bombay Natural History Society.

That leaves the Parsi community in a dire situation. Without the aid of the vultures, the sun alone can take months to reduce the bodies laid out in the Towers of Silence to desiccated skeletons, a worrying problem as the mushrooming city encroaches on the funeral grounds. Already, the Punchayet has been compelled to stop using one of the towers, located in proximity to the high-rise Paradise Apartments, when residents complained about the sight and smell of the decaying corpses.

More crucially, many Parsis themselves have begun to doubt whether months of putrefaction amount to a death with dignity.

The search for a solution has opened a rift between the traditionalists and pragmatists of the community, which was already divided over the issue of intermarriage. The Parsis played a vital role in the development of Mumbai, formerly Bombay, and spawned three of India's largest business houses -- the Tata, Godrej and Wadia groups. But in recent years they have seen their population plunge some 40 per cent to about 40,000 people, as younger members of the community delay marriage, marry outside the community and have fewer children in favour of successful careers.

Its ties already weakened, the last thing the community needs is more people moving away from tradition, conservatives believe.

To stop that from happening, some conservative Parsis back a proposal to build a giant aviary and breed a captive population of vultures to serve the towers. But reservations about the cost of the project -- which would have run to several million dollars -- as well as doubts about whether it would work, have put the plan on hold.

Instead, the Punchayet has adopted a pragmatic solution developed by Homi Dhalla, president of the World Zarathushti Cultural Foundation, a group that sponsors various efforts to preserve Parsi traditions.

Dr. Dhalla, 60, developed a plan to focus powerful solar concentrators at the working area of three of the five towers, amplifying the heat of the sun and thus speeding the desiccation of the bodies. With these devices, the sun can reduce a corpse to a dry husk within three to five days.

Because they harness the power of the sun, Dr. Dhalla believes the solar concentrators, though an innovation, suit the tenets of the Zoroastrian religion. "It was quite difficult for me to find a solution within our theological limitations," he says.

But many conservatives don't believe he has. Khojeste Mistree, a conservative leader with a sizable following, argues that Dr. Dhalla's solution is little more than a solar-powered crematorium.

Parsi theologians like Dr. Firoze M. Kotwal, a former high priest, agree. "From a religious point of view," he says, "this method is not very proper."