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Indian History Sourcebook:
Sir Monier Monier-Williams:
The Towers of Silence, 1870

THE Parsis are descendants of the ancient Persians who were expelled from Persia by the Muhammedan conquerors, and who first settled at Surat between eleven and twelve hundred years ago. According to the last census they do not number more than seventy thousand souls, of whom about fifty thousand are found in the city of Bombay, the remaining twenty thousand in different parts of India, but chiefly in Gujarat and the Bombay Presidency. Though a mere drop in the ocean of 241 ,000,000 inhabitants, they form a most important and influential body of men, emulating Europeans in energy and enterprise, rivaling them in opulence, and imitating them in many of their habits. Their vernacular language is Gujarati, but nearly every adult speaks English with fluency, and English is now taught in all their schools. Their Benevolent Institution for the education of at least one thousand boys and girls is in a noble building, and is a model of good management. Their religion, as delivered in its original purity by their prophet Zoroaster, and as propounded in the Zend Avesta, is monotheistic, or, perhaps, rather pantheistic, in spite of its philosophical dualism, and in spite of the apparent worship of fire and the elements, regarded as visible representations of the Deity. Its morality is summed up in three precepts of two words each---"Good thoughts," "Good words," "Good deeds"; of which the Parsi is constantly reminded by the triple coil of his white cotton girdle. In its origin the Parsi system is closely allied to that of the Hindu Aryans---as represented in the Vedas---and has much in common with the more recent Brahmanism. Neither religion can make proselytes.

A man must be born either a Brahman or a Parsi; no power can convert him into either one or the other. One notable peculiarity, however, distinguishes Parsiism. Nothing similar to its funeral rites prevails among other nations; though the practice of exposing bodies on the tops of rocks is said to prevail among the Buddhists of Bhotan. And truly among the interesting contrasts which everywhere meet the eye of an observant European traveler, when he first arrives at Bombay, may especially be noted the different methods adopted by the adherents of different creeds for the disposal of their dead.

There in Bombay one may seen within a short distance of each other, the Christian cemetery, the Muhammedan graveyard, the Hindu burning-ground, and the Parsi Dakhmas, or Towers of Silence. These latter are erected in a garden, on the highest point of Malabar Hill---a beautiful rising ground on the north side of Back Bay, noted for the bungalows and compounds of the European and wealthier inhabitants of Bombay scattered in every direction over its surface. The garden is approached by a well-constructed private road, all access to which, except to Parsis, is barred by strong iron gates. I obtained leave to visit the Towers on two different occasions, and thanks to the omnipotent Sir Jamsetjee, no obstacles impeded my advance. Each time I made my appearance before the massive gates they flew open before me as if by magic. I drove rapidly through a park-like inclosure, and found the courteous Secretary of the Parsi Panchayat, Mr. Nasarwanjee Byramjee, awaiting my arrival at the entrance to the garden. On the occasion of my first visit he took me at once to the highest point in the consecrated ground, and we stood together on the terrace of the largest of the three Sagris, or Houses of Prayer, which overlook the five Towers of Silence. These Sagris are indispensable adjuncts to all Parsi burial-towers in large towns such as Bombay, Surat, and Poona, but are not found attached to them in less important localities. They are not only places of prayer, they are sanctuaries for the sacred fire, which, when once kindled and consecrated by solemn ceremonial, is fed day and night with incense and fragrant sandal by a priest appointed for the purpose, and never extinguished. It is noteworthy that the wall of the Bombay Sagri has an aperture or apertures, so arranged that the light streaming from the sacred fire, or from a consecrated oil-lamp, kept burning throughout the night, may pass through similar apertures in the parapets of the towers, and fall on the bodies lying in the interior. The view we enjoyed when standing near the principal Sagri can scarcely be surpassed by any in the world. Beneath us lay the city of Bombay partially hidden by cocoanut groves, with its beautiful bay and harbor glittering in the brilliant December light. Beyond stretched the magnificent range of the Ghauts, while immediately around us extended a garden, such as can only be seen in tropical countries. No English nobleman's garden could be better kept, and no pen could do justice to the glories of its flowering shrubs, cypresses, and palms. It seemed the very ideal, not only of a place of sacred silence, but of peaceful rest.

But what are those five circular structures which appear at intervals rising mysteriously out of the foliage? They are masses of solid masonry, massive enough to last for centuries, built of the hardest black granite, and covered with white chunam, the purity and smoothness of which are disfigured by patches of black fungus like incrustations. Towers they scarcely deserve to be called; for the height of each is quite out of proportion to its diameter. The largest of the five may be described as an upright cylindrical stone structure, in shape and solidity not unlike a gigantic millstone, about fourteen feet high and ninety feet in diameter, resting on the ground in the midst of the garden. It is built of solid granite, except in the center, where a well, ten feet deep and about fifteen across, leads down to an excavation under the masonry, containing four drains at right angles to each other, terminated by holes filled with sand, or in some cases, with charcoal. Round the upper and outer edge of this circular structure, and completely hiding its upper surface from view, is a high stone parapet. This is constructed so as to seem to form one piece with the solid stone-work, and being, like it, covered with chunam, gives the whole erection, when viewed from the outside, the appearance of a low tower. Clearly, one great object aimed at by the Parsis in the construction of these strange depositories of their dead is solidity. We saw two or three enormous massive stones lying on the ground, which had been rejected by the builders simply because they contained almost invisible veins of quartz, through which it was possible that impure particles might find their way, and be carried, in the course of centuries, by percolating moisture, into the soil. Earth, water, and fire are, according to Zoroaster, sacred symbols of the wisdom, goodness, and omnipotence of the Deity, and ought never, under any circumstances, to be defiled. Especially ought every effort to be made to protect Mother Earth from the pollution which would result if putrefying corpses were allowed to accumulate in the ground. Hence the disciples of Zoroaster spare neither trouble nor expense in erecting solid and impenetrable stone platforms fourteen feet thick for the reception of their dead. The cost of erection is greatly increased by the circumstance that the Towers ought always to be placed on high hills, or in the highest situations available. I was informed by the Secretary that the largest of the five Towers was constructed at an outlay of three lakhs (300,000) of rupees.

The oldest and smallest of the five was built two hundred years ago, when the Parsis first settled in Bombay, and is now only used by the Modi family, whose forefathers built it; and here the bones of many kindred generations are commingled. The next oldest was erected in 1756, and the other three during the succeeding century. A sixth Tower stands quite apart from the others. It is square in shape, and only used for persons who have suffered death for heinous crimes. The bones of convicted criminals are never allowed to mingle with those of the rest of the community.

But the strangest feature in these strange, unsightly structures, so incongruously intermixed with graceful cypresses and palms, exquisite shrubs, and gorgeous flowers, remains to be described. Though wholly destitute of ornament, and even of the simplest moulding, the parapet of each Tower possesses an extraordinary coping, which instantly attracts and fascinates the gaze. It is a coping formed, not of dead stone, butof living vultures. These birds, on the occasion of my visit, had settled themselves side by side in perfect order, and in a complete circle around the parapets of the Towers, with their heads pointed inwards, and so lazily did they sit there and so motionless was their whole mien that, except for their color, they might have been carved out of the stone-work.

And now as to the interior of the Towers, the upper surface of the massive granite column is divided into compartments by narrow grooved ridges of stone, radiating like the spokes of a wheel from the central well. These stone ridges form the sides of seventy-two shallow open receptacles or coffins, arranged in three concentric rings, the last of the three encircling the central well. The ridges are grooves---that is, they have narrow channels running down their whole length, which channels are connected by side ducts with the open coffins, so as to convey all moisture to the central well, and into the lower drains. The number three is emblematical of Zoroaster's three moral precepts, AGood thoughts, good words, and good deeds," and the seventy-two open stone receptacles represent the seventy-two chapters of his Yasna, a portion of the Zend-Avesta.

Each concentric circle of open stone coffins has a pathway surrounding it, the object of which is to make each receptacle accessible to the corpse-bearers. Hence there are three concentric circular pathways, the outermost of which is immediately below the parapet, and these three pathways are crossed by another conducting from the solitary door which admits the corpse-bearers from the exterior, and which must face the east, to catch the rays of the rising sun. In the outermost circle of stone coffins, which stands for Agood deeds,@ are placed the bodies of males; in the middle, symbolizing Agood words,@ those of females; in the inner and smallest circle, nearest the well, representing Agood thoughts,@ those of children. Each Tower is consecrated with solemn religious ceremonies, and after its consecration no one, except the corpse-bearers, ----not even a high-priest,---is allowed to enter, or to approach within thirty feet of the immediate precincts.

The first funeral I witnessed was that of a child. While I was engaged in conversation with the Secretary outside the Fire Temple, a sudden stir among the vultures made us raise our heads. At least a hundred birds, collected round one of the Towers, began to show symptoms of excitement, while others swooped down from neighboring trees. The cause of this sudden abandonment of their previous apathy soon revealed itself. A funeral procession was seen to be approaching. However distant the house of a deceased person, and whether he be young or old, rich or poor, high or low in rank, his body is always carried to the Towers by the official corpse-bearers, the mourners walking behind. The corpse-bearers are properly divided into two classes, named Nasa-salars and Khandhias. The former alone are privileged to enter the Towers, but they are assisted in carrying the bier by the Khandhias, and they carry the dead bodies of the children without the aid of the Khandhias. As these Nasa-salars are supposed to contract impurity in the discharge of their duty, they are obliged to submit to certain social disadvantages. For instance, they are generally expected to eat apart from the rest of the community at social gatherings. They enjoy, however, a compensating advantage in being highly paid for the work they have to do.

Before they removed the body of the child from the house where its relatives were assembled, funeral prayers were recited, and the corpse was exposed to the gaze of the sacred dog. The dog, because of its faithfulness, is greatly loved by the Parsis, and they feed it as a sacred duty and pleasure. In olden times dead bodies were given to dogs to consume; but in these days a piece of bread is fed to the one that follows the corpse. Moreover, for three days after burial the soul of the dead man is supposed to be in great danger of being attacked by evil spirits, and from these the dog is believed to deliver him.

Then the body, swathed in a white sheet, was placed on a curved metal trough, open at both ends, and the corpse-bearers, dressed in pure white garments, proceeded with it towards the Towers. They were followed by the mourners at a distance of at least thirty feet, in pairs, also dressed in white, and each couple joined by holding a white handkerchief between them. When the two corpse-bearers reached the path leading by a steep incline to the door of the Tower, the mourners, about eight in number, turned back and entered one of the prayer-houses. AThere,@ said the Secretary, Athey repeat certain Gathas, and pray that the spirit of the deceased may be safely transported on the fourth day after death to its final resting-place."

The Tower selected for the child's burial was one in which other members of the same family had before been laid. The two bearers speedily unlocked the door, reverently conveyed the body of the child into the interior, and, unseen by any one, laid it uncovered in one of the open stone receptacles nearest the central well. In two minutes they reappeared with the empty bier and white cloth. But scarcely had they closed the door when a dozen vultures swooped down upon the body, and were rapidly followed by flights of others. In five minutes more we saw the satiated birds fly back and lazily settle down again upon the parapet. They had left nothing behind but a skeleton. Meanwhile the bearers were seen to enter a building shaped like a huge barrel. There, as the Secretary informed me, they changed their clothes and washed themselves. Shortly afterwards we saw them come out and deposit their cast-off funeral garments on a stone receptacle near at hand. Not a thread leaves the garden, lest it should carry defilement into the city. Fresh garments were supplied at each funeral. In a fortnight, or at most four weeks, the same bearers return, and with gloved hands and implements resembling tongs, place the dry skeleton in the central well. There the bones find their last resting-place, and there the dust of whole generations of Parsis commingling is left undisturbed for centuries.

The revolting sight of the gorged vultures made me turn my back on the Towers with ill-concealed abhorrence. I asked the Secretary how it was possible to become reconciled to such a usage. His reply was nearly in the following words: "Our Prophet Zoroaster, who lived six thousand years ago, taught us to regard the elements as symbols of the Deity. Earth, fire, water, he said, ought never, under any circumstances, to be defiled by contact with putrefying flesh. Naked, he said, we came into the world, and naked we ought to leave it. But the decaying particles of our bodies should be dissipated as rapidly as possible, and in such a way that neither Mother Earth nor the beings she supports should be contaminated in the slightest degree. In fact, our Prophet was the greatest of health officers, and following his sanitary laws, we built our Towers on the tops of the hills, above all human habitations. We spare no expense in constructing them of the hardest materials, and we expose our putrescent bodies in open stone receptacles, testing on fourteen feet of solid granite, not necessarily to be consumed by vultures, but to be dissipated in the speediest manner, and without the smallest possibility of polluting the earth, or contaminating a single living being dwelling thereon. God, indeed, sends the vultures, and, as a matter of fact, these birds do their appointed work much more expeditiously than millions of insects would do, if we committed our bodies to the ground. In a sanitary point of view nothing can be more perfect than our plan. Even the rain-water which washes our skeletons is conducted by channels into purifying charcoal. Here in these five Towers rest the bones of all the Parsis that have lived in Bombay for the last two hundred years. We form a united body in life, and we are united in death. Even our leader, Sir Jametjee, likes to feel that when he dies he will be reduced to perfect equality with the poorest and humblest of the Parsi community."

When the Secretary had finished his defense of the Towers of Silence, I could not help thinking that however much such a system may shock our European feelings and ideas, yet our own method of interment, if regarded from a Parsi point of view, may possibly be equally revolting to Parsi sensibilities.


Source

From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. II: India, Persia, Mesopotamia, and Palestine, pp. 234-244.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton. The text has been modernized by Prof. Arkenberg

Note: Many Western sources about Islamic countries exhibit what has come to be known as orientalism. The terms used ("Mohammedan" for instance rather than "Muslim"), and the attitudes exhibited by the writers need to be questioned by modern readers.


This text is part of the Internet Indian History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall November1998
halsall@fordham.edu