Parsi Museum, Mumbai
The most famous death ritual of Mumbai involves the Parsi’s (Zoroastrian) Towers of Silence. The Parsis practice corporeal disposal by means of placing their corpses atop their private and protected Towers of Silence and allowing vultures as well as other birds and animals, to dispose of them. Unfortunately, today the population of these large birds has dwindled in and around Mumbai, and in recent years, the birds have not been able to properly dispose of the bodies. This leaves the Parsis struggling and sometimes divided between tradition and innovation. Yesterday, I stopped by Mumbai’s Parsi Museum, where I had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Nivedita Mehta.
Mrs. Mehta is an archaeologist who, after suffering a stroke and losing the ability to travel and participate in archaeological digs, took over as curator of the small museum. She has spent her life in the Parsi community in Mumbai and shared some of her thoughts about their current situation.
With Mrs. Nivedita Mehta, archaeologist and curator of the Parsi Museum
She identified a divide in the community between those more orthodox members, who desire to keep the Towers of Silence tradition functioning at all costs, and those members of the Parsi community who recognize a faltering system and a need for change. According to Mrs. Mehta, many Parsis (even some of the more orthodox community members) are now sending their bodies to crematoria, because they do not approve of or agree with the situation surrounding the Towers of Silence. Mrs. Mehta explained that even though the large birds are gone, the bodies are usually still disposed of during most of the year by the combination of smaller birds and the sun; it is just during the monsoon when issues arise. The Towers of Silence are extremely protected from outsiders, so much so that when views into other Towers of Silence that used to exist in another part of the city became available from apartment towers rising nearby, the Parsis chose to stop utilizing those towers for their rituals. There are restrictions within the community as well, though some have changed in accordance to societal trends. While no Parsis apart from priests are allowed to enter into and thus desacralize their fire temples, in recent years, women have been able to accompany their deceased loved ones to the top of the Towers of Silence to say a last goodbye, while before, it was only men who were afforded this privilege.
Towers of Silence, from googlemaps
After speaking to Mrs. Mehta and seeing the museum, I walked as close as I could to the nearby Towers of Silence. As expected, I was not able to get very close; the most I saw was the stone wall surrounding the extensive garden that houses the towers and the lush vegetation protecting these holy ritual spaces from my prying eyes.
View of wall surrounding the Towers of Silence