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Tower of Silence

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Interior view of dakhma
Early 20th century drawing of the dakhma on Malabar Hill, Mumbai

A dakhma (Persian: دخمه), also known as a Tower of Silence, is a circular, raised structure built by Zoroastrians for excarnation (that is, the exposure of human corpses to the elements for decomposition), in order to avoid contamination of the soil and other natural elements by the decomposing dead bodies.[1][2][3] Carrion birds, usually vultures and other scavengers, consume the flesh. Skeletal remains are gathered into a central pit where further weathering and continued breakdown occurs.[1][2]

Ritual exposure by Iranian peoples[edit]

Zoroastrian ritual exposure of the dead is first attested in the mid-5th century BCE Histories of Herodotus, an Ancient Greek historian who observed the custom amongst Iranian expatriates in Asia Minor; however, the use of towers is first documented in the early 9th century CE.[1][2] In Herodotus' account (in Histories i.140), the Zoroastrian funerary rites are said to have been "secret"; however they were first performed after the body had been dragged around by a bird or dog. The corpse was then embalmed with wax and laid in a trench.[4]

Writing on the culture of the Persians, Herodotus reports on the Persian burial customs performed by the magi, again, kept secret, according to his account. However, he writes that he knows they expose the body of male dead to dogs and birds of prey, then they cover the corpse in wax, and then it is buried.[5] The Achaemenid custom for the dead is recorded in the regions of Bactria, Sogdia, and Hyrcania, but not in Western Iran.[6][7]

The discovery of ossuaries in both Eastern and Western Iran dating to the 5th and 4th centuries BCE indicate that bones were sometimes isolated, but separation occurring through ritual exposure cannot be assumed: burial mounds,[8] where the bodies were wrapped in wax, have also been discovered. The tombs of the Achaemenid emperors at Naqsh-e Rustam and Pasargadae likewise suggest non-exposure, at least until the bones could be collected. According to legend (incorporated by Ferdowsi into his Shahnameh; lit.'The Book of Kings'), Zoroaster himself is interred in a tomb at Balkh (in present-day Afghanistan).

The Byzantine historian Agathias has described the Zoroastrian burial of the Sasanian general Mihr-Mihroe: "the attendants of Mermeroes took up his body and removed it to a place outside the city and laid it there as it was, alone and uncovered according to their traditional custom, as refuse for dogs and horrible carrion".[6][9]

Towers are a much later invention and are first documented in the early 9th century CE.[10] The funerary ritual customs surrounding that practice appear to date to the Sassanid era (3rd–7th CE). They are known in detail from the supplement to the Shayest ne Shayest, the two Rivayat collections, and the two Saddars.

One of the earliest literary descriptions of such a building appears in the late 9th-century Epistles of Manushchihr, where the technical term is astodan, 'ossuary'. Another term that appears in the 9th- to 10th-century texts of Zoroastrian tradition (the so-called "Pahlavi books") is dakhmag; in its earliest usage, it referred to any place for the dead.


The doctrinal rationale for exposure is to avoid contact with earth, water, or fire, all three of which are considered sacred in the Zoroastrian religion.[2][3]

Zoroastrian tradition considers human cadavers and animal corpses (in addition to cut hair and nail parings) to be nasu, i.e. unclean, polluting.[1][2][3] Specifically, Nasu the corpse demon (daeva), is believed to rush into the body and contaminate everything it comes into contact with.[3][11] For this reason, the Vīdēvdād (an ecclesiastical code whose title means, 'given against the demons') has rules for disposing of the dead as safely as possible.[1] Moreover, the Vīdēvdād requires that graves, and raised tombs as well, must be destroyed.[1][10]

To preclude the pollution of the sacred elements: earth (zām), water (āpas), and fire (ātar), the bodies of the dead are placed at the top of towers and there exposed to the sun and to scavenging birds and necrophagous animals such as wild dogs.[1][2][3] Thus, as an early-20th-century Secretary of the Mumbai Parsi community explained: "putrefaction with all its concomitant evils... is most effectually prevented."[12]

In current times[edit]

Structure and process[edit]

Modern-day towers, which are fairly uniform in their construction, have an almost flat roof, with the perimeter being slightly higher than the centre. The roof is divided into three concentric rings: the bodies of men are arranged around the outer ring, women in the second ring, and children in the innermost ring. The ritual precinct may be entered only by a special class of pallbearers, called nusessalars, from the Avestan: nasa a salar, consisting of the word elements, -salar ('caretaker') and nasa- ('pollutants').

Once the bones have been bleached by the sun and wind, which can take as long as a year, they are collected in an ossuary pit at the centre of the tower, where—assisted by lime—they gradually disintegrate, and the remaining material, along with rainwater run-off, seeps through multiple coal and sand filters before being eventually washed out to sea.[13][14]

The precipitous decline in the vulture population in India due to poisoning has led the Parsi community to explore alternatives to standard dakhmas.[15]


Yazd Tower of Silence, Iran. The building is no longer in use.
An early 20th century photograph of an Iranian tower of silence
The central pit of the (now-defunct) Yazd Tower of Silence, Iran

In the Iranian Zoroastrian tradition, the towers were built atop hills or low mountains in locations distant from population centres. In the early 20th century, Iranian Zoroastrians gradually discontinued their use and began to favour burial or cremation.[16]

The decision to change the system was accelerated by three considerations: the first problem arose with the establishment of the Dar ul-Funun medical school. Since Islam considers dissection of corpses as an unnecessary form of mutilation, thus forbidding it,[17] there were no corpses for study available through official channels. The towers were repeatedly broken into, much to the dismay of the Zoroastrian community.[citation needed] Secondly, while the towers had been built away from population centres, the growth of the towns led to the towers now being within city limits.[16] Finally, many of the Zoroastrians found the system outdated.[16] Following long negotiations between the anjuman societies of Yazd, Kerman, and Tehran, the latter gained a majority and established a cemetery some 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) from Tehran at Ghassr-e Firouzeh (Firouzeh's Palace). The graves were lined with rocks and plastered with cement to prevent direct contact with the earth. In Yazd and Kerman, in addition to cemeteries, orthodox Zoroastrians continued to maintain a tower until the Iranian revolution of 1979, when ritual exposure was prohibited by law.[citation needed]


A late-19th-century engraving of a Zoroastrian Tower of Silence in Mumbai

Following the rapid expansion of the Indian cities, the squat buildings are today in or near population centres, but separated from the metropolitan bustle by gardens or forests. In Parsi Zoroastrian tradition, exposure of the dead is also considered to be an individual's final act of charity, providing the birds with what would otherwise be destroyed.

In the late 20th century and early 21st century the vulture population on the Indian subcontinent declined (see Indian vulture crisis) by over 97% as of 2008, primarily due to diclofenac poisoning of the birds following the introduction of that drug for livestock in the 1990s,[18][19] until banned for cattle by the Government of India in 2006. The few surviving birds are often unable to fully consume the bodies.[20] In 2001, Parsi communities in India were evaluating captive breeding of vultures and the use of "solar concentrators" (which are essentially large mirrors) to accelerate decomposition.[21] Some have been forced to resort to burial, as the solar collectors work only in clear weather. Vultures used to dispose of a body in minutes, and no other method has proved fully effective.

The right to use the Towers of Silence is a much-debated issue among the Parsi community. The facilities are usually managed by the anjumans, the predominantly conservative local Zoroastrian associations. These usually having five priests on a nine-member board. In accordance with Indian statutes, these associations have domestic authority over trust properties and have the right to grant or restrict entry and use, with the result that the associations frequently prohibit the use by the offspring of a "mixed marriage", that is, where one parent is a Parsi and the other is not.[22]

The towers remain in use as sacred locations for the Parsi community,[23] though non-members may not enter them.[24] In Mumbai visitors are shown a model of a tower. Organized tours can be taken to the site.[25][26]

Architectural and functional features[edit]

  • The towers are uniform in their construction.
  • The roof of the tower is lower in the middle than the outer and is divided into three concentric circles.
  • The dead bodies are placed on stone beds on the roof of the tower and there is a central ossuary pit, into which the bodies fall after being eaten by vultures.
  • The bodies disintegrate naturally assisted with lime and the remaining is washed off by rainwater into multiple filters of coal and sand, finally reaching the sea.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Russell, James R. (1 January 2000). "BURIAL iii. In Zoroastrianism". Encyclopædia Iranica. Vol. IV/6. New York: Columbia University. pp. 561–563. ISSN 2330-4804. Archived from the original on 17 May 2013. Retrieved 28 April 2021.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Huff, Dietrich (2004). "Archaeological Evidence of Zoroastrian Funerary Practices". In Stausberg, Michael (ed.). Zoroastrian Rituals in Context. Numen Book Series. Vol. 102. Leiden: Brill Publishers. pp. 593–630. doi:10.1163/9789047412502_027. ISBN 90-04-13131-0. ISSN 0169-8834. LCCN 2003055913.
  3. ^ a b c d e Malandra, W. W. (2013). "Iran". In Spaeth, Barbette Stanley (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Mediterranean Religions. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 122. doi:10.1017/CCO9781139047784.009. ISBN 978-0-521-11396-0. LCCN 2012049271.
  4. ^ Stausberg, Michael (2004). "Bestattungsanlagen". Die Religion Zarathushtras: Geschichte, Gegenwart, Rituale. Vol. 3. Stuttgart: Verlag W. Kohlhammer. pp. 204–245. ISBN 978-3170171206.
  5. ^ "Herodotus iii. Defining the Persians". Encyclopaedia Iranica (online ed.). Archived from the original on 29 January 2019. Retrieved 24 January 2019.
  6. ^ a b Encyclopaedia Iranica, edited by Ehsan Yar-Shater, Routledge & Kegan Paul Volume 6, Parts 1–3, p. 281a.
  7. ^ Grenet, Frantz (January 2000). "BURIAL ii. Remnants of Burial Practices in Ancient Iran". Encyclopaedia Iranica. Vol. IV. pp. 559–561. Fasc. 5–6.
  8. ^ Falk, Harry (1989), "Soma I and II", Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 52 (1): 77–90, doi:10.1017/s0041977x00023077, S2CID 146512196
  9. ^ Boyce, Mary (October 31, 2011) [First published 15 December 1993]. "CORPSE, disposal of, in Zoroastrianism". Encyclopaedia Iranica. Vol. VI. pp. 279–286. Fasc. 3. Agathias described at second hand the disposal of the body of the Persian general Mihr-Mihrōē, who died in 555: 'Then the attendants of Mihr-Mihrōē took up his body and removed it to a place outside the city and laid it there as it was, alone and uncovered according to their traditional custom, as refuse for dogs and horrible carrion birds' 
  10. ^ a b Boyce, Mary (1975). "The Zoroastrian Funeral Rites". A history of Zoroastrianism: Early period. Vol. 1. Leiden: Brill. pp. 156–165, 325–330. doi:10.1163/9789004294004_014. ISBN 9789004294004.
  11. ^ Brodd, Jeffrey (2003). World Religions. Winona, MN, USA: Saint Mary's Press. ISBN 978-0-88489-725-5.
  12. ^ Modi, Jivanji Jamshedji Modi (1928), The Funeral Ceremonies of the Parsees, Anthropological Society of Mumbai, archived from the original on 2005-02-07, retrieved 2005-09-09
    • Here, Modi is quoting from a "short description of the tower with a plan as given by Mr. Nusserwanjee Byrawjee, the late energetic Secretary of the public charity funds and properties of the Parsi community."
  13. ^ Sunavala, Nergish (28 October 2014). "Defunct Tower of Silence lives on in the heart of an Andheri residential colony". The Times of India. Retrieved 1 May 2022.
  14. ^ Modi, Jivanji Jamshedji Modi (1928), The Funeral Ceremonies of the Parsees, Anthropological Society of Mumbai, archived from the original on 2005-02-07, retrieved 2005-09-09
  15. ^ Gulzeb, Sonia (2024-05-04). "'Our culture is dying': vulture shortage threatens Zoroastrian burial rites". Pakistan. The Guardian. Guardian Media Group. ISSN 1756-3224. OCLC 60623878. Retrieved 2024-05-19.
  16. ^ a b c Boyce, Mary (1979), Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, London: Routledge, pp. 221–222
  17. ^ Aramesh, Kiarash (30 May 2009). "The Ownership of Human Body: An Islamic Perspective". Journal of Medical Ethics and History of Medicine. 2: 4. PMC 3713940. PMID 23908718.
  18. ^ Tait, Malcolm (10 October 2004). "India's vulture population is facing catastrophic collapse and with it the sacrosanct corporeal passing of the Parsi dead". The Ecologist. Archived from the original on 27 September 2007.
  19. ^ Adam, David (31 January 2006). "Cattle drug blamed as India's vultures near extinction". The Guardian.
  20. ^ Swan, Gerry; Naidoo, Vinasan; Cuthbert, Richard; et al. (January 2006). "Removing the threat of diclofenac to critically endangered Asian vultures". PLOS Biology. 4 (3): e66. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0040066. PMC 1351921. PMID 16435886.
  21. ^ Srivastava, Sanjeev (18 July 2001), "Parsis turn to solar power", BBC News South Asia, archived from the original on 30 June 2006, retrieved 9 September 2005
  22. ^ Palsetia, Jesse S. (2001). "Epilogue: Identity and the Present-Day Parsis". The Parsis of India: Preservation of identity in Bombay city. Leiden: Brill. pp. 320–337. ISBN 9789004491274.
  23. ^ "My Visit To The Tower Of Silence Helped Me Come To Terms With Death". Archived from the original on 2021-01-26. Retrieved 2020-12-09.
  24. ^ Tower of Silence, Sky Burial and Birds of Prey
  25. ^ "Citizen groups oppose heritage tour of Parsi Tower of Silence". Hindustan Times. New Delhi, India: HT Digital Streams Ltd. 10 December 2016.
  26. ^ "Protests don't hinder heritage walk at Tower of Silence". Hindustan Times. 12 December 2016.

Further reading[edit]