Tower of Silence

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Interior view of Tower of Silence
Early 20th century drawing of the Tower of Silence on Malabar Hill, Bombay.
The Malabar Hill Tower of Silence today.

A Tower of Silence is a circular, raised structure used by Zoroastrians for exposure of the dead, particularly to scavenging birds for the purposes of excarnation.

Zoroastrian exposure of the dead is first attested in the mid-5th-century BCE Histories of Herodotus, but the use of towers is first documented in early 9th century.[1]:156-162 The doctrinale rationale for exposure is to avoid contact with earth or fire, both of which are considered sacred.

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".[2]:205 Another technical term that appears in the 9th/10th-century texts of Zoroastrian tradition (the so-called Pahlavi books) is dakhmag, for any place for the dead.[2]:206 This Zoroastrian Middle Persian term is a borrowing from Avestan dakhma, of uncertain meaning but related to interment and commonly translated as "grave". In the Avesta, the term is pejorative and does not signify a construction of any kind. In the Iranian provinces of Yazd and Kerman, dakhma continues as deme or dema.[2]:206 Yet another term that appears in the 9th/10th-century texts is dagdah "prescribed place".[2]:206 The word also appears in later Zoroastrian texts of both India and Iran, but in 20th-century India came to signify the lowest grade of temple fire.[2]:206 In India, the term doongerwadi came into use after a tower of silence was constructed on a hill of that name.

The English language term "Tower of Silence" is a neologism attributed to Robert Murphy, an early 19th-century translator of the British colonial government in India.[2]:206

Rationale[edit]

Zoroastrian tradition considers a dead body—in addition to cut hair and nail-parings—to be nasu, unclean, i.e. potential pollutants. Specifically, the corpse demon (Avestan: nasu.daeva) was believed to rush into the body and contaminate everything it came into contact with,[3] hence the Vendidad (an ecclesiastical code "given against the demons") has rules for disposing of the dead as "safely" as possible.

To preclude the pollution of earth or fire (see Zam and Atar respectively), the bodies of the dead are placed atop a tower and so exposed to the sun and to scavenging birds. Thus, "putrefaction with all its concomitant evils... is most effectually prevented."[4]

History[edit]

Zoroastrian ritual exposure of the dead is first known of from the writings of the mid-5th-century BCE Herodotus, who observed the custom amongst Iranian expatriates in Asia Minor. In Herodotus' account (Histories i.140), the rites are said to have been "secret", but 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.[2]:204

While the discovery of ossuaries in both eastern and western Iran dating to the 5th and 4th centuries BCE indicates that bones were isolated, that this separation occurred through ritual exposure cannot be assumed: burial mounds,[5] 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), Zoroaster is himself interred in a tomb at Balkh (in present-day Afghanistan).

Towers are a much later invention, and are first documented in the early 9th century.[1]:156-162 The ritual customs surrounding that practice appear to date to the Sassanid era (3rd – 7th century CE). They are known in detail from the supplement to the Sayest ne Sayest, the two Rivayat collections, and the two Saddars.

Construction[edit]

The central pit of the (now-defunct) tower of silence at Yazd, Iran.

The modern-day towers, which are fairly uniform in their construction, have an almost flat roof, with the perimeter being slightly higher than the center. The roof is divided into three concentric rings: The bodies of men are arranged around the outer ring, women in the second circle, and children in the innermost ring. 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 center of the tower, where – assisted by lime – they gradually disintegrate, and the remaining material – with run-off rainwater – runs through multiple coal and sand filters before being eventually washed out to sea. The ritual precinct may be entered only by a special class of pallbearers, called nasellars, a contraction of nasa.salar, caretaker (-salar) of potential pollutants (nasa-).

In modern times[edit]

In Greater Iran[edit]

Tower of Silence near Yazd, Iran. The building is no longer in use.
An early 20th century photograph of an Iranian Tower of Silence.

In the Iranian Zoroastrian tradition, the towers were built atop hills or low mountains in desert locations distant from population centers. In the early twentieth century, the Iranian Zoroastrians gradually discontinued their use and began to favour burial or cremation.

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 unnecessary dissection of corpses as a form of mutilation, thus forbidding it, there were no corpses for study available through official channels. The towers were repeatedly broken into, much to the dismay and humiliation of the Zoroastrian community. Secondly, while the towers had originally been built away from population centers, the growth of the towns led to the towers now being within city limits. Finally, many of the Zoroastrians themselves found the system outdated. Following extended negotiations between the anjuman societies of Yazd, Kerman, and Tehran, the latter gained a majority and established a cemetery some 10 km 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 1970s when ritual exposure was prohibited by law.

In India[edit]

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 centers, but separated from the metropolitan bustle by gardens or forests. In Parsi Zoroastrian tradition, exposure of the dead is additionally considered to be an individual's final act of charity, providing the birds with what would otherwise be destroyed.

In the several decades of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century the population of birds of prey on the Indian subcontinent declined (see Indian vulture crisis), by 99.9% as of 2008, primarily due to diclofenac poisoning of the birds following the introduction of that drug for livestock in the 1990s,[6] until banned for cattle by the Indian government in 2006. The few surviving birds are often unable to fully consume the bodies.[7] Parsi communities in India are currently evaluating captive breeding of vultures and the use of "solar concentrators" (which are essentially large mirrors) to accelerate decomposition.[8] Some have been forced to resort to burial, as the solar collectors work only in clear weather. Vultures formerly disposed 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 (see Parsi for details). The facilities are usually managed by the anjumans, the predominantly conservative local Zoroastrian associations (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.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b Boyce, Mary (1979), Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, London: Routledge, pp. 156–162 .
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Stausberg, Michael (2004), "Bestattungsanlagen", Die Religion Zarathushtras, vol. 3, Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, pp. 204–245 .
  3. ^ Brodd, Jefferey (2003). World Religions. Winona, MN: Saint Mary's Press. ISBN 978-0-88489-725-5. 
  4. ^ Modi, Jivanji Jamshedji Modi (1928), The Funeral Ceremonies of the Parsees, Anthropological Society of Bombay 
  5. ^ Falk, Harry (1989), "Soma I and II", Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (BSOAS) 52 (1): 77–90, doi:10.1017/s0041977x00023077 
  6. ^ Tait, Malcolm (January 10, 2004), India's vulture population is facing catastrophic collapse and with it the sacrosanct corporeal passing of the Parsi dead, London: The Ecologist 
  7. ^ Swan, Gerry et al. (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 
  8. ^ Srivastava, Sanjeev (18 July 2001), "Parsis turn to solar power", BBC News South Asia 

Further reading[edit]