CO-WRITTEN WITH DAVID KLEIN
Ahmedabad’s tiny Zoroastrian community has a plan to restore vultures to the area, to help with their traditional funerary practices
AHMEDABAD – With its nine species of vultures all under threat of extinction, India is the middle of something of a “vulture crisis.” By the end of 2016, there were only an estimated 999 of the birds left in the western state of Gujarat, according to the Gujarat Ecological Educational Research Foundation.
With vultures down to a countable number, even a few accidental deaths are worrying. One small contributor to vulture mortality is the annual festival of Uttarayan, a time when tens of thousands of kites are set aloft in a day of fun, devotion and sport. The festival, held in January, is symbolic – the kites represent the gods awakening from their winter slumber – but is also deadly for many birds. Kite enthusiasts cover their strings in powdered glass, so they’ll be sharp enough to slash through others’ during mid-air “kite fights.”
Like so many of the the kites, many of the vultures that get in the way will never fly again.
India’s vulture population has been decimated by decades of being poisoned by the drug diclofenac, often given to cows as an anti-inflammatory. As beef is banned for human consumption in much of India, the cows’ carcasses are usually left to the vultures. In these high concentrations, the drug is lethal to the birds. Despite a 2006 diclofenac ban, three vulture species are on the brink of extinction.
The vulture crisis has had particularly challenging consequences for the country’s tiny Zoroastrian community, also known as Parsis. While Hindus burn their dead and Muslims bury them, Zoroastrians maintain a unique practice, known as Dokhmenashini or “sky burial.” The dead are placed on so-called Towers of Silence, squat cylindrical buildings that look like grain silos, where their corpses are picked dry by vultures and other birds of prey, until nothing but the bones remain. These are dissolved in quicklime and leech into the soil.
“The basic philosophy is charity,” said Brigadier J.P. Anklesaria. “Once the soul has departed, the mortal remains are of no use to anybody – so let it be of use to another living being.” Now retired, he is a leader in Ahmedabad’s Parsi community.
Just 30 years ago, there were over 80 million vultures in India – more than enough to take care of the funerary needs of the country’s 60,000 Parsis. Today, though, the number of vultures nationwide has fallen into the thousands. Other birds, like ibises, will do the job, Anklesaria says, but they are no match for vultures, who can strip a body down in a matter of hours.
“If a vulture weighs 30 kilos or 20 kilos, at any given time it can eat up to 40 kilos,” Anklesaria said, as he sat with the local priest Vistasp Dastur in the mortuary room next to the Towers. “It can eat so much it can hardly walk. So, if you have five or seven of such birds… one body will be finished in a few hours.”
Without vultures, bodies take far longer to be disposed of, which creates both a religious and public health issue. To try to solve this, many Zoroastrian communities, including Ahmedabad’s, have installed solar collectors, which help the sun dry out the body faster. These will only work, however, in warm, clear weather.
Anklesaria, sporting a large white moustache, describes himself as a hardcore carnivore, starting each day with four or five eggs. He drives a square white car with the word ‘ARMY’ emblazoned on its windshield.
He has a plan, and, when he describes it, speaks and moves with military efficiency. Rather than letting Uttarayan contribute in its own small way to vulture decline, he hopes to take in half a dozen of the inevitably injured birds after next year’s festival and keep them in semi-captivity near the Towers of Silence. There’s fundraising still to do, but he’s optimistic.
As Ahmedabad’s Zoroastrian community barely numbers 1,500, the dead won’t be enough to feed the birds. Usually, he says, only about two Parsis die each month – the rest of the time, the birds will have to be fed with meat, funded by the local community.
He isn’t the first to come up with such an idea. In 2012, the New York Times reported that Parsi leaders in Mumbai, home to India’s largest Parsi community, were planning on building two large aviaries around their Towers of Silence that would house 76 vultures each.
Sheltering the birds is only one part of that plan. Ahmedabad’s three Towers of Silence sit atop a sandy hill in a neighborhood called Jashoda Nagar on the outskirts of town. The most commonly used tower was built in 1929; the second, now defunct tower, dates from 1843. At the edge of the area is a third, reserved for children who die before their Navjote, an induction ceremony into the Parsi community, or for adults who die “unnaturally” – through suicide, in childbirth or while menstruating. On a tour around the towers, Anklesaria strides through the area confidently, but steers clear of that third structure.
Anklesaria hopes to turn the scrubby lot into a public park. Already, trees are being planted and man-made lakes dug into the sand. Peacocks flap about the Towers and the purple bougainvillea flowers are in full bloom. Wealthier Parsis subsidize low-cost housing in the area for poorer Zoroastrians. Anklesaria hopes they will come to see the area not as a barren wasteland, but a tranquil recreation spot.
More importantly, though, he wants it to be fit for avian habitation. “The purpose of having such a big area,” Ankelasaria says, gesturing proudly at the property, “is so that the birds will come back.”
The vultures’ demise has also seen a decline in sky burials. Many more secular Parsis are instead choosing to be cremated, like the majority of Indians. For more traditional Parsis, this is a horrifying development. Fire is a sacred element to Zoroastrians, and the vessel through which worshippers experience the divine presence of Ahura Mazda, the Uncreated Spirit, the god of good and truth in Zoroastrianism. To place a corpse, seen as the height of ritual impurity, onto a pyre would be the ultimate sacrilege.
While Ankelasaria, who is married to a Christian woman, is non-judgmental about those who favor cremation, he expresses a clear preference for sky burial when his time comes. “Of course I will,” he says, squinting at the Tower in the late afternoon sun.
Now in his sixties, that day is hopefully a long way off. Far more worrying is the likelihood Ahmedabad’s Parsis might soon die out altogether. Ankelasaria estimates that they may have less than 50 years left. Birth rates are low, and dropping, and many young Zoroastrians are put off by the religion’s esoteric rules and regulations, which prohibit women from marrying outside of the faith.As the number of vultures dips lower and lower, so too does the number of Zoroastrians – and it’s hard to know which flame will be extinguished first.