The Parsis are a religious minority in India that follows the Zoroastrian faith. The community that came to India from Iran in the 8th and 9th centuries to escape religious persecution, follows many unique religious traditions. However, it is their funeral rites that are the most intriguing.

According to their religious practice, the deceased are not burnt or buried but kept at a high-rise “Tower of Silence” to be consumed by scavengers, especially vultures.

“Once the soul leaves the body it is no longer useful and is considered to be impure,” said Dr. Shernaz Cama, director of UNESCO Parzor (a project that records the living history of the Parsi-Zoroastrians) and Executive Council Head of Parzor Foundation. “So we offer the dead body back to nature for a “sky burial.”

This practice depends on vultures to dispose off the body effectively; but a rapid decrease in the number of the birds in India has led to concern among members of the Parsi community.

“There are hardly any vultures left in the entire country so following our tradition is becoming increasingly difficult as the corpse does not get decomposed within the specified time,” she said. “Some towers have installed solar concentrators to focus heat on the body to dehydrate it faster.”

These man-made alternatives have helped somewhat but have not completely resolved the problem, which began in the 1980s, when the vulture population started disappearing from the country.

Forty years ago, there were 40 million vultures in India, but since the past 15 years, there has been a staggering 99.9% decline in some major species of vultures. India hosts nine species of vultures, and out of them four are critically endangered.

“The single most important reason for vultures dying in such large numbers is the drug known as Diclofenac, which is given to cattle of India,” said Biswajit Roychowdhury, secretary of Nature Environment and Wildlife Society, Kolkata. “After feeding on cattle carcasses they suffer from a disease called ‘head-drooping’, and their kidneys fails to function. Their numbers are also reducing due to an increase in urbanization. The landfills were carcass of animals were thrown are also vanishing from the urban areas of the country, hence they are not getting sufficient foods.”

The White-rumped vultures, Long-billed vultures, King vultures and Slender billed vultures have been termed “critically endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an apex body for all wildlife and natural ecological research.

“The ‘red-list’ released by IUCN suggests that these vultures are very low in numbers and might get extinct soon,” Roychowdhury said to Zenger News. “The other two species, Griffon vulture and Himalayan vulture, live at high altitudes and do not feed on drugged cattle, hence they are not endangered.”

In 2006, the Indian government reacted quickly to the responses of IUCN and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and banned the Diclofenac for veterinary use. That has led to a marginal increase in the number of vultures in the country. Now India has 6000 white rumped vultures, 30000 long-billed vultures, 1200 slender billed vultures, and very few king vultures for which no accurate estimation is available.

Chris Bowden, SAVE Programme manager of RSPB, claimed that illegal use of Diclofenac still persists in India but it is mostly used in humans and a small percentage is used in cattle.

“There are other drugs too, which are unsafe for the vultures, but nothing affects the birds like Diclofenac,” he said. “The vultures cannot metabolize the drug, and hence it ends up causing uric acid deposits in the visceral organs, and around the liver and kidneys, which ultimately leads to liver and kidney failure.”

A painting inside the Zoroastrian Fire Temple in Kolkata. Photo: Ashok Nath Dey

RSPB and Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) combined and made a project named Indian Bird Conservation Network (IBCN) to preserve the critically endangered species. Several vultures have released into the wild with transmitters fitted in their body, and are continuously being monitored.

“We have 600 birds in captivity, and we are breeding them successfully. Though numbers are increasing, we are battling against extinction,” Bowden said to Zenger News.

Diminishing vultures are not the only problems plaguing Zoroastrians in India. The Parsi community has been decreasing at the rate of 10 percent with every census in India.

“We have very low births and the world’s largest population in the 65-plus category,” said Cama. “Few marriages and low fertility is the main cause why our community is declining this fast. One out of three Zoroastrians in India is not married, hence 30% have no children.”

In the last five years there has been 280 births in the community, said Cama. In 2011, the count of Zoroastrians in India stood at 57,624. In 2016, the population of Zoroastrians in the world was 89,000-90,000.

“A mixture of modernity, inter-faith marriage and migration, which often causes a detachment from faith and tradition, has led to a decline of the Parsi population,” Cama said. “Thankfully, in the diaspora there is an attempt to revive our community and its traditions.”

(Edited by Sid Roy and Anindita Ghosh. Map by Urvashi Makwana)

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