The ancient Zoroastrian tradition tells of how human flesh, once dead and decomposing, is so unclean it will pollute everything it touches. Holding the elements of earth and water as inviolably sacred, their religion did not permit the dead to be interred in soil or disposed of in the sea. Fire above all was worshipped as god-given and pure, and burning the dead would be the greatest of desecrations.
|In acts of elaborate ritual the dead would be carted out into the forbidding desert by the nasellars, ritual pallbearers of Zoroastrianism. Far from settlements, they were taken up winding slopes up stark and ragged sandstone hills, to the Towers of Silence.|
A Tower of Silence, known as dakhma in the sacred avestan tongue, is a large, cylindrical structure with a plateau of slabs laid in concentric circles surrounding a center pit. Its sole purpose was to leave dead bodies exposed to the searing desert conditions, though most importantly, to ever-circling, ever-present voracious birds of prey.
Through a peculiar religious loophole, Zoroastrians had found a solution to the problem of the elemental pollution of putrefaction. Men outermost, then women and children, were laid supine in separate circles, leaving animals to feed on the dead at will, and so evading the defilement of earth, water and fire. It was considered to be a person's final act of charity. When after as long as a year nothing remained but sun-bleached skeletons, the nasellar would collect the bones, disposing of them in the vast center ossuary pit, built to hold the bones of thousands.
Unusually, the tradition of burial by exposure is still upheld by modern-day Zoroastrians. While Iranian dakhmas were banned in 1970, parsi Zoroastrians in Mumbai and Karachi still maintain Towers of Silence, though not without difficulty. An assortment of factors have combined to reduce the modern-day population of birds of prey in the region to a mere 0.01% of what it was. Despite modern ventures such as vulture breeding and solar panels to speed up decomposition, without vultures to feed on bodies, the dead are left to rot unattended, offered up to empty skies, in concentric silence.