You may remember photos of the Tibetan Sky Burial we had featured on Best Gore earlier. While the idea behind the Tower of Silence is very similar, it is not the same. People who live on the rocky slopes of the Himalayas don’t have an option of digging up graves and the philosophy by which they live favors the recycling of life – one life ends so another can be sustained. The Tower of Silence and the Parsi Sky Burial ritual on the other hand are based on the Zoroastrianism principle that the elements of earth, fire and water must remain pure, not defiled by decomposing human corpses.
Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest monotheistic religions in the world. Prophet Zoroaster was the first to introduce the concepts of heaven and hell, resurrection, final judgment, and God vs Satan. For the Zoroastrians, more commonly known as the Parsi people or Parsis, the principles of purification, segregation and sanitation in burial rituals are paramount.
The Parsis consider human bodies unclean. To them, contamination of the earth with any part of it, including nail clippings or cut hair is blasphemous.
In ancient Iran (Persia), birthplace of Zoroastrianism, mountaintop structures were built in order to accommodate proper disposal of corpses. Within these structures, named Dakhmas (دخمه in Persian), the living would deposit the dead so vultures or other large voracious birds can eat their flesh and sinews. Bare skeletons would be left exposed to the sun until thoroughly bleached and the bones then stored in central ossuary of the Tower of Silence.
The English name of the structure – Tower of Silence is not a literal translation of the word Dakhma, but a neologism coined by early 19th century British translator to India Robert Murphy.
Due to the wide spread encroachment of Islam, Zoroastrianism is no longer practised in Iran (only by a handful of remaining Parsis). As a result, the Iranian Towers of Silence fell into ruin. There is however a healthy population of Parsis in India who erected their own Towers of Silence (Dakhmas) and honor the ancient burial rituals the way it is taught by their religion.
A Tower of Silence consists of three separate concentric circles – one for men, one for women and one for children. Corpses of the deceased are left exposed in the correct circle for a year. That is usually enough time for vultures to eat all the soft parts and the sun to bleach the bones. A system of multiple coal and sand filters ensures that run-off rainwater doesn’t contaminate the Earth with residual biological matter.
An avid traveler could still come across the Towers of Silence today, however access is limited strictly to the practitioners of Zoroastrianism only. There are three Dakhmas within a 55 acre forested area of Malabar Hill in South Mumbai, India (3 gray dots on the Google Maps screenshot in the photo gallery).
Unfortunately, due to aggressive urbanization (India is soon to be the most populous country in the world), the vulture population has severely decreased in India over the past few decades. As a result, an important part of the Parsi sky burial ritual is missing, prompting new generation of Parsis to opt for cremation instead.
Props to Best Gore member Evo for the pics: