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A Zoroastrian Tapestry

The Zoroastrians are the followers of the Iranian Prophet Spitaman Zarathustra, who lived in the Iranian homeland of Airyanem Vaejah c.1200 BCE. In the Tenth Century CE, a small group of Zoroastrians originally from the province of Khorasan landed onthe western coast of India and were given sanctuary by the Hindu king Jadi Rana. In time, the Parsis, as they came to be known, settled in enclaves along the western coast of India. They migrated to Bombay in the 17th Century at the invitation of the East India Company, where they prospered as agents of social change. Exclusive extracts from a volume just published that gives a glimpse of the life and times of the Zoroastrian people in Iran and India as manifested in their art, religion and cul


Four corpse bearers, nasasalars, carry the body of a deceased on a bier to the Towers of Silence. On the right are the gates through which the body is carried to its final resting place in the dakhma. Photograph courtesy: Jamshed Marzban photographic archives.

Evolution of the Towers of Silence and their Significance

ZOROASTRIANISM as a religion and a way of life places an importance on maintaining the sacredness of the creations and all natural elements. Pollution of the creations is seen as an act of the Evil Spirit and man is enjoined in the sacred texts not to pollute or defile the creations of sky, water, earth, plant, animal, man, and fire. In Zoroastrian doctrine, contact with any dead matter, specially a corpse, causes defilement not just of the elements, but also of the body and soul. Thus over the centuries, a method was evolved which reduced the time taken for decomposition and the total disintegration of organic matter, as sought by the religion.

It is generally acknowledged that the Indo-Iranians followed the practice of burial. After the first millennium BCE, this was replaced by the exposure method, with bones of the deceased being interred. The presence of astodans or ossuaries in Central Asia and Eastern Iran attest to the earliest use of exposure as a preferred mode for disposal of the corpse. In ancient times this was done by carrying the body to a high hilltop, leaving it bare for nature's scavengers to feed on. The arms and legs were firmly clamped to the ground, to prevent the body from being dragged towards any life-form, vegetation, water body or human settlements, lest they be defiled. The term, known in Pahlavi as Khurshed nigerishn, literally means "beholding by the sun". This is still very much in practice today, for it is believed that the sun path lead to heaven.

Zoroastrians believe that the sun, with its life-giving quality, has the powerful effect of destroying pollutants and disintegrating the flesh.

After exposure to the sun and once the vultures have stripped the body of its flesh, the skeletal remains were collected and placed in stone ossuaries by the early Iranians and later laid within specially erected structures ...

Iranian royalty, however, followed a system of embalming the body and laying it in a tomb chamber constructed on a free-standing stone plinth like that of Cyrus' tomb, at Pasargadae, or cut into a rock face as seen at Takht-i Jamshed and Naqsh-i Rustam. These were massive rock escarpments, which were cut into, to form the final resting place of the kings of Iran ...

In Bombay, upon entering the complex, the first set of buildings one approaches are the bunglis. These are single-storeyed buildings designed to reflect a domestic scale. There are usually three to four bunglis grouped together in a cluster. Each bungli being a unit on its own allows one the privacy required during the period of mourning and yet the clustering is symbolic of sympathy and an understanding that others do share a similar loss. The bungli consists of a large hall, a bedroom with an attached bathroom, kitchen facilities, and a dining room. In addition, it incorporates a separate ritual bathing room with a stone platform upon which the corpse is laid. It is here that the body is given a ritual bath with well water and gaomez ...

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The bunglis or pavilions at the Tower of Silence complex, Bombay. Here the corpse is bathed in preparation for the rituals associated with death. The bungli has rooms for mourners to reside for the first four days after death. Photograph courtesy: Parsiana

THE funeral ceremony (geh sarnu) is performed within the main hall of the bungli. After the funeral ceremony, the body is carried on an iron bier on foot to the tower, by an even number of corpse bearers (nasasalars). The two officiating priests lead the procession of family and friends, all walking, in pairs to maintain ritual contact (paiwand), towards the tower, to pay their last respects to the deceased. Only Zoroastrians are permitted to participate in this ritual procession. The approach to the tower is from a small clearing, usually within dense vegetation. Here on a marble platform, the body is placed for the final sagdid ritual, after which the corpse bearers carry the corpse into the tower.

The bungli is a fairly recent addition to the Doongerwadi complex, having been instituted as late as the 1920s, in Bombay. Prior to this, the Parsis had a room, or part of the house set aside for ceremonies related to the afterlife. For the poor, a house in each residential area was exclusively set aside for the same purpose. This was known as a nasa-khana, the house for receiving dead bodies.

With the expansion of cities, it became increasingly difficult to carry the body for long distances on foot to the site of a tower, while still maintaining laws of ritual purity. With the onset of high-rise structures, the requirement of having to perform all ceremonies on the ground floor, was difficult to conform to, and it became ...

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Since it is essential to sustain birds of prey in the functioning of the Towers of Silence, it becomes important in urban areas to maintain densely forested land. In India, the dense foliage associated with the Doongerwadi complex creates an atmosphere of serenity and tranquillity, affording the mourner the comfort of silence that nature proffers . The mandatory stay of four days at the complex permits one to come to terms with the loss of a loved one, without having to concern oneself with daily affairs. The precise design and structure of a Zoroastrian dakhma amply prevents pollution or any dead matter from afflicting the Good Creations of Ahura Mazda and is also symbolic of the triumph of Good over Evil.

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Protecting the physical world Death, the negation of life


The sacred fire in the inner sanctum of the Bhika Behram Atash Kadeh in Tehran. The three-legged metal stand near the fire vase holds the wood offerings, tong and flat ladle, used during the fire service. According to the practice followed in Iran, an oil lamp is also kept burning in the inner sanctum. Photograph: Khojeste Mistree.

DEATH, in Zoroastrianism, is seen as the temporary triumph of the Evil Spirit Ahriman whose inherent nature, according to the Good Religion, is to cause destruction in the physical world.

In the Greater Bundahishn, it is stated: "Thereupon, the evil spirit spoke: `I shall not bring help unto thy creatures, nor shall I offer praise; I will (rather) destroy (Thee) and Thy creatures — too, upto eternity... ' " Kotwal and Boyd define evil as being distinct from the Good Spirit.

"In the personalised language of Zoroastrian theology, this source is called the hostile spirit, Angra Mainyu, who is by nature `full of death' (Av. pouru.mahrka-) and through his demonic hordes seeks to destroy the divine order." In another Pahlavi text, it is stated: "Smitten decayed... defeated and cursed may he be, the accursed Destructive Spirit — not knowing... and full of death."

Death, the negation of life, is the maleficent work of the corpse demon (nasu), who, "... owing to its violence when it becomes triumphant over the life of the righteous man, ... and puts itself into the place of the body, that body is then, for that reason, called nasai (`dead matter')."

It is for this reason, that Zoroastrianism demands of its adherents, a strict religious protocol for the disposal of the dead. Hence, cremation of the body is seen as an un-Zoroastrian act as it desecrates the fire. Burying the body, is seen as defiling the earth and drowning the body, is deemed to sully the waters. In the absence of a dakhma, burial as a mode of disposal has been in use.

However, precautions are taken to prevent contact of the body with mother earth.

As Zoroastrianism lays great emphasis on the laws of purity and the sacredness of the seven creations, the preferred disposal mode, as per the sacred texts is that of exposure. The corpse is placed in a tall circular tower called a dakhma (Tower of Silence), and exposed to the sky. Vultures and other birds of prey devour the body quickly and efficiently.

This method of disposal is seen as an egalitarian gesture. Whether one is rich or poor, the disposal method is exactly the same. In the absence of birds of prey the body continues to be exposed to the cleansing rays of the sun (Per. Khurshed nigerishn) which are powerful enough to swiftly dry and decompose the corpse and the bones are swept into the central well of the dakhma...

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A Zoroastrian priest prays before the tables set with muktad vases. Each vase is in memory of a deceased member of the family. Photograph: Homyar Mistry, Homz Prints.

HOWEVER, the soul of every Zoroastrian goes through the process of judgement at the "Bridge of the Separator" (Av. Chinvato Peretav). By the measure of its good thoughts, words and deeds outweighing its bad thoughts, words and deeds, the soul is drawn to the "House of Song" (Av. Garo-demana). If the soul is responsible for greater evil than good, it relegates itself to the "House of Deceit" (Av. Drujo-demana). "Heavenliness shall be the future possession of him who shall come to a truthful person (now). (But) a long lifetime of darkness, foul food, the word woe... lead you, ye deceitful ones."

The after-life ceremonies reflect the doctrinal principals of the faith and the laws of purity are strictly adhered to, as any form of impurity is allied to the Evil Spirit. Hence, after the ritual bath (Guj. sachkar) is administered to the corpse, no person, except the nasalars (corpse-bearers) are allowed to touch the corpse for reasons of ritual contamination. All the prayers and rituals are geared and directed to keep at bay the corpse demon, which attacks the body. The body is placed upon three flat stone slabs, for the funeral ceremony, and a rectangular shallow line of sand is laid around it to cordon it off, ritually from the living attending the funeral ceremony.

The funeral ceremony in Gujarati is known as the geh sarnu, and is accompanied by the chanting of the Gathas. When the Ahunavaiti Gatha is recited, two priests in paiwand, that is, connected to each other by a white strip of cloth, stand three paces away from the corpse. The two nasasalars, who sit near the body, are also in paiwand, connected to each other, by an old kusti held in their hands. This connection is important as the ritual strength of two human beings is deemed to be greater than the pollution and contamination of the demons who are said to surround the body and cause it to putrefy.

Halfway through the ritual at Yasna 31.4, a special dog is brought to cast its `sensing' eyes upon the corpse. This part of the ceremony is known in Persian as the sagdid (being seen by a dog). These dogs are specially kept at the Towers of Silence complex and are chosen for ritual use, as they have two identical marks (seen as eyes) above their actual eyes. This is said to give them the added strength to ward off...

The soul of a Zoroastrian, is judged at the Bridge of the Separator, at the dawn of the fourth morning after death. The fate of the soul is decided depending upon the life it has led in this world weighed by all the good and bad, thoughts words, and deeds. The conscience (Av. Daena) comes in the form of a beautiful maiden to greet the soul, if it is potentially good, or the conscience comes in the form of an old and ugly hag if the soul is judged to be potentially wicked. The dualistic paradigm is amply reflected in the spiritual world, for the righteous soul glides into the "House of Song," while the wicked soul falls into the abyss of hell, "House of Deceit."

The soul is said to remain in either heaven or hell ... .

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The well in the prayer room. A fire is kept burning in the small brazier on the left during the funeral ceremonies. Candles are left as votive offerings along with herbs, freshly fried siroog and sprigs of the cypress tree. Photograph: Firoza Punthakey Mistree.

AFTER this, the saoshyant (messiah) will appear and the Last Judgment followed by the Resurrection will take place, when the physical world will be restored to a perfect state. As Zoroastrian eschatology promotes the belief in a universal resurrection, there is no place for the theory of reincarnation, which is incompatible with the beliefs and practices of the Zoroastrian tradition.

Every year, the souls and spirits of the departed Zoroastrians are invited back for a 10-day festival. (Av. Hamaspathmaedaya, Guj. Muktad) which immediately precedes the Zoroastrian New Year . A room in the fire temple or at home is set aside for the muktad ceremony, in which tables with vases of flowers are placed. A fire is kept burning for all 10 days of the festival and special food is cooked for ritual use. For the first five days, the yasna ceremony in honour of the Yazatas Srosh and Ardafravash is performed together with the baj of Srosh and Ardafravash. During the last five days of the year, known as the Gatha days, the Gathas are recited. During muktads, the stum, baj, darun, myazd, farokshi and afrinagan ceremonies associated with the soul of the dead are performed with regularity . It is believed that the fravashis of the dead rejoice in this celebration and for 10 days are said to come down to earth to participate in the ceremonies performed in their honour: "We worship the good, strong, beneficent fravashis of the righteous who come flying along from their home at the time of Hamaspathmaedaya (Muktads); ... for 10 nights desiring to know this: "Who will praise us, ... who will acknowledge us with hands outstretched holding meat the clothing with asha-attaining worship'?" On the tenth day the fravashis are ritually sent back into the spiritual world and the vases are emptied and inverted to signify the end of the festival. The tenth day is also known as Pateti. It is the last day of the Zoroastrian year and is a day set aside for the repentance of sins. The next day is celebrated as the Parsi New Year. The muktads are performed in honour of the dead for at least one generation.

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A Zoroastrian Tapestry, Art, Religion and Culture, Edited by Pheroza J. Godrej and Firoza Punthakey Mistree, Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., 2002, p.762, Rs. 7,500.

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