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Parsis Struggle to Maintain Heritage

From Religion News Service

Soaring above luxury apartments in an exclusive section of Bombay, vultures swoop toward the Parsi Towers of Silence on Malabar Hill. It is time for another “burial” at the “vultures cemetery,” where the Parsis--Indian followers of the ancient faith of Zoroastrianism--refuse to bury their dead.

The Parsis believe fire, earth and water are sacred, so they will not cremate or bury their dead. Instead, the bodies are left on circular stone towers to be picked clean by vultures.

The practice is part of the cultural and religious heritage of Zoroastrianism, which is widely regarded as the world’s oldest form of monotheism. Many of Bombay’s Parsis live in closed colonies cut off from the rest of Indian society.

On Malabar Hill, the towers date from 1673. They are surrounded by an ancient stone path which winds to an inner sanctum, open only to the religious faithful--and the vultures.

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Eight towers dot the hill. The entrance is along a private road surveyed by watchmen who make sure that non-Parsis do not enter. A guard is posted at the inner gate and a sign reads: “Parsis Only Allowed.” Another notice warns: “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted.”

Today, India’s Parsi community is struggling against the tides of modernism, which threaten to erode what time and tradition have built. Intermarriage, declining birth rates, a dwindling priesthood and difficulties adapting ancient traditions to modern circumstances make the future uncertain.

There is debate over whether to continue using the Towers of Silence, driven in part by practical concerns. In some rural areas of western India, where many Parsi farmers live, there no longer are vultures, making the towers impractical.

Such late-20th century concerns are far removed from Zoroastrianism’s early roots.

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The religion stems from the Persian prophet Zoroaster, who lived between 1200 and 1500 BC and defied the polytheistic outlook of his era to proclaim the existence of one God--Ahura Mazda (“Wise Lord”)--and a theology based on a battle between good and evil.

The Zoroastrian emperor Darius the Great (521-486 BC) presided over a kingdom that spread from the Red Sea to Central Europe and into Central Asia, Ethiopia and across North Africa.

Pockets of Zoroastrians can still be found in the former southern Soviet republics. But with the collapse of the Persian Empire, most followers of Zoroastrianism fled to the western India state of Gujarat, north of Bombay, seeking freedom from persecution by Muslims. The name “Parsi” refers to the Indians’ Persian roots.

Through the centuries, the Parsis’ numbers have remained small. Today an estimated 71,000 live in India, more than 50,000 of them in Bombay. Worldwide, there are an estimated 100,000 Zoroastrians, including a small community in Southern California.

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Today, India’s Parsis are seeking to hold onto their heritage in the face of social change sweeping through the community and threatening its very existence.

“There are not enough babies, which is leading to the death of the community,” says Ava Khullar, a Parsi social scientist in Delhi. “There is also an unusually high number of Parsi bachelors and spinsters.

“The rapid decline in Parsis is a socioeconomic phenomenon linked to the fact that the community is progressive, Westernized and has a modern outlook,” Khullar said.

Many fear that because of the group’s low fertility rate, the religion is in danger of becoming extinct. The waning Parsi priesthood reflects the problem. Last century, there were thousands of full-time clergy in Bombay. Now the number has fallen below 200, and there are few full-time priests elsewhere, said Dr. Ramiyar Karanjia, principal of one of two Parsi seminaries in Bombay--the only ones of their kind in the world.

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