Zoroastrian afterlife beliefs and funerary practices

Authored by: Almut Hintze

The Routledge Companion to Death and Dying

Print publication date:  May  2017
Online publication date:  May  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138852075
eBook ISBN: 9781315723747
Adobe ISBN:


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Malabar Hill, in the cosmopolitan city of Mumbai, is today one of the world’s most expensive property markets. And yet the central area of the hillrock peninsula is occupied by the fifty-six-acre walled Zoroastrian funeral grounds, the doongerwadi or ‘garden on the hill’. Administered by the Bombay Parsee Punchayat along with other trust funds of the Parsi community (Desai 1977: 46), the compound comprises a lush park with a rich flora and fauna of over 240 varieties of trees, shrubs and flowers, such as palm trees, Indian sandal wood, Indian cork trees, ebony, white siris, Buddhist Bauhinia, jasmine and mango trees. Flowers and creepers include roses, lilies, oleander, orchids, ixora and bougainvilleas, and there are peafowls, parrots, wild black kites, wood peckers, butterflies and many other animals. The vegetation creates a near forest designed to provide a home for scavenger birds and to six daxmas, or “Towers of Silence”, as they have become known in Europe following an early nineteenth-century rendering by a British colonial government official. Sir Monier Monier-Williams described the scenery as follows:

The view we enjoyed when standing near the principal Sagri [i.e. a small building housing the ritual fire near the Towers] can scarcely be surpassed by any in the world. Beneath us lay the city of Bombay, partially hidden by coconut groves, with its beautiful bay and harbour glittering in the brilliant December light. Beyond stretched the magnificent ranges of the ghauts, while immediately around us extended a garden, such as can only be seen in tropical countries. No English nobleman’s garden could be better kept, and no pen could do justice to the glories of its flowering shrubs, cypresses, and palms. It seemed the very ideal, not only of a place of sacred silence, but of peaceful rest.

(Monier-Williams 1879: 82) Built between 1672 and 1844 (Wadia 2002: 334–335; Kotwal 1995), the daxmas are cylindrical stone structures with tall external walls that are open to the sky. The circumference of the daxma is about 300 feet, large enough for scavenger birds like vultures to swoop in and out. Accessed via a rising ramp leading to a single iron door that is high up in the wall and facing east to catch the rays of the rising sun, the interior is made up of three concentric rows, each divided into open shallow compartments of the size of a human body, the outer for men, the middle one for women and the innermost for children. The three rows slope towards a deep circular central pit which eventually receives the excarnated, dry, bleached bones. The pit’s stone floor has four openings leading to underground channels that allow any water and other fluids to drain away. The channels are equipped with a filter system of thick layers of sand, charcoal and pebbles that ensure that no dead matter comes into direct contact with the earth (Fee 1905: 551–553; Modi 1937: 67–69).

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