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‘It is about journey of soul’ — Parsis seek exemption, want Covid funerals on their terms

Surat Parsi Punchayet has petitioned SC to permit Parsi last rites for Covid victims. Protocol only allows burial & cremation. A look at the pandemic's impact on the community.

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New Delhi: As the second wave of the pandemic wrought tragedy across India in April, one home baker in Mumbai lost his entire family to Covid. While his father and brother succumbed to the disease, his mother died of post-Covid complications soon after.

“I was in hospital when my father and brother died, also battling Covid. I could not perform the last rites for them. My extended family did the best they could and they were both cremated,” said the 32-year old.

Had his father had his way, however, he would have wanted his last rites to be performed differently, said the baker. A Parsi, he would have wanted dokhmenashini for himself.

The Parsis are an ethnic group of Zoroastrians who are believed to have migrated to India from Persia — modern-day Iran — sometime in the 7th century to avoid persecution after the Islamic conquest of their homeland. Their first stop in India was Gujarat.

“My father was a social worker who did a lot for the preservation of Parsi traditions. So yes, while I understand the constraints of the pandemic situation, I also know my father would have wanted dokhmenashini,” said the baker.

Derived from the word dakhma  the tower of silence in English, where the mortal remains of the dead are taken for last rites according to Zoroastrian customs — the process of dokhmenashini involves leaving the body at the top of the tower, for birds of prey (vultures) to devour the flesh, while the sun decomposes the bone structure.

However, during the pandemic, as government protocol required Covid victims to be either cremated or buried, Parsis who succumbed to the disease were denied this rite.

In December, the Surat Parsi Punchayet petitioned the Supreme Court for dokhmenashini rites to be permitted for Parsis who succumbed to Covid. The association had made the same appeal to the Gujarat High Court in May, but the HC had dismissed the petition.

While the SC disapproved of the manner in which the Gujarat HC had disposed of the issue, it said the rituals would need to be tweaked to align with government Covid protocols. The apex court has also sought the Centre’s response on the matter, to be submitted by the second week of January.

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‘178 Parsis died of Covid till May’

Members of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet are following the case closely, said trustee Noshir H. Dadrawala. Even among Parsis in Mumbai, “sentiments ran very high on the issue”, he added.

A positive decision in the case will affect Parsis across India, “giving them all the right to practise the Parsi last rites for those from the community who succumb to Covid”, he hoped.

According to an article published in Parsiana — a leading English-language Zoroastrian publication — in May 2021, “At least 178 community members have passed away (from Covid) since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in the country in March 2020.”

While burial and cremation were both practised by a section of Parsis even before the pandemic, it was for the most part occasioned either by the absence of a tower of silence as in Delhi — or more recently, by concerns about the time taken for bodies to be disposed of under dokhmenashini, because of a drop in the vulture population.

The Bombay Parsi Punchayet has set up solar panels at the dakhma to aid in the process of disposal. Nevertheless, even before the pandemic, some from the community did choose to cremate their dead, although their number would be “miniscule”, said Dadrawala.

For the vast majority of Parsis in India, dokhmenashini remains the preferred funeral procedure, and the one prescribed by religion and the scriptures,” he added.

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‘Not just about faith, concern about the soul’s journey’

On 7 May 2021, Parsiana in an editorial titled ‘A grave matter’ referred to a man in Surat who had allegedly forged a letter of permission from the Gujarat High Court to the Surat Parsi Punchayet, allowing dokhmenashini for Covid victims among the Parsis. 

“The practice of dokhmenashini is not just about the disposal of the body, but is also believed to be a necessary part of the soul’s journey to reach the higher plane,” explained Dadrawala.

Prayers for the soul of the departed accompany the leaving of the body at the tower of silence. “Dokhmenashini entails exposing the dead body of a Parsi in a Dakhma (tower of silence) to dessicate in the rays of the Sun. This is accompanied by four days of obsequies to ensure comfort to the soul of the departed and prepare it for its onward journey in the other world,” said Hanoz Mistry, a Parsi based in Mumbai.

“Those who are cremated or buried, that is, those for whom dokhmenashini is not performed, are generally not entitled to the four days of obsequies according to religious rules,” Mistry added.

As Covid casualties spiked in the second wave of the pandemic, many families battled not just loss but also additional heartbreak over their inability to give their loved ones a proper funeral, he said.

A prayer hall was set up adjacent to Mumbai’s Worli Crematorium in 2015 to ensure that those from the community who are cremated are not denied the funeral prayers, said Dinshaw Tamboly, chairman of the Prayer Hall Trust, as well as of the World Zoroastrian Organisation Trust.

This was of service to many during the pandemic. According to figures shared by the Prayer Hall Trust, prayers for 117 Covid victims were conducted at the hall in 2020-21.

But still, the inability to perform dokhmenashini for members who have succumbed to Covid has continued to trouble the conservative among the community. 

‘Fire is pure for Parsis’

In May, Parsiana reported the Covid death figures for Parsis from 11 Indian cities. 

While Bombay reported 105 deaths, Surat registered 26, Navsari 22, Ahmedabad and Pune 7 each, Delhi 4 (including former attorney general of India Soli Sorabjee, who died of Covid in April 2021), Nagpur 3, Kolkata and Hyderabad 2 each, and Chennai and Bengaluru zero.

“Not being able to perform the proper Parsi last rites for those from the community who succumbed to Covid has been traumatic for the community,” said Surat Parsi Punchayet trustee and Padma Shri-winning theatre personality Yazdi Karanjia.

He added: “There are about 3,000 Parsis in Surat, of whom at least 20 would have died of Covid in the course of the pandemic. All of them were cremated. But we don’t like that. The fire is pure for us Parsis, representative of divinity. We offer things like incense and sandalwood to the fire when we worship. Consigning the dead to the flames is not something we like.”

As dead bodies begin to decay with time, Zoroastrians believe them to be impure, explained Dadrawala, and so dokhmenashini is considered the best form of disposal because it pollutes neither the fire nor the earth.

The subject was thus also debated in articles and editorials published in Parsiana in 2021.

While a Parsi priest in Mumbai suggested that Covid victims from the community be buried on doongerwadi land (land surrounding the tower of silence), the suggestion reportedly did not go down well with traditionalists in the community. 

“The Parsis of Bombay moved here from Gujarat on the invitation of the British. It is said that when moving to Bombay, the Parsis asked for land to set up a dakhma even before they set up a fire temple (the Parsi place of worship),” said Dadrawala. 

(Edited by Rohan Manoj)

Also read: A decade-long legal battle for permission to attend Parsi parents’ last rites


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