Towers of Silence

ROMAN MARS:

This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. Here’s something you probably didn’t know about Mumbai, India. There are about 55 acres of dense overgrown forests right downtown. in one of the most populous cities in the world, This is a place where peacocks roam freely–a place that seems to peel back centuries. This forest is protected by a religious community. It has survived undeveloped in the middle of this gargantuan city. Importantly, it’s also home to an ancient tradition that’s in crisis. One of our producers, Lasha Madan, traveled there in September.

LASHA MADAN:

I turned off a busy road to get here, stepped through a large iron archway and up a small hill–the monsoons long gone, but the air still feels heavy with moisture behind me. Tall buildings shimmer in a haze of pollution. And up ahead I see a sprawling expanse of green. This forest is called Doongerwadi.

RASHNEH PARDIWALA:

As you step in from the harsh sunlight and road outside, you just step into an extremely quiet place.

LASHA MADAN:

This is Rashneh Pardiwala, someone who grew up in Mumbai and knows this place intimately.

RASHNEH PARDIWALA:

You can hear the dry leaves rustling below your footsteps. The forest is dark and deep.

LASHA MADAN:

There are different trees in bloom, wild banana, mango, jackfruit, tamarind… I saw one whole tree just covered with fruit bats, chittering away. The vegetation here is dense.

RASHNEH PARDIWALA:

It’s so thick that you’ve got to bend. You’ve got to see where you’re stepping.

LASHA MADAN:

But there’s a certain point in this forest beyond which almost no one can step–not Rashneh, and certainly not me. Only special caretakers of these grounds can go any further. They go by many names: Khandia, Nassasalar, pallbearer, corpse bearer. Regardless of title, their work here is holy. They carry dead bodies to their final resting place, atop stone structures that stand gray against the lush green. These buildings are called Towers of Silence, and this forest exists to protect them. The Towers of Silence are part of a death ritual carried out by Parsis, a small but prosperous community in India. Parsis practice Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic religion originally from Iran. Zoroastrians in Iran were persecuted in the 7th century during the rise of the Islamic Empire. And Muslim armies gave surviving Zoroastrians a choice–conversion or exile. Eventually, a small group of Zoroastrians fled Iran for the shores of Western India, bringing with them any surviving fragments of tradition.

KHOJESTE MISTREE:

The Parsis arrived–it just said–men, women, and children by way of one boatload.

LASHA MADAN:

This is Zoroastrian religious scholar, Khojeste Mistree. He’s been teaching Zoroastrian theology for the last 45 years. There’s a popular legend that describes how Zoroastrians arrived in India.

KHOJESTE MISTREE:

When this milk and sugar story began–nobody knows. But it’s the most famous story that the Parsis have been told from little children upwards.

LASHA MADAN:

The story goes like this. When the boat full of Zoroastrians landed in India, the king showed them a bowl that was full to the rim with milk. Khojeste says the intention was to convey that India was already too full–no room for new arrivals.

KHOJESTE MISTREE:

And the Zoroastrian priest–the Dastoor–asked for crystals of sugar. And he was given crystals of sugar, and he gently lowered the crystals of sugar into this bowl full of milk. And obviously the milk did not overflow from the bowl.

LASHA MADAN:

It suggested that not only was there room for his people in India, but that Zoroastrians would enrich Indian society if permitted to settle.

KHOJESTE MISTREE:

The symbolism there was that the Parsis would integrate so well that they would bring sweetness to the land that was giving them sanctuary.

LASHA MADAN:

From then on, Zoroastrians who settled all over India came to be known as Parsis. Eventually, in the 1600s, Mumbai became their epicenter. This was back when the city was still a collection of swampy, mosquito infested islands–seemingly far enough away from the civilized world. A few wealthy Parsis bought a vast expanse of land here, and they gave it to the community for one specific purpose.

KHOJESTE MISTREE:

All this land was gifted specifically for purposes of having a Tower of Silence.

LASHA MADAN:

The Towers of Silence are where Parsis place their dead. And despite its imposing, gothic era name that’s used by Parsis and non-Parsis alike, Towers of Silence aren’t actually all that towering at all. These structures got that name by the British, who wanted an English term to describe them. And in doing so, they made them sound perhaps a bit more grandiose than they actually are. These towers–also known simply as “dakhmas”–are built of stone, usually up to 50 feet tall, and up to about a hundred feet wide. Imagine something more like an open-aired amphitheater. Each tower is circular and roofless. There are markers indicating where bodies should be placed. And in the very center, there’s a deep well–storage for the bones of Parsi bodies. Wherever large clusters of Parsis settled, they would cultivate forests or “Doongerwadis” and build dakhmas inside them. Five dakhmas were built here in Mumbai, which in total are able to handle over a thousand corpses a year. Zoroastrians have practiced this ritual of sky burial in Mumbai for centuries. According to the faith, as soon as we die, our bodies become contaminated with evil. And this evil must not under any circumstance make contact with the sacred elements of fire, water, and earth.

KHOJESTE MISTREE:

Therefore, we cannot bury our dead because that’s polluting Mother Earth. We cannot burn our dead because that’s polluting fire, and fire is seen as the son of God. So Zoroastrians have always had this unusual method of giving back to nature.

LASHA MADAN:

By giving back to nature, what Khojeste means is that, after priests have said their final prayers, the corpse bearers will place a body atop one of these towers. Then they will wait for the vultures to come. Rashneh Pardiwala grew up in a Parsi family, minutes from the Mumbai Doongerwadi forest where the Towers of Silence stand. She remembers the first time she learned about the vultures and their role in consuming Parsi corpses.

RASHNEH PARDIWALA:

We were on a family holiday in Gujarat, and we were driving. And I must have been all of possibly five or six years old.

LASHA MADAN:

Out of their car window, Rashneh’s family saw a dead horse on the roadside. They pulled over out of curiosity, just to take a closer look. Rashneh remembers her father pointing to the sky in awe.

RASHNEH PARDIWALA:

He said, “Oh look, those are the birds. Those are vultures up there circling” and then thought nothing of it, got back into the car, and we drove off.

LASHA MADAN:

20 or so minutes later, Rashneh and her family drove back down that same road.

RASHNEH PARDIWALA:

And that is when all of us were absolutely shocked. And I remember dad just slamming on the brakes and stopping because a horse that we had seen dead 15, 20 minutes ago had been completely wiped clean by the vultures. In 15 minutes, that carcass was cleaned down to the bone.

LASHA MADAN:

A few vultures were actually still sitting there, perched right next to the skeleton, their bellies too heavy with horse meat to fly. But to Rashneh’s family, the scene wasn’t grim.

RASHNEH PARDIWALA:

And I remember my mother using that opportunity as a learning– Saying, “Oh, this is why they say our mode of disposal of the dead in the Parsi community is the best mode–because it’s such a quick, clean, efficient system.”

LASHA MADAN:

This interdependent system between Zoroastrians and the birds who consume the flesh of their dead–it’s called “dokhmenashini,” and it is ancient.

MEERA SUBRAMANIAN:

The relationship between vultures and the Parsis–it goes back thousands of years.

LASHA MADAN:

This is writer Meera Subramanian, who has written at length about vultures in South Asia. She says that according to some estimates, there were once well over 40 million vultures throughout India, but no one will ever really know. They were so plentiful, in fact, that no scientific efforts were ever made to do a population count. For kids growing up in India–my own parents included–there were far less dogs supposedly eating homework and many more vultures to blame in the classroom instead. As in, “Sorry, I’m late to school. Vultures were mid-feed on a roadside carcass, blocking traffic again.” India’s civil aviation department would even hire people to shoot vultures around airports because they posed such a hazard to air traffic.

MEERA SUBRAMANIAN:

They were just always there. They were always there, and there were so many of them.

LASHA MADAN:

In this story, we’re mostly referring to a genus of vultures called “Gyps vultures.” And these birds–they just have this look about them.

RASHNEH PARDIWALA:

They look not the best. I won’t say “ugly,” but they don’t look very attractive as a bird.

LASHA MADAN:

In the sky, vultures loom large, casting an eight foot shadow with their massive wingspan. And on the ground, sometimes you can only see their bodies–their bald heads often buried deep inside a fresh carcass.

MEERA SUBRAMANIAN:

Nobody really believes this when I say this, but they’re very beautiful.

LASHA MADAN:

And hey, at least Meera thinks they’re pretty.

MEERA SUBRAMANIAN:

They have this ring of puffy feathers around their neck that reminds me of a Victorian lady.

LASHA MADAN:

While vultures are scavengers often associated with greediness and death, they’re actually very shy around people.

MEERA SUBRAMANIAN:

These are birds that just don’t like interacting with humans. Like, the most common response if they are disturbed by humans is that they vomit and they fly away.

LASHA MADAN:

And yet for centuries, a very specific symbiosis played out here in Mumbai between these vultures, this forest, and the Parsis. Time passed. Wars came and went. Cities grew. Trees fell. But this practice survived. In Mumbai, approximately three new bodies were carried up every day. It was an efficient sendoff–one in which your body became your final offering to the natural world. Most of all, it was tradition. But this tradition would begin to unravel. I met Aspi a few hours north of Mumbai in a small town with a large Parsi population. Aspi wore a bright pink and orange blouse that he had hand sewn with a large orange heart embroidered onto the front. For more than four decades, Aspi has done the work that goes by many names–the work that takes him deep into the Doongerwadi forest, where few others can go.

ASPI FIROZ GADIALI:

I am a Nassasalar in the Parsi religion.

LASHA MADAN:

In Gujarati, Aspi describes it as “the work of giving shoulder” because a large part of his work involves carrying bodies of the deceased on his shoulders. Parsis are actually widely known and stereotyped in India as being a fairly wealthy minority community. But those who work as corpse bearers are often spoken of in hushed tones. Many Khandias live right on Doongerwadi grounds. And because, in Zoroastrianism, corpses are believed to have been contaminated with evil, those who handle corpses are often treated as if they’re contaminated, too. I thought nothing of this when I reached out to shake Aspi’s hand, but then I felt his flinch.

ASPI FIROZ GADIALI:

Will you be able to hear my voice in this mic you brought? Otherwise, I brought my own portable mic.

LASHA MADAN:

As we sat down, Aspi excitedly pulled out what looked like a large toy microphone out of his pocket. It was golden and battery powered, and it immediately started playing the radio. Aspi said he’d brought it in case mine wasn’t up to par.

MICROPHONE:

Bluetooth Mode.

ASPI FIROZ GADIALI:

Hello.

LASHA MADAN:

I told Aspi that I wanted to talk to him about the vultures. His blue eyes went wide. “I hope you’re not in a hurry,” he said. I had time, but I didn’t exactly have space. The room Aspi and I were in was full of Parsi elders, and there was nothing I could say to convince them to leave, especially since it’s unusual for Khandias to speak publicly like this. I grew up around several nosy Indian aunties though–not to mention I live in fear of becoming one–so I get it. With a little coaxing, I got each uncle to please mute their WhatsApp notifications. Then Aspi started to speak–and I swear I could feel everyone around us lean in.

ASPI FIROZ GADIALI:

When I was 12 or 13, my grandmother died, and one of the four corpse bearers in our town had fallen sick. So I was asked, “Son, will you come help?” I had never been before. My father initially refused. He said, “Aspi is only a child. He’ll get scared.”

LASHA MADAN:

But there was a need, so Aspi stepped in to help give his grandmother a proper sendoff. Typically, after a Parsi dies, there are four days of prayers held at the closest Doongerwadi, the forest where the Towers are built. First the body is ritually bathed and then carried to one of the Towers.

ASPI FIROZ GADIALI:

One person opens the door, and then we take the body inside.

LASHA MADAN:

Once inside, they lay the body to rest on a stone slab.

ASPI FIROZ GADIALI:

When I went inside, all these birds were looking like trustees in a board meeting. They were just watching us, staring.

LASHA MADAN:

Based on that description, it seems apt that the collective noun for a group of vultures is called a “committee.”

ASPI FIROZ GADIALI:

And they were making sounds like this. “Ehr! Ehr!”

LASHA MADAN:

Sometimes Aspi and his fellow corpse bearers would have to stave off the vultures with iron rods until all the rituals were complete.

ASPI FIROZ GADIALI:

And once the body is placed inside, they pounce and eat. That’s it.

LASHA MADAN:

The vultures would set to their task, often taking just 30 minutes to get from body to bone. Then the corpse bearers would sweep the bones into the central well.

ASPI FIROZ GADIALI:

Three or four days later, someone else expired. And again, my uncle asked me, “Aspi Gadiali, will you come with us?” I said, “Yes.” And the next time I entered the Towers to carry the second body, we laid it right next to my grandmother’s. And I saw that my grandmother’s body was totally finished–as in everything was eaten. Not one thing was left of her–only bones. When I tried to sleep that night, my mind kept playing those images like a tape recorder on repeat. It was like a horror movie in my mind on replay.

LASHA MADAN:

But then Aspi got quiet, and he looked at me apologetically.

ASPI FIROZ GADIALI:

I can’t tell you anything more about what happens inside. If I share in any more detail, I will have to pay for it in my next life.

LASHA MADAN:

After all, this is a sacred ritual. And when it comes to death, there are some things that are just not spoken. Eventually, Aspi began working full-time as a Khandia, and he took great pride in this role. Day after day, Parsi, corpse bearers like Aspi would carry a body atop a dakhma, while vultures would watch from their perch. Then they’d step back, and the vultures would swoop in. This was how it worked for centuries–a seamless cycle of life and death passed on from one generation to the next–until one thing changed or rather disappeared. And then everything started to topple.

MEERA SUBRAMANIAN:

It was a very ecological and beautiful process in so many ways, and that just came crashing to a halt.

LASHA MADAN:

In the early ’80s, Aspi noticed that there were fewer and fewer vultures sitting and waiting at their usual perch.

ASPI FIROZ GADIALI:

Back then, we thought that “it is a bird. Maybe it had moved somewhere else. Maybe their lifespan was short and they were towards the end of it.” We could not understand why their population had decreased.

LASHA MADAN:

Khandias all over India seem to be noticing this mysterious trend atop their respective Towers, inside their respective Doongerwadis. They would carry a few new bodies into the Towers only to find that yesterday’s bodies were still untouched by vultures. Then it seemed like all the vultures had disappeared altogether. Their absence was felt outside the Parsi community, too. Vultures have scoured the countryside and cleaned up dead cattle and roadkill for all of human history. So eventually more people across the country began to notice that they were gone. In the late 1990s, a group of villagers in Rajasthan observed that when cows would die in the fields, their carcasses would sit and rot for days, which was extremely unusual. Luckily, they knew exactly who to contact.

  1. VIBHU PRAKASH:

They said the vultures are declining, and they were very worried because dead cattles were not being disposed of.

LASHA MADAN:

This is Dr. Vibhu Prakash, India’s leading vulture biologist and conservationist. People were telling Vibhu that the vultures had disappeared, like “poof.” Many thought they were stolen or poisoned. The villagers were like, “Maybe it was the Americans,” which… You know…

  1. VIBHU PRAKASH:

So when villagers told me that this is what was happening, I really started looking for dead vultures. And then I found dead vultures all over, in the bushes, on the trees–everywhere.

LASHA MADAN:

The reality was that vultures were often dying not on the ground, but up in trees and bushes, where it was hard to spot them. So it did kind of look like they’d vanished, but you didn’t have to see the dead vultures to know that something was very wrong.

  1. VIBHU PRAKASH:

Stench itself was a problem. Then you see an increase in flies and the maggots. And by 2000, we realized that this problem is much bigger than we can handle on our own.

LASHA MADAN:

Desperate to stave off extinction, Vibhu sounded the alarm. And because vulture populations were declining across all of South Asia, he turned to the international scientific community for help. Together, they ran through theories from food shortage to habitat loss. They looked into the possibility of contagious disease, but nothing was conclusive. Then finally in 2003, they made a shocking discovery. The vultures had been dying of kidney failure, and the culprit was a prescription painkiller similar to ibuprofen called “diclofenac.” Diclofenac is a cheap drug that was first introduced in the 1970s for the treatment of arthritis and pain management in humans. By the early 1990s, diclofenac became a veterinary painkiller. And because of its recently expired patent, it ended up being the cheapest and most popular livestock drug on the market. Hinduism’s reverence for cows means that in India, most cattle are left to die naturally in the fields, where vultures would reliably finish the job. Farmers would give diclofenac to cows, and then when those cows died with diclofenac in their system, vultures would eat them and get poisoned by the drug. Because India has the largest cattle population in the world, this was happening at an enormous scale. And this is when the vulture deaths became a national crisis. The irony of an over-the-counter ibuprofen knockoff decimating the vulture population is that this bird is uniquely known for its biological resilience.

KHOJESTE MISTREE:

The vulture has a superb digestion system. And it can actually even survive doses of arsenic!

LASHA MADAN:

Their incredibly strong stomach acids have allowed them to consume diseases like tuberculosis, rabies, even anthrax and face no consequence.

KHOJESTE MISTREE:

But this diclofenac was the knockout thing.

LASHA MADAN:

Ultimately, what killed them was a drug humans created to relieve us of our pains. In less than a decade since Vibhu was first contacted by those villagers, India had lost up to 99% of its Gyps vultures.

  1. VIBHU PRAKASH:

It was probably the steepest decline ever recorded anywhere in the world of any species which I know of. It was astonishing.

LASHA MADAN:

Three years after the mystery had been solved, India banned the veterinary use of diclofenac. But banning the drug outright is really hard to put into practice.

MEERA SUBRAMANIAN:

The fact of the matter is that the black market is really thriving in India, so you had illegal production of diclofenac that continues to this day.

LASHA MADAN:

In addition to diclofenac, there are now four more livestock drugs in circulation in India today that have been found to be just as deadly to vultures. And even though the Indian government finally banned two of these drugs in 2023, it doesn’t undo the damage done years ago. Today, the number of Gyps vultures in Indian skies are nowhere near what they once were. Even before the vulture die-off began, every now and again, some Parsis would question the ancient ritual of dokhmenashini in the way that people always do with old traditions. But now with this mass vulture death, Parsis were grappling with the fate of their corpses in a new and urgent way.

Speaker 10:

Welcome back to the debate between dignity versus traditions sparked by the Towers of Silence controversy. Well, the controversy really began to rage when the Towers stopped working–in other words, when the vultures disappeared. No one for many years had an answer to that mystery until the mystery began to unravel, and it was linked to the wider disappearance of vultures not just in Bombay but across India.

LASHA MADAN:

In Mumbai, about three Parsis were dying a day. So Khandias like Aspi continued to lay bodies atop their Towers–this time for vultures that would no longer come.

ASPI FIROZ GADIALI:

Now they do not come at all. It has completely stopped. They all stopped coming and now there is not even one. How will they come back? Where do I go and call them from?

LASHA MADAN:

Much smaller birds of prey now descend on the Towers. But when it comes to consuming corpses, they’re inefficient and messy.

MEERA SUBRAMANIAN:

There are black kites in Mumbai. You go to the grounds today, and there’s tons of birds flying around. But black kites… Let’s just say they have different eating habits. They like the little, tender, tasty bits, and then they leave the rest. So it doesn’t do what the vultures did in terms of cleaning up a body completely. And so maybe just the fact that there were big black birds flying around–that was enough to make people think, “Oh, everything’s fine.”

LASHA MADAN:

But everything wasn’t fine. All you had to do was ask their neighbors. These smaller birds of prey would sometimes leave them disturbing, little treats.

MEERA SUBRAMANIAN:

This is a really nice, toney part of town, and there are luxury high rises. And I heard more than one Parsi joke about fingers showing up while you’re having your avocado toast in the morning on your balcony.

LASHA MADAN:

The neighborhood adjacent to the Mumbai Doongerwadi today–Malabar Hill–it’s one of the wealthiest and most exclusive in the city, and it’s home to many rich Parsis. Realtors actually advertise the proximity to the lush Doongerwadi forest as a major value add. And I mean, it is so rare in Mumbai to get to be so close to green space–to get to look out your window and see a forest. But these neighbors would complain about getting a view and a smell that they didn’t quite sign up for. One day in the late 1990s, a handful of residents from a nearby apartment building wrote an angry letter. This letter made its way to the Bombay Parsi Panchayat, which is the leadership committee that oversees Parsi community affairs in Mumbai.

DINSHAW TAMBOLY:

My name is Dinshaw Tamboly. I’m 79 years of age but feeling more like 39.

LASHA MADAN:

Dinshaw was a member of the Panchayat at the time, and he was in charge of all things dokhmenashini.

DINSHAW TAMBOLY:

You’ll have to speak loud. I’m a little bit hard of hearing. I’ve got these hearing aids on. First things first–tea? Coffee?

LASHA MADAN:

Over a cup of chai, Dinshaw told me about this angry letter.

DINSHAW TAMBOLY:

They wrote to us that an awful stench is emanating from there and they’re not able to keep the windows open–they have to keep the windows shut and keep the air conditioners on 24 hours–and something should be done.

LASHA MADAN:

This letter is from over 20 years ago, but Dinshaw still has a crisp paper copy in his office drawer. And he handed it to me silently.

LASHA MADAN (FIELD TAPE):

It says, “Dear trustees, these pictures are taken from the top floor of a new skyscraper that is under construction and are taken with special telescopic photo sensor lenses that are used for photographing far off objects. Can bodies be allowed to lie like this? We demand that the system that is followed must be changed immediately. We are sending copies of these pictures to Delhi, Prime Minister, Home Ministry, Environmental Ministry, Chief Ministry, Health Ministry, Mayor, Health Minister. It is shocking that Parsis are forced to follow this outdated system.” Wow. Yeah.

LASHA MADAN:

Because of the absence of vultures, the bodies atop the Towers were barely being consumed. To be clear, these bodies were piling up and mostly just rotting. And from a distance, the apartment residents could see and smell them. It was Dinshaw’s responsibility to figure out what to do. First, he decided to do some fact-checking. Dinshaw wanted to see for himself whether the complaints about the sight and the smell held up. So even though it was against the rules, he asked a Khandia to let him into one of the Towers.

LASHA MADAN (FIELD TAPE):

Was anybody surprised that you were asking to do that because–?

DINSHAW TAMBOLY:

Yes, yes, he told me, “Sir, what you’re asking I’ll do.” He couldn’t say no to me. “But there’ll be absolute mayhem in the community. Absolutely. A lot of people will protest. You’re not supposed to look inside.” I said, “It’s fine. I’m only doing my duty.” What I saw was horrific.

LASHA MADAN:

And that’s all that Dinshaw would tell me because, again, this is a sacred ritual. And when it comes to death, there are some things that are just not spoken. Dinshaw turned to the Khandia and asked him basically, “How did this happen?”

LASHA MADAN (FIELD TAPE):

And did you ever ask them, “How come you didn’t share this?”

DINSHAW TAMBOLY:

I did ask them. They said that, “Look, we had once told the trustees that this was the scenario, and they said, ‘Rubbish. You’re talking rubbish. This cannot be true. And if you persist in making this, you’ll all lose your jobs.'” He said, “What should we do? We had to look after our own life.” We started telling them what they wanted to hear from us.

LASHA MADAN:

A few days later, Dinshaw told his colleagues in the Panchayat, “Look, we have a serious issue. And I know because I saw it with my own eyes.”

LASHA MADAN (FIELD TAPE):

What was their reaction?

DINSHAW TAMBOLY:

“You shouldn’t have done that.” I said, “I just wanted to understand the reality of it because of the complaints that we are receiving.” Everybody knew that the system was gradually deteriorating–going down–because of the lack of vultures. What was not known was the extent to which it had collapsed. The system had collapsed.

LASHA MADAN:

According to Dinshaw, dokhmenashini has fallen apart. He’d say this matter of factly and more than a few times. Often he’d quickly follow that up with an even gloomier statement. “The future of the Parsis as a people is also in trouble.”

DINSHAW TAMBOLY:

Our numbers have been declining since 1941. As per the 1941 census, there were 114,000 Parsi in India. Since that time, every 10 years, there has been a decline. The government figures are there.

LASHA MADAN:

With a near permanent shrug in his shoulders, Dinshaw explained the strict rules around conversion and intermarriage–the trend of fewer Parsis having children. Their population has been shrinking too, alongside the vultures. You know how sometimes there’ll be a word in the English language that seems simple but has just a stupid amount of different meanings? I’ve been thinking a lot about this one particular word, “wake”–as in W.A.K.E. wake. And yes, I was a spelling bee kid who was made to spell this word. And yes, I will give you a definition. To wake from something can mean to make a realization or discovery after a period of being asleep or unaware. A wake is also a vigil for someone who has just died–a form of honoring or celebrating the life of the deceased. And a wake–it also happens to be the collective noun for a group of vultures who are mid feed on a corpse. Back in Mumbai, Dinshaw still needed to make a plan. By this point–by the way–it’s 2001, and there are two clusters of tall apartment buildings peering over Doongerwadi. Some Towers were going unused at the time. And they wanted to figure out if people were getting a view of those Towers too. So Dinshaw laid down on each stone slab of the empty Towers, and he asked residents on the top floors of the surrounding apartment buildings if they could see him.

LASHA MADAN (field tape):

So basically you were on the phone while laying down on one of these slabs, and somebody else was as well? And your friend would tell you, “Oh, no, I can see you.”

DINSHAW TAMBOLY:

Yes.

LASHA MADAN (field tape):

Wow. So it really factored into your decision-making in a big way.

DINSHAW TAMBOLY:

One of the few living Parsis who has slept on the slab!

LASHA MADAN (field tape):

Wow. That’s pretty funny.

LASHA MADAN:

Ultimately, Dinshaw found that two of the five Towers at Doongerwadi could be seen from apartment windows. As a result, they stopped using those two Towers. Atop the remaining Towers, the Panchayat–the Parsi leadership council–agreed to begin conducting a series of experiments. Their goal was to find a way to speed up decomposition or, at the very least, to hide the view and smell of the rotting bodies. First, they tried lining the outer rim of the Towers with a particular flower called “kewra” that smells thick and perfumy.

DINSHAW TAMBOLY:

If you have earthen pots around outside the walls and put in that flower and add water, it’ll give out a very pungent smell, which will mask the smell.

LASHA MADAN:

But it wasn’t doing quite enough. Then there was brief excitement about a special mixture of herbs and chemicals–the idea being that, when stuffed into orifices of the dead, maybe this mixture could speed up decomposition before the smell of rotting flesh kicks in.

DINSHAW TAMBOLY:

It accelerated the process of decomposition, but it had a counter effect. The whole area inside became very sludgy.

LASHA MADAN:

The chemicals were almost too effective. The floor atop the Towers became a kind of human slurry.

DINSHAW TAMBOLY:

And a couple of pallbearers slipped, fell into the central well, and had to be brought out.

LASHA MADAN:

The pallbearers had trouble moving the bodies.

DINSHAW TAMBOLY:

And the worst thing was that the pallbearers refused to use this composition because they said that when they lifted the bodies to put them in the central well, it was very messy. The arms would come out–the legs would come out that way.

LASHA MADAN:

From behind closed doors at weekly Panchayat board meetings and on the forums of community newspapers, Parsis discussed any possible solutions they could think of. Parsis living in diaspora all over the world started to write in with suggestions.

MEERA SUBRAMANIAN:

There was so much internal dialogue going on within the Parsi community–the orthodox ones who said, “No, this is the only way we can dispose of the dead,” those who were pro-adaptation, who already acknowledged that Parsis were all over the world and were not doing sky burials, and so many of the diaspora that was all over the place if they weren’t in Mumbai where the Towers were. So all these questions came up about adaptation and survival.

LASHA MADAN:

Some suggested they use gasification, which involves high heat, or promession, a technique in Sweden that uses liquid nitrogen to deep freeze a body before vibrating it into a fine powder. One entomologist in Germany suggested they try flesh eating insects, but no one could agree on any one solution–nothing compared to the efficiency, cleanliness, and theological alignment of the vultures. Eventually though, the Bombay Parsi Panchayat landed on a plan. They would install solar panels on the Towers. Solar panels or “solar concentrators,” as they’re often called, would essentially look like giant mirrors. Aspi Gadiali remembers working as a corpse bearer during this transition.

ASPI FIROZ GADIALI:

The rays of the sun fall on the mirror, and then they reflect back to the body. So when the heat of the sun falls on the body, the body melts–you know–like how you put the butter in a frying pan to make Pav Bhaji. The butter melts, and this is how the body diffuses.

LASHA MADAN:

The Panchayat hoped that the solar panels would speed up decomposition without involving contact with fire, water, or earth, per Zoroastrian tradition. Solar panels were installed first in Mumbai’s Doongerwadi and then atop Towers of Silence all over India. It might sound gruesome, but bodies melting or dehydrating is far better than just rotting. And although some had misgivings about the change, calling it “backdoor cremation,” it mostly seemed like a massive relief that some sort of a solution had finally been found, instead of leaving a body to rot for months. The solar concentrators felt like a collective exhale–a triumph of human engineering–a cause for celebration. But all that changed when one woman’s grief and rage propelled the Parsi community into a new level of reckoning.

LASHA MADAN (FIELD TAPE):

And then five years later, Dhan Baria comes into the picture.

DINSHAW TAMBOLY:

And turns the world around topsy-turvy.

ROMAN MARS:

We’ll be back after this. We’re back with producer Lasha Madan.

LASHA MADAN:

In 2005, four years after construction began on the solar panels, a Parsi woman named Dhan Baria laid her 85-year-old mother, Nargis Baria, to rest at the Mumbai Doongerwadi. Dhan had cut short her career as a touring folk singer to look after her bedridden mother, whom she had lived with for 56 years. After her mom died, Dhan felt lonely and utterly bereft, and she took to spending long hours at Doongerwadi, praying.

DINSHAW TAMBOLY:

Dhan was a very pious, devout type of… She used to pray every day from the book, etc… And she used to go quite often to the Doongerwadi to pray before the Tower in which her mother was consigned.

LASHA MADAN:

On her visits, Dhan would make small talk with the staff. One afternoon, almost a year after her mother’s death, Dhan had an unusual interaction with one of the kandias on duty.

MEERA SUBRAMANIAN:

She was going back to the Towers to pay her respects and do her prayers, and she just asked the Khandias, like, “Oh, so my mother’s gone, right?” And they’re like, “Ha! No, she’s still up there. There’s no vultures. Where would she go?”

DINSHAW TAMBOLY:

And this niggled at her. And they laughed, and they said, “Your mom is still inside. If you want, we can show you.” So that was the trigger for her.

LASHA MADAN:

Like everyone else, Dhan knew that the vultures were gone. But she believed, like most in her community, that the solar panel technology had fully decomposed her mother’s body.

MEERA SUBRAMANIAN:

And she was understandably horrified thinking about her mother naked up on top of this Tower, slowly rotting.

LASHA MADAN:

Dhan wasn’t just thinking about her mother. She was thinking about all the mothers.

MEERA SUBRAMANIAN:

She wasn’t a person to just sit on her heels and complain about something or stew about it or write a nice letter of complaint. That just wasn’t her style.

LASHA MADAN:

Dhan wanted the Parsi community to know that these solar panels weren’t working as well as people thought they were, especially during India’s four month long monsoon season, when there isn’t enough sunlight for the solar panels to really work. Dhan wanted to tell people that their deceased loved ones were decomposing slowly–that their souls weren’t free.

CNN REPORTER:

Photographs from inside the Towers of Silence, where the Parsi community in Mumbai disposes of its dead. These forbidden photographs are creating big ripples in the small community.

LASHA MADAN:

This is from an old CNN report. Dhan had hired a photographer to sneak into the Towers of Silence and capture images of the decomposing bodies.

CNN REPORTER:

65-year-old Dhan Baria consigned her mother to the Towers almost a year ago. So she was shocked to hear from insiders that the body was still rotting–slowly.

LASHA MADAN:

Years earlier, photos had been taken from a far away telescopic lens and sent privately to Dinshaw and the rest of the Panchayat. This time though, Dhan wanted to get photos from up close, and she wanted to go public with them. Everything was about to go up a notch. Awful images made the rounds on flyers slipped under doors and into mailboxes. A 15 minute video circulating online showed bodies in various stages of decomposition–images of loved ones with their eyes hollowed out and their mouths gaping at the sky. In the news clip, Dhan goes on to say in Hindi, “I’m not scared. I’m ready to fight.” And just as I imagined Dhan might have predicted, what she did was met with a lot of anger–not only at her claims but also that she broke into a sacred area, took photos and videos, and spread them far and wide. Their anger extended to Dinshaw Tamboly too, who was on the board of the Bombay Parsi Panchayat at the time.

DINSHAW TAMBOLY:

People wanted to ostracize us–that we are renegades, we are out to destroy the religion, etc…

LASHA MADAN:

Dhan Baria’s actions became the inflection point in a decadeslong friction that had been building internally within the community. In response to Dhan’s protest, Dinshaw urged the rest of the Panchayat to build an electric crematorium within Doongerwadi. But the high priests decided instead to ban anyone who chose alternate methods from receiving prayers at all.

DINSHAW TAMBOLY:

When this controversy started and people started taking to cremation, the high priests of Bombay passed an edict: No prayer should be performed for those who get consigned to alternate methods, burial or… So, people were feeling very upset about that.

LASHA MADAN:

Then in 2009, the Panchayat discovered that two Parsi priests had been offering funerary rituals to some Parsis who had secretly opted for cremation. They tried to ban those priests. It was a conflict that made its way all the way up to the Supreme Court. Dhan passed away in 2022. I found an obituary about her that described her as a “firebrand with low tolerance for fools and liars.” Some Parsis used Dhan’s claims to continue advocating for burial and cremation to be considered religiously okay. They wanted to push past the bounds set by the orthodoxy. And then there were others–people who thought her accusations were completely made up.

KHOJESTE MISTREE:

The photographs were doctored! This was doctored!

LASHA MADAN:

This is Khojeste Mistree again–Zoroastrian religious scholar and former trustee of the Bombay Parsi Panchayat, the council for the Parsi community in Mumbai. Khojeste and many other traditionalists want desperately to preserve Zoroastrian ritual in its purest form.

KHOJESTE MISTREE:

So cremation is an absolute no-no as far as Zoroastrianism is concerned. You would be foolish to say, “I don’t want to take the Tower of Silence route.” I mean, you’d have to have your brains examined. I’m sorry to be so brutal and honest with you, but that’s exactly the truth.

LASHA MADAN:

At times during our conversations, it felt a little like I was speaking to a lawyer representing his client, the Towers of Silence. For Khojeste, it all started back when he was a student and on a trip to Iran. He had heard of a story about a mysterious Zoroastrian man who lived in the mountains there close to a village called “Cham.”

KHOJESTE MISTREE:

I was very keen to meet that man. I went to the village where this man used to occasionally appear, and his name was Mobed Hormuz.

LASHA MADAN:

Khojeste said to the man, “You seem so wise. Please, tell me what I need to know about our religion.”

KHOJESTE MISTREE:

And he said, “Khojeste, your job has to be to look after the Tower of Silence.”

LASHA MADAN:

Khojeste was studying to become a chartered accountant at the time. But this man was telling him that he needed to drop everything, go to Mumbai, and protect the Towers there.

KHOJESTE MISTREE:

I remember being angry with him and saying, “Tell me about things that are relevant for the living, not the dead.” As an 18, 19-year-old, I didn’t want to know what you have to do with the Tower of Silence because I’d never ever been to a funeral at that point. I’d never ever lived in Bombay at that point either; I was a Pune boy. So as far as the Towers of Silence were concerned, it was alien to me.

LASHA MADAN:

But decades later, in the early ’80s, Khojeste moved to Mumbai. And over the years, Khojeste watched the happenings at Doongerwadi closely. He heard about diclofenac and the fact that the vultures were mostly gone. He heard about the complaints, the subsequent experiments at the Towers, Dhan’s photos, and the shame it brought to the community. And he heard the cries for a Parsi crematorium.

KHOJESTE MISTREE:

The Panchayat then got into a very awkward situation–that the movers and shakers of the community wanted a crematorium in Doongerwadi–where we have our Towers of Silence–all pushing for stopping the Tower of Silence mode of disposal because the vultures had disappeared. There were no vultures.

LASHA MADAN:

By this time, these Towers or dakhmas had been banned in Iran. Sky burials had been declared a health hazard there in the 1970s. Without other options, most Zoroastrians outside of India get buried or cremated.

KHOJESTE MISTREE:

And that’s when I slowly had to jump in and start talking about the dakhmas–having to take interest in vultures. And that’s how my vulture story began.

LASHA MADAN:

At this point, it seemed like there was widespread acceptance that the birds were gone and not coming back. But Khojeste was like, “No.”

KHOJESTE MISTREE:

The vultures have to come back.

LASHA MADAN:

“They simply have to.”

KHOJESTE MISTREE:

Because I felt that this was an excellent system that had to be preserved despite all the sort of negative publicity that began to germinate because the vultures had disappeared.

LASHA MADAN:

Khojeste set his eyes on a specific mission: to turn the Mumbai Towers of Silence into a giant vulture aviary. The idea was: “Let’s bring the vultures back to feed on Parsi dead but protect them in an enclosure, away from diclofenac and any other drugs that would kill them.” So shortly after Dhan made those photos public, Khojeste got to work.

JEMIMA-PARRY JONES:

Khojeste has a beautiful voice. He has a very loud voice.

LASHA MADAN:

This is raptor breeder and conservationist Jemima-Parry Jones. Jemima runs the oldest breeding center for birds of prey in the world. So naturally, Khojeste went to the UK to meet her. Jemima described to me the first time she met Khojeste–at the cafe of her breeding center in the UK.

JEMIMA-PARRY JONES:

And you could have heard a pin drop in my cafe–literally–because people like me haven’t had people come and sit down and say, “Well, the vultures aren’t coming in to eat our dead. And the kites are coming in, and they’re picking up bits of our dead. And then they’re flying out of Mumbai. And they’re dropping them on people. And people don’t like it.” It’s an extraordinary conversation.

LASHA MADAN:

Khojeste was there to ask Jemima for advice. What would it take to bring the vultures back and to house them at the Towers of Silence?

JEMIMA-PARRY JONES:

The problem was there wasn’t really an answer that they wanted that I could give them because their idea was you could just put a big net over the top of each of the Towers and lobby in some vultures and it would be fine. And you couldn’t do that.

LASHA MADAN:

Jemima was like, “It’s going to be much more complicated than that.”

JEMIMA-PARRY JONES:

So I designed an aviary with the Towers within the aviary that would have worked possibly.

LASHA MADAN:

Jemima’s proposal outlines some specific criteria. She said to Khojeste, “You need to supplement the human food with enough additional meat, probably goat. You’d have to create places for the vultures to bathe.” It’d need to be a huge aviary.

JEMIMA-PARRY JONES:

You’d have to clean the aviaries, which would’ve been a nightmare because if you upset the vultures, they have a habit of vomiting. And you don’t really want them vomiting up somebody’s grandmother in front of you. So there were all sorts of things that made it a very difficult proposition.

LASHA MADAN:

Without a clear consensus on the aviary plan, Khojeste then ran for a seat on the Bombay Parsi Panchayat and got elected in 2008. Now, he was in charge of all things dokhmenashini–the same position that Dinshaw had been in a decade before. This time, in 2010, Khojeste got a swanky architecture studio to make a 3D model of a vulture aviary at Doongerwadi–a geometric structure of tension cables and netting supported by columns. The photos are online, and they’re honestly kind of beautiful. The idea for an aviary–it turned into a whole thing. There were countless meetings, news articles, and presentations about it over several decades. But ultimately, it has remained simply an idea. At one point 19 Parsi physicians signed a letter of concern about the aviary project because the painkiller diclofenac was and still is administered to humans and especially to end of life patients.

MEERA SUBRAMANIAN:

There’s no way a doctor can guarantee that when somebody dies, they are diclofenac-free.

LASHA MADAN:

That’s journalist Meera Subramanian again.

MEERA SUBRAMANIAN:

Somebody could be taking diclofenac for planters warts and then have a heart attack. There’s just no way to make sure that the human bodies would be safe. Diclofenac is literally in thousands of pharmaceutical formulations. It’s really hard to isolate.

LASHA MADAN:

If diclofenac was in a Parsi person’s bloodstream, the already endangered vultures in the aviary would just die–just like before. And with four more drugs on the market today that have been tested to be just as killer to Gyps vultures, the Panchayat’s plan was met with a good deal of apprehension. All this made it hard to reach consensus on the aviary project. So ultimately, Khojeste’s plan fizzled out.

KHOJESTE MISTREE:

The aviary project died in natural death.

LASHA MADAN (FIELD TAPE):

How does it feel to have tried so hard and the vultures are not back?

KHOJESTE MISTREE:

My time to go to Doongerwadi is also coming round. You begin to think about mortality as you get older, Lasha. It’s certainly something one thinks about. Now, as far as I’m concerned, when I die, certainly I’ll be able to meet Mobed Hormuz upstairs in the spiritual world and say I did my best.

LASHA MADAN:

Despite the very obvious logistical barriers, every couple years, it seems that the idea for an aviary resurfaces with new fervor. The latest article is from just a few months ago–January, 2024–announcing a new plan to build a vulture aviary atop the Towers. This time though, it’s not Khojeste spearheading; his time on the Panchayat ended almost a decade ago. A few months ago, I traveled with Dinshaw to a Doongerwadi in another town–far from the tension that’s mostly centered around the main Doongerwadi in Mumbai. It was lush and peaceful. I was allowed to approach the base of one of the Towers. And when I craned my neck, I could see one of the solar panels hovering above the rim, held up by what looked like a long telephone pole. Despite the fact that Dhan exposed the shortcomings of the solar concentrators, this is the method still in use atop the Towers today. The solar panels were small and uninspiring–nothing like what I’d imagined. Most of all, they were broken. The mirrored glass was completely shattered, leaving the panels useless. There was this amazing moment when I saw the culprit–a peacock–flying up to the one intact mirror and pecking at the glass.

LASHA MADAN (FIELD TAPE):

Oh my God. Wow.

DINSHAW TAMBOLY:

See the peacock?

LASHA MADAN (FIELD TAPE):

Yeah. Wow. So they really do climb up to the Towers. That’s amazing. Wow. Okay, so there’s a peacock, and it climbed onto the solar panel in front of us. It’s looking at its reflection and pecking its peak into the class. Have you heard of the Mumbai Doongerwadi ever having a peacock problem?

DINSHAW TAMBOLY:

Plenty.

LASHA MADAN (FIELD TAPE):

Yeah?

DINSHAW TAMBOLY:

Plenty.

LASHA MADAN:

Imagine putting so much effort into finding a solution only to have a different type of bird come in and mess it up. The solar panels had once felt like a viable alternative to dispose of the dead in the absence of vultures. But now you have peacocks pecking at the remains of this failed experiment. And for corpse bearers who already face precarious labor conditions and low wages, they sometimes need to drag a body around multiple times to keep relocating the solar panels on different body parts in order for the corpse to fully decompose. Corpse bearers in Mumbai unionized in 2003. And every so often rumor spreads about a strike. As Dinshaw and I continued on through the Doongerwadi, we walked the perimeter of one of the Towers. Our guide told us that about 35 bodies were currently up there. I could smell a distinct rotting as I walked the circumference of this Tower. But if I willed myself to believe it was fresh compost I was smelling, I probably could. A couple days later, I brought this observation up to Khojeste.

KHOJESTE MISTREE:

Just because people have the issue of smell, do you stop an entire system which supports a forest? Do you change the religion and religious practices just because of smell?

LASHA MADAN:

Khojeste thinks that focusing on smell is misguided, but there is something he feels increasingly concerned about.

KHOJESTE MISTREE:

We have a problem now: high rise buildings coming up around Doongerwadi.

LASHA MADAN:

The scale of development that Mumbai has seen in the last few decades is colossal. Back when Dinshaw Tamboly received that threatening letter from overlooking neighbors of Doongerwadi, there were only two high rises in the area. Khojeste told me that, back then, even his home–where I met him–was once Doongerwadi land before it turned into a housing complex.

KHOJESTE MISTREE:

Until 123 years ago, panthers were roaming around where you are sitting today. This is part of Doongerwadi land where this building has come up.

LASHA MADAN:

But today, the Doongerwadi neighborhood looks like a forest of skyscrapers surrounding the actual forest. Next to the Doongerwadi’s main arched entranceway, a tall billboard advertises the modern comforts of life–cars, handbags, life insurance… The industrial clang of luxury apartment construction is constant.

RASHNEH PARDIWALA:

All the time. This road, I think at the moment, there might be no less than 10 new projects–so possibly 20, 30 buildings coming up.

LASHA MADAN:

And presumably they’re going to be high rises.

RASHNEH PARDIWALA:

All will be high rises because, this being one of the poshest areas of Mumbai–Malibar Hill–it is just going to be super expensive multi-story buildings. And all of them are going to be overlooking Doongerwadi.

LASHA MADAN:

That’s Rashneh Pardiwala again.

RASHNEH PARDIWALA:

At the moment, we’ve got possibly seven buildings overlooking. I think in the next 10 years, we will just be surrounded 360 degrees. We will be surrounded by tall towers.

LASHA MADAN:

As an ecologist, Rashneh has been planting trees around the circumference of each Tower–trees like bamboo that grow tall and fast and can obscure the view from surrounding buildings. But as Khojeste once told me…

KHOJESTE MISTREE:

Lasha, the bottom line is that, as I now know, the vultures are ancillary to the system. The most important is the sun.

LASHA MADAN:

With the absence of vultures, the sun is the only thing that can break down the bodies of deceased Parsis. But the taller these apartment buildings rise and then, in turn, the taller these trees that are meant to obstruct their views rise, it also means that it’ll be harder for the sun’s rays to reach the bodies atop the Towers. And really, at this point, sunlight is all there is that’s left to decompose these bodies.

RASHNEH PARDIWALA:

The whole forest is going to be in darkness and in shadow. Is that going to serve the purpose? That’s going to be counterproductive to the dokhmenashini system. So these are tough, tough challenges.

LASHA MADAN:

In 2015, a Parsi crematorium was finally established in Mumbai, though not inside the Doongerwadi. And Dinshaw Tamboly, former member of the Bombay Parsi Panchayat, was one of the key people behind setting it up. Some Parsis are afraid that if cremation and burial grow in popularity and fewer and fewer people take to the Towers and in the face of encroaching development, that the Doongerwadi land might be taken away from them.

RASHNEH PARDIWALA:

So once we have buildings surrounding us 360 degrees, what is going to be the solution? Right now, one person is complaining. Tomorrow, 10 people will complain. Tomorrow, if we’ve got thousands of residents complaining to the municipal corporation, the municipal corporation is going to be forced to address the issue. And then are they going to really weigh the religious sentiments of a community up against an entire larger community that might take objection?

LASHA MADAN:

With real estate in Malibar Hill priced around $800 per square foot, the Doongerwadi could be worth about $2 billion. But the Parsis own this land. It belongs to them. So I had to ask Rashneh to lay out more clearly why there seems to be this vague but collective fear of the land being taken away from them.

RASHNEH PARDIWALA:

Okay, so let me answer the question this way. As the Parsi community has dwindled–as the numbers have fallen–we have seen in other parts of India where, because there is no Parsi population, the local Parsi Panchayat has been forced to sell the land because there are no Parsis. And that’s happened across India. And so if there are no Parsis left, the land will be taken over by the government.

LASHA MADAN:

This is something Rashneh has seen herself. On a recent work trip, she visited a city called Jalna, which used to have a big Parsi community.

RASHNEH PARDIWALA:

When I visited Jalna, there hadn’t been a single Parsi in Jalna for the past 37 years. The whole Parsi population had been wiped clean.

LASHA MADAN:

Not only were there no Parsis left, but there was also no functioning Doongerwadi. What used to be the Doongerwadi is now government land.

RASHNEH PARDIWALA:

When I went there, he showed me a dakhma. I asked him, “What’s that?” He was saying, “A well.” I said, “What well?” “Somebody said it’s a well.” I said, “It’s not a, well. It’s a dakhma.” And the local said, “Oh, we don’t know what that is.”

LASHA MADAN:

The Towers and their sacred role–it had all been forgotten. I had seen this, too. In a different town, I visited an abandoned Doongerwadi with a couple defunct Towers of Silence. Due to the population loss of Parsis, there were no more priests left to administer the death rituals. So the Panchayat in that town started leasing the land to non-Parsi farmers. They had been using one of the empty dakhmas to store a giant pile of castor oil seeds. One other abandoned Tower had a large solar panel above it, creating solar energy to irrigate the land for sandalwood farming. All this on what used to be a sacred Doongerwadi forest. They were using solar panels, but not to desiccate Parsi remains. There’s a very real fear that, one day, the Parsis will completely fade into memory, alongside the vultures.

MEERA SUBRAMANIAN:

It is scary though, like, how quickly we forget things. Already there’s been a whole generation that has never seen a vulture, and so it’s just this thing that tata and tati talk about, but it’s not something you’ve ever seen. It becomes mythology.

LASHA MADAN:

As a species, the vultures were here first. They’ve lived here for millions of years–long before humans and their ideas of religion and ritual came into being. And there’s a chance that vultures might have outlived us humans entirely had we not been so competent at devastating our planet. Conservationists in India started breeding these endangered vultures in captivity in 2004. But these vultures and their keepers alike are in waiting. They’re waiting for safer skies. They’re waiting for the government to ban all vulture toxic drugs from use–waiting for farmers to get used to using vulture safe alternatives. The possibility of seeing vultures return to the open skies again in huge numbers–it’s all part of the dream but it’s going to take a lot of time.

MEERA SUBRAMANIAN:

The biology of a vulture is just… They work on deep time.

LASHA MADAN:

Vultures only lay one egg a year, which is a terrible evolutionary strategy. But on top of that, they then raise that chick for about 60 days, and then it sits unable to fly for four more months.

MEERA SUBRAMANIAN:

It’s just a long, slow process. And so their numbers could come back, and that’s only after all of these drugs go away. But it could take a very, very long time.

LASHA MADAN:

It’s my last day here in Mumbai, and I’m having breakfast at my hotel. This hotel–by the way–yet another development from which one could peer down into the Towers. A moment ago, I caught myself looking up at the sky, and I saw what I think was a single black kite flying past a neighboring high rise. I’m trying to imagine what vultures must have looked like in huge numbers up here in this sky right above Doongerwadi. I’m an atheist, but I was raised Hindu. And in my family, all of our dead have followed a very specific tradition. Bodies are placed on an open, aired wooden pyre and consumed by flames. Then the remaining bones and ashes are tossed into River Ganga or the Ganges River. For Hindus, it’s one of the most sacred places on Earth, but it’s also one of the most polluted. This river is a place where people bathe, where carcasses and bodies are deposited, and where almost half a billion people get their drinking water. I’ve had a hard time reckoning with the idea that the river that’s thought to spiritually cleanse our souls is so overrun with toxic waste and sewage. And yet all four of my grandparents’ remains have been sent off into Ganga. I think when we stop being able to die together in the way our ancestors did, we risk coming apart as a people. Keeping to tradition is part of what makes it all tolerable–death, I mean, and the grief that comes with it. And sometimes in the face of something that threatens those inherited ways, all we can do is find something to hold onto. And so I think of Rashneh–how she told me that every so often she’ll meet a Parsi who will ask her to plant specific trees inside Doongerwadi that they remembered the vultures loved to roost on. “Don’t forget the fishtail palm,” they’d tell her. “Or the palmyra.” And so Rashneh started planting. “This way,” she tells me, “if the vultures ever return, this forest will be ready to accept them.”

ROMAN MARS:

99% Invisible was reported this week by Lasha Madan and edited by Christopher Johnson. Lasha’s reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G Buffett Fund for Women Journalists. Mix by Martin Gonzalez. Music by Swan Real and APM. Fact-checking by Graham Hacia. Voice over by Rashmi Ganatra. A very, very special thanks this week to everybody featured in today’s episode. Special thanks also to everyone who wasn’t featured in this episode but who was integral to the reporting process, including Dr. Percy Avari, Dr. Aban Marker Kabraji, Anne Rademacher, Munir Virani, Chris Bowden, Homi Khushrokhan, Framroze Mirza, Sherezad Pavri, Hutokshi Rustomfram, Shapoor Marolia, and Peter Ayres – thank you so much.Kathy Tu is our executive producer. Kurt Kohlstedt is our digital director. Delaney Hall is our senior editor. The rest of the team includes Chris Berube, Jayson De Leon, Emmett Fitzgerald, Vivian Le, Joe Rosenberg, Gabriella Gladney, Kelly Prime, Jeyca Maldonado-Medina, Sarah Baik, Neena Pathak, and me, Roman Mars. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence.We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM Podcast Family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California.You can find us on all the usual social media sites, as well as our new Discord server. There’s a link to that, as well as every past episode of 99PI, at 99pi.org.

Credits

99% Invisible was reported this week by Lasha Madan and edited by Christopher Johnson. Lasha’s reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G Buffett Fund for Women Journalists. Mix by Martin Gonzalez. Music by Swan Real and APM. Fact-checking by Graham Hacia. Voice over by Rashmi Ganatra.

  1. Graham Hopley

    There’s a disused Tower of Silence in the hills overlooking the Crater neighborhood of Aden, Yemen. It’s pretty interesting and part of a fantastic hike of you’re ever in the neighborhood.

    12°46’21″N 45°01’51″E

  2. d mac

    i am surprised the solution has not occurred to them. it is quite simple. arborist wood chips. allows for odorless decomposition. i compost animals that die all the time. no smell, no unsightly bodies, and the compost can be used to increase fertility in the forest.

  3. Daniel

    What a heartfelt story that’s very relevant to my own projects. I am learning about Chinese lion dance traditions and how they are at risk of fading away. Experts speak to how these traditions are inherently tied with folk beliefs of the villages they originate from. Without the village beliefs these traditions become hollow. These villages are also at risk of succumbing to urban development in rapidly growing economies.

    Bookmarking this story for further reflection…

    1. Keen

      I’ve been listening to 99% for many years now. Chinese lion dance traditions, very sadly, are much better preserved in the overseas diaspora like Singapore, Japan than in China. I have seen many a visitor from China watching a Chinese lion dance (or Dragon dance) parade through Chinatown for the first time, almost all of which have never even done a Lion or a Dragon dance.

  4. minh le

    Just listened to the episode! This is so fascinating! I love the concept of returning our body to nature with sky burial, so unfortunate that the practice survived anything but a painkiller..

  5. Willem

    What a story! It touches on so many subjects: religion, identity, culture, death, ritual, pollution, policy, …
    Incredible how an ancient ritual can be such a confronting reflection on our contemporary world, how a local ritual can have such a universal meaning! Wow!
    Thank you so much Losh Madon and everyone at 99% invisible

  6. BETH Wood

    I loved the layers and depth of this presentation of Parsis, Mumbai and unintended consequences of modernity. Thank you so much for this riveting exploration of the complexity of eco-systems across domains.

  7. Jenn

    It really seems like an aviary is the best solution. Could not Farsi/Zoroastrian religion make taboo the Demerol and other problematic meds? Clinicians are already finding work arounds for people who won’t accept blood transfusions.

  8. Martin

    So I’ve been listening to 99pi for years now. While all the episodes have their qualities, this is the first time I’ve ever taken time to comment on the page. In my opinion this piece is absolutely brilliant. The atmosphere, the voices…

    It introduced me to a whole ecosystem of things that I’ve never been in touch with, and it gave me a whole picture to understand what’s going on.

    Just perfect! Thanks for the entertainment, and keep up the good work, Lasha (and all the others involved, too)!

  9. Alison Bellach

    Core memory unlocked! As a now 40-something-year-old growing up in Northern California, I had completely forgotten about one of my first inadvertent deep dives into South Asian culture until listening to this episode reminded me of John Irving’s A Son of the Circus, in which The Towers of Silence are featured (in part).

    99% Invisible is one of my all-time favorite podcasts and one of the reasons why I aspire to move our company’s next office into the Pandora building ;) Thank you for continuing to feed my sense of curiosity about the world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Minimize Maximize

Playlist