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The Parsi of India

The most interesting of all the many religious sects in India are the Parsis, the residue of one of the world's greatest creeds, descendants of the disciples of Zoroaster, and the Persian fire worshipers, who sought refuge in India from the persecution of the all-conquering Mohammedans about the seventh century. It is a curious fact that although the Parsis were commercially the most enterprising people in India, and the most highly educated at the time, they have never attempted to propagate or even to make known their faith to the world. The Parsis had undoubtedly made more stir in the world in proportion to their population than any other race. They were a small community, and number only 94,000 altogether in 1900, of whom 76,000 resided in Bombay. They were almost without exception industrious and prosperous, nearly all being engaged in trade and manufacturing, and to them the city of Bombay owes the greatest part of its wealth and commercial influence.  

While the Parsis teach pure and lofty morality, and are famous for their integrity, benevolence, good thoughts, good works and good deeds, their method of disposing of their dead is revolting. For, stripped of every thread of clothing, the bodies of their nearest and dearest are exposed to dozens of hungry vultures, which quickly tear the flesh from the bones.  

In a beautiful grove upon the top of a hill overlooking the city of Bombay and the sea, surrounded by a high, ugly wall, are the so-called Towers of Silence, upon which these hideous birds can always be seen, waiting for their feast. They roost upon palm trees in the neighborhood, and, often in their flight, drop pieces of human flesh from their beaks or their talons, which lie rotting in the fields below.  

Funeral ceremonies are held at the residence of the dead; prayers are offered and eulogies are pronounced. Then a procession is formed and the hearse is preceded by priests and followed by the male members of the family and by friends. The body is not placed in a coffin, but is covered with rich shawls and vestments. When the gateway of the outer temple is reached, priests who are permanently attached to the Towers of Silence and reside within the enclosure, meet the procession and take charge of the body, which is first carried to a temple, where prayers are offered, and a sacred fire, kept continually burning there, is replenished. While the friends and mourners are engaged in worship, Nasr Salars, as the attendants are called, take the bier to the ante-room of one of the towers. There are five, of circular shape, with walls forty feet high, perfectly plain, and whitewashed. The largest is 276 feet in. The entrance is about fifteen or twenty feet from the ground and is reached by a flight of steps. The inside plan of the building resembles a circular gridiron gradually depressed toward the center, at which there is a pit, five feet in diameter. From this pit cement walks radiate like the spokes of a wheel, and between them are three series of compartments extending around the entire tower. Those nearest the center are about four feet long, two feet wide and six inches deep. The next series are a little larger, and the third, larger still, and they are intended respectively for men, women and children.  

When the bearers have brought the body into the anteroom of the tower they strip it entirely of its clothing. Valuable coverings are carefully laid away and sent to the chamber of purification, where they are thoroughly fumigated, and afterward returned to the friends. The cotton wrappings are burned. The body is laid in one of the compartments entirely naked, and in half an hour the flesh is completely stripped from the bones by voracious birds that have been eagerly watching the proceedings from the tops of the tall palms that overlook the cemetery. There are about two hundred vultures around the place; most of them are old birds and are thoroughly educated. They know exactly what to expect, and behave with greatest decorum. They never enter the tower until the bearers have left it, and usually are as deliberate and solemn in their movements as a lot of undertakers. But sometimes, when they are particularly hungry, their greed gets the better of their dignity and they quarrel and fight over their prey.

After the bones are stripped they are allowed to lie in the sun and bleach and decay until the compartment they occupy is needed for another body, when the Nasr Salars enter with gloves and tongs and cast them into the central pit, where they finally crumble into dust. The floor of the tower is so arranged that all the rain that falls upon it passes into the pit, and the moisture promotes decomposition. The bottom of the pit is perforated and the water impregnated with the dust from the bones is filtered through charcoal and becomes thoroughly disinfected before it is allowed to pass through a sewer into the bay. The pits are the receptacles of the dust of generations, and I am told that so much of it is drained off by the rainfall, as described, that they have never been filled. The carriers are not allowed to leave the grounds, and when a man engages in that occupation he must retire forever from the world, as much as if he were a Trappist monk. Nor can he communicate with anyone except the priests who have charge of the temple.  

The grounds are beautifully laid out. No money or labor has been spared to make them attractive, and comfortable benches have been placed along the walks where relatives and friends may sit and converse or meditate after the ceremonies are concluded. The Parsis are firm believers in the resurrection, and they expect their mutilated bodies to rise again glorified and incorruptible. The theory upon which their peculiar custom is based is veneration for the elements. Fire is the chief object of their worship, and they cannot allow it to be polluted by burning the dead; water is almost as sacred, and the soil of the earth is the source of their food, their strength and almost everything that is beautiful. Furthermore, they believe in the equality of all creatures before God, and hence the dust of the rich and the poor mingles in the pit. 

Parsi temples are very plain and the form of worship is extremely simple. None but members of the faith are admitted. The interior of the temple is almost empty, except for a reading desk occupied by the priest. The walls are without the slightest decoration and are usually whitewashed. The sacred fire, the emblem of spiritual life, which is never extinguished, is kept in a small recess in a golden receptacle, and is attended by priests without interruption. They relieve each other every two hours, but the fire is never left alone.


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