The differences among BPP [Bombay Parsi Panchayat] trustees, between reformists and conservatives, have led to some unseemly squabbles over the last few decades. One of the major sources of contention was the functioning of the Towers of Silence at Doongerwadi.

According to the Vendidad, Zoroastrianism has a unique system of disposal of the dead – dokhmenishini – because cremation pollutes fire, which is considered sacred, and burial is unhygienic. In ancient Iran, the bodies were left on hilltops in pits so that they could be devoured by wild animals or scavenging birds. In the 1940s, the Iranian monarch, Reza Shah, banned this method of disposing of the dead, but in India, Parsis still cling to this tradition in towns that have dakhmas.

The system worked efficiently in Bombay for centuries, thanks to the city’s large vulture population which swooped down on the bodies almost as soon as they were relinquished to the dakhmas. But towards the end of the twentieth century, India’s vulture population practically vanished.

This drastic decline was traced to the anti-inflammatory drug Diclofenac, which was frequently fed to cattle and other livestock but also prescribed as a painkiller for human beings. Since the vultures feed primarily on the carcasses of dead cattle and buffaloes, they were slowly poisoned, a syndrome known as “drooping neck”.

The disappearance of vultures had an immediate impact on the dakhmas. People living around Doongerwadi complained about the unpleasant odour emanating from the rotting bodies in the wells. From certain vantage points in the plush high-rises that rimmed the area, apartment-dwellers could catch a glimpse of the decomposing corpses. Somebody even managed to secretly take photographs inside the dakhmas.

The ghastly photographs of decaying corpses surfaced to the horror and embarrassment of the community at large and the fury of the orthodox. The cream of the Parsi community, led by eminent doctors, warned that, in the absence of vultures, this ancient method of disposing of the dead was a major health hazard and could lead to an epidemic.

Respected Parsi professionals began a campaign for the religion to permit cremation. But high priests and conservative Parsis like Mistree were horrified by the suggestion. Polluting fire with dead matter was an unpardonable sin. Dastur Feroze Kotwal, a learned, pious and stern high priest and, like Mistree, a student of Mary Boyce, described the acceptance of the new norm as “a strike at the very foundation of our religion”. On his advice, the BPP did not permit the Doongerwadi “bunglis” to be used to hold prayer ceremonies for corpses that would eventually be cremated.

To regenerate the city’s vulture population, Mistree, then a trustee of the BPP, mooted the idea of an aviary. The punchayet flew in a raptor expert, Jemima Perry Jones, director of the National Birds of Prey Centre in Gloucestershire, to help find a solution. But she quickly outstayed her welcome, what with her outspoken comment to a newspaper describing the dakhma system as “bizarre” and media speculation that she was the first non-Parsi to visit the Towers of Silence.

Then, to hasten the process of decomposition, the BPP started using chemicals and solar panels. But the issue remained contentious and divisive. The BPP prohibited two priests, Framroze Mirza and
Khushru Madan, from performing any ceremonies at Doongerwadi because they had agreed to conduct funerary prayers for those who had been cremated as well as performing the navjotes of children whose mothers had married out of the community. The trustees claimed they had taken advice from such respected high priests as the late Dastur Kaikhusroo Jamasp Asa and Dastur Kotwal.

The late Jamsheed Kanga and Homi Khushrokhan, a respected senior business executive, filed a lawsuit against the BPP trustees, challenging the right of the punchayet to regulate the performance of religious rites and ceremonies. Most leading Parsi lawyers were ranged on the side of the reformists, and the Bombay High Court delivered a stinging judgement against the BPP.

The high priests issued a statement terming this an infringement of the community’s religious freedom. When the matter came up before the Supreme Court, the nation’s highest court was reluctant to adjudicate on a religious subject and instead referred it to a court-appointed mediator. After years of expensive litigation, neither side was satisfied with the mediator’s final order.

The agreement prohibited the BPP from banning Parsi priests who wished to work in the Doongerwadi complex and the two fire temples under its jurisdiction even if the priests had committed “irreligious acts” outside Doongerwadi. Ironically, the two priests on whose behalf the case was originally filed were the only exceptions to the rule.

Khushru Madan put out a public statement refuting the allegations levelled against him by six senior priests, the BPP and Mistree’s WAPIZ – they had claimed that Madan was converting people to Zoroastrianism for money. In his statement, the reformist priest, dubbed a “renegade” by the conservatives, cited numerous translated stanzas from the Gathas and prayers to illustrate that Zarathustra preached tolerance and, while he did not advocate force to spread the religion, he believed it should be open to all.

For the benefit of one of his critics, the late Kaikhusroo Jamasp Asa, he quoted the letter written by Jamasp Asa’s grandfather who had performed the navjote of Suzanne Tata and also solemnised her marriage with RD Tata as per Zoroastrian rites in 1903. The high priest had written to the then secretary of the BPP in 1901, stating that the religion does not bar the acceptance of non-Zoroastrian converts into the fold.

Interestingly, Madan did not refer to a transgression against orthodox belief that another of his critics, Dastur Kotwal, had condoned – the belated navjotes of wealthy industrialist Neville Wadia and his son Nusli Wadia, both of whom had been baptised as Christians. The liberal lobby and the Parsi press sneered at these double standards – one rule for the rich and another for ordinary folk. The fact that Kotwal was allotted an out-of-turn Cusrow Baug flat by the BPP and the Wadia committee was viewed as a quid pro quo. This was one instance where the ultra-orthodox in the community were not on the same side as some of the orthodox priests.

The Tatas, Freddie Mercury & Other Bawas

Excerpted with permission from The Tatas, Freddie Mercury & Other Bawas: An Intimate History of the Parsis, Coomi Kapoor, Westland Non Fiction.