May 22, 2023
“They took her body and entered the Tower of Silence,” said Arzan Sam Wadia of his mother, who passed away five years ago. “That was the last memory I was left with.” His family watched four pallbearers, called nāsālārs, carry his mother’s body through a 300-year-old gate amid lush foliage in a neighborhood of Mumbai, India, isolated from the city’s bustle.
The ritual details of Zoroastrian funeral rituals are complex but have remained consistent for millennia. On the grounds of Malabar Hill, where the Tower of Silence stands, are large chambers called bunglis, where priests, called mobed in Farsi, transferred, washed, dressed, and laid the corpse on marble slabs. During the public rites, the mobed traced the perimeter of her body three times with an iron nail to demarcate a zone of impurity. A dog, which is highly revered, gazed upon her face to confirm that she was truly dead. After the pallbearers took her body, Wadia returned to the bungli with his family to continue prayers. He spent four days at the Tower of Silence from beginning to end.
Towers of Silence, called dakhma in Farsi, are the architectural structures where Zoroastrians traditionally perform their final rites, where corpses are left to decompose under the sun. Historically, dakhmas were erected in places with sizable Zoroastrian communities — in Iran, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. As the Vendidad, a central text of Zoroastrianism, says, burying or cremating a body defiles the earth with dead matter. Towers of Silence, then, align with a core principle of Zoroastrianism: leave no trace on the Earth. But for Zoroastrians in the West, they have little choice but to compromise their traditions with their reality.