A Protest by Pallbearers Opens Old Faultlines Among Parsis

An agitation is brewing inside the calm Tower of Silence (Photo: P P Yoonus)

An agitation is brewing inside the calm Tower of Silence (Photo: P P Yoonus)

It is not usual to see anyone sport the colour red at Doongerwadi, (literally, garden on a hill), the final resting place for some Zoroastrians in Mumbai’s tony Kemps Corner neighbourhood. It is a revered place, of quiet grief and sometimes uncontrolled emotions, lush with greenery, where you can spot the occasional peacock. Amidst the mourners there, who sport whites and other sober colours, the red Gandhi caps of the workers have been wearing defiantly for the last four weeks or so stick out like the proverbial sore thumb. They are protesting in favour of their demands, mainly concerning a hike in wages and have just given notice of a strike.

Doongerwadi must have seen umpteen dead bodies being laid to rest in two structures called dokhmas, since they were first put to use in the 1670s. This spot on the eastern edge of Malabar Hill, once the highest point in the island city of Mumbai got its name – the Tower of Silence — from a colonial administrator and that’s how it has been known since. At one point this spot was way outside city limits and there are records of wild animals being sighted in the vicinity; today it is hemmed in by exorbitantly priced high-rise apartments. The sylvan 56 acre property is administered by the Bombay Parsi Panchayat (BPP), among the richest private trusts in the country, now unfortunately riddled with infighting among the trustees.

Doongerwadi is a place for Zoroastrian bodies to be exposed to the elements and to scavenging birds – mainly vultures — for excarnation. Zoroastrian tradition considers a dead body to be unclean and a potential pollutant. Religious texts like the Vendidad have rules for disposing of the dead as “safely” as possible. To preclude the pollution of earth or fire, the bodies of the dead are disposed off in a manner to prevent putrefaction, with all its concomitant evils.

The protesting workers include khandhias (pallbearers), who carry the body to its final destination after the prayers are recited, to the dokhmas. These 18 khandias must be Zoroastrian which, given the nature of their work, makes them even harder to replace. At one time, there was a distinction between khandhias, and nassesalars, the former being those who actually carried the bodies on their shoulders to the dakhma, and the nassesalars who took the bodies into the dakhma and exposed it to the elements. The distinction does not exist anymore, perhaps due to the paucity of finding the men to do the work. The khandhias also have to tackle the remains of the body after the elements (and birds, if available) have done their job. They are required the move the remains into a central pit within the dakhma and then bury the remains.

Poor social status

Progressive elements within the community are not happy at the ‘social status’ of the pallbearers. Many come from rural Gujarat and are the products of inter faith unions, it is believed. Alcohol helps some of them do the ‘grisly’ work, it is said. The BPP has tried solar panels and even a mix of chemicals as add-ons to to hasten the process, but finally, it is the khandhias who need to actually administer whatever is required. Some of them say they are akin to priests, as they perform a vital function mandated by the Zoroastrian faith. It is thus ironical that they themselves need to undergo a ritual purification if they need to worship at a fire temple. Most khandhias live at Doongerwadi—they claim they find it difficult to get accommodation in the Zoroastrian colonies as few want to share common space with those who come in close contact with death and contamination.

The face off between Dhunji Netarwla, General Secretary of the Mumbai Mazdoor Sabha and the BPP represented by Yazdi Desai, who is also a director in a city logistics firm is over a proposed wage hike. Desai states that the BPP cannot afford the high wages that the Union is demanding. Netarwala rubbishes this and blames the infighting between the trustees for not being able to come to an amicable settlement.

A reported increase of Rs 6,000 per worker has been demanded by the Mumbai Mazdoor Sabha during negotiations with the BPP–the last increment in 2012 was Rs 4,500. In case the strike does take place, a group of community volunteers who will function as pallbearers is ready to take over, but they have not learnt all the relevant practices. Khandhias are available only in Mumbai, Pune and Surat. Other locations that have a Zoroastrian population and have access to dakhmas do not use the services of pallbearers. Family members carry the body to the final resting place within the dakhma.

A community’s secret

Hidden away from view, or spoken about in hushed tones, the khandias of Mumbai are among the best kept secrets of the community. The talk of strikes has raised the decibel level for a debate about alternative methods for the disposal of the dead in this otherwise classless community. Many within the community are now questioning the relevance of this traditional method of disposal of in current times, given an almost extinct vulture population within Mumbai, while it has its adherents among the traditionalists who are opposed to other methods of disposal and frown upon cremation. Meanwhile, a Zoroastrian charitable trust has recently donated money to the municipal authorities to build a special prayer hall at a central Mumbai crematorium, as the traditionalists do not allow the recital of prayers at Doongerwadi for those who choose cremation as a method of disposal. Meanwhile the protest goes on, as the community’s leaders seek out a solution.