It is one the most poignant images in India. Muslin-wrapped mourners carry the dead up a leafy hill to a temple, conducting an ancient ceremony in modern Mumbai. They reach the Towers of Silence and the bodies are laid on slabs of marble to be devoured by vultures and bleached by the searing heat of the sun. For Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest mass religions in the world, bodies left in this manner will see their soul join the spiritual world.
The trouble is the vultures of Mumbai are dying out. Their numbers have been decimated by cattle carcasses contaminated with an anti-inflammatory drug widely used in south Asia.
To dispose of the dead a group of Parsis, the ethnic group that practises Zoroastrianism, are using solar panels and lenses like a magnifying glass to penetrate bodies and aid decomposition. Burial, burning or disposal at sea are not permitted as they would see bodies contaminating the sacred elements of earth, fire and water.
Many say the solar panels have failed before. “They are built to be used in the Sahara. We don’t have the temperatures in Mumbai so the bodies just start to rot,” said Vispy Wadia of the Association for the Revival of Zoroastrianism.
Founded by Bronze Age Iranian prophet Zarathustra, Zoroastrianism flourished for 2,000 years until Arabs invaded Persia in 651. There are only 60,000 Parsis in India, but the community is remarkably successful. It has produced some of India’s top businessmen, among them the billionaire Tatas. The Indian Parsi diaspora includes conductor Zubin Mehta, writer Rohinton Mistry and the late Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen.