It has been nine months since Parsi-Zoroastrians inaugurated a prayer hall at the Worli municipal crematorium as an alternative option for people who do not want to be consigned to the Towers of Silence, their three-centuries-old forest cemetery, also called Doongerwadi, at Malabar Hill.
The prayer hall, built with donations, hosts an average of eight funerals every month. Dinshaw Tamboly, chairman of the prayer hall trust and a former trustee of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) which manages the Towers of Silence, said, “The numbers (of people opting for cremation) are a quantum jump compared to earlier.”
Cremations may be growing in numbers but these are still a small proportion of funerals in Mumbai. The last edition of the weekly Parsiana – which publishes data on deaths, births and marriages – counted 37 cremations this year compared to 343 funerals at the Towers of Silence. But the growing popularity of cremations has given rise to concerns among Parsis about the future of Doongerwadi, a hallowed ground where their ancestors have been laid to rest.
In June, Berjis Desai, partner in a leading law firm and columnist, wrote in Parsiana that ‘Forsaking the Towers of Silence still wrenches the heart’. Desai said that his 92-year-old mother – ‘after a great deal of reluctance’ – has opted for the prayer hall.
“People are going to migrate to the prayer hall. Instead of seven or nine funerals every month the ratio could reach 60:40 (in favour of cremations),” said Desai when we spoke to him. “This can happen in a few years. Then the concern is that the grounds (Towers of Silence) are not used.”
The worry is that if the Towers of Silence are not used for funerals the government will take over the 55-acre estate on the crest of Malabar Hill. The cemetery is located in an area where home prices have topped Rs 125,000 per square feet and the concern is that construction companies are waiting to grab the land. Tamboly said that there should be no worry about this. “When I was a trustee in the Punchayet, we sought legal advice and were assured that the community will not lose the estate,” said Tamboly. “The Tower of Silence is never going to close down as there will always be people who would want to be consigned there.”
The Towers of Silence were built to replicate ancient funeral rites in Persia, their ancestral homeland. Corpses are laid out to be disposed of by the sun and carrion birds, but with the near-extinction of vultures the bodies rot for months. When the BPP prohibited families of people who opted to be cremated from conducting funeral prayers at Doongerwadi, a group of reformists built the Worli facility.
Desai has suggested the building of a solar-powered crematorium inside Doongerwadi as a solution to the crisis. The use of solar power would be scripturally acceptable, he said. “I think we should try and salvage what is there.”
A sun-powered crematorium, Desai said in his column, is ‘better than sitting on a time bomb of a public health scandal, which is too unpleasant even to imagine’.
He has called for a referendum on the issue. “The mechanism (for elections; the BPP holds elections to select its trustees) is available; the next time there is a trustee election hold the referendum,” he said.
Despite its success, many Parsis have called the prayer hall expensive and inconvenient. “It is difficult to observe many funeral rituals at the crematorium. The rituals feel incomplete and it looks like a formality. Also unlike Doongerwadi, the prayer hall does not have a facility to store bodies,” said Viraf Kapadia, a resident of Godrej Baug, Napean Sea Road.
In response to the complaints the prayer hall trust recently released an appeal to the community to pay according to the price chart. “The very fact that people are coming to use the facility indicates that it is useful,” said Tamboly.