Despite a group protesting at the Kemps Corner gate of the Tower of Silence on Sunday, against heritage walks at the cemetery, around 24 participants that included a few foreigners were given a one-hour tour of the place.
Police watched the gates as Ramiyar Karanjia, religious scholar and principal of Dadar Athornan Institute, led the participants through a tour briefing them on Zoroastrianism.
The walk, organised by the Mumbai Research Centre (MRC) of the Asiatic Society of Mumbai, had been criticised by community groups which said that the sanctity of the cemetery is violated by the tour. The three-century-old forested cemetery, called Doongerwadi, has prayers halls, a fire temple and circular stone structures known as Dakhmas, or towers of silence, where the dead are laid out for a sky burial. Zoroastrian tradition requires the bodies to be disposed of by natural elements like the sun and carrion birds. No one is allowed to go inside the tower except Parsi-Zoroastrian pall-bearers, while only some areas of the cemetery, such as a prayer hall, is open to non-Zoroastrians.
The tour organisers said that care was taken to not hurt religious sentiments. “The initiative taken was to go beyond the curriculum and understand each other closely. It also gives a different perspective,” said Shehernaz Nalwalla, member of the MRC managing committee and a professor at Wilson College. “It was not done to hurt anyone’s religious sentiments but to make people understand the idea behind certain traditions. We did not take anyone to the consecrated places as was decided,” she added.
Karanjia explained the Zoroastrian religion and its funeral practices as the participants looked on fascinated. “The concept of death, philosophy of life, etymology of the word ‘Tower of Silence’ and other relevant things about the (Zoroastrianism) religion in detail are the things which hardly anyone knows,” he said. “It also describes an important part of the history of a city like Mumbai.”
A non-Parsi participant who took part in the walk, said, “There is already very little knowledge about the community. The curiosity of the already-diminishing group is natural, considering their dominant role in Mumbai through the years.” He also added that as part of studying and understanding the city’s history and legacy, it is relevant to understand the community as well.
Li Xinjieung, a Chinese national who is in India on vacation, said he was interested in knowing different religions. “I like to explore religions. This is my first visit to India and this was definitely worth it,” he said, adding that he was initially scared over the bickering between the community people. “But later on, it went peacefully and we enjoyed a lot,” he added.
Earlier, the tour organisers had decided to keep a nominal registration fee for participants. However, participants were allowed free of charge.