Covid-19 Complicates Disposal of Bodies of Traditional Parsis

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The bodies of the few Parsis who have succumbed to Covid-19 have been cremated, as vultures have virtually disappeared from Mumbai.

Ashok Kumar | Clarion India

MUMBAI – The virtual disappearance of carrion birds such as vultures from most parts of India has over the years impacted the disposal of the bodies of traditional Parsis, many of which are kept for long at ‘Dakhmas’ (Towers of Silence) for final decomposition.

The onset of Covid-19 has added to the complexities. There is confusion as to whether the body of a Covid-19 victim can be removed from the bags and rituals performed while disposing it. The Maharashtra government’s guidelines note that the bodies of such victims can only be cremated or buried.

A trustee of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet (BPP) recently said that community leaders have decided that bodies of all Covid-19 victims – less than a dozen Parsis have succumbed to it so far – would be cremated and not taken to the Dakhma at Malabar Hill in Mumbai.

A Parsi priest has also suggested that the BPP should discuss the matter with the officials, urging them to allow bodies to be disposed the traditional way at ‘Dakhmas’.

Some traditional Parsis point out that ‘Dakhmas’ were in use even during the disastrous plague in the late 19th century when nearly a thousand of the community members died in the two phases. Their bodies were disposed at the ‘Dakhmas.’

In the past, the Tower of Silence in Malabar Hill used to attract a lot of vultures. Millions of these birds were found across India, but the Diclofenac (an anti-inflammatory drug given to livestock, and which was later banned) saw the virtual decimation of white-rumped vultures in the country. In a 10-year span (1993 to 2002), 99.7 per cent of the birds were killed.

Saurabh Sheth, a key member of the Society of Eco-Endangered Species Conservation & Protection (SEESCAP), based in Mahad, in Mumbai’s neighbouring district of Raigad, told Clarion India on Friday that the recent Cyclone Nisarga had also impacted the vulture nests along the Konkan coast, especially near Mahad and Shrivardhan.

“There were more than 200 vultures in our area, the only part in this region where the birds are still there,” he said. “We were naturally concerned about the damage the cyclone could cause. We have so far counted 125 vultures and feel that the others might have gone up the mountains and will hopefully come back.”

Way back in the mid-1990s, Raigad district was home to more than 2,000 vultures. By 2002, their numbers had come down to just around 20 white-backed vultures and less than 10 long-billed ones.

Many Parsis across the sea hope that the birds increase their numbers and return to the city and the Tower of Silence in Malabar Hill sometime in the future.

 

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