Babar Khan, GPC Student
The Towers of Silence
Mrs. Mirza Framji, was a calculus teacher whom I have had the pleasure of knowing for a number of years. This is mainly because Mrs. Mirza and her late husband used to reside in the house directly next to ours in Karachi. After the death of her husband, Mrs. Mirza relocated to the United States with her only son and his wife. On the surface, Mrs. Mirza is like any educated, articulate distinguished Pakistani woman. A staunch feminist, she also possessed an inert nurturing, motherly instinct that the women of her country are so famous for. However, what made Mrs. Mirza so unique to me was the fact that unlike the majority of the Muslim population of her country Pakistan, Mrs. Mirza belonged to a separate surviving pre-Islamic creed known as ‘Zoroastrianism’.
Although the Zoroastrian faith claimed to be the oldest surviving monotheistic religion in the world, its adherents presently only number a few thousand. Most of these adherents today are concentrated in the city of Karachi. Despite their monotheistic principles, which are similar to, and which they say, paved the way for, later monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity and, Islam, Zoroastrians have a most peculiar type of burial practice. After a Zoroastrian dies, instead of being buried in the ground, his or her body is left naked and, exposed atop the "Towers of Silence". This is done so that vultures and other birds of prey may swoop down and, devour the dead Zoroastrian’s flesh. Mrs. Mirza, in being a Zoroastrian, proved very insightful in shedding some light onto the final resting place of her people. An important life event that had stayed with Mrs. Mirza was when her grandmother had died. It was only then that she had come to learn about the tomb of Zoroastrians, which in English, are known as the “Towers of Silence”.
When speaking to Mrs. Mirza, it was difficult to miss her distinguished, rather scholarly sounding English accent. Her vocabulary was potent, ‘very to the point’ and, she had the tendency to occasionally toss some odd humor in her conversations; although it was the most ‘tongue in cheek variety’ and, required a very attentive mind to dissect. Mrs. Mirza had learnt fully of the burial customs of her people at the age of twelve, when her beloved grandmother Meher, had succumbed to cancer. Before that age, Mrs. Mirza had thought that at death, she would be buried in the ground; just as any other Pakistani would. Since ancient times, the Zoroastrians of Pakistan have disposed of their dead by the process, known in Urdu as "Dakhma Nashini" which literally means, "to place on the platform". Hence even after the arrival of Islam to Pakistan after the 7th century A.D, a dedicated few had remained true to the ancient faith and, had continued with the disposal method their ancestors had been using for thousands of years.
From her late Grandfather, Mr. Firoz Dinshaw, Mrs. Mirza had learned about the history of the ‘Towers of Silence’ complex in Karachi, Pakistan. Mr. Dinshaw had sat down his granddaughter and told her, word by word, the entire story of the consecration of the ‘Towers of Science’ complex; these are known in Urdu as ‘Sukhat Vaadi’. When ‘Sukhat Vaadi’ was first built in Karachi, it was located in a secluded area, and away from the city. However after so many centuries, Karachi had grown into a rather bustling city-center with a population of close to 10 million. Therefore, where once it was at the edges of Karachi, ‘Sukhat Vaadi’ was now located in its midst, rising out like a ghostly hill above the surrounding sprawl of roads, bungalows, Mosques and, apartment buildings. Within its property enclosed by stonewalls, ‘Sukhat Vaadi’ still remained a wooded and pacific realm amidst an urban metropolis. It was abounding in birds of all kinds. Trees and vegetation thrived around it, giving it a peaceful serenity that was justly befitting to a person's final place of rest. The gentle sound of a running stream in the vicinity also added to Sukhat Vaadi’s soothing and, tranquil atmosphere. Furthermore, vegetation and numerous trees around the Tower complex also facilitated in maintaining the presence of crows, vultures, and other birds of prey, which were so essential in process of disposing.
During her childhood years, Mrs. Mirza’s grandfather used to take her for walks inside the vast grounds of tangled vegetation at ‘Sukhat Vaadi’. While they both strutted on the stone walkway leading around the vast premises, snakes often crossed their path and, drops of dew often sparkled where the sunlight kissed them on cobwebs. Mrs. Mirza always loved the peace and quiet all around the premises. Mrs. Mirza’s late grandfather taught her to sit quietly, listen to the sounds of the wilderness and, to watch the magnificent peacocks dance to try and enchant the drab peahens. Mrs. Mirza’s grandfather also taught her to recognize the many other species of birds that frequented the place due to its isolation. The‘Sukhat Vaadi’ complex had always been respected by the mostly Muslim residents of Karachi. Throughout the course of centuries, there had never been a single incident of the violation of its premises.
The ‘Towers of Silence’ were tall cylindrical structures rising out of the ground. Often, their cylindrical exterior was not visible due to the collection of earth that had packed around them through the ages. This gave them a more mound-like structure because of which, the ‘Towers of Silence’ appeared more so, like secluded wells atop naturally occurring hills. Mrs. Mirza’s grandfather had told her how no one was allowed to enter the cylindrical Towers themselves. The only people who could do so were the ‘Nasasalars’, or priests. They were the ones who carried the corpses of the dead person to lay them atop the tower platforms. When Mrs. Mirza’s grandmother, Meher had passed on, a young Mrs. Mirza had stood beside her grandfather and relatives, as he submitted his wife’s body over to the ‘Nasasalars’. It was they who would now carry Meher to her final destination. Once inside, a course of very narrow stairways lead the corpse bearing ‘Nasasalars’ to the very top of the Tower of Silence. At the very top of the tower was a platform known as the ‘Dakhma’. The ‘Dakhma’ was divided into three separate, circular paths, much like the racetracks inside a sports arena. The outermost track was for men; the one immediately following it, was for women, and the innermost track was for the bodies of children. Mrs. Mirza’s grandmother was, as her faith prescribed, placed on the middle track for women. At the very center of the platform was a well that leads deep into the center of the tower. After placing the body down, the priests left in order to let the vultures and, other carnivorous birds do their work upon the body. Usually, the corpses were picked clean of all their flesh within a few hours. After letting the bones bake in the sun for a few more hours or even days, depending on however long it took for them to dry, the Zoroastrian priests returned to sweep the crumbling sun dried bones into the well at the center of the 'Dakhma'. Many nights, a young Mrs. Mirza often imagined her grandmother’s bones also being ceremoniously swept into the central well by the ‘Nasasalars’.
This form of body disposing practiced by the Zoroastrians was usually regarded as hideous, and revolting by non-Zoroastrians. An adamant adherent to her faith, Mrs. Mirza grew up having to defend her community’s burial rights to her non-Zoroastrian friends and acquaintances. She articulated to them that Zoroastrians believed in the purity of the natural elements. If they buried their dead, it would have been like polluting the earth. If they burnt them, they would have polluted the fire. Had they tossed their dead into a river or lake, it would have been like polluting the water. This usually helped many understand her faith better. Mrs. Mirza also told her non-Zoroastrian friends that in having themselves submitted to the vultures; Zoroastrians gave their bodies up as their last act of charity on this earth. This had been the very choice made by Meher, who had been Mrs. Mirza’s grandmother. Even so, as Mrs. Mirza attested, amongst themselves the Zoroastrians also had quite a sense of humor about their last rites. Mrs. Mirza’s late maternal uncle always joked with her that since he was so fat, the vultures wouldn’t be able to fly away after they had finished with him. He also spoke of an old Zoroastrian lady who had opted to be buried in a Muslim cemetery, as she was too afraid of the pecking of the vultures.
old days turned into the modern era and Zoroastrians began their diaspora to
Europe and, the United States. Mrs. Mirza, having no immediate family except
her son, came with him to the U.S. She understood that in the U.S, such a form
of disposing the dead would be considered a 'health hazard'. This is why
Zoroastrians that have come to the west have often opted for burial or
cremation, as a form of disposing of their dead. Even though this was the only
option for Zoroastrians living abroad, their faith strictly forbade the
disposal of the dead in any other form, asides from exposing the dead person to
the elements, beasts and, birds of prey. This is why Mrs. Mirza has decided
that when she passes, she will have her body flown back to Pakistan, to the
sacred grounds at ‘Sukhat Vaadi’. Her son, who is now married, is not such a
devout Zoroastrian. He confessed to her that although he would do everything to
fulfill her last wishes, he himself would opt for burial. Thankfully, for Mrs.
Mirza and, in respect of this ancient practice, the government of Pakistan had
not chosen to close down ‘Sukhat Vaadi’. Although Mrs. Mirza’s grandmother had
been an indigenous Zoroastrian, Zoroastrians from other countries were also
sometimes flown to the ‘Towers of Silence’ complex in Karachi, in order to be
disposed off. This is because their own countries had not allowed them the
privilege to be disposed of in the way prescribed by their religion. This has
been true for a few Zoroastrians from Iran, who had been wealthy enough to
afford their final journey to ‘Sukhat Vaadi’.
When Meher Framji, Mrs. Mirza’s grandmother died, her family who believed that her soul would hover around this world for three days, prayed continuously for her. After three days, it was proclaimed that Meher Framji would arrive for her final reckoning on the ‘Chinvar Bridge’. Had she indulged in good deeds, she would be allowed to cross the ‘Chinvar Bridge’ and, into paradise. Had she lead a life of bad deeds, she would never be permitted to cross the ‘Chinvar bridge, and would forever be banished to the flames of hellfire. During these three days, Mrs. Mirza and her family prayed continuously for ‘Ahura Mazda’ or God, to grant their family member permission to cross over the ‘Chinvar Bridge’ to paradise. On the fourth day, when it was understood that the soul of her grandmother had completed its crossing of the ‘Chinvar Bridge’, Mrs. Mirza and, her family offered their final prayers of farewell. On that very fourth day, Mrs. Mirza had asked her grandfather what would happen to her beloved grandmother’s bones, which were the parts of her that could not be consumed by the vultures. Mrs. Mirza’s grandfather turned to her, paused for a second, then responded, “those were merely her mortal remains, which will forever remain here on earth, safe in the sanctity of the ‘Towers of Silence".