Vultures to Restore a Human Ritual of Death

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Mumbai Vultures Feeding

MUMBAI, India — Fifteen years after vultures disappeared from Mumbai’s skies, the Parsi community here intends to build two aviaries at one of its most sacred sites so that the giant scavengers can once again devour human corpses.

Construction is scheduled to begin as soon as April, If all goes as planned, vultures may again consume the Parsi dead by January 2014.

“Without the vultures, more and more Parsis are choosing to be cremated,” Mr. Mehta said. “I have to bring back the vultures so the system is working again, especially during the monsoon.”

The plan is the result of six years of negotiations between Parsi leaders and the Indian government to revive a centuries-old practice that seeks to protect the ancient elements — Air, Earth, Fire and Water — from being polluted by either burial or cremation. And along the way, both sides hope the effort will contribute to the revival of two species of vulture that are nearing extinction.

Most vulture aviaries have to spend huge sums to buy meat, but for us that’s free because the vultures will be feeding on human bodies — on us

Vulture tower of silence

Fewer than 70,000 Parsis remain, most of them concentrated in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, where they collectively own prime real estate that was purchased centuries ago. Among the most valuable of these holdings are 54 acres of trees and winding pathways on Malabar Hill, one of Mumbai’s most exclusive neighborhoods. Tucked into these acres are three Towers of Silence where Parsis have for centuries disposed of their dead.

The stone towers are open-air auditoriums containing three concentric rings of marble slabs — an outer ring for dead men, middle ring for deceased women and inner ring for dead children. For centuries, bodies left on the slabs were consumed within hours by neighborhood vultures, with the bones left in a central catchment to leach into the soil.

India once had as many as 400 million vultures, a vast population that thrived because the nation has one of the largest livestock populations in the world but forbids cattle slaughter. When cows died, they were immediately set upon by flocks of vultures that left behind skin for leather merchants and bones for bone collectors. As recently as the 1980s, even the smallest villages often had thousands of vulture residents.

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