Meera Subramanian in Science & Spirit:
When Nargis Baria died at the age of eighty-five in Mumbai, India, her only child, a daughter named Dhun, initiated the death rituals of their Zoroastrian faith. Her mother’s body was dressed in white, prayers whispered in her ear, and after three days a summoned dog’s dismissal indicated that the spirit had moved on. It was time for the nassesalars, or pallbearers, to carry the body to the Towers of Silence, circular structures of stone located on fifty-seven, park-like acres in the heart of Mumbai, surrounded by the upscale high rises of Malabar Hill. They removed her clothing and placed her body in the middle of three concentric circles, one each for women, men and children. At the center was a well where the bones, the last of the last remains of a human body, would be swept in a few days time.
All the proper components of dokhmenashini, the Zoroastrian method of handling their dead, were in place, but the vultures that once completed the cycle by scavenging an exposed corpse in less than five minutes were missing. The custom, so ancient it was described by Herodotus 2,500 years ago, has come to an abrupt end in the past decade, as the vulture population of South Asia has plummeted. In addition to playing a crucial role in processing the human cadavers of this small religious group, vultures filled a vital ecological niche as scavengers of the dead and decaying matter that litters India’s countryside. Now everything has changed, and religious scholars and scientists alike are trying to make sense of the shift.