By Khojeste Mistree


by Khojeste Mistree Part I

Much has been written and more has been said about the Doongerwadi Aviary Project over the last three years with a lot of unfounded criticism being generously doled out by those who, for various reasons, have sought to thwart this project, since its very inception.

In January 2002, the Jame Jamshed Weekly once again criticized the aviary project highlighting what concerned members of the community have had to say in the past. However, in the latest issue of Jame dated February 3, 2002, Kyoshi Vispy B. Kapadia, the internationally renowned Karate expert from India, has much to my delight written a letter supporting the Aviary Project. He said, "it is disgusting that instead of giving the Aviary a chance to succeed, you have spared no opportunity and left no stone unturned to criticize this project. By displaying your bias against the project, you have tried to demoralize those supporting the Aviary, including myself. Instead of acting positively and encouraging Mr. Khojeste Mistree, a religious scholar and an avid proponent of the Aviary, you have condemned it to die even before its conception..... You should at least educate your readers about the Aviary project and leave it to their judgement. .....I sincerely hope at least now you will support Mr. Khojeste Mistree in his endeavour, against all odds, to preserve Dokhmenashini....Mr. Editor give Mr. Khojeste Mistree and the Aviary a sporting chance".

A very positive and strong letter from a very powerful and strong personality. Thank you Vispy for having hit the nail on the head which is to give "the aviary a sporting chance". You are right that people have sought to condemn the project, unfortunately with either baseless statements or mischievously twisted facts, which in turn have been highlighted in the Parsi media. I hope that with your letter appearing, the editor of Jame has had a change of heart, and will allow me to express my views in the columns of his weekly which was once the bastion of the voice of tradition and orthodoxy.

The Genesis of the Aviary Project:

Some time in November of 1998, I was invited to a Bombay Parsi Punchayet Board to discuss the vexed dakhma problem mainly appertaining to the drastic fall of the vulture population in the environs of Doongerwadi. The directive at this meeting by the Trustees was that at all costs the mode of dokhmenashini, was to be strengthened and that a way should be found to augment the vulture population, if possible. In other words, if the dakhma system was to remain fully functional, then what could one do which :

(a) would be in consonance with the religion, and

(b) give one a long term answer to solve the problem of diminishing vultures which was of grave concern to all those present at this meeting.

As I was traveling to England shortly, the chairman of the BPP, Mr. J. Guzder requested me to talk to Dr. David Houston, an internationally renowned expert on vultures in Scotland, whom I had met some twenty years earlier in Mumbai at our Doongerwadi grounds. My brief was to find out how best one could augment the vulture population for our dakhmas and whether vultures could live in captivity, if the right facilities were created at our sacred grove of Doongerwadi, itself.

The Advent of Ms. Jemima Parry Jones:

Dr. David Houston, when contacted by me in England, gave me the name and number of Ms. Jemima Parry-Jones whom he said had practical experience dealing with large birds of prey and in fact owned and ran the world's largest birds of prey sanctuary, in Gloucestershire, England. Within the week I went and saw her and was wonder struck by the entire outfit, which had hundreds of different birds of prey including the giant Andean Condor, which has a wing span of over ten feet. She also housed a variety of vultures some of whom she had bred at her sanctuary in England. I discussed the "Parsi vulture problem" with her and had to do some explaining about the role of the dakhmas and the religious reasons as to why we had to use such an unusual mode of disposal for the dead. The most important message that I got out from our first meeting was that irrespective of the dakhmas, one could house and breed vultures in captivity and that she was sufficiently optimistic that we could build an aviary around our Towers of Silence which would enable the birds to live in the environs of Doongerwadi, Thus, the housing of vultures would help us from a religious point of view, which was not of real interest to Jemima, but that by building an aviary, it would help the cause of conservation which is much closer to Jemima's heart. In other words a win-win situation was possible where religion and science would both benefit from what appeared to be a feasible project, in principle. She said that she would have to visit the site and then give us her considered opinion as to the viability of the project if we wished to pursue this line of thought.

The Coming of Ms. Jemima Parry-Jones to Mumbai:

Soon upon my return to India I reported my findings to the board of the BPP and requested them to invite Jemima on a reconnoiter to Mumbai in January 1999. The BPP trustees were unusually positive and unanimously agreed to invite Jemima to Mumbai. She spent 4 days with us and was shown around our Doongerwadi lands always under escort, as one is wont to do with any important guest. The Punchayet trustees offered all the courtesy due to her and our preliminary meeting was very positive. We even took her to a known vulture breeding site, outside of Mumbai along the Ahmedabad Highway (N.H.6) but we saw no vulture nests in that area. However, Jemima agreed to give an interim report on her preliminary findings which all appeared to be very positive, if we as a community were willing and keen to build an aviary. Whilst we recognised that the decrease in vulture population in South-East Asia was of grave concern to all of us, Jemima felt that a professionaly administrated project both to house and thereafter to breed vultures would be a pragmatic, long term solution to our problem, providing it met with all the national and international world wildlife norms and requirements. She gave a preliminary report to the BPP trustees before she left Mumbai giving 13 bullet points as to how this project could be brought to fruition. In short, the trustees were given the first ray of hope of strengthening the mode of disposal of the dead, if they were willing to be persons of vision and foresight.

Ms. Jemima Parry-Jones' First Report in January, 1999:

"Vultures take to captivity pretty well if they are kept correctly. They need fairly spacious aviaries to be able to move around in....... they do not need to fly great distances daily to be healthy. They survive in captivity with a small amount of flying and indeed will live much longer lives in captivity than they do in the wild, if looked after well. There have been at least 12 species of vultures bred in captivity. The best known breeding project is that of the Californian Condor - the world's rarest vulture. "... The expertise for keeping and breeding vultures is available and the techniques are known by myself and others in this field.... Having spent some time at the Towers of Silence I have looked at the problem of housing vultures and then achieving the aims needed and I believe it is a good possibility that this can happen. In principle as long as the requirements of the vultures are met, there is no problem in keeping vultures at the Towers of Silence.... The Indian white-backed vulture nests in trees so aviaries with platforms will have to be built .......The vultures that are collected should be young birds just about to leave the nest in the wild. In this way they will adapt to captivity much better than older adult birds. They will never have learnt to soar and glide and so they are less likely to miss it. .....cages, food supply, baths, water and carers will all have to be complete and in place before any vultures are brought in. Because the vultures will be juvenile birds, they will not be ready to breed for about five years, so the breeding pens would not be a priority to build. However, as this is going to have a very long term solution, with no foreseeable end, eventually the Parsi vulture population must be self sustaining. And this will require real and genuine commitment to the project by all those Parsis involved. .....getting permission to take the birds must be justified to the government on more than just the grounds of needing them to continue the traditional way of body disposal of the Parsis. A long term captive breeding programme with the aim of producing birds, not only for the Towers of Silence, but for a genuine release programme would help towards obtaining a favourable response from governments in granting licenses to take birds from the wild".

I have given a very brief synopsis of Jemima's interim report in which she stated:

1) Vultures do live in captivity quite well.

2) The expertise for keeping and breeding vultures is available.

3) Breeding would be undertaken many years down the line.

4) Government permissions will have to be obtained not just for the Parsi problem, but for a release programme by way of conservation for the nation, as well.

Clearly, Jemima gave us, the first ray of hope that vultures could be housed in captivity quite successfully, if all the technical problems were to be taken care of, at our Doongerwadi lands in Mumbai. Thus, the reason for me to feel confident about this project comes from pragmatism and objectivity, if one is to accept Jemima's professional report that the vulture project can be successfully undertaken, given the will and resources by our BPP trustees, if they truly want "to strengthen the system of dokhmenashini".

Clearly, I am assuming that her report must have been discussed by the BPP board quite thoroughly, though I was not present for any such deliberations.

Thus, on the 8th of March 1999, a letter was sent off to Jemima, signed by our BPP chairman, Mr. Jamshed Guzder, stating,

(1) "We agree in principle to the proposal to breed vultures in captivity, initially by establishing an aviary at our estate.........".

(2) "We would be interested to retain you as a consultant for this project and request you to let us know the terms under which you would consider this appointment".

(3) "We would be very particular to ensure that the project should be conceived of and executed keeping in mind all prevailing statutes in India as well as internationally".

It would seem from this letter of acceptance that the BPP trustees unanimously must have agreed to the idea of developing an aviary project, in principle, as a long term means of strengthening the system of dokhmenashini or else why was the letter sent in the first instance? There was no other project, then, that had been cleared by the BPP board, as far as I can recollect.

Jemima's next report was some months later in July of 1999 wherein she outlined her thoughts in much greater detail with dimensions, fittings, shade netting, architect, feeding, drinking, husbandry, keepers, veterinary requirements, breeding programme and the next steps one should take for the project.

From all that was said and written in the media, the supplementary diet issue created a lot of confusion in the minds of some as it was suggested with mischievous intent that Muslim butchers in refrigerated trucks would invade the sacred precincts of the dakhmas with dozens of carcasses of goats, sheep and buffaloes which in turn would be placed inside the dakhma for the vultures to eat. These untruths were deliberately spread to create an anti aviary feeling within the community.

It should be borne in mind that Jemima is not familiar with Zoroastrian religious practices and therefore her suggestion of bringing carcasses was made innocently, within the context of practices followed in wild life sanctuaries rather than with the intention of her wanting to upset the religious feelings of our co-religionists. Nevertheless, those against the aviary project decided to do their best to derail our efforts in order to suit their own vested interests. When it was pointed out to Jemima that this would not be permitted she agreed to an alternative mode of supplementary diet for the birds. One should bear in mind that, vultures in the wild forage around for different carcasses, whereas in the Parsi Vulture Project, the diet of the birds was envisaged to be human corpses only as the birds were to remain in captivity. Hence Jemima suggested that the birds will have to be given an alternative diet, periodically. As this issue became highly emotive and controversial the BPP trustees sought the opinion of some High Priests and scholars. The responses were somewhat mixed as the facts and perceptions were to some extent twisted by those against the aviary project. However, both Dasturs Jamasp Asa and Kotwal wrote a very clear letter dated 21/6/2000 to the Punchayet trustees explaining their positions on a number of issues appertaining to the strengthening of the system of dokhmenashini, including the issue of an alternative diet to be fed to the birds.

"(1) We would like to affirm our position yet again, which is to strengthen the system of dokhmenishini through the bringing back of the natural scavengers to be housed in Doongerwadi. As we have reiterated repeatedly, this is the only long-term solution we see in order to bring the system back on track.

(2) We have confidence in the abilities of the vulture expert, Ms. Jemima Parry-Jones and would urge you to follow her professional advice and implement what she has recommended, as a long-term solution to our present religious problem appertaining to the disposal of the dead. Once the vultures are captively reared, using the expertise available to us, our ensuing problems of decomposition and odour will be issues of the past.

We are pleased that the trustees have decided to go ahead with the aviary project at long last. It is unfortunate that valuable time has been lost in arriving at this decision, however, all efforts should be made to move ahead swiftly with this project by bringing it to fruition.

We see no objection to providing alternative diets for the vultures within the aviary complex providing it is done discreetly, without affecting the visual sentiments of our people. We recognize that the natural scavengers in the wild, have always eaten a varied diet of what the birds have foraged, when hungry. After all, even presently, the kites and crows do eat whatever is available to them within the environs of the dakhmas and hence an alternative diet offered periodically, to the captive birds, should, in our view, pose no theological problem. Moreover, by building the aviary a greater good will be achieved namely, of strengthening the system of dokhmenishini, in a natural way, by using innovations which are in consonance with the beliefs of the faith.

Whilst we are given to understand that the solar panel experiments are on in Baroda, we reserve our rights to opine on this project until a proper report and evaluation are given to us for theological considerations. We are keeping an open mind on this project, but our apprehensions still remain of both excessive heat and possible burning or charring of the corpse.

(3) We would like to draw the attention of the trustees that it is ironical, that despite our active interest and numerous letters written to the board, the present editor of the 'Jame', has accused us of maintaining "a stony silence on matters of grave communal importance". ('Jame' dated 18/6/2000, p. 24). In view of the editor's erroneous remark, we wish to place on record and release to the public, all our correspondence, to date, to your good selves, to the Pune Parsi Punchayet and to Dr. Dhalla, over the past few months. This, in turn, will enable the community to learn about the various innovations which we have permitted and those which we have debarred as not being in consonance with our religious norms. Our endeavours have been to help and guide the Punchayet, actively, in order to overcome the long-standing problem facing us with regard to the disposal of the dead.

Please note that our views are based upon what we believe to be theologically right and in harmony with the customs and traditions of the faith, which we, as prelates, are duty-bound to uphold, even it is at the cost of displeasing those who choose to ignore our advice".

From the above points, it is clear that the senior most learned High Priests of Mumbai had opined in favour of the aviary including the administrating of an alternative diet to the vultures. That a subsequent letter against the giving of a supplementary diet to the vultures at Doongerwadi was because the initiator of the November, 2000 letter had deliberately and willfully misinformed the High Priests, and this information led the prelates to raise an objection against the aviary project which they had never done till then. Thereafter I believe that the High Priests have seen through the mischief of what happened then.

What has been agreed upon is that the necessary diet of meat will be given, discreetly to the birds without transgressing any doctrinal injunction whatsoever. Moreover, as the learned High Priests have stated, " building the aviary a greater good will be achieved namely of strengthening the system of dokhmenashini in a natural way by using innovations which are in consonance with the beliefs and practices of the faith".

The year 1999 was a very good one for the aviary project judging from all that which happened in that year, however it is unfortunate that in the year 2000 the dakhma controversy was brought to its zenith fanned by the powers that be within the Bombay Parsi Punchayet. The High Priests were repeatedly called upon to reiterate their opinions about the religious rightness of the aviary project. In their letter dated 12th March 2000, to Trustee Tamboly and Dr. Dhalla the High Priests declared: "Our advice is to strengthen the system of natural exposure with an aim to accelerate the process of decomposition .....At the Khareghat Hall meeting, it was clearly resolved that the eventual aim was to strengthen the system of dokhmenashini by bringing back the birds of prey. We hope that this is still the stated objective and strongly support these endeavours which was recommended by all the Trustees at the meeting. The ecologically friendly system of Khurshid Nigarishni enhanced by the use of birds of prey will in our opinion be in consonance with our traditions and customs. This indeed needs to be our final objective..........We have known Mr. Khojeste Mistree over the years and he is a person who has always stood firmly by scriptural references for whatever he believes in. Moreover, we are happy that he is taking such a keen interest in the Doongerwadi project and urge your good selves to keep him busy and involved in this project.......".

In April 2000, as the anti aviary brigade were actively whipping up people's sentiments and emotions through the media the High Priests once again thought it appropriate to write another letter dated 3/4/2000 to Mr. Tamboly in which they wrote the following:

"....We have clearly stated that in our view the natural dokhmenashini method of disposal is in consonance with our traditions and customs and which must be safeguarded at all costs.

The method of dokhmenashini comprises of the use of natural elements only comprising of the decomposition of the corpses by natural scavengers by exposing them to the direct rays of the sun at all times and by effecting the cleaning with the natural wind within the large expanse of Doongerwadi".

" was clearly expressed by your good-self and others that the eventual aim was to strengthen the system of dokhmenashini by bringing back the birds of prey. As we understand it, we are now being given a totally opposite point of view, high lighting all the pitfalls of breeding vultures in captivity. Why have not these issues been discussed openly amongst your Doongerwadi committee in the first instance? We would urge you to reconsider your decision and promote the vulture project..... we have given you a clear direction to follow a path which strengthens the method of dokhmenashini in its original form with the bringing back of the birds of prey. Please do not involve us with the politics of the situation and expect us to change our opinions to suit those which are not in harmony with the age old system of direct Khurshid Nigarishni found within the parameters of dokhmenashini, which is what we as High Priest are expected to uphold".

Clearly in this letter the High Priests stated,

(1) that the system of dokhmenashini should be safeguarded at all costs,

(2) that only the natural elements of scavengers, direct rays of the sun, and the natural wind were seen by them to be the components of dokhmenashini,

(3) that Trustee Tamboly should reconsider his decision and promote the vulture project, and

(4) that the High Priests did not want to be embroiled in politics played by certain individuals within and outside the BPP.

In fact, the two High Priests have been extremely consistent in their support of the aviary project as it does not, in their view, go against the tenets of the faith as by bringing back the vultures on a permanent basis, will in fact in their opinion, strengthen the system of dokhmenashini in as natural a way as possible. Nobody in normal circumstances would really like to build an aviary around the dakhmas if the vultures were there, as they were in earlier times. However, as the vultures are not there in any sizeable numbers, the aviary appears to be the best long term solution for the community if one wants to bring back the birds and also preserve the institution of the dakhmas. How, can there be anything irreligious, if one wants to preserve the old mode of disposal of the dead through the use of an aviary in order to bring back the birds of prey. The netting for the aviary will be three to four inches square and therefore plenty of sunlight will fall into the dakhma fulfilling the important requirement of direct Khurshid Nigarishini as versus focussed rays of the sun being directed onto the body as is also being promoted by some.

Moreover, in a letter dated 7/6/2000 to Dr. Dhalla received by the BPP on the 7th of June 2000, the High Priests again clearly outlined their position:

"We see no doctrinal reasons as to why the vultures should not be brought back and housed at the Doongerwadi. Please refer to our letters dated 12th March, 3rd April, and 8th April, 2000 in which we have reiterated our religious position appertaining to dokhmenashini and the bringing back of the birds".

How much clearer can the High Priests be in their support of the aviary project? Clearly, there are going to be problems as the project progresses, but if one has the will to solve them, then a solution can always be found. On the other hand, if one wishes to create problems under the guise of pragmatism and lack of resources, then I believe that we are missing the point or that there is a hidden agenda which I am unable to understand.

The issue as I see it, is that if one wants to strengthen the dakhmas on a long term basis, then no better solution has been offered so far which is practicable and in consonance with the tenets of the religion.

(1) The aviary project is not being handled in a willy-nilly manner, but we have sought the best professional advice, both international and local bird experts have been identified as our consultants and we will seek the support of international bodies such as the World Wildlife and its arm, the Alliance for Religion and Conservation (ARC), which promote and support conservation projects with different religious groups around the world.

(2) We have sought professional advice from a world expert in housing and breeding birds of prey.

(3) We have appointed our own professional cadre of experts to guide us with technical and building expertise.

(4) Highly skilled architects and structural engineers are currently working on the design of the aviary which it is envisaged will cover an area of some 120,000 sq. ft. over two of the four functioning dakhmas.

The netting will be unobtrusive and some 20-30 ft. above the dakhma walls so that the vultures will be able to fly in and out of the "towers", freely. The reason we require to use at least two dakhmas is because each dakhma has to be "rested" from time to time in order that it may be cleaned and prepared for its next cycle of use. If only one dakhma had a netting over it, then what would one do with the live birds when that dakhma was temporarily shut down for "rest" and cleaning? Where would the birds go and forage for food? This is why it is imperative that a second dakhma be made available if the vulture project has to succeed in its final analysis. In short, the project comprises one aviary over two dakhmas.

The vultures:

The population of the white backed Gyps vulture has drastically fallen in the wilds in most parts of India and South East Asia. Therefore it is now part of the Indian Government's official policy to breed vultures in captivity and hence not only the Central Government, but also the State Governments of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Maharashtra have given the Parsi Vulture Project encouragement and support to obtain young birds, in a phased manner, provided we build the aviary in a scientific and professional manner. Initial scouting trips for juvenile vultures have been successful as we are not talking of obtaining thousands of birds, but 50 birds to start with which I am confident that we will be able to procure from the wilds once our aviary is built. This then is envisaged to be Phase One of the Parsi Vulture Project. Phase II of the Project will entail breeding the birds in captivity, approximately five years after the young vultures have been housed in the Aviary.

It should also be known, that whatever disease the vultures have, and which has resulted in their abrupt deaths, is something which has happened in the wild and not in captivity. Vultures in zoos and sanctuaries have not been affected by the "drooping head syndrome" and therefore the paranoia of our anti aviary brigade of all our vultures dying in captivity is somewhat unfounded if one considers the project in its scientific entirety. Even if some of the vultures do die in captivity we will be able to augment the breeding stock periodically and therefore to speculate that a crore of rupees will be wasted and lost forever, is far from the truth.

The Possible Cost of the Project:

This brings me to the cost of the project which most people are concerned with and rightly so. Yes, it is an expensive project but one has to see it in a "holistic sense". The Doongerwadi lands are a priceless asset worth thousands of crores which the BPP trustees have been empowered to administrate. The lands have been settled by our forebearers specifically for the purposes of dokhmenashini and the ceremonies appertaining to the dead. Therefore, it should be our avid desire to preserve this heritage for the next generation so that there is no change of use within the environs of our sacred grove. If this goal to preserve our sacred grove is to be championed, then in no way should the system of dokhmenashini be allowed to be weakened as it has been allowed to do so over the past 30 years. Giving a new lease of life to our mode of disposal is, in my opinion, the only answer and for this to happen I believe that a community as wealthy as ours, supported by the healthy resources of the BPP, should be in a position to generate the funds which are needed for this project. In base line terms the monies required by way of capital costs for this project are around three crores, far less than what a three bedroom ownership flat would cost in the Malabar Hill area. Is that a high price to ask, if one is able to strengthen and preserve a spiritual heritage as important as our dakhmas, for years to come? The answer is quite clear that the majority of Zoroastrians including myself wish to preserve this religious heritage, at all costs. Why is it that over 96% of those who have died in Mumbai have been consigned to the dakhmas, despite two years of adverse publicity against the mode of disposal of the dead, as versus an infinitesimal minority of those who have chosen the crematorium route. If the dakhma is the preferred mode of disposal of our dead, then the economic viability has to follow in order to ensure the continuance of the dakhmas and not the other way round. If the idea of the aviary is marketed appropriately with unanimous and total BPP trustee support, then the finances will fall, undoubtedly, into place as we are not talking of unmanageable amounts. The structural costing is currently being fine tuned and we may be surprised pleasantly with the final capital cost of the project.

The Project is Viable:

Why should one assume that the project is not viable if:

(a) the project has the support of the learned High Priests of Mumbai and that it is doctrinally Right in their opinion;

(b) the majority of the community also support this project as was observed at the Samast Anjuman Meeting summoned by the BPP, on the 14th of December 2000;

(c) a team of international experts are involved;

(d) the Central and state Governments are favourably disposed to the Parsi Vulture Project;

(e) the birds will be cared for professionally by trained experts both local and foreign;

(f) the availability of birds has been explored and assuredly safe guarded;

(g) the birds will get a regular supply of food monitored by nutrition experts;

(h) the seed capital has already been promised subject to local planning and building permissions which have to be obtained;

(i) we, at our end, are going about it in a cautious, professional manner;

(j) the project is being undertaken as a pious act of devotion and worship.

Optimism Is The Need Of The Hour:

Most importantly, if we as traditionalists believe that we are doing this for the sake of our spiritual heritage, then how can we fall prey to failure? It is worth noting that four of the seven trustees including some earlier critics of the aviary have gone and seen the largest birds of prey sanctuary in the world which Ms. Jemima Parry-Jones has created and runs and for which she was awarded the MBE by the Queen of England. Why indeed should this project fail if we unitedly work towards its successful implementation. No queries raised by the BPP trustees have gone unanswered; in fact, when 17 questions were asked by trustee Tamboly in June 2000, all of them were answered in writing by Mr. Rishad Naoroji a conservationist and raptor expert and myself. Mr. Rishad Naoroji is the local birds of prey expert and we are fortunate to have his support. It would seem that all our efforts in the minds of the doubting Thomases have been in vain, as it is not the viability of the project per se in question, but the likely success of it which worries those who perceive the system of dokhmenashini to be "barbaric" and out of sync with the changing times we live in.

The success of the aviary with the reintroduction of vultures will neutralise those who have sought to use the absence of the vultures as the main reason for legitimizing alternate forms of disposal of the dead. I believe that this is the real crux of the problem, as if we succeed with the aviary project which I believe to be the case, then our "sacred grove" will remain "sacred" for all times to come. Whereas, if the mode of disposal was allowed to be changed, then it is not wildly speculative to postulate that our "sacred land" will at some point in the future be used for other non-religious purposes, as indeed has happened with other properties located close to our Doongerwadi lands. This is a real danger which we should be vigilant about as there are dark forces lurking on the horizon whose interests are not to preserve but to weaken the ritual base of the community in the long run in a planned and rather machiavellian way.

The Health Hazard Bogey at Doongerwadi:

By building an aviary with the right amount of birds of prey the ostensible health hazard bogey will be relegated to the realms of myth and fantasy, as the dakhmas have never ever posed a health hazard and in fact in the words of Dr. Pritam Phatnani, in his letter dated l9th April 2001 he stated the following:

"Prima facie, however, looking at the immediately available literature, including the W.H.O. report on Mass Disasters, and in my own personal experience as a forensic pathologist, who has handled several decomposed bodies, there is no evidence that the dead bodies, in general, post any health hazard to the community.

I must state here that there is a significant difference between the dead bodies lying in he domestic environment for several days where it can cause sanitation problems and the ones lying disposed at the Tower of silence. As I understand from our discussion, Doongerwadi is a an uninhabited area of several acres of forest land, and the dead bodies are handled only by the corpse bearers in hygienic manner and exposed to hot sun in a well protected and confined space of Bisni Dokhma with the use of high grade lime".

Dr. Phatnani is a leading forensic pathologist in India and is perhaps the best qualified to give an opinion on corpses as versus those doctors who treat the living. The WHO reports on this issue confirm Dr. Phatnani's observations.

It also might be worth noting that in Karachi a very exclusive housing development for Parsis has been built in the immediate vicinity of the dakhmas with no ill effects upon the residents, whatsoever. Likewise, even in Mumbai the dakhmas are a stone's throw away from Spenta Apartments on the eastern end and Godrej Baug on the western side and there is not a shroud of evidence to show that the Parsis living in these salubrious apartments have contracted any disease which can be traced back to the system of dokhmenashini in Mumbai. In fact, the Bundahishn refers to a smell in the environs of the dakhma and has this to say:

"Regarding the vulture (karkas) it says that even from his highest flight, he sees when flesh the size of a fist is on the ground, and the scent of musk is created under his wing so that if in devouring dead matter, the stench of the dead matter comes out from it, he puts his head back under the wing and is comfortable again" (ch. 19, v. 31).

The mode of disposal has not changed for centuries for the Parsis living in Mumbai, though the attitudes of the Zoroastrians and general information circulated about the dakhmas have perhaps quadrupled due to the propaganda drummed up against this form of disposal of the dead. The sight inside the dakhmas I am sure would never ever have been a pleasant one, as some people expect it to be. Bodies have always presumably lain, there for some time in different forms of decomposition, until the "wet nasu" was ritually perceived to become dry by the corpse bearers after which the remains were lowered into the central dry pit of the dakhma known as the bhandar. There the bodies were left in natural lime for an indeterminate period of time, after which their remains were buried outside the dakhma in what came to be known as an astodan. Here again a lining of natural lime and black salt was used in this mode of burial as by this time the skeletal remains were deemed to be ritually neutral and not ritually active as in the case of the nasus in the Tower of Silence.

In a subsequent article other issues appertaining to the Aviary Project will be discussed (please see below for this article). I hope that, you the readers will find what I have compiled to be fair and objective as I believe that this project is in the best interests of the community. I would like to thank the editor of the Jame, Mr. Rusi Dhondy for giving me this platform to express my views.

Khojeste Mistree,

Zoroastrian Studies,
K. R. Cama Oriental Institute Building,
Ground Floor, 136 Bombay Samachar Marg,
Mumbai - 400 023 INDIA.

February 08, 2002


by Khojeste Mistree Part II

Two Sundays ago, on the 10th of February, 2001, the editor of Jame, Mr. Rusi Dhondy gave me the opportunity to outline and explain the aviary project to you, the readers. I would like to thank Mr. Dhondy for having carried my long article, in full, which ran into three and a half pages of newsprint! In Part One, I discussed the genesis of the aviary project, the role of Ms. Jemima Parry-Jones, the strong endorsement from Dasturs Jamasp Asa and Kotwal to go ahead with the aviary project, the tentative cost of the project, its viability and finally the trumped-up health hazard bogey raised by some people who sought to exploit it as a means to dissuade people from using the system of dokhmenashini.

The BPP Board Gives The Green Light...

On the 27th of July, 2000, I received a letter signed by the Chairman of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet, authorizing me to go ahead and proceed to obtain the necessary statutory permissions both at Central and State government levels. The Chairman wrote: "...The Board has unanimously decided after evaluating all the pros and cons submitted to them that an Aviary should be built in conformity with the traditions and practices of the Zoroastrian faith. The Board has once again resolved to authorize you to proceed for obtaining the necessary statutory permissions that are essential for establishing Aviary/Aviaries at our Doongerwadi (Towers of Silence) complex at Mumbai...". In other words, till the end of July 2000, the Board were unanimous in their support of the aviary project and that they had evaluated all the pros and cons submitted to them.

One must bear in mind that by this time, Ms Jemima Parry-Jones had met the trustees in India; she had submitted her two reports; presumably the trustees concerned must have read all that was presented to them, for them in turn, to have unanimously agreed to go ahead with the aviary project. What happened subsequently to change this happy unity remains a mystery to date.

Nevertheless, based on this letter, I set about seeking to obtain permissions using the good offices of Mr. Rishad Naoroji, a well-known conservationist and birds of prey expert. Rishad formed an informal committee of like-minded conservationists in Mumbai and we met often to discuss how we should go ahead and obtain the necessary statutory permissions from the Government of India.

Our Visit To New Delhi...

In September 2000, both Rishad and I flew down to Delhi, at our own costs to attend an international conference on vultures hosted by a number of environmental organizations including the Ministry of Environment, Government of India and the Bombay Natural History Society. We met a number of experts both local and international including Ms Jemima Parry-Jones who was especially came to India to champion the Parsi Vulture cause with the powers that be; she was also invited by the BPP trustees to meet them in Bombay for further discussions on an unnecessary controversy which had been whipped up against her in the local press. Going to the Vulture Congress in New Delhi was an important step as we met a number of experts with whom we discussed the Parsi Vulture problem. I was asked to explain why the Parsis in Mumbai wanted to develop a captive vulture breeding programme for religious purposes, which meant that I had to explain the mode of dokhmenashini to a non-Zoroastrian audience of scientists, ornithologists and government officials. After my ten-minute presentation the Indian scientists from the north and south of India agreed unanimously to recommend to the Government of India, to promote captive breeding programmes for the white-backed Gypsy vultures, due to its drastic decrease in numbers.

Seeking Permission from the Government of India...

At this conference, it was suggested to me by Mr. Harsh Vardhan of Rajastan, that I should write directly to the Minister of Environment and Forests and ask him to give us permission to start a vulture breeding programme both for religious and conservation purposes. Thus on the 19th of September, 2000 I wrote: "...our method of disposal is somewhat unusual in as far as we do not cremate, bury or drown our dead, but we expose them to the sun and to birds of prey, mainly vultures, who devour the corpses quickly and efficiently. ... we worship the elements of fire, the earth and the waters which should not be defiled, ritually, in any way whatsoever; this act may be seen as our commitment to nature conservation... therefore, we would like to strengthen our existing system by augmenting the vulture loss, by breeding these birds in captivity, on our religious grounds known as Doongerwadi in Mumbai... Thus, we seek your Ministry's clearance to be permitted to undertake this project in the name of religion and conservation which the Parsis have always upheld and supported. If we are permitted to breed vultures in captivity, this will be a first for our nation and moreover the surplus birds so bred could be released in the wild to restore our eco-system eventually.

In short, here is a project wherein the religious needs of the Parsi community can be dove-tailed into a conservation project for the nation at no cost whatsoever to the Government Of India. Clearly, we seek co-operation from both national and international sources in order to ensure the scientific success of this project. Please give us the necessary permissions to undertake this pioneering work for our nation and community".

Miracle Of Miracles...

On the 3rd of November 2000, some six weeks later, we received a letter, which I believe was like an answer to our prayer. The additional Inspector-General of Forests, Shri S. C. Sharma wrote: "The Ministry is fully convinced about the need of the project on captive breeding of vultures. However, the reintro-duction will be carried out as per guidelines of International Union of Conservation on the subject. Your idea of captive breeding being done simultaneously at 4-5 centres is also logically sound. You may now work out detailed project including creation of appropriate housing and health-care facilities in consultation with the Central Zoo Authority. Once the facilities are ready, the question of getting founder birds for breeding purposes would also be decided. You will also consider involve-ment of knowledgeable persons from outside...". In short, the letter clearly gave us the first go-ahead, required for this project wherein the ministry accepted the need for captive breeding to be done by us in Mumbai, in a proper and scientific manner in consultation with the Central Zoo Authority. We were also given permission to use foreign expertise which in our case is tapping the expertise of Ms Jemima Parry-Jones. Understandingly, the government wanted us to prove our bonafides and therefore asked us to get back to them for subsequent permissions, after we had built the appropriate housing facilities for such an unusual project. I do not see anything unusual about this cautious approach shown by the Central Government, however from this point onwards machiavellian politics against the aviary, into the project.

Additional Permissions Sought From The State Government...

Despite trustee Tamboly's reservations about the project not being viable and his concern about preserving procuring the birds, Mr. Rishad Naoroji the project co-ordinator went ahead and sought the preliminary permissions from the Governments of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajastan to obtain juvenile birds from these three states where a number of vulture sightings have been made. In Jan-Mar 2000, Shri Harsh Vardhan and his group in Rajastan undertook a population survey of vultures sighted in their state and they came to the conclusion that there were over 10,000 vultures in the State of Rajastan. Likewise, flocks of vultures have been sighted in Gujarat and Maharashtra and have also been filmed as proof, which would suggest that it is possible to procure 50 birds a year, for a period of four years.

The Religious Viability Of The Aviary Project...

As far as the capital costs of this project are concerned, it is not Rs.8 crores as has been wrongly reported in the press by those virulently against the aviary project, but a much more realistic figure of Rs.3 crores as was stated by me, earlier. Indeed, donations can be sought from the Parsi/Irani public at large if the idea is rightly marketed and meaningfully supported by the powers that be. This is where we require the help from the media and the Jame in particular, as it has a large Parsi readership in order that we may inform those interested and let them know as to where we stand. Kyoshi Vispy Kapadia's rallying call of "Give the Aviary Project a chance" is the crying need of the hour. If the system of dokhmenashini is to be strengthened and our "sacred grove" kept intact as was bequeathed to the community by our forebearers, then, I believe that the cost of building an aviary is small compared to the asset value of the Doongerwadi lands which I think that we should seek to secure on a long-term basis; this can only happen by strengthening the mode of disposal of the dead, which all the BPP trustees on oath have attested so to do. By de facto encouraging alternative solutions under the guise of strengthening the mode of disposal of the dead, cannot be, a long-term solution to our problem, bearing in mind that as the two High Priests of Mumbai have said that the aviary project should be implemented. Moreover, at the Samast Anjuman Meeting held on the lawns of Rustom Baug on the 14th of December 2000, an overwhelming voice of the community was in support of building the aviary and this has again been recorded on video, for those who doubt my contention.

The aviary is the only feasible system, until a better system is suggested that adheres closest to the original system of dokhmenashini. Only the aviary project ensures:

1. Khurshid nigarishni.

2. Exposure to the elements.

3. Disposal through birds of prey as envisaged by our sacred religious texts.

Management Viability A Must and Other Aviary Projects...

In other words, if the learned High Priests of Mumbai and the majority of the community have consistently voiced their approval forgoing ahead with the aviary project, as a long term solution which is in consonance with the mode of disposal of the dead, then surely that is reason enough for one to continue with this project, provided it is allowed to run on sound professional and management lines, in the first instance.

In view of what I have stated, I would urge a well managed business house or a group of professionals to come forward and take the responsibility of running the aviary project on a day to day basis with a reporting mechanism in place to keep the BPP trustees well- informed and up-to-date as to the happenings of the project. I believe that the financial control for the aviary project should remain with the BPP trustees who should be given proper yearly budgets by the aviary management team in order to maintain financial prudence as well as to ensure checks and balances of what I envisage to be a well-run operation. It may be worth noting that vulture breeding projects in the last 18 months have started in Nepal, Pakistan and most recently in the forest of Bir Shikurgarh in Haryana. An aviary has been built with sponsorship coming from the Haryana Government, The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds - UK, the Zoological Society of London, the Darwin Initiative Fund, and Ms. Jemima Parry-Jones of the National Birds of Prey Centre, Gloucester who has agreed to give technical help to further this project. They plan to breed white-backed and long-billed vultures with an aim to release them into the wild, once the disease affecting them is identified. The Poultry Diagnostic and Research Centre - Pune, and Dr. Andrew Cunningham, an expert epidemiologist from London in avian diseases, are working flat out to discover which pathogens have caused the vulture to fall sick in the wild with what is commonly known as a "drooping neck syndrome".

The State Governments Support The Project...

The Governments of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajastan have given us permissions to procure the vultures under strict supervision and control. On a recent visit to Ahmedabad, I was offered six injured vultures including a juvenile Egyptian vulture whose natural habitat is not in India. Offers have also come from Spain for the supply of vultures local and indigenous to the climatic conditions of Southern Spain. Clearly, one cannot do much more on a "dry run" bans as the birds are not going to remain in one place and are going to fly away unless if kept in captivity. To do this we require to build the aviary in a phased manner or else we are going to be in a "chicken or egg" situation. If we do not build the aviary, then where do we house the vultures and if we argue that there are no vultures to procure, then indeed why build the aviary in the first instance? As best as possible, we have been assured that the juveniles will be available and procured through all the right official channels open to us.

Some Details About The Aviary...

The topography of the land at Doongerwadi is rugged and the dakhmas have been built on a rocky knoll with great variations in height. This means that the aviary will require high masts from which cables will be suspended over which the netting will fall. It is envisaged that the netting will be at least 30 feet above the dakhma wall to enable the birds to fly in and out with ease. Resting perches, bird- baths, shade-houses etc. will have to be provided outside the dakhma for the birds to live in comfort in a simulated natural habitat. As the netting will be wide, plenty of sunlight will be able to fall on the dakhma during daylight hours. It is also planned that the sides of the aviary netting will have flowering creepers growing over it, so as to prevent people looking into the inner areas of the dakhma from the high-rise buildings located in the north-west and due west of our Doongerwadi lands. The creepers would act as a screen against prying eyes from the outside world. The netting, it is envisaged, will cover an area of some 120,000 sq. ft. which will include the Banaji and Bisni dakhmas. In other words once the basic facilities are put into place, then Jemima will have to make another visit and ensure sure that we have created the right habitat for the vultures to live in. Once this phase is complete then the juvenile vultures will be brought in for which official specialist bird-catchers have already been identified. It is also envisaged that once the construction of the aviary begins, then two young Zoroastrian avian and wild-life enthusiasts will have to be identified and sent for a short period of training to England in order to gain hands-on practical experience of how to handle and care for vultures and other birds of prey, in captivity. We will also require the services of a trained veterinary doctor with a special interest in avi-culture and bird medicine. Additionally, we will have to employ four to five other workers to help us with the day to day running of the aviary. For all these facilities to be implemented the cost factor has rightly to be considered. Here again one has to weigh up the cost factor as against what we are striving to achieve in terms of wanting to strengthen the system of dokhmenashini and in so doing, preserve our religious heritage.

The Importance of Building An Aviary...

If one assumes that the aviary project works and we are successful in achieving our goals of housing and then breeding vultures in captivity, then the mode of disposal of the dead is not only going to be strengthened but secured for generations to come. Should we gamble away our religious heritage and the well-being of the souls of our near and dear ones, on the grounds of lack of funds, as against a loss of our spiritual beliefs? The issue should not be clouded with what happens to those Zoroastrians who die abroad where there are no dakhmas. The point is that in Mumbai we have safeguarded our religious practices extremely well. Our priests in Mumbai, know how to perform the highest of high rituals, namely the nirangdin to a simple house jashan ceremony. We have 44 fire temples where the sacred fires are servedby the priests; in other words, the ritual fidelity of the faith has been maintained in Mumbai. If we encourage an alternative system whereby the vultures are something of the past, then I believe, that we are sacrificing something important and spiritual at the altar of misplaced scientific innovations as is being established around the dakhmas. The vultures in the aviary will ensure a quick decomposition of the corpse and with the process of natural Khurshid nigarishn falling on all the corpses, equally. The dakhma is seen to be the most egalitarian mode of disposal of the dead. Whether a Zoroastrian is rich or poor the corpses decompose with the same intensity of the sun (not selective) and are devoured by the same birds of prey in the case of an aviary. Thus, I believe, that the aviary will retain the egalitarian spirit of the dakhma which no other system can replicate and this is an important point of principle which one should factor in, when considering the costs of building an aviary as versus any other temporary solutions currently in use in and around the dakhmas in Mumbai.

Thus in Mumbai we must do our best and preserve what we have inherited by way of a religious legacy and not take solace as to what happens to the souls of those Zoroastrians who die abroad. Here in Mumbai we have the religious infrastructure whilst elsewhere in the Western world, we do not, but this does not mean that we should bury our ritual practices down to the lowest common denominator and therefore, conclude that we should give up what has been weakened and accept what is doctrinally wrong as an alternative under the manthra of "let us move with the times". The aviary will cost the community some monies, but these monies I believe are well worth spending in order to strengthen and safeguard the spiritual heritage of the faith by doing all that we can do to preserve our mode of disposal in Mumbai, in both a visionary and a professional way. The ebb and flow of money will always continue, but our religious heritage should not be bartered away because of the whims and fancies of a powerful though miniscule group of people who seek change without realizing the true religious value and merit of how important dokhmenashini is, for the continued spiritual well being of the Zoroastrian community.

Let Us Work Together, Unitedly Today, For Tomorrow's Goal...

Fellow Zoroastrians, let us work unitedly towards bringing back the vultures so that the next generation of our co-religionists will never again be plagued by a Doongerwadi controversy as bitter as what we have been through. We must learn to trust Ahura Mazda and seek His blessings for the successful implementation of this project and succeed we will, if we remain united in our resolve to go ahead and build an aviary on our "sacred grove" of Doongerwadi. This project has been conceived rationally and it is hoped that it will be implemented professionally and maintained pragmatically in which case the question of viability becomes an issue of the past. Let us be affirmative and declare "yes we can do it" as versus why we should not go ahead with this project; this project is viable for those who truly believe in the system of dokhme-nashini, particularly as:

1. the project has the support of the learned High Priests of Mumbai and that it is doctrinally RIGHT and therefore, they have opined "to strengthen the system of natural exposure... to strengthen the system of dokhmenashini by bringing back the birds of prey. This indeed needs to be our first objective... and which must be safeguarded at all costs";

2. the majority of the community believes in dokhmenashini as was observed at the Samast Anjuman Meeting (14/12/2000) where the aviary project was given overwhelming support;

3. a team of local and international experts are involved in implementing and running this project to ensure its success;

4. the Central and State Governments are favorably disposed to the Parsi Vulture Project; in fact our project because of its unusual aims and needs, has aroused the fascination and interest of international wild-life bodies as well;

5. the availability of birds has been explored and assuredly safe-guarded;

6. the birds will be cared for professionally, by experts both local and foreign;

7. the birds will be given a regular supply of food monitored by nutrition experts; as the High Priests, Dasturs Jamasp Asa and Kotwal have opined: "We see no objection to providing alternative diets for the vultures within the aviary complex, providing it is done directly, without affecting the visual sentiments of our people. Afterall even presently, kites and crows do eat whatever is available to them within the environs of the dakhmas and hence an alternative diet offered periodically to the captive birds should in our view pose NO theological problem. Moreover, by building the aviary a greater good will be achieved namely of strengthening the system of dokhmenashini a natural way by using innovations which are in consonance with the beliefs and practices of the faith". (21/6/2000);

8. a major part of the capital has already been promised by the BPP, and if additional funds are required then these monies may be obtained from individuals, the community and international agencies interested in vulture conservation just as International Wild-Life agencies have supported the vulture breeding project newly established in Haryana; 9. the project is founded on rationality and pragmatism with a lot of hard spadework already done;

10. the aviary will be run on professional lines, preferably under the auspices of a well co-ordinated team of competent experts;

11. media support is important to give this unusual project a credible chance to succeed;

12. and most importantly, we require the blessings and goodwill from ALL the Bombay Parsi Punchayet trustees as well as from the community at large comprising the pious and devout worshippers.

I believe that you the readers should decide after having read both my articles, as to whether this project deserves your support as it is viable and therefore worth undertaking in order that we may strengthen and safeguard the system of dokhmenashini on a long term basis "by putting it back on track" as our learned High Priests have opined, repeatedly; I believe that as good foot soldiers, we should go ahead and build this aviary as our single most important religious contribution with an aim to facilitate the spiritual well-being of the next generation of our Zoroastrian community.

Once again I would like to thank the editor, Mr. Rusi Dhondy for having given me the opportunity to express my views in the Jame weekly and hope that my perceptions on the Parsi Vulture Project have been informative for those interested in supporting this project.

Khojeste Mistree,

Zoroastrian Studies,
K. R. Cama Oriental Institute Building,
Ground Floor, 136 Bombay Samachar Marg,
Mumbai - 400 023 INDIA.

February 24, 2002

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