Zoroastrian: Praise life & death on Ghambar Paitishem

Vultures, vital to Zoroastrian funeral rites, are nearly extinct in some areas of India. Devotees find possible hope in a new proposal. Photo in public domainWEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 12: Followers of the world’s first major monotheistic religion mark Ghambar Paitishem today, or the festival celebrating the creation of the earth and the harvesting of the winter crop.

Beyond Nowruz—New Year—six seasonal festivals divide the year for Zoroastrians, including today’s Paitishem. For these festivals, believed to have been instituted by Zoroaster, communities gather for a shared meal and conversation. (Learn more from the Heritage Institute.) It’s customary for families to donate food anonymously, and for devotees to leave the community meal with a bag of dried fruit and nuts for good fortune.

Since its origins thousands of years ago, Zoroastrianism has met its share of obstacles. Through the centuries, the faith’s strict code forbidding “outsider” converts has shrunk the numbers of followers. This code now is interpreted with some leeway, as leaders fear the ancient religion’s extinction.


Also, for the past three decades, Parsi Zoroastrians in India have encountered some unique yet crucial problems with their funeral rites: Requirements to expose the deceased to birds and natural elements for disposal have become all but impossible, given the vanishing population of vultures and spikes in human population. (Zoroastrians view burial or cremation of bodies as pollution.)

National Public Radio reports that a drug given to Indian cattle killed vultures that fed on them. By 2007, the number of vultures in Mumbai had crashed by 99 percent. Eager to keep up their rituals, Zoroastrians brought in solar concentrators to speed up dehydration on their Tower of Silence, but conditions became so hot that even smaller birds were scared away. Problems surmounted, but luckily, hope is in the future: After successes at several bird reserves, a recent proposal has suggested the creation of a vulture sanctuary in Doongerwadi. Optimists hope the vulture population will bounce back and, therefore, help to retain ancient Zoroastrian ways.

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