Posts Tagged ‘vultures’

About six months ago my husband told me about a Parsi funeral ritual that takes place in India. I had never heard of it.

Parsi is a Zoroastrian community. These folks from Greater Iran fled mostly to India centuries ago to avoid persecution and to retain their religious identity during the Muslim conquest of Persia. Zoroastrianism was the dominant religion before Islam.

That’s just a snippet of a history that could fill books.

Ain’t gonna lie. I was horrified when I heard about their funeral practice.

Sky burial.

Letting nature take its course. No burial. No cremation. Just exposure to the elements on an elevated area. Cutting up bits of the body for the vultures to feast.

Towers of Silence.

I was soon reading about different rituals. It appears that there are many reasons for this Sky burial. Tibetan Buddhists feel it is a generosity for the departed because it’s providing life source for other creatures and they respect all life. Some feel that the body is only a vessel. That fire and burial pollute the earth. Some view the dead body as impure.

Practicality, rather than religion, might have also played a role. The places where these rituals originated tended to be rocky with no source of timber.

India’s pretty cool in a lot of ways. It’s just so diverse and in many ways tolerant of other practices.

This ritual still takes place today.

But there is one small problem. Well, not really small.

The vulture population declined drastically. The birds (the cleaner uppers) were getting sick from eating the carrion of Indian livestock.

Hmmmm.

I learned more about vultures than I ever cared to imagine.

Since it’s India (Hindu) there are 500 million cattle and only 4% of that number is for human consumption. Cows are considered sacred so most people aren’t eating them.

That’s a bunch of cows.

So when cattle die the vultures are a welcome sight. A natural and efficient process.

But due to an anti-inflammatory drug which was being given to the cattle the vultures started dying in droves. Their system couldn’t take this particular drug.

By now I am not thinking about funeral practices at all because I am so fascinated by vultures!

Apparently vultures can make efficient, quick work of any animal carcass and due to their metabolism not suffer the effects of (or carry) any pathogens from their recent meal. Stops with them.

Wow! Truly cast iron stomachs. Except for when humans inject animals with a certain drug.

This decline in the vulture population has led to a host of problems for India.

Huge problems. It was a natural system. And when things break down….

In the 1980s there were 80 million vultures. Today several thousand. That’s unbelievable.

Vultures used to pick clean the carcasses in no time. Now the dead cows and other animals rot in village fields.

Contaminating the drinking water.

And if there are no vultures on the scene? Who takes their place in this pecking order? No pun intended. Who’s on deck?

Rats and wild dogs (India has 18 million wild dogs-seems like about a million on our street alone lol) are all too happy to step into the newly opened positions. But they, unlike vultures, do carry things like rabies, anthrax and plague. And pass it on to us. The humans. Yikes!

Back to the Parsi death rituals. They are still performed but not with the same frequency due to the decrease in the vulture population. Some people are opting for cremation. Those who choose the “old way” will be doing so with the assistance of solar reflectors to move things along. Remember when you were a kid with a magnifying glass trying to use the sun’s reflection to burn a piece of paper. Yeah, that. Same.

I never knew anything about the Towers of Silence. And I did not know much about vultures except maybe seeing them as a menacing backdrop in cute Disney movies. Or observing a turkey vulture munching on roadkill that one time in Lake Tahoe while we whizzed by it.

Pretty amazing to think about it. One small bit of human tinkering can upset a system that has been working just fine. Maybe from the beginning of time. Compromising the health of a nation. And in the process eradicating rituals that have been around for centuries and centuries.

First I was horrified to hear of the Parsi practice. Then I moved on to understanding and sort of appreciating it. I remain sad about the Indian vulture crisis and its effect on the nation.

Lastly, I’m feeling more than a little sympathetic for the Parsi community as they lose a grip on pieces of their tradition and identity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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