Top Parsi Priest Chooses To Be Buried, Sparks Debate.

A senior Parsi priest who died in Gujarat last week has been buried as per his last wish, a departure from the traditional community funeral in which bodies are left in the Tower of Silence for scavenging birds such as vultures. Homi Kotwal, 81, who served at Navsari Atash Behram, had described the traditional method as a “failed system”, and his decision to be buried has sparked discussions in the community on the sensitive issue.

“He was convinced that the system of disposing of the dead had failed and that the bodies rotted at the Tower of Silence. Before he passed away, he had expressed his wish for a burial,” said Yazdi Kasad, executor of Kotwal’s will and secretary of Navsari Anjuman. “It seems he had seen the state of the bodies lying in the wells.”

Kotwal, who served at the Navsari fire temple for 50 years, was known as an orthodox priest. He died on February 16.

A section of Parsis has been debating alternative funeral methods following the rapid decline of the vulture population over the past few years. “Despite being an orthodox priest, it was an extremely courageous choice made by Kotwal,” said community member Dinshaw Tamboly.

Jehangir Patel, who edits the community magazine Parsiana, many Parsis in Gujarat had expressed their desire to be buried instead of being left in the Tower of Silence. “Most dakhmas there do not have pallbearers to carry the body; family members and friends have to do it,” Patel said.

In 2006, an elderly Parsi woman had shared photographs of bodies rotting inside the Tower of Silence to trigger a debate. But the Bombay Parsi Punchayet insisted that there were no problems with the traditional method. It installed solar panels to speed up the decomposition process, but the panels are of no use during monsoon.

“The Parsi punchayet trustees should not ignore the growing calls for burials in the community. The highest order of the fire temple is in Navsari and the development there assumes great significance,” a community member said.

Kotwal was buried in Vansda, about 25 km from Navsari. Several priests attended the funeral. A key prayer known as ‘Uthamna’ was held at the Vadi Dar-e-Meher, one of the oldest religious institutions of Parsis.

Some community members questioned the presence of some senior priests who had in the past opposed burials for Parsis. “It’s a good sign that more community members are now open to alternative funeral methods. But some contentious issues still remain: when people bury or cremate their loved ones, they are banned from organising prayer ceremonies in the dongerwadi here,” said Vispy Wadia, a trustee of the Association of Revival of Zoroastrianism.

The ban forced Parsis with reformist views to construct a new prayer hall in Worli. “Relatives of ordinary Parsis who opt for cremation or burial should not be turned away the dongerwadi prayer halls,” Wadia said.

Published on Mumbai Mirror