DOKHMA — IT’S ADVENT , USE AND PHILOSOPHY.
—————– – By Heritage Architect Sanaeya Vandrewala.
“According to the religion of Zarathushtra, every
human being is mortal, and death is destined for all.
Death is seen as a transformation and total destruction.
It is the passing way of spiritual elements from the physical body.”[Yasna 55.2]
Zoroastrianism emphasizes on maintaining sacredness of the creations and all elements of nature. Pollution of the creation is seen as an act of evil. The dead body is considered as a source of contamination of both human beings and nature around us. To maintain this balance, the dead body should be disposed in such a way that the purity of the four elements of nature, earth, water, fire and air is not endangered. Thus over centuries, a method of total disintegration of organic matter and decomposition was evolved, as sought by the religion (Godrej and Mistree, 2002).
The Indo-Iranians practiced burial of their dead. However after the first millennium BC, the method of exposure to the sun and scavengers replaced burial. In ancient times the body would be carried to a hill top away from human settlements, leaving the dead there for the scavengers to feed on. Centuries later the Zoroastrians devised a method of disposal by using a cylindrical stone structure called Dokhma also known as Tower of Silence (Godrej and Mistree, 2002, 326). Therefore, the best way of disposing the dead without polluting the elements of nature, as mentioned in the Vendidad, is Khurshed Nagirashni or Dokhmenashini that is exposure to the sun in a Dokhma (Motafaram 1984).
The earliest accounts of the disposal of the dead as per the Zoroastrian faith is as mentioned by Greek Historian Herodotus in mid-5th century BCE Histories of Herodotus, but the use of towers is first documented in the early 9th century BCE. (Boyce, 1979)
The English language term “Tower of Silence” is a term attributed to Robert Murphy, a translator for the British colonial government of India in the early 19th century. (Stausburg,2004). So I would like to encourage my readers to refer to the term now as ‘Dokhma’ or ‘Doongerwadi’ even during their verbal communications.
A Dokhma is a circular well and a platform made entirely of stone slabs around the inside of the tower, about 90 m in circumference. This platform is divided into three rows of shallow open receptacles corresponding with the three moral precepts of the Zoroastrian religious belief Humata Hukata Huvarshta, which is Good Thoughts, Good Words, and Good Deeds. The first row is for male corpses, second for females and third for children. The deep central well, which is the ‘Bhandar’, is about 45m in circumference and also paved in stone slabs. This well is used for depositing bones.
See Figure 1 & 2
The corpse is placed in the Tower of Silence where it is exposed to the unlimited creation of the sky. The sun and birds of prey together quicken the process of decay more effectively. The corpse is eaten by the birds and the rest is decomposed by the sun. This method is not only cost effective but also ecological and hygienic. The big bones left in the well naturally disintegrate into fine powder due to the sun’s rays, (Mistree, 1982).
See Figure 3
There are holes in the inner sides of the well through which the rain water is carried out into four underground drains. These drains are connected to underground wells that are covered with a thick layer of sand, gravel and charcoal in order to purify the water before it reaches the earth so that Mother Earth is not defiled.
See Figure 4
These towers are generally built on tops of hills to give easy access to birds and exposure to the sun. This method of the disposal of the dead has been used since ancient times. The reason why this method has been used and survived for so long is not only for religious but also ecological significance. The method of Dokhmenashini is preferred over ground burial, cremation and water burial.
The holy Vendidad which is the anti-demonic law given by prophet Zarathushtra (Nariman,nd,4) states that the dead body should be exposed to the rays of the sun in order to help in emancipation or liberation of the soul. This process, as mentioned before, assists in maintaining the purity of the elements of nature. One of the teachings of Zoroastrian religion is that nothing should be wasted. Hence even a dead body is put to good use, as it is consumed by carnivores. It is considered as the last deed of charity on earth. Therefore for a Parsi Zoroastrian Dokhmenashini is the only way for the disposal of the dead (Katgara et al.1999).
There are five fundamental principles in Zoroastrian method for the disposal of the dead. : Goodness, Unity, Rationality, Charity, Self –sacrifice and Purity (Dabu 1994).
The advantage of the system is stated as follows:
- Speed: Quick disposal of the body
- Economy: Costs nothing, no cost of fuel, grave and maintenance
- Equality: Both rich and poor are treated on the same level without distinction
- Hygiene: None of the four elements are polluted and sanitation of the town is preserved
- Charity: Natural feed to hungry scavengers (Though the author of the article would like to argue that the main idea is exposure to the sun, where scavengers only help increase the pace of the process. Therefore feeding the scavengers and hence the use of the word charity is a by product and not the main intent of the method.)
Mumbai has a complex on a hilltop containing five Dokhmas, Sagri, Bungli’s and ancillary facilities used during the funeral ceremony. Established in 1672 this entire complex expands 54 acres.
The five Dokhmas in the complex are:
- Modi Hirji Vatchagandy Dokhma (1672-73 AD)
- Maneckji Nowroji Setts Dokhma (1756 AD)
- Anjuman Dokhma (1778 AD)
- Framji Cowasji Banaji Dokhma (1832 AD)
- Cowasji Edulji Bisni Dokhma (1844 AD)
Boyce, Mary (1979), Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, London: Routledge,
Dabu, K (2001) Handbook of information on Zoroastrianism. Nashik: The founder of the boys’ town.
Godrej, P and Mistree, P (Ed) (2002) A Zoroastrian Tapestry: Art, Religion and Culture.
Ahemdabad: Mapping publishing Pvt Ltd.
Katgara, Z and Katgara, M and Vatcha, M (1999) Dokhmenashini and Khurshed Nagirashni. Ahemdabad: Dr Hafez Dalal and Zarine Noshir Khambata
Mistree,K (1982) Zoroastrianism : An ethnic perspective. Bombay: Khojeste P. Mistree
Motafram, R (1984) Zoroastrianism Vol III: Light on Zoroastrianism. Mumbai: The trustees of the Parsi Punchayat funds and properties, Bombay.
Nariman, F (nd) ‘Zoroastrianism- Faith of the Parsis in India.’ (Unpublished)
Stausberg, Michael (2004), “Bestattungsanlagen”, Die Religion Zarathushtras, 3, Stuttgart: Kohlhammer,