THE RELIGIONS OF INDIA
The most interesting of all the many religious sects in India are the Parsees, the residue of one of the world's greatest creeds, descendants of the disciples of Zoroaster, and the Persian fire worshipers, who sought refuge in India from the persecution of the all-conquering Mohammedans about the seventh century. They have not increased and probably have diminished in numbers, but have retained the faith of their fathers undefiled, which has been described as "the most sublime expression of religious purity and thought except the teachings of Christ." It is a curious fact, however, that although the Parsees are commercially the most enterprising people in India, and the most highly educated, they have never attempted to propagate or even to make known their faith to the world. It remained for Anquetil Duperron, a young Frenchman, a Persian scholar, to translate the Zend Avesta, which contains the teachings of Zoroaster, and may be called the Parsee bible. And even now the highest authority in Parsee theology and literature is Professor Jackson, who holds the chair of oriental languages in Columbia University, New York. At this writing Professor Jackson is in Persia engaged upon investigations of direct interest to the Parsees, who have the highest regard and affection for him, and perfect confidence in the accuracy of his treatment of their theology in which they permit him to instruct them.
The Parsees have undoubtedly made more stir in the world in proportion to their population than any other race. They are a small community, and number only 94,000 altogether, of whom 76,000 reside in Bombay. They are almost without exception industrious and prosperous, nearly all being engaged in trade and manufacturing, and to them the city of Bombay owes the greatest part of its wealth and commercial influence.
While the Parsees teach pure and lofty morality, and are famous for their integrity, benevolence, good thoughts, good works and good deeds, their method of disposing of their dead is revolting. For, stripped of every thread of clothing, the bodies of their nearest and dearest are exposed to dozens of hungry vultures, which quickly tear the flesh from the bones.
In a beautiful grove upon the top of a hill overlooking the city of Bombay and the sea, surrounded by a high, ugly wall, are the so-called Towers of Silence, upon which these hideous birds can always be seen, waiting for their feast. They roost upon palm trees in the neighborhood, and, often in their flight, drop pieces of human flesh from their beaks or their talons, which lie rotting in the fields below. An English lady driving past the Towers of Silence was naturally horrified when the finger of a dead man was dropped into her carriage by one of those awful birds; and an army officer told me, that he once picked up by the roadside the forearm and hand of a woman which had been torn from a body only a few hours dead and had evidently fallen during a fight between the birds. The reservoir which stores the water supply of Bombay is situated upon the same hill, not more than half a mile distant, and for obvious reasons had been covered with a roof. Some years ago the municipal authorities, having had their attention called to possible pollution of the water, notified the Parsees that the Towers of Silence would have to be removed to a distance from the city, but the rich members of that faith preferred to pay the expense of roofing over the reservoir to abandoning what to them is not only sacred but precious ground. The human mind can adjust itself to almost any conditions and associations, and a cultured Parsee will endeavor to convince you by clever arguments that their method is not only humane and natural, but the best sanitary method ever devised of disposing of the dead.
Funeral ceremonies are held at the residence of the dead; prayers are offered and eulogies are pronounced. Then a procession is formed and the hearse is preceded by priests and followed by the male members of the family and by friends. The body is not placed in a coffin, but is covered with rich shawls and vestments. When the gateway of the outer temple is reached, priests who are permanently attached to the Towers of Silence and reside within the inclosure, meet the procession and take charge of the body, which is first carried to a temple, where prayers are offered, and a sacred fire, kept continually burning there, is replenished. While the friends and mourners are engaged in worship, Nasr Salars, as the attendants are called, take the bier to the ante-room of one of the towers. There are five, of circular shape, with walls forty feet high, perfectly plain, and whitewashed. The largest is 276 feet in circumference and cost $150,000. The entrance is about fifteen or twenty feet from the ground and is reached by a flight of steps. The inside plan of the building resembles a circular gridiron gradually depressed toward the center, at which there is a pit, five feet in diameter. From this pit cement walks radiate like the spokes of a wheel, and between them are three series of compartments extending around the entire tower. Those nearest the center are about four feet long, two feet wide and six inches deep. The next series are a little larger, and the third, larger still, and they are intended respectively for men, women and children.