Birds of a Feather

Have you noticed a reduction in the number of news stories about Indian aeroplanes forced to re-land as a result of hitting a bird during take-off? While this is having a beneficial effect on the airline industry's punctuality records, according to many environmentalists, the decline in carrion-eaters like vultures, eagles and even the common crow is a result of the use of diclofenac, a painkiller administered to cattle and sheep (the drug was finally banned by the Government in 2006). In many Indian states where it is illegal to kill cows, livestock is raised not for consumption and therefore steroids and painkillers are used to prolong their usefulness in the field. When these dead animals are eventually eaten by vultures and their ilk, they succumb to these drugs' after-effects.

Besides scientists and ornithologists, one other group that is anxiously assessing this fallout is India's Parsi community, who leave their dead on dakhmas or "Towers of Silence" to be devoured by vultures, believing it to be the cleanest and most hygienic way to get rid of the immortal soul's temporary home.

Parsis or Zoroastrians are followers of the Persian philosopher Zoroaster or Zarathustra, who is believed to have lived in Central Asia around the first millennium before the common era. His belief in the single god Ahuda Mazda makes Zoroastrianism the most ancient of the great monotheistic religions. However, after the invasion of their homeland by Islam in the eighth century, the community fled to the Indian coastal states of Gujarat and Maharashtra in an attempt to escape religious persecution.

One apocryphal legend from an eighteenth century epic poem, Qissa-i Sanjan, perfectly captures the position of Parsis in India. When the Zoroastrian immigrants landed in ancient India and seeked asylum from the local Hindu king Jadi Rana, he (not knowing the Farsi language, even though it is very closely related to Sanskrit) motioned to a vessel of milk filled to the very brim to signify that his kingdom was already full and could not accept any refugee. In response, one of the Zoroastrian priests added some sugar to the milk, indicating that they would not bring the vessel to overflowing and indeed make the lives of the citizens sweeter and richer. Chagrined and suitably chastened, the Rana gave shelter to the community and granted them full religious freedom.

In exchange, the community made no attempts to proselytise (to the extent that inter-faith marriages are not allowed), enthusiastically participated in India's freedom movement (Sir Pherozeshah Mehta and Sir Dadabhai Naoroji were leading members of the Indian National Congress and close counsels of Mahatma Gandhi) and were crusaders in the subsequent indigenous economic growth where the House of the Tatas, for instance, stands out both in terms of instilling a sense of self-pride and for making charitable contributions to independent India's development. As a community, Parsis have the highest literacy rate in India (97.9% according to the 2001 census) and have made immense contributions to the arts (Zubin Mehta, Rohinton Mistry, Freddie Mercury) and the sciences (Homi J Bhabha was the father of India's nuclear programme).

Today there are fewer than 1,00,000 Parsis worldwide, of which 75% reside in India. However, their number is rapidly dwindling as the younger generation puts career first and marries late, and because of their education and ambition have only one or two children. While the Parsi panchayat are taking steps to breed pure vultures in an aviary to solve the dakhma problem, it is hoped that they are also looking at the very real problem of their own survival, so that the community may continue to sweeten and enrich the diversity of Indian society.

I am driven out of fatherlands and motherlands. Thus I now love only my children's land, yet undiscovered, in the farthest sea; for this I bid my sails search and search.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

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