Mehrdad Shokoohy, The Zoroastrian Towers of Silence in the ex-Portuguese Colony of Diu

The burial place of the Parsees in India, from Herbert, Travels in India.
"The burial place of the Parsees in India," from Herbert, Travels in India.

From ancient times Zoroastrian funeral practices have attracted attention, as rather than cremation or burial, the body of the diseased is exposed to birds of prey in a dakhma, a structure known in the West as a “Tower of Silence.” Many such towers still stand in Iran and India, but in spite of extensive discussion on Zoroastrian beliefs, rites, and rituals regarding disposal of the dead, study of the physical and architectural features of such towers has remained minimal, as approaching--let alone entering--a dakhma is forbidden to all, including Zoroastrians, apart from the corpse bearers. The available information on the interior of these towers has so far been based on some architectural drawings of a large dakhma apparently prepared for the construction of dakhmas in Navsary and Bombay, published in 1892. Although well known that dakhmas can vary in size and interior arrangement, these widely reproduced drawings have created a predetermined concept of a standard form. A dakhma is traditionally destroyed when no longer in function, but the preservation of one of these towers in Diu has provided an unprecedented opportunity to investigate such features in depth. The dakhma of Diu clarifies many aspects of the development of the form in the last two centuries. It is a unique example of a fairly small tower, the design of which is very different from what has been widely perceived as the norm. In spite of the custom of demolishing disused dakhmas, there are still some extant old dakhmas in India and Iran, leaving the field open for future investigation, which would no doubt expand our still limited knowledge of the variety of design within a set formula for the traditional Zoroastrian system of disposition of the dead, a custom already abandoned in Iran and not practiced by Zoroastrian communities in the West. Only in India the tradition still continues, but even there is gradually dying away and dakhmas may soon become part of history.