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The Towers Of Silence

Photo by Ali Bagherzade

At some pint in your life, you most likely have heard the phrase "leave it to the birds" or something to that effect. But have you ever heard that phrase used in reference to the dead?! Zoroastrianism is one of the oldest religions in the world today with between 124,000 and 190,000 practitioners worldwide. The religion exalts a deity if wisdom - Ahura Mazda, or the Wise Lord - and it features beliefs in concepts such as heaven and hell, as well as free will. A Dakhma - otherwise known as a Tower of Silence - is a way for Zoroastrians to dispose of their dead, and it is absolutely fascinating. In Zoroastrianism, the dead are left for the birds. In their tradition, dead bodies are "nasu," or unclean. The corpse demon Nasu essentially infects the body as soon as it passes on, and goes on to contaminate anything and everything the body comes in contact with. It sounds pretty serious, so naturally, Zoroastrians need a way to dispose of their dead in the safest way possible, and that's where the Towers of Silence come in.

The actual Tower of Silence is a raised, circular structure that first made its appearance in literature in the late 9th century. The towers have nearly flat roofs, but the outer perimeter of the roof is just slightly higher than the inside. There are three rings that make up the rooftop - the bodies of the Zoroastrian males are laid on the outer ring of the circle, the bodies of women are laid on the second ring of the circle, and the deceased children were laid on the inner ring of the circle. In certain traditions of the religion, the towers would be strategically placed away from the rest of the population, like in the hilltops or in desert locations, so they were out of view to the general population.

Okay - so the bodies are now laid out in their appropriate rings, now what?! The whole idea behind these towers are to prevent the bodies from essentially polluting the earth or perishing by fire, so the bodies of the dead are left out for the birds, as well as the sun, to consume the dead. The "meat" of the body are consumed by carrion birds and scavengers, and what is left behind will slowly decompose and eventually fade away. The bones of the body will eventually be bleached by the sun and wind after about a year or so. The bones are then collected and placed in a pit in the center of the tower, where they are mixed with lime to help them disintegrate.

In many Iranian modern day practices of Zoroastrianism, the practice of using the Towers of Silence have since been stopped, with many practitioners preferring burial or cremation over Dakhma. And in India, many of the birds of prey have had their populations decline over the years, and the local communities are looking into additional ways to preserve the bird population, such as captive breeding of vultures to help continue the practice of these types of burials. The use of Towers of Silence to dispose of the dead are considered a beautiful final act of charity, as you are providing something to the birds that would otherwise just be destroyed (either by natural decomposition or fire). Regardless, this is a long practiced tradition and a grave reminder that we are born of the earth, and when we die, we are returned right back to the earth, in one way or another.


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