The vultures ate my grandmother. This was after she was dead. I was eight years old and some elders in the family must have decided that, being a boy, I was old enough to be told the facts of life — or at least of death and disposal. I walked, wearing my white, bowed rather than buttoned, muslin Parsi shirt, behind the funeral procession of men following the body — past Golibar Maidan, the Indian Army’s shooting ranges in Pune, to the Towers of Silence.
The vultures gathered atop the stone tower and in the trees around. The ceremony, as I remember it, was fairly simple. The body-carriers detached themselves from the procession and were the only ones sanctioned to climb the spiralling steps to the tower’s entrance.
My uncle explained the procedure to me. Granny’s body would be left on the metal grill at the top of the tower and would be exposed to the sky and air by tearing the cloth shroud so that the vultures could devour her flesh. My uncle imagined he was assisting me into mature realisations about customs, traditions and the human condition. The description became the fuel of future nightmares, but my elders thought it better to explain the details of “sky-burial” than to leave me with a mystery and questions as to where granny had gone.
A philosophy was appended to its description. This was a way of not polluting the earth as buried bodies would and not polluting the air as the smoke and ashes of cremated bodies would. It was a way of passing into nature. The word “ecological” was-n’t in vogue at the time. But then a decade or more ago the vulture population of India began to dwindle. In the 1980s, it was estimated that there were 80 million vultures of several types in the subcontinent. Through the ’90s, their numbers dwindled significantly and the cause of this decline and near disappearance wasn’t discovered till 2003. The culprit was the anti-inflammatory drug Diclofenac which had been fed to cattle (and, of course, to Parsis with swelling complaints!). Vultures then absorbed it through eating dead cows and died because it affected their livers.
It was only when the species became endangered in this way that the vulture-culture came to my attention through articles which argued that vultures, far from being demons of the sky, were indispensable to the environment. The governments of India, Nepal and Pakistan reacted by banning the administration of Diclofenac to cattle and finding an effective replacement drug.
Even though I am a Parsi, I am not an automatic supporter of sky burial and can see that the continued use of Diclofenac by Parsis can continue to pose a threat to the vulture population. There are undoubtedly very many more cattle corpses than Parsi ones for vultures to feed on, but still one can appreciate the irony of one endangered species endangering another.