ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
For any religion, keeping up old traditions in the modern world can be a challenge. In India, the Parsi community faces a unique obstacle. The Parsis came to India from Iran a thousand years ago and brought their Zoroastrian faith with them. And they brought an unusual funeral ritual, which became hard to maintain. Elliot Hannon has that story from Mumbai.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language)
ELLIOT HANNON, BYLINE: This is how a Parsi funeral starts. It seems familiar enough. Prayers are chanted and mourners pay last respects. But that's where the similarities end, says Khojeste Mistree. He's the head of the Zoroastrian Studies Institute in Mumbai.
KHOJESTE MISTREE: We have an unusual method of disposal of the dead. The Parsi corpse is exposed to the rays of the sun, and the corpse is consumed or devoured by birds of prey - vultures, kites and crows.
HANNON: For Zoroastrians, burying or cremating the dead is seen as polluting nature. So for centuries, the Parsis in Mumbai have relied on vultures to do the work - that is until the entire population of vultures in the city vanished. Without the vultures, the Parsis had to rely on manmade ingenuity instead.
MISTREE: To try and dehydrate the body faster, the trustees introduced solar concentrators where the solar concentrators focus heat specifically, though during the monsoon seasons the solar concentrators don't work because of the clouds.
HANNON: The solution isn't perfect. The solar concentrators can only work on several bodies at a time, but it's helped keep the tradition alive. At the top of a wooded hill here in the Doongerwadi forest, Parsi bodies are laid outside on a platform in what's called the Tower of Silence. Mistree describes the tower as similar to a tiered amphitheater, which can hold more than 250 bodies at a time.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS SQUAWKING)
HANNON: There are still smaller birds, like crows, which also will consume the bodies. But the solar concentrators often keep them away during the day because it's too hot. They're also less efficient than vultures. And that, too, has created problems for the Parsis, says Zoroastrian priest Ramiyar Karanjia.
RAMIYAR KARANJIA: Vultures are very quick in eating away the flesh. Now, it's working a bit slowly, but from an emotional point of view, that is a bit disturbing to some people.
HANNON: So a job that would take a flock of vultures hours now can take weeks. And as Mumbai has grown into a megacity, slowly decomposing bodies have made some neighbors squeamish. One of the towers was closed because it was visible from new high-rise buildings that now peer into the forest. And air purifiers had to be installed to minimize the smell. These manmade fixes have helped but haven't solved the problem that started in the 1980s when the vulture population across India began to mysteriously disappear.
By 2007, the number of vultures had fallen by 99 percent. The disappearing vultures confounded scientists until studies found that a drug administered to cattle in India killed the vultures when they fed on the carcasses. The Indian government banned the drug and set up reserves for the birds. The success of the program has led to a new proposal to start a vulture sanctuary in Doongerwadi. And that could make life easier for the Parsis and their neighbors, says Homi Khusrokhan, president of the Bombay Natural History Society.
HOMI KHUSROKHAN: For years, the Parsis have been trying to manage without vultures. But obviously, if the vultures could be brought back, they would be delighted. And it's always been a sort of impossible task. This is the first time it's really become feasible to do.
HANNON: Even if the sanctuary is approved, it would take time before the vultures could be released into the wild. And when that happens, Parsis are hoping that nature will once again take its course. For NPR News, I'm Elliot Hannon.