09 December, 2017

Death—part 3

This is the third part of the series on death; together the series covers the following topics:

There is nothing like death / only fools desire to be immortal / there are various spiritual planes / ashes to ashes, dust to dust---it is not as simple as that /The state of mind at the time of death is very important / extreme quiet and self-control should be observed in the chamber of death / why cremation is preferable to burial, as a way of disposing of corpses / about tombs / and in spite of the warning by adepts, tombs were opened, releasing forces upon the world which have endangered it /controversy regarding prophet Muhammad’s tomb / Zoroastrian burial rituals and importance of the dog in the funeral rites and the psychic power of animals / All you wanted to know about the Manikarnika cremation Ghat at Varanasi  

Funeral customs of the Zoroastrians known as Parsis

The Dakhma-nashini mode of disposal of the dead is where the body is placed inside a well like structure called dakhma (meaning "to burn from the Sun")and commonly referred to as the tower of silence  where the Sun and the flesh eating vultures (or dog) works systematically and hand-in-hand to destroy the dead body, this process was deemed to maintain the purity of the earth and the atmosphere during the process of bodily decomposition and the natural elements like air, fire, water or earth are not defiled.

The entire complex comprising of prayer halls, mortuary and a small building called a sagri within which a fire is kept burning continuously, the dakhmas etc is called Doongerwadi (doonger stands for a hill and wadi stands for an orchard)

I do not fully understand this custom because decay leaves a foundation for new life to flourish hence how can the elements get defiled? Moreover birds also carry the flesh out of the dakhma, but since this is an Aryan custom which is thousands of years old there must certainly be some wisdom in it

However people do not know that the dakhma is not merely a receptacle for the dead bodies. The dakhma is a spiritual institution whose importance is on the same level as an Atash Behram (Parsis are fire worshipers; An Atash Behram (Fire of Victory) is the highest grade of a fire that can be placed in a Zoroastrian fire temple. The establishment and consecration of this fire is the most elaborate of all the grades of fire. It involves the gathering of 16 different types of fire, including lightning, fire from a cremation pyre, fire from trades where a furnace is operated, and fires from the hearths. Each of the 16 fires is then subject to a purification ritual before it joins the others. 32 priests are required for the consecration ceremony, which can take up to a year to complete)

The parsis believe that the reason the dakhma is so important is that it helps to liberate the Anasers (spiritual DNA) and return them back to higher realms from where they came and hence the soul is liberated.

The power to carry out this function in the dakhma comes from the yantra which is created before the dakhma is built and buried in the dakhma in a ceremony called the tana ceremony

Before the Dakhma can be built a very intricate ceremony called the Tana ceremony is carried out. The ground where the physical structure of the Dakhma is to be created is first dug up to the foundation level. Then 301 nails of various weights, shapes and sizes are made out of copper are hammered in the ground, the largest of the nails weighs 20 kilos, Many weeks before this ceremony, Zoroastrian ladies belonging to the priestly class begin weaving the woollen thread with the accompaniment of prayers which will be used in the Tana ceremony. The procedure followed is the same as is used while extracting the thread from which the kusti (sacred girdle worn by Zoroastrians around their waists) is woven. The only difference is that the kusti has 72 strands where the thread for the tana ceremony has 101 strands. This thread is then carefully wound up to make a big ball of thread, which is passed and wound around the nails by the priest to create the required design of yantra at no point the thread touches the ground or gets entangled in any way, since that would ruin the whole ceremony, this design accompanied by prayers chanted by the priest creates a gigantic circuit. The entire process of the Tana ceremony is to make a supercharged powerhouse, called Talesam – or Talisman, within the boundaries of the Dakhma therefore the dakhma hastens the spiritual progress of the deceased
After the ceremony, people of the community visit the place and offer jewellery and money generously in the pit

Magical design created at the tana ceremony

For a full description of the ceremony, please click on the this links

I will explain briefly the process

Most elevated place is selected for the construction of the tower of silence (dakhma), there the terrestrial magnetism works without hindrance; and there, in the atmosphere flows the benevolent wind; there the rays of the sun fall straight and direct   

On that vast portion of the elevated land, where the dakhma will come up, gospands (beneficent cattle) like goats, lambs etc are set free to graze for a minimum period of seven months! The urine and excreta (taro and gobar) of the innocent animals help destroy pockets of sprites and dark forces, if any and make the whole area peaceful and pure (in this regard, it is very pertinent to point out that some years ago, when in Chernobyl, Russia, there was a leakage of radioactivity, scientists were pleasantly surprised to find that houses which were splattered with the urine and gobar of cattle, there was hardly any adverse radiation)

The presence of such animals as cattle spread an aura of peace and compassion in the area they are kept

Then the Tana ceremony is conducted after which the dakhma is constructed and after that ceremonies are held to commission the dakhma and the first body brought into the dakhma must be of an innocent child or a priest

Outside view of dakhma

The dakhma is in the shape of a well; the roof is divided into three concentric circles representing good thoughts, words and deeds. There are numerous depressions in a row that allow bodies to be placed side-by-side, bodies of children are placed in the inner circle (marked A), the middle circle is for the bodies of women (marked B) and the outer circle for the bodies of men (marked C).

"Footpaths for corpse-bearers to move about (marked D).

The clothes wrapped round the corpses are removed and destroyed immediately after they are placed in the Tower -- 'Naked we came into this world and naked we ought to leave it.'

Inside the dakhma

The corpse is completely stripped of its flesh by vultures within an hour or two (The vultures never touch the ones who are apparently dead), once the bones have been bleached by the sun and wind, which can take as long as a year, a deep central well in the Tower, 150 feet in circumference is used for depositing the dry bones assisted by lime and phosphorus —they gradually disintegrate and the remaining material—with run-off with rainwater.

There are holes in the inner sides of the well through which the rain water is carried into four underground drains (marked F), at the base of the Tower, These drains are connected with four underground wells (marked H), the bottoms of which are covered with a thick layer of sand, pieces of charcoal and sandstone are also placed at the end of each drain (marked G), which are renewed from time to time. These double sets of filters are provided for purifying the rain water passing over the bones, before it enters the ground thus observing one of the a principles or beliefs of the Zoroastrian religion that “The Mother Earth shall not be defiled.”

3 hrs after death, the dead body cannot be touched by anybody except special corpse bearers called khandhias and Nassesalars (nasellars, a contraction of nasa.salar, caretaker (salar) of potential pollutants (nasa), who live apart from the rest of society and they are only allowed to enter the dakhma

The body is now bathed in the urine (Taro) of a special white bull (that is the Nandi of Shiva in Zoroastrian religion)

Then ceremony prayers are conducted and no pregnant woman is allowed to be present near the Geh- Sarna ceremony because of the fear that the powerful incantations may have an adverse effect on the unborn child

Now the sagdid ceremony is conducted ("Sag" meaning "dog" and "did" meaning "to see".

A corpse is considered impure not just physically on account of infection and decay, but also because it is swiftly colonised by evil spirits

Hence a Dog is brought near to gaze on the face of the dead person. The Dog possesses divine sight, and as per Aryan tradition has the power to see and chase away any evil spirits.

Dog is the only living creature that evil fears and that prevents him from taking possession of the body; no one shadow must lie between the body and the dog otherwise the whole strength of the dogs gaze will be lost

Animals can see frequencies which humans can’t; however “four-eyed” dog that is a dog with two spots / tan flecks above the eyes is preferred for the sagdid ceremony, such dogs have psychic abilities

This four-eyed dog is spoken of in the Avesta is the "four-eyed" dogs of the Rig Veda 10th Mandala which guarded the way to Yama's abode. "Fear not to pass the guards the four-eyed brindled dogs that watch for the departed."

An iron bier called "gehân" on which the body is carried since wood being porous, and therefore likely to carry and spread germs of disease and infection, its use is strictly prohibited in the funeral ceremonies.

The corpse-bearers must be at least two, even if the deceased were a mere infant that could be carried by one man. It is strictly prohibited that the body be removed by one. The body must be carried by two, four, six, or any such even number according to the weight of the deceased. "Nobody should carry the dead alone."
A pair or the number two plays a prominent part in all the ceremonies for the disposal of the dead body; after death, the body must never be left alone or in the company of only one person. After washing it, there must be always two persons sitting by its side. Again, the persons who put on the clothes and place it on the slabs of stone must be two. The corpse-bearers must be two and the priests who say the last funeral prayers are also two in number. The persons who attend the funeral procession to the Tower also go in pairs holding a "paywand" in the form of a handkerchief between them. A single individual can never attend the funeral procession.

If the body regains consciousness the persons whose duty is to take the body inside the dakhma are bound to kill him; for such a person who has been polluted by one touch of the dead bodies in the dakhma, as thereby lost all rights to return to the living, by doing so he would contaminate the entire community (this was an old custom and is no longer practiced now)

Vultures were specially imported from Persia since Indian vultures proved to be weak and not so blood thirsty to strip the body to its bones in a few minutes but unfortunately the vulture population has seen a 99.9% decline by 2008 due to habitat destruction caused by urbanisation, and further because of the drug Diclofenac (used as a pain killer by humans and also being given to cattle to reduce joint pain and hence allow them to work longer), proved toxic for the vultures feeding on bovine (cattle) carcases, and the bodies of parsis who consumed the drug in their lifetime. The drug was banned in May 2006, but still is been manufactured illegally  

With no vultures present for the disposal of the dead, there have been many controversies where people want to put a stop to this ancient custom, some staunch parsis believe that because of the spiritual power of the dakhma the dead body of a Zoroastrian lying in the dakhma in never defiled even if it rains, they quote examples like following the plague in Bombay in the late 19th century, some 2,500 bodies had been placed in the dakhma. There were so many bodies that the well was overflowing with them and a new one had to be built. Yet, the British authorities at that time had confirmed that no disease came from the wells but others have different opinions, a lot of measures like solar concentrators, ozone gas are being used at present in the dakhma

In Bombay (Mumbai) the doongerwadi is spread over a forested area of 55 acres located at the swanky Malabar Hill area, the real estate price here would make Manhattan blush, it is thanks to the doongerwadi that the area is still a lush green forest; otherwise it would have been converted into a concrete jungle 

Parsi in the Persian language, literally means Persian since they have come from Persia (Iran), however in Iran the Dakhma-nashini mode of disposal of the dead is no longer practiced instead bodies are buried in graves plastered with concrete to prevent direct contact with the earth, the age old system was discontinued: The first problem arose with the establishment of the Dar ul-Funun medical school. Since Islam considers unnecessary dissection of corpses as a form of mutilation, thus forbidding it, there were no corpses for study available through official channels. The dakhmas were repeatedly broken into by the medical students to study human bodies, finally in 1970s the dakhmas were shut down by law. Today the old dakhmas are open for tourist visits

Persians are known to have used above ground stone tombs, and tombs carved out of the sides of stone cliffs, in which ossuaries (a container or room in which the bones of dead people are placed) containing the bones removed from the dakhma were placed, alternatively, the cave itself could function as an ossuary, otherwise the central pit of the dakhma serves as an ossuarie

Highly evolved animals like elephants and Chimpanzees are known to throw leaves, branches and soil over fallen members of their family groups and also in some cases human bodies; and they also known to grieve for the dead

There is a very interesting story from India; there was a very strange superstition in the Deccan. The natives asserted that, in spite of the considerable number of victims of tiger deaths, there had never been found a single skeleton. The corpse, whether intact or mangled by tigers, were immediately carried away by the monkeys, who, in the latter case, gather the scattered bones, and buried them skilfully in deep holes, that no traces ever remain. Englishmen laughed at this superstition. When the sides of the mountain were excavated, in the course of the construction of the railway, separate bones, with the marks of tigers' teeth upon them, broken bracelets, and other adornments, were found at an incredible depth from the surface. The fact of these things being broken showed clearly that they were not buried by men, because, neither the religion of the Hindus, nor their greed, would allow them to break and bury silver and gold. So the theory of monkeys burying the dead was finally proved to be true

Video: Stray dogs in Mexico turn up at the funeral of the woman who fed them

Video: Elephants grieving

Next article will be about the most ancient cremation ground, the manikarnika ghat at Kashi or Varanasi, where an eternal fire burns since eternity, where the dom raja extorts money for cremating the dead and where sex workers dance against the background of burning pyres and more

References and photos taken form: {with gratitude to the authors}