Waiting For The Vultures




In Greta Alfero’s dramatic film rendering that I recently watched, the hearty gourmands in Dutch seventeenth century renderings usually featured are not a ruddy faced group of raucous Dutch or Flemish burghers, but a gluttonous swarm of vultures. Watching the vultures devour with gluttony took me back to a visit I made to Mumbai, India.

(This may not be my most popular post, but it is a reminder of what past memory I didn’t want to capture.)

March, 2006……….

Our guide in Mumbai (old Bombay) with his fair hair and English schoolboy-scrubbed-complexion was a dichotomy to me as soon as he spoke. His speech was that of a born East Indian. Had I closed my eyes, Mahatma Gandhi could have been standing before me. He had a distinct and strong Hindi dialect.

“My father was a classical musician born in Bombay and my mother was an opera singer from England,” he said when I remarked about his fair complexion. So, I thought, there is my answer. Riddle solved.

We hopped into his car and began our first day of touring in this colorful and very populated city of old Bombay. Our first stop was to be The Hanging Gardens. Slowly we made our way through the oppressive heat and crowded streets, past oxen drawn carts, bicycles and tut-tuts carrying tourists. Soon we began to wind around up a long hill to areas with more greenery than we had seen before.

The Hanging Gardens, in Mumbai, also known as Pherozeshah Mehta Gardens, are terraced gardens perched at the top of Malabar Hill, on its western side, just opposite the Kamala Nehru Park. We found them to be the greenest place we had seen in our Mumbai travels yet. They provided sunset views over the Arabian Sea and featured numerous hedges carved into the shapes of animals – green and beautiful. The park was laid out in 1881 by Ulhas Ghapokar over Bombay’s main reservoir, some say to cover the water from the potentially contaminating activity of the nearby Tower of Silence, to be our second destination. The Tower is a circular, raised structure used by Parsi for exposure of the dead, particularly to scavenging birds.

As we ascended to the top of the hill beyond the gardens we had just left, I could see large birds, vultures, I assumed, circling above the treetops. Gliding smoothly around, riding, cutting clean swaths high over our heads, again and again. I knew why they were there. I had done my homework. Sustenance was nearby. Our driver was a member of the sect, Parsi, and therefore allowed, at least partially, in that restricted area near the gardens that is closed to non-Parsees.

We knew the Parsi 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 — crows vultures, or kites.

As in Greta’s piece that took little over 10 minutes for the vultures to devour, it takes an hour or two at the Tower of Silence.

When we arrived at the entrance to the area, we chose not to go further. Just seeing the vultures above circling their prey, human flesh, was enough. Just the thought of what was happening beyond the gates was morbid to me.

In a way, in India, with little space alone for the living, I can see why cremation, or feeding dead human flesh to vultures would be practiced. Although, probably, the Parsi have a religious reason for such an ending, an ending after life is gone from the body that has nothing to do with available burial space, the sense of it all may be there somehow.

I know I am fortunate to have traveled the world many times, climbed the Great Wall of China, on my hands and knees practically crawled into the claustrophobic Great a Pyramid, endured the one hour trip by steps to the top of Masada in the Israeli desert, and up the 268 steps to the Tian Tan Buddha in Lantau. But, please believe me, just peaking through the fence into the Parsi burial grounds was more than I could handle. I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t ever want that memory stored anywhere.

As a result, turning the car around, our driver then followed our wishes and descended the hill toward the next stop, to something, to some place that would clean the air. A place where the sun and active human life are hard at work doing what they do. The remarkable open air laundries, Dhobi Ghat.

(Through my research I have since learned the Parsis are followers of one of the oldest, if not the oldest revealed religion in the world -Zoroastrianism. Globally, as a community, the Parsis number barely a hundred thousand. But it is not by numbers that this community can be judged, for no less a person than Mahatma Gandhi has recognized: “I am proud of my country, India, for having produced the splendid Zoroastrian stock, in numbers beneath contempt, but in charity and philanthropy, perhaps unequalled, certainly unsurpassed.”)

(And as another side note, there are far less vultures in number each year and the Parsi are concerned about the future and what that will bring to their burial ritual.)