Saturday, April 21, 2001 will go down in Parsi history as a memorable occasion when all the Vada Dasturji Sahebs (High Priests) of the community, with one voice, stood up for and courageously defended the long-standing religious custom and tradition of Dokhmenashini.
Seated on high chairs and in crisp white attire were Dasturji Dr. Kaikhushroo Dastur Minocher JamaspAsa (Anjuman Atash Behram), Dasturji Dr. Firoze M. Kotwal, Dasturji Kaikobad Dastur Phirozji Dastur (Udvada), Dasturji Noshirwan Dastur Manchersha Dastur (Surat), Sardar Dastur Hormazdyar Noshirwan Dastur (the Deccan) and Dasturji Nadarshaw Pestonji Unvala (Bangalore).
Dasturji Hormuzdiar K. Mirza could not attend due to his very advanced age and failing health, but sent a message of good wishes and authorised his son, Naib Dastur Peshotan, to represent him. Dasturji MeherjiRana (Navsari) was also unable to attend due to indifferent health but sent his good wishes and authorised Dasturji Dr. JamaspAsa to represent him. In other words, all the Vada Dasturjis were present or officially represented at this historic meeting.
Sharing the dais were also Naib Dasturs Khushru Kaikobad Dastur (Udvada) and Cyrus Noshirwan Dastur (Surat). Other leading Athravans on stage were Ervad Dr. Ramiyar Karanjia, Ervad Dr. Rooyintan Peer, Ervad Parvez Bajan, Ervad Aspandiar Dadachanji and Ervad Naryosang Turel.
The hall was packed to capacity filling the stalls, balcony and the aisles. It is estimated that more than 850 Parsis had congregated that evening at the Framji Cowasji Hall. Many had to be turned away since the Hall was filled to capacity.
As the High Priests walked on to the stage at 6:10 p.m., the audience welcomed them with a standing ovation. And when the Dasturjis led the 850 strong congregation in prayer (hum bandagi), the effect was electrifying.
The meeting was moderated by Noshir Dadrawala who gave an overview of the circumstances, which led to the need for such a meeting. He also systematically demolished some of the “myths” deliberately perpetrated by the DDD-AG (Disposal of the Dead with Dignity-Action Group).
He expressed grief over the fact that the DDD-AG was not arguing their case with the “dignity” they hold so dear for the dead. He stated that the group, which believes in “dignity”, lacked the dignity of signing the letter, which was addressed to the High Priests for response. “Since DDD-AG has sent the letter so informally, the Vada Dasturjis were under no obligation to reply. However, they informally responded to some of the issues at the meeting.”
Dasturji Dr. K. M. JamaspAsa argued, “Do Muslims ever argue about cremation on their burial grounds or do Hindus argue about burial? Why are we Parsis (an enlightened community!!!) so keen to change a time-honoured system, just for our physical/emotional consolation, BUT at the cost of traumatizing the soul?”
He added sternly, “DDD-AG should realize that we, as prelates, cannot sanction what is irreligious. The Geh Sarna ceremony should be seen holistically (i.e., the ceremony must be followed by consigning the corpse to the dokhma, where the latter exists).”
He said that fire may be a purifier from the point of view of science, but from the point of view of the Zoroastrian religion, we have to constantly keep it pure and far away from any defilement. It is for this reason that priests wear a padaan when praying before the Holy Fire. He also stated emphatically that for a Zoroastrian, polluting fire with nasu is an absolutely unpardonable sin.
Dasturji Dr. JamaspAsa also categorically asserted that even though the vulture population has depleted, the system has not failed totally since the city and the country is blessed with plenty of sunshine and other birds of prey.
He also explained that it is an age-old practice to bury the skeletal remains in pits outside the Towers, with due ritual precautions.
He also dismissed the bogey of “health hazard” and said that during the height of the plague of 1896, more than 2000 Parsis were consigned to the dokhmas, without fear of an epidemic. He asserted, “Common sense tells us that the ‘health hazard’ scare is a false one.”
Appealing to the good sense of the community and particularly the DDD-AG, he said, “If a patient is ill, do members of the family and the doctors kill him? In like manner, if our age-old system is weakened, is it not our religious duty to strengthen it instead of destroying it?” He described DDD-AG’s attitude as “negative, destructive and transparently opportunistic”.
He lamented the fact that some trustees of the BPP had succumbed under pressure of this group. He urged the trustees to rescind their resolution and uphold the tradition.
Interestingly, four out of the seven trustees of the BPP were present at the meeting that evening, including Mrs. Silloo Kavarana, Mr. Dadi Engineer, Mr. Dinshaw Mehta and Mr. Rustom Tirandaz. Some trustees of the Poona Parsi Punchayet and other Anjumans were also present.
The congregation gave Dasturji JamaspAsa another standing ovation on completion of his address.
Speaking in Gujarati, Dasturji Dr. Firoze Kotwal said that efforts are being made by the reformists to strike at the very foundation of our religion. We respect the Parsi doctors and the lawyers for their learning and competence in their respective fields. In like manner, it is important that they respect and take heed of what people of religious learning have to say.
He complimented the Udvada Anjuman for its resolve in excommunicating renegade priests. He urged other Anjumans to follow the Udvada Anjuman’s example.
He said that druj (the demon of pollution) arises in various circumstances, including when we answer nature’s call, during menses, etc. However, druj arises in its most virulent form when a person dies. Ceremonies like Sachkar, Sagdid, Geh Sarnu and Dokhmenashini are, therefore, performed to control druj.
He emphasized that ONLY the ‘nasesalars’ have the right to enter the dokhmas. No one else, including the trustees and officers of the Punchayet, have any right to go inside the Towers. “Bava no bagicho chey su?” (“Is it your father’s garden?”) he questioned authoritatively, amidst thunderous applause. “Do other communities dig up graves to inspect the corpses?” he further questioned.
He said that often children feel obliged to carry out the last wishes of the departed. He said that if the wish expressed by the departed is against the Laws of the Zoroastrian religion, (i.e., to bury or cremate) the children should not feel burdened with the obligation to fulfil that wish. The commandment of Dadaar Ahura Mazda is supreme and to dispose the corpse in the proper religious manner (contrary to what the departed may have, out of sheer ignorance, instructed) would be an act of spiritual merit.
To Parsis who swear only by the ‘Gathas’ and disown rituals, Dasturji Dr. Kotwal pointed out, “In the Gathas, Zarathushtra is called ‘Zaotar’ or ‘Chief Officiating Priest’.
He said, “Forget burning nasu or dead matter. Even if a person offers wood that is not properly dried (lilu lakru) to the Fire, he is called a ‘dev pujari’ (a worshipper of demons) in our holy texts.”
Dasturji explained in detail how a dokhma is consecrated with the ‘kodali marvani kriya’ (ritual digging with recitation of 21 Yathas), ‘tano’ (using 301 nails and a cord of 101 threads) and other complex ceremonies.
He complimented the trustees of the BPP for maintaining the doongerwadi estate in good condition and urged them to take heed of what the High Priests have to say in religious matters.
Dasturji Unvala said that it is the duty of a Dastur to lead the community on the right path. He lauded the articles written by ex-BPP trustees, Dr. Nellie Noble and Mr. Eurch Desai and urged the present board of trustees not to succumb under pressure. He said that the Bangalore Parsi Anjuman is socially very progressive but in matters of religion, they always consult the High Priest (i.e., Dasturji Unvala) and take heed of his advice.
He also said that giving the use of bunglees is the first step in a series of many other “rights” the DDD-AG will demand in future.
He lamented that today the community is not threatened by Alexander or the Arabs, but only a few misguided but influential Parsis.
Naib Dastur Peshotan Mirza said that all the elements of Nature are sacred to Parsis and it is only through Dokhmenashini that we can keep the elements pure. Cremating a corpse pollutes the environment and throws up noxious gases. The sun’s rays falling in a dokhma destroy organisms and have a purifying effect.
All the Vada Dasturjis and Naib Dastur who spoke received a standing ovation from a visibly thrilled and electrified audience. It was an educative and informative evening, indeed.
Noshir Dadrawala read out a resolution unanimously passed by all the Vada Dasturjis which stated, “RESOLVED that the trustees of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet hold a Samast Anjuman Meeting before they take a final decision regarding any demands made by a group of people called ‘The Disposal of the Dead with Dignity-Action Group’ for the performance of funeral rites in the Doongerwadi estate/complex for those deceased persons whose bodies are disposed of by any method other than Dokhmenashini.”
Dadrawala explained that the High Priests have taken a clear, bold and unanimous stand that no facilities should be extended to those who go against the customs, precepts and traditions of the Zoroastrian religion. However, even if they (the BPP trustees) choose to ignore the verdict of the religious heads, the High Priests have recommended that the feelings of the community should also be taken into consideration by calling a Samast Anjuman Meeting.
Dadrawala also read out the letter of Mr. Byram D. Avari, Chairman, Karachi Parsi Anjuman in which he states, “We have no vultures since 1956 yet the disposal of the dead works as efficiently with the sun’s rays as with the vultures.
In his vote of thanks, Dadrawala thanked all the Vada Dasturjis, Naib Dasturs, scholar priests, leaders of TZML (Traditional Zoroastrian Mailing List - of the Internet) who conceived of and organised this historic Meeting (particularly Mr. Roni Khan, Ms. Zenobia Patel and Mr. Karl Sahukar), trustees of the Framji Cowasji Hall (particularly Mr. Hoshang Wania), Mr. Khojeste Mistree and Ms. Shenaz Munshi and many others who helped from behind the scene.
The prelates have spoken, loud and clear. The BPP trustees have no choice but to heed the collective wisdom of our religious heads. If they wish to test the waters further, let them call a Samast Anjuman Meeting. The writing, as they say, is clearly on the wall.
- Noshir Dadrawalla.
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