Tower of Silence
Until 40 years ago, corpses could still be found on top of the Towers of Silence in Yazd, Iran, slowly disintegrating or being picked apart by desert vultures. A Tower of Silence is a circular, raised structure used by Zoroastrians for exposure of the dead, particularly to scavenging birds for the purposes of excarnation. In the Zoroastrian tradition, once a body ceases to live, it can immediately be contaminated by demons and made impure. To prevent this infiltration, Zoroastrians purified the dead body by exposing it to the elements and local fowl on top of flat-topped towers in the desert called dakhmas.
The doctrinal rationale for exposure is to avoid contact with earth or fire, both of which are considered sacred. Zoroastrian tradition considers a dead body (in addition to cut hair nail parings) to be nasu, unclean, i.e. potential pollutants. Specifically, the corpse demon (Avestan: nasu.daeva) was believed to rush into the body and contaminate everything it came into contact with. To preclude the pollution of earth or fire the bodies of the dead are placed atop a tower and so exposed to the sun and to scavenging birds. Thus, “putrefaction with all its concomitant evil is most effectually prevented.”
When Zoroastrians died their bodies were taken up into a Tower of Silence and exposed to the elements. Vultures and other carrion-eating birds were allowed to strip all of the flesh off the corpses. The bones were then dried and bleached in the sun. In Uzbekistan the bones were placed in ossuaries and preserved, but here in Iran the dried bones were placed in a pit in the middle of the Tower of Silence platform where they were allowed to disintegrate into dust.
These circular stone buildings reach 18 feet (almost 5.5 meters) into the air and measure 300 feet (almost 91.5 meters0 in circumference. Each dakhma holds around 20 bodies. On the top are three circles: the outer was reserved for men, the middle for women, and the central circle was for children. After no flesh was left, bones would be collected and stored in the central pit of the structure, or in a private ossuary. They are outfitted with an iron and four towers that connect with channels to the center and serve to drain and filter any washed away matter.
There are two towers near Yazd, built in the nineteenth century according to a design from India, where many Zoroastrians live. Although the towers date back to the nineteenth century and are influenced by the practices of Indian Zoroastrians, the custom to expose the dead on the towers is mentioned in the late Sasanian age. After the process of the purification, bones were placed in ossuaries near, or inside, of the towers. Ossuaries from these rituals have been discovered from the 4th and 5th century B.C. Similar dakhmas exist just outside of Mumbai, India, as well, although the most prominent “towers of silence” are in Iran. Exposure (without towers) is mentioned even earlier. The Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus wrote in the fifth century B.C that the bodies of the Magians (who were not necessarily Zoroastrians) people were abandoned in “areas surrounded by walls”.
As Iran developed and urbanized, dakmas became increasingly closer to city limits, severely curtailing their use. Since the 1970s the use of dakhmas has been illegal in Iran, forcing orthodox Zoroastrians to adapt to new burial methods. Many in the Zoroastrian community have moved to burying bodies beneath concrete, to keep out all contaminants. Although the towers are no longer used in ceremony, they can be visited along with a number of the ossuaries in the area. The custom to expose the dead on mountain summits still exists in modern Tibet, where it is called an “air burial”.
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