Dakhma – a tower used for disposal of the dead
A Dakhma, also known as Cheel Ghar in Hindi and Tower of Silence (not a translation) in English, is a circular, raised structure used by Zoroastrians for exposure of the dead, particularly to scavenging birds.
Distant view of Tower of Silence, Malabar Hills, Mumbai. Entry to the hill is strictly prohibited for non-Parsees.
The type of construction is not specified by the name. The common dakhma or dokhma (from Middle Persian dakhmag) originally denoted any place for the dead. Similarly, in the medieval texts of Zoroastrian tradition, the word astodan appears, but today denotes an ossuary. In the Iranian provinces of Yazd and Kerman, the technical term is deme or dema. In India, the term doongerwadi came into use after a tower was constructed on a hill of that name. The word dagdah appears in the texts of both India and Iran but, in 20th-century India, signified the lowest grade of temple fire.
The term “Tower of Silence” is a neologism attributed to Robert Murphy, who, in 1832, was a translator of the British colonial government in India. It is not the literal meaning of “Avestan (sic) dakhma” as suggested by the Encyclopædia Britannica. While the stem dakhma- does exist in the Avestan language, its meaning there is not conclusively established. The contexts indicate a negative connotation and that it does not signify a construction of any kind.
Zoroastrian tradition considers a dead body—in addition to cut hair and 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, hence the Vendidad (an ecclesiastical code “given against the demons”) has rules for disposing of the dead as “safely” as possible.
To preclude the pollution of earth or fire, the bodies of the dead are placed atop a tower—a tower of silence—and so exposed to the sun and to scavenging birds. Thus, “putrefaction with all its concomitant evils… is most effectually prevented.”
The towers, which are fairly uniform in their construction, have an almost flat roof, with the perimeter being slightly higher than the center. The roof is divided into three concentric rings: The bodies of men are arranged around the outer ring, women in the second circle, and children in the innermost ring. Once the bones have been bleached by the sun and wind, which can take as long as a year, they are collected in an ossuary pit at the center of the tower, where—assisted by lime—they gradually disintegrate and the remaining material—with run-off rainwater—runs through multiple coal and sand filters before being eventually washed out to sea. The ritual precinct may be entered only by a special class of pallbearers, called nasellars, a contraction of nasa.salar, caretaker of potential pollutants.