Treated as outcasts and untouchables, the pall-bearers have little income and poor working conditions.
They have been treated as ‘outcasts’ and ‘untouchables for centuries. They are the Parsi pall-bearers called nassesalars and khandhias, who do the job of lifting corpses after the prayers are chanted in the Tower of Silence in Doongerwadi.
In an endeavour to make them feel appreciated and uplift this marginalised section of the Parsi community, Dinshaw Tamboly, chairman, World Zoroastrian Organisation (WZO) Trust has requested trustees of Zoroastrian Charity Funds of Hong Kong, Canton and Macao, to consider extending financial support to pallbearers. WZO Trust Funds requested various Anjumans that have Towers of Silence (dakhmas) under them to provide a list of pall-bearers. Of the 76 pall-bearers in India, 18 are from Doongerwadi in Mumbai.
“Parsi pall-bearers are individuals who lift the corpse after the prayers chanted have been completed. In Zoroastrian theology, every dead matter is considered unhygienic and polluting. Parsi pall-bearers are corpse bearers invested with priest- like duties and responsible for protecting the living from contamination by the corpse. Theologically pall-bearers are supposed to hold a venerated position, but that is sadly not the case in present day and times. Their incomes are not only modest compared to other professions, but they function under extremely trying conditions that often cause emotional strain,” said Tamboly.
He said that the initiative to extend support to pall-bearers was conceived with the objective not only to provide them with financial support but also to make them realise that the community recognises their contribution in fulfilling an important obligation towards continuance of a tradition that has been practised for centuries now.
When queried about how this financial assistance will help them, Tamboly said, “Each active pallbearer will receive Rs 7,500 per month that will be paid every quarter commencing July 2019. This amount will enable them to improve their lifestyles to a degree. The financial support extended has no bearing on the salaries they are paid by the Anjumans (associations) that have appointed them.”
Ever since Zoroastrians landed in India 1,388 years ago, they have followed the mode of disposal of the dead by placing their corpses in Towers of Silence. Earlier on the corpses used to be devoured by vultures. In present times due to acute scarcity of vultures, disposal of the corpses is through exposure to the sun, aided by solar panels that have been fixed on the towers. The institution of Parsi pallbearers, has been in existence since those early days.
Sharukh Wadia, 56, dakhma supervisor at Doongerwadi, said,”I am being included as a pall-bearer. I have worked for 17 years when I joined Doongerwadi Tower of Silence in January 2003. My salary is Rs 25,000 and with tax deductions I get Rs 23,000 in hand.”
Vispy Wadia, a reformist Parsi, when contacted said, “They are known as khandhias. The word is derived from Gujarati word khaandh i.e shoulder who give khaand to the departed. This system of having professional khandhias is only found in Mumbai and to a limited extent in Pune. Earlier the body used to be carried by relatives themselves. When Parsis settled down employed these services of poor community. Then it became ingrained in as a caste system and they were shunned from social circles. They won’t invite them for social functions like weddings. They are from marginal sections of the community. Poor Parsis from interiors of Gujarat with no income do these jobs in Mumbai.”
Published on Mumbai Mirror