Zoroastrian Towers of Silence (from Avestan “Daz”, noun-“Dakhma”, meaning “to burn from the Sun”), are circular raised structures traditionally used by followers of the Zoroastrian religion in their rituals surrounding death. Two hilltop towers overlook the Iranian city of Yazd, their simple cylindrical walls giving no indication of the gruesome scenes that once took place within them. The structures are known as dakhma, or Towers of Silence. The Zoroastrians of Yazd used these places as open burial pits, placing their deceased relatives in rows so their bodies would be feasted upon by birds of prey.
Zoroastrian Towers of Silence
There are five Zoroastrian Towers of Silence left in the province of Yazd. It is two towers of silence here and they extend on each mountaintop. Well up on one we have great views across to the other peak and another Tower of Silence. The towers were always built off the beaten track so that the bodies could lie in peace and gradually disappear. Risk of infections from the unclean spirits, the smell and flocks of vultures, one would rather not have the towers too close to the settlement. But today the city of Yazd has grown larger and is almost completely next to the two peaks, each with its Tower of Silence.
This process was deemed to maintain the purity of the earth and the atmosphere during the process of bodily decomposition. Zoroastrianism traditionally conceives death as a temporary triumph of evil over good: rushing into the body, the corpse demon contaminates everything it comes in contact with.
The flesh of a dead body being so unclean it can pollute everything, a set of rules had to be created in order to dispose of the corpse as safely as possible: as the natural elements of earth, air and water are sacred, the corpses were not to be thrown upon the water or interred. Cremation was also forbidden, as fire is the direct -purest- emanation of the divinity.
Sky burial—placing a deceased human body in an exposed location so that animals and the elements will hasten its decomposition—has long been a part of Zoroastrian tradition. According to the religion’s beliefs, a body becomes impure at death, when evil spirits, or Nasu, arrive to attack the flesh and soul of the deceased. By contaminating the corpse, Nasu also threaten the living. Sky burial is considered a clean death because it prevents putrefaction—birds of prey such as vultures can eat a body down to the bones in just a few hours.
After the process of 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 BCE. Similar dakhmas exist just outside of Mumbai, India, as well, although the most prominent “Towers of Silence” are in Iran.
A Tower of Silence, or Dakhmeh, is a structure laying on the top of a hill, consisting of concentric slabs surrounding a central pit. The bodies were arranged onto four concentric rings: men, outermost, than women and children. Despite the fact the the birds of prey needed less than an hour to leave nothing but bones, the remains of the dead were left bleaching on the upper circles no less than a year before the nasellars could come and push the skeletons onto the underlying ossuary pit. Running through sand and coal filters, the disintegrated bones were eventually washed away in the sea.
A guardian traditionnaly lived near the Tower of Silence, and was the sole person allowed to handle the ceremonial procedures, while relatives of the deceased stayed in a house below, and were forbidden to enter.
The journey of the soul
According to Zoroastrian beliefs, when a person dies, his or her spirit leaves the body, but remains in its vicinity for three days and nights, suffering from temporary anxiety and distress caused by the sudden separation. During this period, the archangel Vohuman and Mithra prepare an account of the good works and the sins of the soul, to be used later to decide its fate in the spiritual world. On the third night the soul leaves the material world and enters into the spiritual world, led by an angel called Daena (who symbolically represents conscience).
As Iran developed and urbanized, Dakhmas (Zoroastrian Towers of Silence ) became increasingly closer to city limits, severely curtailing their use. Iranian Zoroastrian discontinued this ceremony, and the Dakhmeh were banned in the 70’s; conversely, Parsi modern-day Zoroastrians in Mumbai and Karachi still mantains the tradition of burial by exposure, through the use of their own Towers of Silence.