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In current times
In the Iranian Zoroastrian tradition the towers were built atop hills or low mountains in desert locations distant from population centers. In the early twentieth century the Iranian Zoroastrians gradually discontinued their use and began to favour burial or cremation.
The decision to change the system was accelerated by three considerations: the first problem arose with the establishment of the Dar ul-Funun medical school. Since Islam considers unnecessary dissection of corpses as a form of mutilation thus forbidding it there were no corpses for study available through official channels. The towers were repeatedly broken into much to the dismay of the Zoroastrian community. Secondly while the towers had been built away from population centers the growth of the towns led to the towers now being within city limits. Finally many of the Zoroastrians found the system outdated. Following long negotiations between the anjuman societies of Yazd Kerman and Tehran the latter gained a majority and established a cemetery some 10 km from Tehran at Ghassr-e Firouzeh (Firouzeh's Palace). The graves were lined with rocks and plastered with cement to prevent direct contact with the earth. In Yazd and Kerman in addition to cemeteries orthodox Zoroastrians continued to maintain a tower until the 1970s when ritual exposure was prohibited by law.
Following the rapid expansion of the Indian cities the squat buildings are today in or near population centers but separated from the metropolitan bustle by gardens or forests. In Parsi Zoroastrian tradition exposure of the dead is also considered to be an individual's final act of charity providing the birds with what would otherwise be destroyed.
In the late 20th century and early 21st century the vulture population on the Indian subcontinent declined (see Indian vulture crisis) by over 97% as of 2008 primarily due to diclofenac poisoning of the birds following the introduction of that drug for livestock in the 1990s until banned for cattle by the Indian government in 2006. The few surviving birds are often unable to fully consume the bodies. In 2001 Parsi communities in India were evaluating captive breeding of vultures and the use of "solar concentrators" (which are essentially large mirrors) to accelerate decomposition. Some have been forced to resort to burial as the solar collectors work only in clear weather. Vultures used to dispose of a body in minutes and no other method has proved fully effective.
The right to use the Towers of Silence is a much-debated issue among the Parsi community (see Parsi for details). The facilities are usually managed by the anjumans the predominantly conservative local Zoroastrian associations (usually having five priests on a nine-member board). In accordance with Indian statutes these associations have domestic authority over trust properties and have the right to grant or restrict entry and use with the result that the associations frequently prohibit the use by the offspring of a "mixed marriage" that is where one parent is a Parsi and the other is not.
The towers remain in use as sacred locations for the Parsi community. though non-members may not enter them. In Mumbai visitors are shown a model of a tower. Organized tours can be taken to the site.
Zoroastrian ritual exposure of the dead is first known of from the writings of the Ancient Greek historian Herodotus (mid-5th century BCE) who observed the custom amongst Iranian expatriates in Asia Minor. In Herodotus' account (Histories i.140) the Zoroastrian funerary rites are said to have been "secret" but were first performed after the body had been dragged around by a bird or dog. The corpse was then embalmed with wax and laid in a trench. :204
While the discovery of ossuaries in both Eastern and Western Iran dating to the 5th and 4th centuries BCE indicates that bones were isolated that this separation occurred through ritual exposure cannot be assumed: burial mounds where the bodies were wrapped in wax have also been discovered. The tombs of the Achaemenid Emperors at Naqsh-e Rustam and Pasargadae likewise suggest non-exposure at least until the bones could be collected. According to legend (incorporated by Ferdowsi into his Shahnameh) Zoroaster himself is interred in a tomb at Balkh (present-day Afghanistan).
Writing on the culture of the Persians Herodotus reports on the Persian burial customs performed by the Magi which are kept secret. However he writes that he knows they expose the body of male dead to dogs and birds of prey then they cover the corpse in wax and then it is buried. The Achaemenid custom is recorded for the dead in the regions of Bactria Sogdia and Hyrcania but not in Western Iran.
The Byzantine historian Agathias has described the Zoroastrian burial of the Sasanian general Mihr-Mihroe: "the attendants of Mermeroes took up his body and removed it to a place outside the city and laid it there as it was alone and uncovered according to their traditional custom as refuse for dogs and horrible carrion".
Towers are a much later invention and are first documented in the early 9th century CE. :156–162 The funerary ritual customs surrounding that practice appear to date to the Sassanid Era (3rd–7th CE). They are known in detail from the supplement to the Shayest ne Shayest the two Rivayat collections and the two Saddars.
The modern-day towers which are fairly uniform in their construction have an almost flat roof with the perimeter being slightly higher than the centre. The roof is divided into three concentric rings: the bodies of men are arranged around the outer ring women in the second ring 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 centre of the tower where–assisted by lime–they gradually disintegrate and the remaining material–along 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 nusessalars a contraction of nasa.salar caretaker (-salar) of potential pollutants (nasa-).
Zoroastrian tradition considers human cadavers and animal corpses (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 Vīdēvdād (an ecclesiastical code "given against the demons") has rules for disposing of the dead as safely as possible. Moreover the Vīdēvdād requires that graves and raised tombs as well must be destroyed.
To preclude the pollution of the sacred elements: Earth Water and Fire (see Zam and Atar respectively) the bodies of the dead are placed at the top of towers and so exposed to the sun and to scavenging birds and wild dogs. Thus "putrefaction with all its concomitant evils... is most effectually prevented."
A dakhma also known as the Tower of Silence is a circular raised structure built by Zoroastrians for excarnation–that is the exposure of human cadavers to the elements for decay in order to avert contamination of the soil with the corpses. Carrion birds usually vultures and other scavengers would typically consume the flesh and the skeletal remains would have been left in the pit.
Zoroastrian exposure of the dead is first attested in the mid-5th century BCE Histories of Herodotus but the use of towers is first documented in the early 9th century CE. The doctrinal rationale for exposure is to avoid contact with Earth Water or Fire all three of which are considered sacred in the Zoroastrian religion.
One of the earliest literary descriptions of such a building appears in the late 9th-century Epistles of Manushchihr where the technical term is astodan "ossuary". Another technical term that appears in the 9th/10th-century texts of Zoroastrian tradition (the so-called "Pahlavi books") is dakhmag for any place for the dead.