A New Multi-Faith Prayer Hall In Worli Is A Triumph For Liberal Parsis
A new prayer hall at the Vaikunth Dham funerary complex in Worli is both an affirmation of Mumbai’s cosmopolitanism and a testament to the success of liberalism within the Parsi community. The hall, which can be used by members of all faiths, has been built by the members of the Parsi community with an endowment from the A. H. Wadia Trust on land provided by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). It stands next to a Japanese Shinto shrine in the leafy surroundings of the complex, which also has an electric crematorium. The construction of the hall follows in the philanthropic tradition of private-public partnerships creating institutions for public use. This is the way much of Bombay was turned into a modern city in the second half of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century.
With the opening of the hall, Parsis who opt for cremation or burial over the traditional method of exposing the dead to vultures at Doongerwadi or the Towers of Silence now have a designated institution at which the four-day funerary prayers can be performed. Family and friends from all faiths are allowed to be present. While the hall can be used by all communities, Parsi and Irani Zoroastrians get preference at certain times of the day.
Parsis felt the need for alternative methods because of number of factors. Firstly, the system of disposal at the Doongerwadi no longer functions properly. As the population of vultures has drastically declined, corpses decay in the Towers. Secondly, members of the community increasingly find the policies of segregating non-Parsi mourners at Doongerwadi discriminatory. Non-Parsis are seated in a separate hall and are not allowed to view the corpse. Thirdly, some Parsis argue that the method of disposal they choose is a personal and not necessarily religious or anti-religious choice.
A set of newer policies at Doongewardi, framed by the Bombay Parsi Punchayet, the community’s apex institution that manages the funerary estate, also propelled the construction of the prayer hall. Doongerwadi’s bunglis or halls can no longer be used for the funerary services of a Parsi who opts for an alternative system of disposal at a crematorium or burial site, and priests who conducted the services for such community members have been barred from working there.
The facility of the new prayer hall alleviates these obstacles by offering a well-designed space in a serene setting. Firdaus Gandavia, who attended the inauguration on Monday, August 3, describes the premises as “bright, modern, airy and spacious”. A small booking fee is the only charge levied for using the hall, which is to some extent a consequence of a traditional institution’s resistance to change. More than that however, it is a symbol of the traditions of philanthropy and liberalism in the city. As Homi Khusrokhan, one of the architects of the project notes, “At the end of the day, this hall is a gift (like many others) from the Parsi community to the city of Mumbai.”