In 1870 Sir Monier Monier-Williams, a prominent Sanskrit scholar at Oxford University, wrote a vivid description of the Towers of Silence, in Bombay—squat, drum-shaped structures where the Parsis of that city deposit their dead to be eaten by birds.
Though wholly destitute of ornament, and even of the simplest moulding, the parapet of each Tower possesses an extraordinary coping, which instantly attracts and fascinates the gaze. It is a coping formed, not of dead stone, but of living vultures. These birds, on the occasion of my visit, had settled themselves side by side in perfect order, and in a complete circle around the parapets of the Towers, with their heads pointed inwards, and so lazily did they sit there and so motionless was their whole mien that, except for their color, they might have been carved out of the stone-work.
According to Monier-Williams, it took the vultures less than five minutes to consume the flesh of a new corpse. The skeleton would eventually be added to a dry well at the towers' center, to mingle with those of other departed members of the community.
Visiting Bombay today, Monier-Williams would find a vastly different sight. Although the Parsis continue to stack their dead within the towers (their religion, Zoroastrianism, forbids them to contaminate earth, fire, or water with their corpses), the bodies remain unmolested except by the gradual effects of the elements. The vultures crucial to their rapid disposal have largely disappeared. The phenomenon has sparked an ongoing international scientific investigation; however, the reasons for the decline of the vulture population remain unclear. And it is estimated that 90 to 96 percent of India's vultures have already disappeared.