Those of you who subscribe to my author email list (check it out, you’ll get a free copy of Blood Brothers!) know that I’ve been working on a collaborative project with fellow indie thriller author Steven Moore. The books are set in the “universe” of characters from his books. I jumped at the opportunity not only because Steven is an excellent storyteller and it was a golden opportunity to expose my own writing to his readers, but also because it would be a great exercise in writing outside of my comfort zone. I have always wanted to get into writing international thrillers, in settings that are more varied and exotic than the seedy underbelly of inland Southern California and Nevada (where the Austin Conrad books are all set, so far). So these books with Steve are a great opportunity to do that.

Steve is a globe-trotting world traveler, and has been to most of these places in person. But I haven’t, so I find myself doing quite a bit of research on the areas I’m writing about in these books. I’ve already set the bar kind of high, in my Austin Conrad books, for gritty realism and vividly detailed settings. And I don’t want those qualities to be diminished in these collab books. So I’ve spent a lot of time online researching everything from city and country maps and road networks, street-level photos, food, music, dress, language, names and other cultural touch-points, organizational structure of governments, law enforcement, criminal and religious organizations. I don’t mind it, I love to learn, and a project like this forces me to learn quite a lot, fast.

The book I’m currently working on is set in India, mostly in and around Mumbai. So at this point I almost feel like I’ve actually lived there, as I have, in a way, in cyberspace for the past couple of months. But one of the pitfalls of research is that it can draw you in, like a black hole, and not let go. You might pull up Google to learn about what snack foods are readily available in Indian convenience stores, and if you don’t discipline yourself to stay narrowly on task, before you know it you’re taking a virtual tour of 2,000 year-old Buddhist cave sculptures on tiny island out in the bay. Not complaining, I actually love that shit. But it can put you off task in a heartbeat.

One such occasion happened just the other day. I don’t even remember exactly what I was originally searching for. But I was looking at the aerial photos of Mumbai and noticed this large patch of lush green vegetation surrounded by the city’s urban concrete jungle. It was like an oasis. So I zoomed in, and notice two or three curious-looking round buildings, or structures, hidden within this urban forest. OK, I’ll bite. Zoom in a little farther, and the name pops up on them. “Tower of Silence.” OK, now I’m way off-task but if I don’t scratch that itch it will drive me nuts. So up comes Google, in goes “Tower of Silence,” and out comes one of those classic “What The Fuck?” moments that takes me down the rabbit hole for the next hour or so.

This was definitely the coolest thing I read on the Internet all week, so I thought I’d share it with you guys. So, in case you don’t want to risk the black hole yourself, here’s the TL/DR on Towers of Silence: it’s where they put dead bodies so the vultures can eat them.

I know, right? Let me repeat that, in case you missed it. Towers of Silence are where they put dead bodies so vultures can eat them.

WTF? That’s AWESOME! It’s deliciously macabre! Yeah, we all know the cliche about the hapless traveler dying in the desert and getting eat by vultures. But never in a million years had I considered that somewhere on this planet of ours, was a people who did that on purpose. I needed to know more! So I read on, and learned all about it. In the process, for me the subject transitioned from a ghoulish delight into a respected, serious practice that I now have a fairly profound sympathy for.

The Zoroastrians were a people with a distinct religion who mostly left Persia (Iran) centuries ago due to the expansion of Islam, and a large population of them settled in India, including the Seven Islands that would become the seat of British colonial power, Bombay (now known as Mumbai). Though they are today a tiny minority among India’s Hindu and Muslim population, the Zoroastrians, or Parsi, as they are known in India, are a proud, fairly affluent people (they’re land-rich, for one thing, having hung on to large swaths of land down through the ages, as Bombay grew into one of the world’s most expensive real estate markets).

The Zoroastrian religion considers both fire and earth sacred elements. Combine that with their belief that, when a person dies, evil demons rush in, making corpses “unclean,” so to speak. This creates a conundrum: what to do with the bodies when people die? Most people in the world simply bury or cremate them. The problem for the Zoroastrians is that it would be sacrilege to commit these unclean bodies to either of their sacred elements, including earth or fire. So burial and cremation are out. What does that leave? Well, for centuries, they’ve had a clever solution to that problem: feed them to the vultures.

Over the years the practice became a ritualized part of the religion, and eventually structures specifically suited to that purpose were developed, and these, in time, came to be known as the Towers of Silence (so named by the colonial British, not by the Parsi, who call them “Dakhma,” in Persian). These structures were wide, round, short, roofless “towers” with a bowl-shaped interior and central pit. There are three concentric rings of depressions in the canted “bowl” surface, into which the corpses are placed. Adult males are placed in the outer ring, females in the middle ring, and children in the inner ring. And then the feast begins.

Vultures, which have been conditioned to hang out there for their free meals, swoop in to dine on the bodies, quickly cleaning the bones of flesh. Once the bones have been picked clean by the carrion-eaters, acolytes then take the bones and toss them into the central pit, where they are bleached by the sun and left to decompose. The tower also has an elaborate drainage and filter system, to purify any putrefecation and runoff from rain.

It’s an awesome system! I was fascinated by it. And even more fascinated to learn that the practice is still in use today. Yes, those very towers I stumbled upon on Google Earth are actual, in-use arenas for feeding corpses to vultures even now. I just find that amazing.

But there is a sad postscript to the story. It turns out the practice may be coming to an end anyhow. Not by clashing with Muslim traditions, as it did in Iran, or by modernized sensibilities, as it has elsewhere, but by something more simple–and upsetting: a lack of vultures. It turns out the vulture population in India is nearly extinct, due mostly to a drug that was introduced into the cattle population in the 1990s, which proved fatal for the vultures (who mostly feed on dead livestock). There simply aren’t enough vultures left to consume the corpses in a timely fashion.

They’re trying various solutions, from captive breeding programs for the vultures to using mirrors to concentrate more sun energy onto the dead bodies to accelerate decay. I hope they can figure it out so that these Towers of Silence will continue to be living history, not just ancient history.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little trip down the rabbit hole with me.

Further reading:

NOTE: Unfortunately I couldn’t figure out a good way to work these Towers of Silence into the current story I’m writing. And honestly, while reading about it I gained a respect for the people and traditions, that continue to this day, that I would rather not exploit by just using it as a macabre backdrop for a scene in my story. But I’m sure parts of it will find its way into future tales, because now that I know about the Towers of Silence, they’re part of me.