DAKHMA . The Iranian term dakhma, which probably originally signified "tomb," seems to be derived from the Indo-European root *dhṃbh, "bury" (Hoffmann, 1965), and not from dag, "burn," as some scholars have proposed. It is occasionally used in the Avesta with a negative meaning, insofar as the burial of bodies was condemned: the funeral rites adopted by the Zoroastrian community (and which were already practiced in priestly circles in the Achaemenid period, as we know from Herodotus) were designed to avoid scrupulously any contamination of the earth, fire, and water and can be traced to earlier practices widespread among the nomads of Central Asia. These—as we learn from the Vendidad —prescribed that corpses, considered impure, be exposed to vultures so that the bones could be cleansed of flesh. Once they were purified of humors and putrefying flesh, the bones were placed in special ossuaries. According to Strabo, the exposure of corpses was also practiced in eastern Iran during the Parthian period.
Later, dakhma became the technical term for the "towers of silence," the buildings used for the rites of exposure of the corpses, whether in Zoroastrian communities in Iran or in Parsi communities of India. The modern translation "towers of silence" seems to have been used for the first time by R. Z. Murphy, Oriental translator for the British government at Bombay (Modi, 1937).
The dakhma, which continues to be used today, although in more limited forms, is a circular tower, constructed of stone and often located on a hill. An iron door opens onto a large platform consisting of three concentric circles. The first and largest is for the bodies of men; the second, in the middle, is for those of women; and the third is for those of children. After the corpse has been exposed and reduced to a skeleton, the bones are put in a large, deep hole at the center of the dakhma.
Zoroastrian ritual attaches great importance to funerals, which are consequently very detailed and complex, as well as meticulous in their purificatory practices. Equally complex are the rites for the consecration of the dakhma, which consist of ceremonies for the excavation of the site, for the foundation, and for the consecration itself.
Boyce, Mary. "An Old Village Dakhma of Iran." In Mémorial Jean de Menasce, edited by Philippe Gignoux and A. Tafazzoli, pp. 3–9. Louvain, 1974.
Boyce, Mary. A History of Zoroastrianism, vol. 1. Leiden, 1975.
Boyce, Mary. A Persian Stronghold of Zoroastrianism. Oxford, 1977.
Boyce, Mary. Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. London, 1979.
de Jong, Albert. Traditions of the Magi. Zoroastrianism in Greek and Latin Literature. Leiden, 1997.
Duchesne-Guillemin, Jacques. La religion de l'Iran ancien. Paris, 1962.
Hoffmann, Karl. "Av. daxma-." Zeitschrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung aus dem Gebiete der indogermanischen Sprache 89 (1965): 238.
Modi, Jivanji Jamshedji. The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Parsees. 2d ed. Bombay, 1937.
Gherardo Gnoli (1987 and 2005)
Translated from Italian by Roger DeGaris