Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Guess Their Religion—The Fire Worshippers of the Atashgah

The Ateshgah temple compound (photo by Nick Taylor)
By Supriya Savkoor

Here we are, in a fairly small, poor town, standing on a not-so-narrow peninsula jutting about 40 km into the Caspian Sea. Its population is only about 200,000. See those old oil rigs and industrial plants off in the distance? They’re mostly abandoned by the Soviets, though some are operational. Head a few hours north, we’d be in Russia itself. Directly west is Armenia. Wedged between the two is the former Soviet republic of Georgia, as well as a tiny border with Turkey. And over there, due east just across the sea, is that curious country of Turkmenistan. Wanna catch a 10-hour ferry ride just to get about 180 miles (roughly 300 km) across? Wait, no international banking in Turkmenistan, you say? Fine, shall we head south into Iran instead? Except what about our visas? Too bad, cause Tehran’s only 300 miles south of here, and we’d only be driving along one of the world’s most gorgeous coasts to get there. Next time. For now, let’s check out one of the more unusual sights around here, shall we?

We’re plop in the middle of little Surakhani, a small suburb outside Baku in Azerbaijan, yet another former Soviet republic. Had you already guessed this? I’m not sure I would have, my knowledge of the Caucasus being painfully limited. Thankfully, my blogmate, Edith McClintock, here at Novel Adventurers, is taking care of that for all of us. But it’s still embarrassing. Not only is Azerbaijain the largest country in the Caucasus, but like Turkey, it’s considered an important crossroads in which east (western Asia) meets west (eastern Europe). It was also the first democratic and secular Muslim country in the world and remains very secular and progressive to this day. And it’s one of the birthplaces of mankind, sitting right at the heart of several ancient civilizations. The earliest films, operas, and theater all hail from this fascinating country as well, and its unique folk traditions, music and dance, go back at least a thousand years.

If being a cultural hotspot weren’t enough, Surakhani—which means “the region of holes” or could refer to the red glow that once emanated from its natural gas reserves—is, quite literally, a geophysical hotspot as well. The Soviets sucked much natural gas and petroleum from the country, back when the rich, dark petroleum literally oozed from the ground, yet two-thirds of the country is still rich in these natural resources. If all its other milestones weren’t enough, natural oil fires once literally rose from the ground as if by magic.

Issued in 1919, an Azerbaijani postage stamp with an
image of the Fire Temple (Scott Cat. no. 9)
Which brings us to the Atashgah, also known as the fire temple of Baku. The area around Baku is filled with ancient mosques and cemeteries, not to mention the remnants of the many invasions this region has experienced. UNESCO has certified literally dozens of World Heritage sites in this area, and the Atashgah is a notable one. Some 15,000 tourists—pilgrims, really—visit the temple annually.

Of course, I didn’t bring you here just for the heck of it. This temple has an unusual pedigree. Not only because notables like Marco Polo and Alexander Dumas visited it or that the Russian czar, Alexander III, reportedly observed religious rituals there. But because of its dubious religious origin.

Many consider the Atashgah Zoroastrian, the ancient Persian religion Heidi and I both keep harping about in this space. Fire, a central element of the Zoroastrian faith, perpetually burns at the center of the temple, of course, and the name of the temple itself hails from the Persian  word for fire, “atash.” For years, an “eternal fire” burned at the Atashgah’s main altar. Turns out it sat right above a natural gas field, causing spontaneous bursts of fire through seven natural surface vents. An incredible natural phenomenon if you ever get to see one. In fact, Azerbaijan has some of the most concentrations of such “natural fires” that spring up around the country. The natural gas under Atashgah became exhausted in 1969, after about a hundred years of Soviet over-exploitation of the area’s natural resources, but ever since, the Baku municipality has piped in gas to keep the fire burning and keep the tourists and pilgrims happy.

Eternal flame in the Atashgah
The compound, compared to a castle in some descriptions, is shaped like a pentagon, with little cottages for the monks who stayed there and a fire altar at the center. The government has since turned the temple into a museum, and in addition to its UNESCO designation, the Azeri president declared it a state historical-architectural reserve in 2007. Zoroastrian symbols at the old temple abound. A Naskh inscription over the entrance to one of the cells uses a couplet to announce the visit of Zoroastrians from Isfahan in the 18th century. (There's a 10th century atashgah in Isfahan, in fact, one of the few still in Iran, I'm guessing.) The trident sitting atop the Azeri temple structure is thought by some to be a symbol of the Zoroastrian concept of the “good thoughts, good words, and good deeds” Heidi wrote about on Monday. The compound may have been ravaged by Islamic armies during the conquest of Persia, and it’s thought that the “locals” may already have been worshipping around the “seven holes” even before the Hindus arrived.

Yes, not only have Zoroastrians worshipped here over the centuries, but so have Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists. That’s the real rub. The temple might not even be Zoroastrian originally, but Hindu. Sure, the temple’s right in the middle of Central Asia, not even South Asia, and sure, today there aren’t more than a few hundred Azeri residents of Indian descent. Modern scholars and old writings indicate Indian merchants did a lot of trade along this part of the Silk Road, settling down and forming a sizeable community in the late Middle Ages, possibly around the late 1700s. Many of the woodworkers building the trading ships at the time were Indian as well. The growing Indian population may have been responsible for building the temple or renovating an existing one into a Hindu one. Over the centuries, many have written of it primarily as a Hindu temple though. Even historians who are Parsi, that is descended from the Zoroastrians who’d migrated to India, believe it was always a Hindu temple.

Inscriptions from the Atashgah in Baku, with both a Hindu
invocation in Sanskrit as well as a Persian couplet.
From A. V. Williams Jackson’s 1911 book,
From Constantinople to the Home of Omar Khayyam. {PD-US}

And the physical evidence validates it as well. Fire is a common element of both faiths, as is the trident (known as a trishul, as in the one  Lord Shiva carries). But most telling are the Sanskrit and Punjabi inscriptions peppering the structures around the compound. The tribute to the Zoroastrians from Isfahan has its share of typos, and right above it, inscriptions pay tribute to Lord Ganesha and a Hindu goddess known as Jwala Ji—in Sanskrit. Both these inscriptions note the modern calendar year of 1745, the likely date the temple was erected. And get this. Followers of Jwala Ji have long paid tribute to the goddess by lighting either seven or nine fires, much like the fires coming through the seven “holes” under the altar.

There's another really curious little factoid, a side note, I have to share about this place too. If you've read some of my previous posts (such as this one), you may remember mention of the shared ancient history between the Indians and Persians (all Aryans). It turns out a 10th-century Persian geographer by the name of Estakhri wrote that fire worshippers lived not far from Baku. Another 10th-century scholarArmenian historian, Movses Kaghankatvatsiconfirmed that information, referring to a province called (unbelievably) "Bhagavan." The translation of that word back in the medieval Albanian Caucasus was the "field of gods" or the "fire gods." But what makes this just so fascinating is that in India, regardless of whatever faith you practice, Bhagavan is pretty much the literal translation for God. Wow.

But back to the fire temple of Baku. 

One after another, Europeans visiting the area in the 17th and 18th centuries mention the “brahmins,” the “Indian ascetics,” or the worship of the Hindu fire god, Agni, they observed at Atashgah. Some noted distinctions such as the priests’ strict vegetarian diets or their wearing of tilaks on their foreheads. The fire ritual Czar Alexander III observed was, by all accounts, a Hindu one.

Around the time the Russians arrived to cash in on the oil, the Indian traders and merchants began migrating back to their homeland—mostly from the Sindh and Punjab regions of modern-day Pakistan. In their place came Zoroastrians of Persian origin who’d settled in India and came back to ancient Persia to help restore and maintain the temple. Among the many visitors to the temple each year are thousands of Zoroastrians who revere the sacred grounds regardless of which faith built it.

Iranian Zoroastrians at the fire temple in Baku


  1. How very interesting Supriya!!Azerbaijain is probably amongst the last places I would think to find a Hindu temple!I really need to get cracking on that Tardis ;)

  2. Yet another place to add to my "must visit"

    On a side note, I just love all the place names in this post. I want to read it aloud to myself just to sound them out. "Zoroastrianism" is on its way to being a favorite word of mine. ;)

  3. I agree with you, Sangeeta--the last place I would have imagined a Hindu temple. Btw, I added a paragraph to this piece after you read it. If you get a chance, scroll up and check out the part about Bhagavan. I got a total kick out of that!

    Beth, I love the words in this piece too (and I'm not being partial). ;) I mainly love how so many cultures share similar names and traditions though in so many other ways, especially geographically, they seem rather far apart. We think the world is small with today's technology but when you really look at it, there are some surprising commonalities, no?

  4. You remind me why this is one of my favourite places to be! I am always learning something new! Lol! To imagine that thousands of years ago we had more religious acceptance and no need for visas and work permits and yet today we are more "civilized"... Bhagsvan is omnipresent and timeless isn't he? :) this is one of the reasons why I subscribe to the view that Hinduism is not a religion but rather a way of life.

  5. Now I wish I'd taken that night train to Baku, even though I was warned against it.

  6. The Zaraostrians DO NOT WORSHIP THE FIRE!!
    please read and gain some information about things you publish
    religion facts:
    no one in the world claims that Christians worship a cross, Muslims worship a book,... cause they have enough informmation