Fire Temple of Baku

Fire Temple of Baku

Infobox Mandir

caption=Inner courtyard of the complex. Visible in the foreground - with a trishula on the roof - is an Agnihotra stage. Along the wall in the background are the doorways of cells for monks.
creator =
proper_name = "Atashgah" or "Ateshgyakh"
date_built = 18th century
primary_deity = Jwalaji
location = Surakhani, Azerbaijan
The Fire Temple of Baku, known locally as the Atashgah ("place of fire") or Ateshgyakh ("home of fire"), is a castle-like Hindu temple and monastery complex in Surakhani near Baku in Azerbaijan. The complex is now a museum, and is no longer used as a place of worship. The fire was once fed by a natural gas vent.

Temple description

Inscriptions in the temple in Sanskrit (in Nagari Devanagari script) and Punjabi (in Gurmukhi script) identify the sanctity as a place of Hindu and Sikh worship. These inscriptions date from "Samvat" 1725 to "Samvat" 1873, which though unambiguous references to the Hindu calendar, cannot be precisely dated since there is more than one "Samvat" calendar. "Samvat" 1725 could thus be either "c." 1646 CE or "c." 1782 CE. However, "local records say that it was built by a prominent Hindu traders community living in Baku and its construction coincided with the fall of the dynasty of Shirwanshahs and annexation by Russian Empire following Russo-Iranian war [of 1722-1723] ."cite web|url=|title=Rare Hindu temple in Muslim Azerbaijan|publisher=Sify|year= 2003]

According to A. V. Williams Jackson,citation|last=Jackson|first=Abraham Valentine Williams|title=From Constantinople to the home of Omar Khayyam|publisher=McMillan|location=London|year=1911|chapter= The Oil Fields and Fire Temple Baku|chapter-url=] the Punjabi language inscriptions are quotations from the Adi Granth. The Sanskrit ones are from the "Sati Sri Ganesaya namah", invoke Ganesha, and state that the shrine was built for "Jwalaji", the flame-faced goddess worshipped at Jawalamukhi, in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh, India.

Also according to Jackson, the oldest reference to the temple is in Jonas Hanway's "Caspian Sea",cite book|last=Hanway|first=Jonas|title=Historical Account of British Trade over the Caspian Sea|year=1753|location=London.] a report from 1753 that is roughly contemporaneous with the inscriptions. Hanway apparently did not visit the temple himself, but bases his account on "the current testimony of many who did see it." He refers to the worshippers as being 'Indians', 'Gaurs', or 'Gebrs' (in common usage, 'Gaur'/'Gebr' is synonymous with "kafir", that is, a non-Muslim).

Several references from the late 18th century and early 19th century record the site being used as a Hindu temple at that time. Samuel Gottlieb Gmelin's "Reise durch Russland" (1771) is cited in Karl Eduard von Eichwald's "Reise in den Caucasus" (Stuttgart, 1834) where the naturalist Gmelin is said to have observed Yogi austerities being performed by devotees. Geologist Eichwald restricts himself to a mention of the worship of Rama, Krishna, Hanuman and Agni.citation|first=Karl Eduard|last=von Eichwald|title=Reise in den Caucasus|location=Stuttgart|year=1834.] In 1863, the German economist August Franz von Haxthausen observed that the site had recently been rebuilt when he visited it. He notes that the site was in triangular form of about 180 paces to a side, and had been constructed by a Hindu merchant in the eighteen hundreds.citation|url=] In the 1784 account of George Forster of the Bengal Civil Service, the square structure was about 30 yards across, surrounded by a low wall and containing many apartments. Each of these had a small jet of sulphurous fire issuing from a funnel "constructed in the shape of a Hindu altar." The fire was used for worship, cooking and warmth, and would be regularly extinguished.citation|url=]

"The Ateshgyakh Temple looks not unlike a regular town caravanserai - a kind of inn with a large central court, where caravans stopped for the night. As distinct from caravanserais, however, the temple has the altar in its center with tiny cells for the temple's attendants - Indian ascetics who devoted themselves to the cult of fire - and for pilgrims lining the walls."cite web|url=|title=The Ateshgyakh Temple|publisher=Sputnik Tourism (|location=Baku|year= 2006.]

The fire was once fed by a vent from a subterranean natural gas field located directly beneath the complex, but heavy exploitation of the natural gas reserves in the area during Soviet rule resulted in the flame going out in 1969. Today, the museum's fire is fed by mains gas piped in from Baku city. [citation|last=Elliot|first=Mark|title=Azerbaijan with Excursions to Georgia|edition=3rd|year=2004|page=153|location=Hindhead, UK|publisher=Trailblazer Publications.] [citation|last = Byrne| first = Ciar| title = Man-made wonders of the world under threat from war, want and tourism | publisher = The Independent| date = February 2, 2005| url =]

Public recognition

An illustration of the Baku Fire Temple was included on two denominations of Azerbaijan's first issue of postage stamps, released in 1919. Five oil derricks appear in the background. [Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue (2007), "Azerbaijan", cat. nos. 9 & 10. Vargas and Bazleh, Ajerbaijan International 3.2 (Summer 1995).]

Local legend

Local legend associates the temple at Surakhany with the Fire temples of Zoroastrianism, but this is presumably based on the general identification of any "place of fire" (the common meaning of "atashgah") as a Zoroastrian place of worship. While the word also exists in Zoroastrian vocabulary, it is a technical term that denotes the altar-like repository for a sacred wood-fire or for the protected innermost sanctum where that fire altar stands (but not of the greater building around it). The technical meaning derives from Middle Persian "gah" for "throne" or "bed".

Besides the present-day physical evidence that indicates that the complex was a Hindu place of worship, the existing structural features are not consistent with those for any other Zoroastrian place of worship . That the site may once (prior to the 1780s) have been a Zoroastrian place of worship cannot be ruled out, but there is no evidence to suggest that this may have once been so. The use of natural gas is not in accord with Zoroastrian ritual use. (See, the Zoroastrian cult of fire).

In 1876, James Bryce visited the place, and remarked that the site was sponsored by the Parsee (i.e. Indian Zoroastrian) community of Bombay. [citation|last=Bryce|first=James|title=Transcaucasia and Ararat: Being Notes of a Vacation Tour in the Autumn Of 1876|location=London|publisher=Macmillan|year=1878.] In 1925, a Zoroastrian priest and academic Jivanji Jamshedji Modi travelled to Baku to determine if the temple had indeed been once a Zoroatrian place of worship. Until then (and again today), the site was visited by Zoroastrian pilgrims from India. In his "Travels Outside Bombay", Modi observed that "not just me but any Parsee who is a little familiar with our Hindu brethren's religion, their temples and their customs, after examining this building with its inscriptions, architecture, etc., would conclude that this is not a [Zoroastrian ] Atash Kadeh but is a Hindu Temple, whose Brahmins (priests) used to worship fire (Sanskrit: Agni).".citation|last=Modi|first=Jivanji Jamshedji|year=1926|location=Bombay|title=My Travels Outside Bombay: Iran, Azerbaijan, Baku|publisher=Royal Asiatic Society|chapter=Baku|chapter-url= ( [ extract] includes present-day photographs).]

ee also

* Ramana (settlement)
* Khinalyg
* Gobustan
* Yanar Dag
* Hinduism in Azerbaijan

References and further reading


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