Ateshgah of Baku: Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Ateshgah at Surakhani, Baku

The inner courtyard of the Atashgah
Atəşgah (Azerbaijani)
Type Religious shrine
Location Surakhani, Baku, Azerbaijan
Current tenants Museum

The Baku Ateshgah (Azerbaijani: Atəşgah [1] from Persian: آتشگاه Atashgāh) or "Fire Temple" is a castle-like religious structure in Surakhani, a suburb of greater Baku, Azerbaijan.

The pentagonal complex, which has a courtyard surrounded by cells for monks and a tetrapillar-altar in the middle, was built during the 17th and 18th centuries. It was abandoned after 1883 when oil and gas plants were established in the vicinity. The complex was turned into a museum in 1975 and now receives 15,000 visitors a year. It was nominated for World Heritage Site status in 1998 and was declared a state historical-architectural reserve by decree of the Azeri President on 19 December 2007.[2]



The toponym Ateshgah/Atashgah (Persian and Azerbaijani pronunciation) or Ateshgyakh/Atashgyakh (Russian pronunciation) literally means "home of fire." The Persian-origin term atesh (آتش) means fire, and is present in several languages as a Persian loan-word including in Azerbaijani and Hindustani. Gah (گاہ) derives from Middle Persian and means "throne" or "bed". The name refers to the fact that the site is situated atop a now-exhausted natural gas field, which once caused natural fires to spontaneously burn there as the gas emerged from seven natural surface vents. Today, the fires in the complex are fed by gas piped in from Baku, and are only turned on for the benefit of visitors.

Local legend associates the temple at Surakhany with the Fire temples of Zoroastrianism, but this is presumably based on the general identification of any "home of fire" (the common meaning of atashgah) as a Zoroastrian place of worship. While the word exists in Zoroastrian vocabulary, it denotes the altar-like repository for a sacred wood-fire or the sanctum sanctorum where the fire altar stands, but not the greater building around it.

Surakhani, the name of the town where the Ateshgah is located, likely means "a region of holes" (سراخ/suraakh is Persian for hole), but might perhaps be a reference to the fire glow as well (سرخ/sorkh/surkh is Persian for red). A historic alternative name for Azerbaijan as a whole has been Odlar Yurdu, Azeri for land of fires.[3]


An inscription from the Baku Atashgah. The first line begins श्री गणेसाय नमः, I salute Lord Ganesh, the second venerates the holy fire (जवालाजी, Jwala Ji) and dates the inscription to Samvat 1802 (संवत १८०२, or 1745-46 CE). The Persian quatrain below is the sole Persian inscription on the temple[4] and, though ungrammatical,[4] also refers to the fire (آتش) and dates it to 1158 (١١٥٨) Hijri, which is also 1745 CE.
An inscribed invocation to Lord Shiva in Sanskrit at the Ateshgah.

Surakhani is located on the Absheron peninsula, which is famous for oil oozing out of the ground naturally, as well as for natural oil fires.[5] Zoroastrianism has a long history in Azerbaijan and the lands of Absheron were held to be sacred by Zoroastrians due to these natural fires.[5]

Hindu or Zoroastrian?

Some scholars have speculated that the Ateshgah may have been an ancient Zoroastrian shrine that was decimated by invading Islamic armies during the Muslim conquest of Persia and its neighboring regions.[6] It has also been asserted that, "according to historical sources, before the construction of the Indian Temple of Fire (Atashgah) in Surakhani at the end of the 17th century, the local people also worshiped at this site because of the 'seven holes with burning flame'."[7]

Fire is considered extremely sacred in both Hinduism and Zoroastrianism (as Agni and Atar respectively),[8][9] and there has been debate on whether the Atashgah was originally a Hindu structure or a Zoroastrian one. The trident mounted atop the structure is usually a distinctly Hindu sacred symbol (as the Trishul, which is commonly mounted on temples)[10] and has been cited by Zoroastrian scholars as a specific reason for considering the Atashgah as a Hindu site.[11] However, an Azeri presentation on the history of Baku, which calls the shrine a "Hindu temple", identifies the trident as a Zoroastrian symbol of "good thoughts, good words and good deeds".[12]

One early European commentator, Jonas Hanway, bucketed Zoroastrians and Hindus together with respect to their religious beliefs: "These opinions, with a few alterations, are still maintained by some of the posterity of the ancient Indians and Persians, who are called Gebers or Gaurs, and are very zealous in preserving the religion of their ancestors; particularly in regard to their veneration for the element of fire."[13] Geber is a Persian term for Zoroastrians, while Gaurs are a priestly Hindu caste. A later scholar, A. V. Williams Jackson, drew a distinction between the two groups. While stating that "the typical features which Hanway mentions are distinctly Indian, not Zoroastrian" based on the worshipers' attires and tilaks, their strictly vegetarian diets and open veneration for cows, he left open the possibility that a few "actual Gabrs (i.e. Zoroastrians, or Parsis)" may also have been present at the shrine alongside larger Hindu groups.[14]

Indian local residents and pilgrims

In the late Middle Ages, there were significant Indian communities throughout Central Asia.[15][16] In Baku, Indian merchants from the Multan region of Punjab controlled much of the commercial economy, along with the Armenians.[17] Much of the woodwork for ships on the Caspian was also done by Indian craftsmen.[13] Some commentators have theorized that Baku's Indian community may have been responsible for the construction or renovation of the Ateshgah.[16][17]

As European academics and explorers began arriving in Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, they documented encounters with dozens of Hindus at the shrine as well as Hindu pilgrims en-route in the regions between North India and Baku.[13][14][17][18][19]

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.[20] 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.[21]

"The Ateshgyakh Temple looks not unlike a regular town caravansary - a kind of inn with a large central court, where caravans stopped for the night. As distinct from caravansaries, 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."[22]

Inscriptions and likely period of construction

The Fire Temple at Suraxany and its surroundings

There are several inscriptions on the Ateshgah. They are all in either Sanskrit or Punjabi, with the exception of one Persian inscription that occurs below an accompanying Sanskrit invocation to Lord Ganesh and Jwala Ji.[14] Although the Persian inscription contains grammatical errors, both the inscriptions contain the same year date of 1745 Common Era (Samvat/संवत 1802/१८०२ and Hijri 1158/١١٥٨).[14][23] Taken as a set, the dates on the inscriptions range from Samvat 1725 to Samvat 1873, which corresponds to the period from 1668 CE to 1816 CE.[14] This, coupled with the assessment that the structure looks relatively new, has led some scholars to postulate the seventeenth century as its likely period of construction.[6][7][14] One press report asserts that local records exist that state that the structure was built by the Baku Hindu traders community around the time of the fall of the Shirvanshah dynasty and annexation by the Russian Empire following the Russo-Persian War (1722–1723).[24]

The inscriptions in the temple in Sanskrit (in Nagari Devanagari script) and Punjabi (in Gurmukhi script) identify the site as a place of Hindu and Sikh worship,[4][6] and state it was built and consecrated for Jwala Ji,[4] the modern Hindu fire deity. Jwala (जवाला/ज्वाला) means flame in Sanskrit (c.f. Indo-European cognates: proto-Indo-European guelh, English: glow, Lithuanian: zvilti)[25] and Ji is an honorific used in the Indian subcontinent. There is a famed shrine to Jwala Ji in the Himalayas, in the settlement of Jawalamukhi, in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh, India to which the Atashgah bears strong resemblance and on which some scholars (such as A. V. Williams Jackson) suggested the current structure may have been modeled.[4] However, other scholars have stated that some Jwala Ji devotees used to refer to the Kangra shrine as the 'smaller Jwala Ji' and the Baku shrine as the 'greater Jwala Ji'.[6] Other deities mentioned in the inscriptions include Ganesh and Shiva. The Punjabi language inscriptions are quotations from the Adi Granth, while some of the Sanskrit ones are drawn from the Sat Sri Ganesaya namah text.[4]

Examination by Zoroastrian priests

In 1876, James Bryce visited Azerbaijan and found that "the most remarkable mineral product is naphtha, which bursts forth in many places, but most profusely near Baku, on the coast of the Caspian, in strong springs, some of which are said to always be burning." Without referencing the Atashgah by name, he mentioned of the Zoroastrians that "after they were extirpated from Persia by the Mohammedans, who hate them bitterly, some few occasionally slunk here on pilgrimage" and that "under the more tolerant sway of the Czar, a solitary priest of fire is maintained by the Parsee community of Bombay, who inhabits a small temple built over one of the springs".[26]

The temple was examined in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by Parsi dasturs, some of whom had also visited the Jwala Ji at Kangra in the Himalayas.[6] Based on the inscriptions and the structure, their assessment was that the temple was a Hindu shrine.[6] In 1925, a Zoroastrian priest and academic Jivanji Jamshedji Modi traveled to Baku to determine if the temple had indeed been once a Zoroastrian 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)."[6]

Besides the physical evidence indicating 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 (for instance, cells for ascetics, fireplace open to all sides, ossuary pit and no water source.[6] It cannot be ruled out that the site may once have been a Zoroastrian place of worship, but there is no evidence to suggest that this was the case.[6]

Claimed visit by Czar Alexander III

There were local claims made to a visiting Zoroastrian dastur in the early twentieth century that the Russian czar Alexander III had also witnessed Hindu fire prayer rituals at this location.[6]

Exhaustion of the natural gas

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.[27][28]

Public recognition

Image of the Fire Temple on an Azerbaijan postage stamp from 1919.

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.[29]

By a presidential order issued in December 2007, the shrine complex, which had hitherto been officially associated with the "Shirvanshah Palace Complex State Historical and Architectural Museum-Reserve" (Государственного историко-архитектурного музея-заповедника «Комплекс Дворца Ширваншахов») was declared as a distinct reserve by the Azeri government (the "Ateshgah Temple State Historical Architectural Reserve, Государственным историко-архитектурным заповедником «Храм Атешгях»).[2]

In July 2009, the Azeri President, Ilham Aliyev, announced a grant of AZN 1 million for the upkeep of the shrine.[30]

See also

External links and photographs

References and further reading

  1. ^ Atəşgah
  2. ^ a b (Russian) Рас­пор­яже­ние Президента Азербайджанской Республики «Об объявлении территории Храма Атеш­гях в Сураханском районе города Баку Азер­бай­джанской Республики Государственным историко-архи­тек­турным заповедником „Храм Атешгях“»
  3. ^ Jonathan Lorie, Amy Sohanpaul, James Innes Williams (2006), The Traveler's Handbook: The Insider's Guide to World Travel, Globe Pequot, ISBN 0762740906,, "... Flames spontaneously erupt from the ground - hence the country's other name, Odlar Yourdu, or Land of Fires ..."  
  4. ^ a b c d e f Jackson, Abraham Valentine Williams (1911), "The Oil Fields and Fire Temple Baku", From Constantinople to the home of Omar Khayyam, London: McMillan,  
  5. ^ a b Marshall Cavendish (2007), Peoples of Western Asia, Marshall Cavendish Corporation, ISBN 0761476776,, "... Oil oozes up out of the ground in the region of the Apsheron ... natural oil fires were revered long ago by Zoroastrians, to whom fire is a sacred symbol ..."  
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Ervad Shams-Ul-Ulama Dr. Sir Jivanji Jamshedji Modi, Translated by Soli Dastur (1926), My Travels Outside Bombay: Iran, Azerbaijan, Baku,, "... 'maybe, that before Moslem epoch it was Zoroastrian Fire Temple, which was destroyed by Arabs and later was restored by Hindu people for their purposes' ... Farroukh Isfandzadeh ... 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 Parsee Atash Kadeh but is a Hindu Temple ... informed me that some 40 years ago, the Russian Czar, Alexander III, visited this place with a desire to witness the Hindu Brahmin Fire ritual ... gathered a few Brahmins still living here and they performed the fire ritual in this room in front of the Czar ... I asked for a tall ladder and with trepidation I climbed to the top of the building and examined the foundation stone which was inscribed in the Nagrik [or Nagari] script ... the installation date is mentioned as the Hindu Vikramaajeet calendar year 1866 (equivalent to 1810 A. D.) ..."  
  7. ^ a b Alakbarov, Farid (Summer 2003), "Observations from the Ancients", Azerbaijan International 11 (2),  .
  8. ^ Minocher K. Spencer (2002), Religion in life, Indian Publishers Distributors,, "... Fire is held as a very sacred emblem both among the Hindus and Parsis ..."  
  9. ^ Maneck Fardunji Kanga, Nārāyanaśarmā Sonaṭakke (1978), Avestā: Vendidād and fragments, Vaidika Samśodhana Maṇḍala,, "... For a very long time, the two groups ( ancestors of Hindus and Parsis ) were in close co-operation ... showing tenets and rites that were the same and also the later dissentions ... Yasna, rite = Yajna ... Atar = Agni, ever present at all rituals ..."  
  10. ^ Leza Lowitz, Reema Datta (2004), Sacred Sanskrit Words: For Yoga, Chant, And Meditation, Stone Bridge Press, ISBN 1880656876,, "... His back left hand carries a purifying flame (agni) ... grasping a trident (trishul), and beating a drum from which all of the sounds of the universe emanate ..."  
  11. ^ Hormusji Dhunjishaw Darukhanawala (1939), Parsi Lustre on Indian Soil, G. Claridge,, "... There is a 'trishula' (trident' the symbol of Shiva clearly visible on the cupola ..."  
  12. ^ Baku - Chapters of History - Azerbaijan - Part I, 2008,, "... The Atashgah ... is a castle-like former Hindu temple and monastery complex ... Zoroastrian symbol for "Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds ..."  
  13. ^ a b c Jonas Hanway (1753), An Historical Account of the British Trade Over the Caspian Sea, Sold by Mr. Dodsley,, "... The Persians have very little maritime strength ... their ship carpenters on the Caspian were mostly Indians ... there is a little temple, in which the Indians now worship: near the altar about 3 feet high is a large hollow cane, from the end of which iffues a blue flame ... These Indians affirm, that this flame has continued ever since the flood, and they believe it will last to the end of the world ... Here are generally forty or fifty of these poor devotees, who come on a pilgrimage from their own country ... they mark their foreheads with saffron, and have a great veneration for a red cow ..."  
  14. ^ a b c d e f Abraham Valentine Williams Jackson (1911), From Constantinople to the home of Omar Khayyam: travels in Transcaucasia and northern Persia for historic and literary research, The Macmillan company,, "... they are now wholly substantiated by the other inscriptions ... They are all Indian, with the exception of one written in Persian ... dated in the same year as the Hindu tablet over it ... if actual Gabrs (i.e. Zoroastrians, or Parsis) were among the number of worshipers at the shrine, they must have kept in the background, crowded out by Hindus, because the typical features Hanway mentions are distinctly Indian, not Zoroastrian ... met two Hindu Fakirs who announced themselves as 'on a pilgrimage to this Baku Jawala Ji' ..."  
  15. ^ Stephen Frederic Dale (2002), Indian Merchants and Eurasian Trade, 1600-1750, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521525977,, "... The Russian merchant, F.A. Kotov, identified all the Mughal-Indian merchants whom he saw in Isfahan in 1623, both Hindus and Muslims, as Multanis ... the 1747 Russian census of the Astrakhan Indian community, which showed that nearly all of these merchants came from Multan or nearby villages ... many of them traded for or with relatives in Azerbaijan or Gilan provinces who were, therefore, almost certainly Multanis themselves ... many influential Hindu merchants and bankers then lived in Bukhara and Samarqand ..."  
  16. ^ a b Scott Cameron Levi (2002), The Indian diaspora in Central Asia and its trade, 1550-1900, BRILL, ISBN 9004123202,, "... George Forster ... On the 31st of March, I visited the Atashghah, or place of fire; and on making myself known to the Hindoo mendicants, who resided there, I was received among these sons of Brihma as a brother; an appellation they used on perceiving that I had acquired some knowledge of their mythology, and had visited their most sacred places of worship ..."  
  17. ^ a b c George Forster (1798), A journey from Bengal to England: through the northern part of India, Kashmire, Afghanistan, and Persia, and into Russia, by the Caspian-Sea, R. Faulder,, "... A society of Moultan Hindoos, which has long been established in Baku, contributes largely to the circulation of its commerce; and with the Armenians they may be accounted the principal merchants of Shirwan ... this remark arose from a view of the Atashghah at Baku, where a Hindoo is found so deeply tinctured with the enthusiasm of religion, that though his nerves be constitutionally of a tender texture and his frame relaxed by age, he will journey through hostile regions from the Ganges to the Volga, to offer up prayer at the shrine of his God ..."  
  18. ^ James Justinian Morier (1818), A Second Journey through Persia, Armenia, and Asia Minor, to Constantinople, between the Years 1810 and 1816, A. Strahan,, "... Travelling onwards, we met an Indian entirely alone, on foot, with no other weapon than a stick, who was on his road to Benares returning from his pilgrimage to Baku. He was walking with surprising alacrity, and saluted us with great good-humour, like one satisfied with himself for having done a good action. I believe that these religious feats are quite peculiar to the Indian character ..."  
  19. ^ United States Bureau of Foreign Commerce (1887), Reports from the consuls of the United States, 1887, United States Government,, "... Six or 7 miles southeast is Surakhani, the location of a very ancient monastery of the fire-worshippers of India, a building now in ruins, but which is yet occasionally occupied by a few of these religious enthusiasts, who make a long and weary pilgrimage on foot from India to do homage at the shrine of everlasting fire, which is merely a small jet of natural gas, now almost extinct ..."  
  20. ^ von Eichwald, Karl Eduard (1834), Reise in den Caucasus, Stuttgart  .
  21. ^ ,  
  22. ^ "The Ateshgyakh Temple". Baku: Sputnik Tourism ( 7 March 2006.  .
  23. ^ Richard Delacy, Parvez Dewan (1998), Hindi & Urdu phrasebook, Lonely Planet, ISBN 0864424256,, "... The Hindu calendar (vikramaditiy) is 57 years ahead of the Christian calendar. Dates in the Hindu calendar are prefixed by the word: samvat संवत ..."  
  24. ^ "Rare Hindu temple in Muslim Azerbaijan". Sify. 28 September 2003. "... There are over 20 stone plaques, of which 18 are in Devanagari, one in Gurumukhi and one in Farsi (Persian) text. The temple was built on the spot where subterranean gas leaking out of the rocky ground used to burn day and night. 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 the Russian Empire following the Russo-Iranian war ..."  
  25. ^ J. P. Mallory, Douglas Q. Adams (1997), Encyclopedia of Indo-European culture, Taylor & Francis, ISBN 1884964982,, "... guelhx - 'burn, glow; charcoal'. ... Lith zvilti 'gleam', Latv zvilnet 'flame, glow', OInd jvalati 'burns', jvala 'flame, coal' ..."  
  26. ^ Bryce, James (1878), Transcaucasia and Ararat: Being Notes of a Vacation Tour in the Autumn Of 1876, London: Macmillan,  .
  27. ^ Elliot, Mark (2004), Azerbaijan with Excursions to Georgia (3rd ed.), Hindhead, UK: Trailblazer Publications, p. 153  .
  28. ^ Byrne, Ciar (February 2, 2005), Man-made wonders of the world under threat from war, want and tourism, The Independent,  .
  29. ^ Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue (2007), "Azerbaijan", cat. nos. 9 & 10. Vargas and Bazleh, Ajerbaijan International 3.2 (Summer 1995).
  30. ^ "President of Azerbaijan allocates 1 million AZN for protection of “Ateshgah temple” preserve". Azeri-Press Agency (APA). 01 July 2009. Retrieved 2009-07-21. "... allocated from the President’s Reserve Fund for protection and material and technical supply ..."  

Coordinates: 40°24′55.59″N 50°0′31.00″E / 40.4154417°N 50.00861°E / 40.4154417; 50.00861Ateshgah of Baku

Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address