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The Ateshgah at Surakhani, Baku
The inner courtyard of the Atashgah
||Surakhani, Baku, Azerbaijan
The Baku Ateshgah (Azerbaijani: Atəşgah 
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
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.
The toponym Ateshgah/Atashgah
and Azerbaijani pronunciation) or
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
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
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
and, though ungrammatical,
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
Zoroastrianism has a long history in Azerbaijan
and the lands of Absheron were held to be sacred by Zoroastrians
due to these natural fires.
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.
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
Fire is considered extremely sacred in both Hinduism and Zoroastrianism (as Agni and Atar
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
and has been cited by Zoroastrian scholars as a specific reason for
considering the Atashgah as a Hindu site.
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
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."
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.
Indian local residents and
In the late Middle Ages, there were significant Indian
communities throughout Central Asia.
In Baku, Indian merchants from the Multan region of Punjab controlled much of the commercial
economy, along with the Armenians.
Much of the woodwork for ships on the Caspian was also done by
Some commentators have theorized that Baku's Indian community may
have been responsible for the construction or renovation of the
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.
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
following the Russo-Persian War
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,
and state it was built and consecrated for Jwala Ji,
the modern Hindu fire deity. Jwala (जवाला/ज्वाला) means
flame in Sanskrit (c.f. Indo-European cognates: proto-Indo-European guelh,
glow, Lithuanian: zvilti)
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
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'.
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.
Examination by Zoroastrian
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".
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.
Based on the inscriptions and the structure, their assessment was
that the temple was a Hindu shrine.
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)."
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.
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.
Claimed visit by Czar
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.
Exhaustion of the natural
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.
Image of the Fire Temple on an Azerbaijan postage stamp from
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.
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»).
In July 2009, the Azeri President, Ilham Aliyev, announced a grant of AZN 1 million for the upkeep of the
External links and
References and further
- ^ a
Азербайджанской Республики «Об объявлении территории Храма Атешгях
в Сураханском районе города Баку Азербайджанской Республики
Государственным историко-архитектурным заповедником „Храм
Jonathan Lorie, Amy Sohanpaul, James Innes Williams (2006), The Traveler's Handbook:
The Insider's Guide to World Travel, Globe Pequot, ISBN 0762740906, http://books.google.com/books?id=39JCQUe2T5kC,
"... Flames spontaneously erupt from the ground - hence the
country's other name, Odlar Yourdu, or Land of Fires
- ^ a
Valentine Williams (1911), "The Oil Fields and Fire
Temple Baku", From Constantinople to the home of Omar
Khayyam, London: McMillan, http://www.vohuman.org/Library/The%20Oil%20Field%20and%20Fire%20Temp%20at%20Surakhany/The%20Oil%20Fields%20and%20the%20Fire%20Temple%20of%20Baku.htm
- ^ a
Cavendish (2007), Peoples of Western
Asia, Marshall Cavendish Corporation, ISBN 0761476776, http://books.google.com/books?id=FZ2_aYHMl4IC,
"... 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 ..."
- ^ a
Ervad Shams-Ul-Ulama Dr. Sir Jivanji Jamshedji Modi, Translated by
Soli Dastur (1926), My Travels Outside Bombay:
Iran, Azerbaijan, Baku, http://www.avesta.org/modi/baku.htm,
"... '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.) ..."
- ^ a
Farid (Summer 2003), "Observations from the
Ancients", Azerbaijan International
11 (2), http://azeri.org/Azeri/az_latin/manuscripts/land_of_fire/english/112_observations_farid.html
- ^ Minocher K.
Spencer (2002), Religion in life,
Indian Publishers Distributors, http://books.google.com/books?id=YhzXAAAAMAAJ,
"... Fire is held as a very sacred emblem both among the Hindus
and Parsis ..."
Maneck Fardunji Kanga, Nārāyanaśarmā Sonaṭakke (1978), Avestā: Vendidād and
fragments, Vaidika Samśodhana Maṇḍala, http://books.google.com/books?id=QUorAAAAIAAJ,
"... 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
- ^ Leza
Lowitz, Reema Datta (2004), Sacred Sanskrit Words: For
Yoga, Chant, And Meditation, Stone Bridge Press, ISBN 1880656876, http://books.google.com/books?id=qIIfHN4JCcwC,
"... 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 ..."
- ^ Hormusji
Dhunjishaw Darukhanawala (1939), Parsi Lustre on Indian
Soil, G. Claridge, http://books.google.com/books?id=a7IcAAAAMAAJ,
"... There is a 'trishula' (trident' the symbol of Shiva
clearly visible on the cupola ..."
- ^ Baku - Chapters of History
- Azerbaijan - Part I, 2008, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XuIfYAjgpIM,
"... The Atashgah ... is a castle-like former Hindu temple and
monastery complex ... Zoroastrian symbol for "Good Thoughts, Good
Words, Good Deeds ..."
- ^ a
(1753), An Historical Account of
the British Trade Over the Caspian Sea, Sold by Mr.
"... 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 ..."
- ^ a
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
"... 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' ..."
- ^ Stephen
Frederic Dale (2002), Indian Merchants and
Eurasian Trade, 1600-1750, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521525977, http://books.google.com/books?id=GqEWw_54uVUC,
"... 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
- ^ a
Cameron Levi (2002), The Indian diaspora in
Central Asia and its trade, 1550-1900, BRILL, ISBN 9004123202, http://books.google.com/books?id=9qVkNBge8mIC,
"... 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 ..."
- ^ a
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.
"... 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
- ^ 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
- ^ United
States Bureau of Foreign Commerce (1887), Reports from the consuls
of the United States, 1887, United States Government, http://books.google.com/books?id=KBASAAAAYAAJ,
"... 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
- ^ von Eichwald, Karl
Eduard (1834), Reise in den Caucasus,
- ^ ,
- ^ "The Ateshgyakh Temple".
Baku: Sputnik Tourism (in-baku.com). 7 March 2006. http://www.sputnik.in-baku.com/inbound/atesh.html.
- ^ Richard Delacy,
Parvez Dewan (1998), Hindi & Urdu
phrasebook, Lonely Planet, ISBN 0864424256, http://books.google.com/books?id=QkJH90HBlekC,
"... The Hindu calendar (vikramaditiy) is 57 years ahead of the
Christian calendar. Dates in the Hindu calendar are prefixed by the
word: samvat संवत ..."
- ^ "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 ..."
- ^ J. P. Mallory,
Douglas Q. Adams (1997), Encyclopedia of
Indo-European culture, Taylor & Francis, ISBN 1884964982, http://books.google.com/books?id=tzU3RIV2BWIC,
"... guelhx - 'burn, glow; charcoal'. ... Lith zvilti 'gleam',
Latv zvilnet 'flame, glow', OInd jvalati 'burns', jvala 'flame,
- ^ Bryce, James (1878), Transcaucasia and Ararat:
Being Notes of a Vacation Tour in the Autumn Of 1876,
London: Macmillan, http://books.google.com/books?id=FXgciRUra7kC
Elliot, Mark (2004),
Azerbaijan with Excursions to Georgia (3rd ed.), Hindhead,
UK: Trailblazer Publications, p. 153
Byrne, Ciar (February
2, 2005), Man-made wonders of the
world under threat from war, want and tourism, The
Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue (2007), "Azerbaijan", cat.
nos. 9 & 10. Vargas and Bazleh, Ajerbaijan International 3.2
- ^ "President of Azerbaijan
allocates 1 million AZN for protection of “Ateshgah temple”
preserve". Azeri-Press Agency (APA). 01 July 2009. http://en.apa.az/news.php?id=104623. 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°EAteshgah of Baku