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Baku FireTemple - Caucasian Albania


Fire-temple of Baku

At the city of Baku, on the shore of the Caspian Sea, there was for a long time a very old fire-temple; this particular fire-temple was probably older than recorded history. (Other fire-shrines dotted the whole area of Baku, which in the present day is a major petroleum source.)
According to Haxthausen (who wrote about Baku in a book published in 1863) this Atish-gah or Atish-jah--that is, the Place of Fire; in Persian, 'fire-temple' is atash kuda--had been recently rebuilt: the holy flame issued from a central opening and also from four hollow pillars in the temple, which was a building of triangular form, about one hundred and ninety paces to the side, constructed by a Hindu merchant in the eighteen hundreds. He described the flame as about four feet high, bright, and a wondrous sight as it waved heavily to and fro against a dark sky - ie, the temple was unroofed.
In 1876, the English traveler James Bryce also visited the fire-temple, and remarks that its maintenance and the upkeep of the one attendant priest was paid for by the Parsee community of Bombay, whose members also visited Baku on pilgrimage.
And in 1784, by the account of George Forster of the Bengal Civil Service, the Atish-gah was a square structure about 30 yards across, surrounded by a low wall and containing many apartments, in each of which was a small jet of sulphurous fire issuing from a funnel "constructed in the shape of a Hindu altar." The fire was used for worship, cookery and warmth. On closing the funnel the fire was extinguished, at which time a hollow sound was heard accompanied by a strong and cold current of air. Exclusive of these, there was a large jet from a natural cleft, and many small jets outside the wall, one of which was used by the Hindus (of which there was a large trading community at Baku just then) for burning their dead.

The Fire Temple of Baku, known locally as the Atashgah, is a castle-like Hindu temple and monastery complex in Surakhani near Baku in Azarbaijan. The complex is now a museum, and is no longer used as a place of worship. The fire was once fed by natural gas. It was the center of Hinduism in Azarbaijan.

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 or 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.
According to Abraham Valentine Williams, 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 Jwalamukhi, of the Kangra district in Himachal Pradesh, India.
Also according to Williams, the oldest reference to the temple is in Jonas Hanway's Caspian Sea (1753), a report 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' ('Gebr' is literally a 'non-believer', that is, a non-Islamic person).
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 auf dem Caspischen Meer (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.
Local legend
Local legend associates the temple at Surakhany with the Fire temples of Zoroastrianism, but this is presumably based on a misunderstanding of the term Atashgah, which in Azerbaijani is literally any fire-place, but in Zoroastrianism is synonymous with Middle Persian Atashdan, the technical term for 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).
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 1925, a Zoroastrian priest by the name of Jivanji Jamshedji Modi, an Indian Parsi-Zoroastrian familiar with Hindu rituals, travelled to Baku to determine if the temple had indeed been once a Zoroatrian place of worship. In his Travels Outside Bombay, he came to the conclusion that it "is not a [Zoroastrian] Atash Kadeh but is a Hindu Temple, whose Brahmins used to worship fire".

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