Ateshgah, it turns out, is a fascinating little relict of history, of globalisation and the inter-cultural exchange between the Indian sub-continent and Europe
Shri Ganeshaya Namah is not an incantation you’d expect to see etched in the heart of Azerbaijan, the tiny Muslim-majority, former Soviet nation on the banks of the Caspian Sea. But it’s what catches my eye on a stone archway as we enter Ateshgah, a fire temple near Surakhani, Azerbaijan.
There are five more lines in Devanagari, invoking, among others, Jwala Ji, the Hindu deity of fire.
There are similar inscriptions in Sanskrit or Punjabi on almost every doorway leading into the pentagonal fire temple compound, all left behind by Hindu and Sikh travellers to the region over 500 years ago.
Ateshgah, it turns out, is a fascinating little relict of history, of globalisation and the inter-cultural exchange between the Indian sub-continent and Europe, dating back to the 16th century.
Azerbaijan was part of the Silk Route that connected Asia and Europe, and it is believed that merchants from the Indian subcontinent came to hear of the legend of the ‘burning earth’ and ‘eternal flames’ that the Absheron peninsula in Azerbaijan was renowned for (Azerbaijan, in fact, is often referred to as ‘The Land of Fire’). And so, Indian travellers and pilgrims arrived in the late 16th and early 17th century, building Ateshgah in its current form, and worshipping the sacred flames alongside their own gods such as Ganesha and Shiva.
On the day of our visit to the temple, the wind is very strong, whipping up dust around us; we are, after all, less than 20 km from the capital city of Baku, unofficially called the ‘City of Wind’ in Azeri. But the sacred flame in the raised main fire altar at the centre of the temple compound burns on regardless.
That central flame, and the open flames that burn in the two circular platforms on the side are today lit by Baku’s main pipeline of gas. But for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, they were a naturally occurring phenomenon, the result of the country’s massive natural gas reserves that leaked through holes in the rocky surface, igniting into flames as it came into contact with air.
These ‘eternal flames’ have been venerated by fire-worshippers throughout Azerbaijan’s history — there are mentions as far back as the 7th century by travellers to the region. Indeed, historians believe that the fire temple itself existed in an earlier form, built by Zoroastrians long before the Indian travellers came.
Part of an older structure was found beneath the current one during renovations done at the temple in 1969, and the name ‘Ateshgah’ comes from Persian, meaning ‘house of fire’. There are indications that the old temple might have extended beyond the existing perimeter, but any remains were most likely destroyed when the surrounding land was excavated for oil and gas from the late 19th century onwards.
That was also what caused the end of the glorious natural phenomenon of the eternal flame — the aggressive century-long mining of the natural gas reserves meant the flames went out by 1969. And possibly the reason why worship ended at the temple in the late 19th century as well — historians speculate that the pilgrims were driven away by the setting up of petroleum plants in the Surakhani region.
A pilgrimage site
But thankfully, the 500-year-old temple itself still stands, and retains traces of its multicultural past. The central altar isn’t purely Hindu in its structure, with similarities to traditional Zoroastrian fire altars, and one of the inscriptions in the temple compound is in Persian as well. The Zoroastrian influence in Azerbaijan is old but deeply rooted, a remnant of the days when pre-Islamic Persian dynasties ruled the region. Even today, Nuvroz, the Zoroastrian new year celebration, is a major festival in their calendar.
Fittingly enough, according to historical accounts, Ateshgah in the 19th century became a pilgrimage site for Parsis from Bombay who came to visit the Indian temple that was once a Zoroastrian place of worship.
Following its restoration in 1969, the temple was converted into a museum in 1975, and was officially listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1998.
Today, each of the tiny cells that line the pentagonal perimeter of the compound tells stories of the pilgrims and ascetics who lived there, showing them doing tapasya, draping themselves in heavy iron chains or indulging in extreme acts of self-denial and fasting. Chants of Om Gam Ganapataye Namah float out of one cell, another houses a Nataraja bronze, and yet another displays shards of pottery used in rituals long ago.
The author of The Shrine of Death is a journalist, sometime singer-songwriter and full-time mom, based in Dubai.
This article originally appeared in The Hindu’s Sunday Magazine supplement.