TRAVELS ALONG THE TRANS CAUCASIAN SILK ROUTE…………………………RAMDAS IYER
10.11.2018 – 27.12.2018
The name Azerbaijan derives from the Middle and Old Persian Adar-badhagan and Atur-patakan meaning protected by fire. The region is known for its continuously burning natural gas fires, which to the ancients must have seemed like the miraculous phenomenon of an ever-burning fire – a symbol of special importance in Zoroastrianism. In ancient texts, Azerbaijan was known as the land of fire and burning hillsides.
As we entered the many rooms of the Surakhani Fire temple ( Surakhani Atash-Gah), former residence for priests and traders alike, we heard an eruption of Hindu Vedic chants of Om Ganapataye Namah float out of one cell, while another housed a Nataraja bronze. Little had I read about this World heritage sites history until I started pouring into the many articles available on the web especially from many Indian publications.
Traveling in this Caucasian country to celebrate my wife’s 60th birthday, how we ended up in front of a natural fire pit in a Hindu Temple in an Islamic republic was indeed a welcome surprise.
Jonas Hanway commenting in his, An Historical Account of the British Trade Over the Caspian Sea, 1753 CE states “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 effuses 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.”
Fire is sacred in many spiritual traditions, and has been used in religious rites for thousands of years. Along with water, earth, air and space, fire is one of the five essential elements.
No stranger to fire worship I have grown up with reverence to, Agni (Sanskrit: “Fire”) the fire-god of Hinduism, second only to Indra in the Vedic mythology of ancient India. He is equally the fire of the sun, of lightning, and of both the domestic and the sacrificial hearth. He is also the guardian deity of the southeast direction, and is typically found in southeast corners of Hindu temples.
An important deity since the Vedic times ( 1800-1200BC) when Aryan migration into India brought the mythology of Agni along with the rest of the Hindu Pantheon from the Ural steppes region and central Asia. The Zoroastrian Persians, a splintered Aryan community from that which entered India also worship fire, similar to the Hindus. Both religions share beliefs, mythology and a common set of values as written in the Rig Veda of the Hindus and the Zoroastrian holy book, The Zend Avesta.
So it is no surprise that Hindus would worship in Baku, an ancient Persian city which also happened to be a Zoroastrian fire temple. The Vedic worship through fire is different from the Mazdayasnian (Parsee-Zoarastrian worship). In the Mazdayasnian religion the fire itself is the divine presence.
In my travels within Iran in 2016, I visited the only active Fire temples in Yazd and in Chak, Chak in central Iran. However Agni is less worshipped as a mainstream deity in India but rather as a keeper of the hearth in every Hindu home where his favors are evoked during the Homa fire pit rituals conducted to mark important occasions like, birth, marriages and other religious rites. Agni for Hindus is the communicator between mortals and the lords of the heaven. All chants are done in his presence, by feeding the fire with ghee for the messages to be relayed to our lords and keepers in heaven.
Yes here in Baku I chanted mantras for my wife Pushpa’s long health and happiness and hopefully it was conveyed to our Hindu Gods above.
The Baku Hindu trading community is thought to have originated primarily from Multan located in the Punjab region of the Indus valley (in today’s Pakistan) and who plied their trade along the Grand Trunk Road, part of the old Aryan trade roads.
The Surakhani complex as it stands was clearly used as a Hindu temple. The single inscription mentioning Jvalaji/Jwalaji may refer to the equally rare uses of the term in Indian places of worship. In the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, there is a Jvalaji/Jwalaji temple constructed over a natural gas fire as is the Surakhani temple. The place is called Jalamukhi/Jwalamukhi. ‘Jwala’ means ‘burning’ or ‘blaze of fire’ and ‘Mukhi’ means ‘mouth’.
However, the Baku complex is quite unlike other Hindu temples. Instead, the pentagonal perimeter structure consists of cubicles much like a caravan-serai and in the centre of the enclosed courtyard is a chahar-taqi building whose design is entirely consistent with the chahar-taqi Zoroastrian atash-gah of ancient and medieval Persia. There is a strong possibility that prior to its use as a Hindu temple, a predecessor structure existed that was a Zoroastrian fire temple. With the decline of the Zoroastrian community and an abandoned structure would have been a candidate for occupation and use by the growing Hindu trading community. The present structure could have been modeled on a previous Zoroastrian structure. Alternatively, the present structure could have been built over the ruins of a Zoroastrian atash-gah or it could be a renovation of a previous Zoroastrian atash-gah. Even today, local tradition holds that the structure was a Zoroastrian atash-gah.
Professor A. V. Williams Jackson (1911 CE) while commenting on the observations of Jonas Hanway (1753 CE), left open the possibility that Zoroastrians may have worshipped alongside the larger Hindu community at the shrine. The Sikh community must also have worshipped alongside the Hindu community.
In the 1800s, the population of Hindus and Sikhs in Azerbaijan declined. Sir Jivanji Jamshedji Modi (1854-1933) in his book My Travels Outside Bombay, Iran, Azerbaijan, Baku (1926) (translated from Guajarati by Soli Dastur) notes: “the original trade routes and customs changed and the visits of the Hindu traders diminished. And from the original group of the Brahmins, some passed away and a few that were left went back to their original home land.” By the time of Modi’s visit in 1925, the Surakhani atash gah had been abandoned.
According to authors from the 1800s, between the times when the atash gah was abandoned by the Hindus and at the time of Modi’s visit in 1925, the Surakhani atash gah was briefly under the care of Zoroastrians.
James Bryce, in Transcaucasia and Ararat: Being Notes of a Vacation Tour in the Autumn Of 1876, noted, “…after they (the Zoroastrians) were extirpated from Persia by the Mohammedans, who hate them bitterly, some few occasionally slunk here (Azerbaijan) on pilgrimage” and that “under the more tolerant sway of the Czar (Azerbaijan was then part of the Russian empire), a solitary priest of fire is maintained by the Parsee community of Bombay, who inhabits a small temple built over one of the springs.” (We do know that in the 1800s, the Parsees of Bombay lent their assistance to the Zoroastrians of Iran and sought to ameliorate the suffering of their co-religionists in their ancestral lands.)
A few years earlier, in 1858, French novelist Alexander Dumas (1802 – 1870 CE) had visited the atash gah and noted: “…the whole world is aware of the Atash gah in Baku. My compatriots who want to see the fire-worshippers must be quick because already there are so few left in the temple, just one old man and two younger ones about 30-35 years old.”
There are twenty inscriptions embedded in the stone walls of the complex. Eighteen are in the Nagari Devnagri script, one is in Punjabi using the Gurumukhi script and one is a bilingual inscription in Sanskrit and Persian. The Devnagri portion of the bilingual inscription is dedicated to Lord Ganesh and Jvala-ji. It is dated Samvat 1802 (1745-46 CE). In Sanskrit, ज्वलति (ज्वल्) / jvalati (jval) is one of the many words meaning ‘burn’ or ‘burning’ even ‘light’ [‘fire’ is ‘अग्नि’ / ‘agni’].
The transliteration of Persian/Farsi inscription – a four-line (quatrain) verse is:
Atashi saf kesheedhe hamchun dak
Jeeye bovani reside ta baudak
Sal-e no nozl mobarak baad goft
Khaneh shod ru sombole sane-ye 1158
The translation is:
The blaze (of fire) has drawn (came directly) like a dak(?)
From Bovani ( Bovan , Iran)* until it reached Baudak** (Baku?)
Blessings, he said, on the New Year
It was housed on Sanomad*** (in the) year 1158 (1745 CE).
- There are several places/towns named Bovan in Iran – in the provinces of Azarbaijan, Kermanshah, Isfahan and Pars. The line in the inscriptions appears to state that a fire was brought directly from Bovan to Baudak.
- *Baku is said to be a shortened form of the older name Baudak. Baudak is in turn a shortened form of Bad-Kubeh meaning ‘wind-pounded’ otherwise ‘windy city’.
- **Sanomad may be a corruption of Sombole, the month when the Sun is in the house of Virgo, the sixth month (August-September), in which month Nowruz – New Year’ day – fell according to Zoroastrian Kadmi (Qadimi) calendar.
This verse seems to indicate that a fire from Bovan was brought to the Surakhani temple and housed there, perhaps in the alcove above which the inscription is found. It is quite possible that if the natural gas fire at Surakhani could not be consecrated in its making according to orthodox practice, another duly consecrated fire brought from Bovani, could have served that purpose.
The Punjabi language inscription is a quotation from the Adi Granth.
The other inscriptions include an invocation to Lord Shiva. Taken as a set, the dates on the inscriptions range from Samvat 1725 to Samvat 1873, corresponding to the period from 1668 CE to 1816 CE. The present structure is relatively modern and the 17th century is a possible date for its construction. One report states that local records exist that the structure was built by the Baku Hindu trading community around the time of the annexation of Baku by the Russian Empire following the Russo-Persian War (1722-1723 CE).
I salute the UNESCO World heritage organization for preserving such magnificent, historic and cultural properties, the world over. Such sites are truly an integrator of the myriad cultures and peoples of this world.
heritage Institute.com/ Zoroastrianism
Ramdas Iyer can be reached at Riyerr@aol.com