You don’t expect to see the incantation Shri Ganeshaya Namah etched in the heart of Azerbaijan, the tiny-Muslim majority country and a former soviet nation on the banks of the Caspian Sea, do you? The Ateshgah of Baku, often known as the Fire Temple of Baku, is a castle-like religious temple in Surakhany town of Azerbaijan. But did you know that the temple has evidence of it being used by Sikhs, Hindus and Zoroastrians? Like the above-mentioned incantation, there are five more such lines carved around the monument. The Atesghan was converted into a museum during the 1970s.
There are inscriptions in Sanskrit or Punjabi on almost every doorway leading to the fire temple compound. It is fascinating that a little relic of history shows evidence of intercultural exchange between the Indian sub-continent and Europe, dating back to the 1600s.
It is believed that the merchants from India came to know about the legend of the burning earth; and between the 16th and 17th centuries, Indian travellers and pilgrims built Ateshgah to worship the sacred flames. They considered the flames as a form of Goddess Bhagwati. Of the two Sanskrit inscriptions, one mentions Lord Ganesha and Goddess Jwala ji, while the other is an invocation to Lord Shiva. The inscription mentioning Lord Shiva has motifs of the Sun and swastika.
The sacred flame in the raised main fire altar at the centre of the temple compound is today lit by Baku’s main pipeline of gas. But for thousands of years, fire was said to be appearing naturally. It happened due to the country’s massive natural gas reserves that leaked through holes in the rocky surface, igniting flames as it came into contact with air. The flame used to burn naturally till 1969, but rampant gas extraction by the Soviet emptied the reserve.
It is said that Parsi priests were sent to the region from India until 1880. In 1925, a Parsi priest named Dr Sir Jivanji Jamshedji Modi visited Ateshgah and concluded that the temple was Hindu in character; yet later pieces of evidence did not rule out the place’s Zoroastrian origin.
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