In the Caucasus region, where Europe ends and Asia begins, lies the Absheron peninsula of Azerbaijan. Surrounded by the Caspian Sea on three sides, this scenic region is today an industrial wasteland known for the rusty remnants of the Soviet-era oil and gas industry, it housed. But amidst the debris, is a unique fire temple worshipped by Zoroastrians and Hindus both. The first reference to it can be traced back to 730 CE and the Ateshgah of Surkhani is a unique testimony to the rich heritage of the region and its close links with India.
For centuries, even before the Soviet era exploitation, Azerbaijan was known for its huge reserves of oil and natural gas. Oil was in such abundance, that it used to literally ooze out of the ground. It was this presence of oil and gas which led to the emergence of the unique culture of Odlar Yurdu, the Azerbaijani term for ‘Land of Fire’, which was used to define an entire civilization.
Surkhani, the poor and dusty suburb of Azerbaijan's capital Baku, still houses a castle-like shrine, which Zoroastrians believe to be an ancient Ateshgah or Zoroastrian Fire Temple. Legend has it that the sacred fire within Ateshgah burned for hundreds of years, fed by a duct from a large natural gas field located directly under the temple. While the earliest reference to the Ateshgah at Surkhani is from around 730 CE, local historians believe that the original shrine may have been much older and was destroyed in a series of Islamic invasions in Azerbaijan.
The interest in this temple shrine was revived in the18th century when a number of European travellers visited the site and speculated whether it was a Hindu or a Zoroastrian shrine. Interestingly by this time, there was also a vibrant community of Indians living there. In the 16th and 17th century, merchants from Punjab and Sindh controlled trade in Azerbaijan, using this temple to worship the Hindu goddess of fire, Jwalaji. The Sanskrit inscriptions with invocations to Ganesha, Hanuman and Shiva in the temple have been dated to this time.
The news of the existence of this ancient fire temple created a ripple of excitement in Bombay and many Parsis from the city visited the site, even deputing a Zoroastrian priest to preside over the temple in the 19th century.
Sadly, the eternal flame which burned for hundreds of years could not survive the decades of oil exploration started by the Soviet Union. In 1963 the flame died out!
Today, the temple is a part of ‘Ateshgah Temple State Historical Architectural Reserve’ and is a protected monument. It is a splendid reminder of the ancient, shared histories of communities across cultures and sacred spaces.
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