Fire temple

Burning fire in the Zoroastrian temple of Yazd, Iran.

A fire temple in Zoroastrianism is the place of worship for Zoroastrians,[1] often called dar-e mehr (Persian) or agiyari (Gujarati).[2][3] In the Zoroastrian religion, fire (see atar), together with clean water (see aban), are agents of ritual purity. Clean, white "ash for the purification ceremonies [is] regarded as the basis of ritual life", which "are essentially the rites proper to the tending of a domestic fire, for the temple [fire] is that of the hearth fire raised to a new solemnity".[4] For, one "who sacrifices unto fire with fuel in his hand ..., is given happiness".[5]

As of 2019, there were 167 fire temples in the world, of which 45 in Mumbai, 105 in the rest of India, and 17 in other countries.[6][7] There is a religious custom in India of not allowing Zoroastrian women to enter the Fire Temple and the Tower of Silence if they marry a non-Zoroastrian person. This custom has been challenged before the Supreme Court of India after a Zoroastrian woman was denied entry into Zoroastrian institutions.[8]

History and development


Main article: Atar, Zoroastrian fire.
A Parsi-Zoroastrian Jashan ceremony (the blessing of a home).

First evident in the 9th century BCE, the Zoroastrian rituals of fire are contemporary with that of Zoroastrianism itself. It appears at approximately the same time as the shrine cult and is roughly contemporaneous with the introduction of Atar as a divinity. There is no allusion to a temple of fire in the Avesta proper, nor is there any Old Persian language word for one.

That the rituals of fire was a doctrinal modification and absent from early Zoroastrianism is also evident in the later Atash Nyash. In the oldest passages of that liturgy, it is the hearth fire that speaks to "all those for whom it cooks the evening and morning meal", which Boyce observes is not consistent with sanctified fire. The temple is an even later development: from Herodotus it is known that in the mid-5th century BCE the Zoroastrians worshipped to the open sky, ascending mounds to light their fires.[9] Strabo confirms this, noting that in the 6th century, the sanctuary at Zela in Cappadocia was an artificial mound, walled in, but open to the sky, although there is no evidence whatsoever that the Zela-sanctuary was Zoroastrian.[10] Although the "burning of fire" was a key element in Zoroastrian worship, the burning of "eternal" fire, as well as the presence of "light" in worship, was also a key element in many other religions.

By the Hellenic Parthian era (250 BCE–226 CE), there were two places of worship in Zoroastrianism: one, called bagin or ayazan, was a sanctuary dedicated to a specific divinity; it was constructed in honor of the patron saint (or angel) of an individual or family and included an icon or effigy of the honored. The second, the atroshan, were the "places of burning fire" which became more and more prevalent as the iconoclastic movement gained support. Following the rise of the Sassanid dynasty, the shrines to the Yazatas continued to exist, but with the statues – by law – either abandoned or replaced by fire altars.

Also, as Schippman observed,[11] there is no evidence even during the Sassanid era (226–650 CE) that the fires were categorized according to their sanctity. "It seems probable that there were virtually only two, namely the Atash-i Vahram [literally: "victorious fire", later misunderstood to be the Fire of Bahram],[12] and the lesser Atash-i Adaran, or 'Fire of Fires', a parish fire, as it were, serving a village or town quarter".[11][13] Apparently, it was only in the Atash-i Vahram that fire was kept continuously burning, with the Adaran fires being annually relit. While the fires themselves had special names, the structures did not, and it has been suggested that "the prosaic nature of the middle Persian names (kadag, man, and xanag are all words for an ordinary house) perhaps reflect a desire on the part of those who fostered the temple-cult ... to keep it as close as possible in character to the age-old cult of the hearth-fire, and to discourage elaboration".[14]

The Battle of al-Qādisiyyah (636 CE) and the Battle of Nihavānd (642 CE) were instrumental to the collapse of the Sassanid Empire and state-sponsored Zoroastrianism; destruction or conversion (mosques) of some fire temples in Greater Iran followed. The faith was practiced largely by the aristocracy but large numbers of fire temples did not exist. Some fire temples continued with their original purpose although many Zoroastrians fled. Legend says that some took fire with them and it most probably served as a reminder of their faith in an increasingly persecuted community since fire originating from a temple was not a tenet of the religious practice.[citation needed]

Archaeological traces

An 8th-century Tang dynasty Chinese clay figurine of a Sogdian man (an Eastern Iranian person) wearing a distinctive cap and face veil, possibly a camel rider or even a Zoroastrian priest engaging in a ritual at a fire temple, since face veils were used to avoid contaminating the holy fire with breath or saliva; Museum of Oriental Art (Turin), Italy.[15]

The oldest remains of what has been identified as a fire temple are those on Mount Khajeh, near Lake Hamun in Sistan. Only traces of the foundation and ground-plan survive and have been tentatively dated to the 3rd or 4th century BCE. The temple was rebuilt during the Parthian era (250 BCE-226 CE), and enlarged during Sassanid times (226–650 CE).

The characteristic feature of the Sassanid fire temple was its domed sanctuary where the fire-altar stood.[16] This sanctuary always had a square ground plan with a pillar in each corner that then supported the dome (the gombad). Archaeological remains and literary evidence from Zend commentaries on the Avesta suggest that the sanctuary was surrounded by a passageway on all four sides. "On a number of sites the gombad, made usually of rubble masonry with courses of stone, is all that survives, and so such ruins are popularly called in Fars čahār-tāq or 'four arches'."[17]

Ruins of temples of the Sassanid era have been found in various parts of the former empire, mostly in the southwest (Fars, Kerman and Elam), but the biggest and most impressive are those of Adur Gushnasp in Media Minor (see also The Great Fires, below). Many more ruins are popularly identified as the remains of Zoroastrian fire temples even when their purpose is of evidently secular nature, or are the remains of a temple of the shrine cults, or as is the case of a fort-like fire temple and monastery at Surkhany, Azerbaijan, that unambiguously belongs to another religion. The remains of a fire-altar, most likely constructed during the proselytizing campaign of Yazdegerd II (r. 438-457) against the Christian Armenians, have been found directly beneath the main altar of the Echmiadzin Cathedral, the Mother See of the Armenian Apostolic Church.[18]

Legendary Great Fires

Apart from relatively minor fire temples, three were said to derive directly from Ahura Mazda, thus making them the most important in Zoroastrian tradition. These were the "Great Fires" or "Royal Fires" of Adur Burzen-Mihr, Adur Farnbag, and Adur Gushnasp. The legends of the Great Fires are probably of antiquity (see also Denkard citation, below), for by the 3rd century CE, miracles were said to happen at the sites, and the fires were popularly associated with other legends such as those of the folktale heroes Fereydun, Jamshid and Rustam.

The Bundahishn, an encyclopaediaic collection of Zoroastrian cosmogony and cosmology written in Book Pahlavi,[19] which was finished in the 11th or 12th century CE, states that the Great Fires had existed since creation and had been brought forth on the back of the ox Srishok to propagate the faith, dispel doubt, and protect all humankind. Other texts observe that the Great Fires were also vehicles of propaganda and symbols of imperial sovereignty.

The priests of these respective "Royal Fires" are said to have competed with each other to draw pilgrims by promoting the legends and miracles that were purported to have occurred at their respective sites. Each of the three is also said to have mirrored social and feudal divisions: "The fire which is Farnbag has made its place among the priests; ... the fire which is Gūshnasp has made its place among the warriors; ... the fire which is Būrzīn-Mitrō has made its place among agriculturists" (Denkard, 6.293). These divisions are archaeologically and sociologically revealing, because they make clear that, since from at least the 1st century BCE onwards, society was divided into four, not three, feudal estates.

Eternal flame at Fire Temple of Baku also known as Ateshgah of Baku.

The Farnbag fire (translated as 'the fire Glory-Given' by Darmesteter) was considered the most venerated of the three because it was seen as the earthly representative of the Atar Spenishta, 'Holiest Fire' of Yasna 17.11, and it is described in a Zend commentary on that verse as "the one burning in Paradise in the presence of Ohrmazd."

Although "in the eyes of [contemporary] Iranian Zoroastrian priests, the three fires were not 'really existing' temple fires and rather belonged to the mythological realm",[20] several attempts have been made to identify the locations of the Great Fires. In the early 20th century, A. V. Jackson identified the remains at Takht-i-Suleiman, midway between Urumieh and Hamadan, as the temple of Adur Gushnasp. The location of the Mithra fire, i.e. that of Burzen-Mihr, Jackson "identified with reasonable certainty" as being near the village of Mihr half-way between Miandasht and Sabzevar on the Khorasan road to Nishapur.[21] The Indian (lesser) Bundahishn records the Farnbag fire having been "on the glory-having mountain which is in Khwarezm" but later moved "upon the shining mountain in the district of Kavul just as it there even now remains" (IBd 17.6). That the temple once stood in Khwarezm is also supported by the Greater (Iranian) Bundahishn and by the texts of Zadsparam (11.9). However, according to the Greater Bundahishn, it was moved "upon the shining mountain of Kavarvand in the Kar district" (the rest of the passage is identical to the Indian edition). Darmesteter identified this "celebrated for its sacred fire which has been transported there from Khvarazm as reported by Masudi" .[21] If this identification is correct, the temple of the Farnbag fire then lay 10 miles southwest of Juwun, midway between Jahrom and Lar. (28°1′N 53°1′E / 28°1′N 53°1′E / Darmesteter's projection of the location of the Temple of the Farnbag fire))

Udvada Atash-Behram

According to Parsi legend, when (over a thousand years ago) one group of refugees from (greater) Khorasan landed in Western Gujarat, they had the ash of such a fire with them. This ash, it is said, served as the bed for the fire today at Udvada.[22]

This fire temple was not always at Udvada. According to the Qissa-i Sanjan, 'Story of Sanjan', the only existing account of the early years of Zoroastrian refugees in India and composed at least six centuries after their arrival, the immigrants established a Atash-Warharan, 'victorious fire' (see Warharan for etymology) at Sanjan. Under threat of war (probably in 1465), the fire was moved to the Bahrot Caves 20 km south of Sanjan, where it stayed for 12 years. From there, it was moved to Bansdah, where it stayed for another 14 years before being moved yet again to Navsari, where it would remain until the 18th century. It was then moved to Udvada where it burns today.

Silver coin of Yazdegerd II with a fire altar and two attendants.

Although there are numerous eternally burning Zoroastrian fires today, with the exception of the 'Fire of Warharan', none of them are more than 250 years old. The legend that the Indian Zoroastrians invented the afrinagan (the metal urn in which a sacred fire today resides) when they moved the fire from Sanjan to the Bahrot Caves is unsustainable. Greek historians of the Parthian period reported the use of a metal vase-like urn to transport fire. Sassanid coins of the 3rd-4th century CE likewise reveal a fire in a vase-like container identical in design to the present-day afrinagans. The Indian Zoroastrians do however export these and other utensils to their co-religionists the world over.