Zoroastrian Fire Temples

Yazd Fire Temple


Zoroastrian fire temples were initially built during the early Achaemenian period. By the end of that dynasty the three types of fires, Atash Behram, Atash Adaran and Atash Dadgah, had a recognized place in Zoroastrian society. During the Parthian period 248 BCE to 224 CE the three great fires of Zoroastrianism, Adur Farnbag, Adur Gushnasp and Adur Burzen Mihr, were installed.

Over the years, these great fires, as well as others were moved to various places or co-joined with one another and it is impossible to trace their whereabouts through the centuries. Most of the fire-temples were destroyed through successive conquests of Iran by Arabs, Turks and Mongols.

More than a hundred years afer the defeat of the last Sassanian King, Yazdagird III, by the Arabs, a group of Zoroastrians from the Iranian province of Khorasan (ancient Parthia) decided to leave Iran because of religious persecution. They made their way south, to the port of Hormuzd on the Persian Gulf, where eventually they secured a ship to take them overseas. They sailed from Iran and landed on an island known today as Diu, near the west coast of India. They lived on that Island for 19 years, after which, they set sail once again to reach mainland India. At sea, they got caught in a fierce storm and they prayed for divine help. They promised to build an Atash Behram if Behram, the Yazata of Victory, saved them from the ferocious storm. Their wish came true and they landed safely in Gujarat, the west coast province of India. The Hindu King Jadav Rana of that time, 936 CE, granted them refuge in his kingdom. He gave them fertile land to live on and the Zoroastrian pilgrims called their new abode Sanjan, in memory of the place they originally came from in north-west Khorasan. These Zoroastrian immigrants came to be known as the Parsees.

Within a hundred years of their arrival in India, the Parsees fulfilled their promise and consecrated a fire temple in Sanjan in honor of Behram Yazata. Contrary to popular belief, no consecrated fire has ever been brought from Iran, only the ash, alat and nirang were brought to maintain ritual continuity.

History Of Fire Temples In India

The Sanjan Atash Behram was the first sacred fire of the Parsees in India. Three hundred years after it was installed, Sanjan was invaded by Muslims, but the Sanjana priests managed to rescue the Atash Behram and carried it about 14 miles from Sanjan to a cave on an isolated hill named Bahrot,. Here, protected by jungle and sea, they guarded it for the next 12 years, and then when conditions were quieter, they took it to Bansda, a little town some 50 miles inland, where it remained for two years. During this time, the fire was kept in a metal vase so that it could be transported easily and the tradition of enthroning a sacred fire on a stone altar was broken. The Atash Behram was for some years without a fixed abode until Changa Asa, a layman from Navsari, came to Bansda to pay homage to the fire. On his return he proposed to the Bhagarias, a group of Parsees living in and around Navsari, that they should invite the Sanjana priests to bring the sacred fire to Navsari. The Bhagarias sent the invitation which the Sanjanas accepted and the fire was safely installed in Navsari. Ever since the establishment of the community's sacred fire in Navsari, the town became the center of Parsi religious life and the Bhagarias and Sanjanas lived together harmoniously. The Sanjana priests tended the fire and supported themselves from the offerings made to their fire, while the Bhagaria priests performed all other rituals and ceremonies for the Zoroastrian laity of Navsari. The first Dar-i-Mihr was founded in Navsari in the early 12th century.

In 1572 CE Emperor Akbar of the Mogul Dynasty of India took over Gujarat. He was a wise Emperor who was interested in the various religions of his subjects and he held a religious discussion at his court. Meherji Rana, a learned Bhagaria priest, was selected by the Zoroastrians to represent their community. He impressed the Emperor so favorably, that Akbar ordered that the sacred fire be kept burning at his court day and night, according to the custom of the ancient Persian Kings. The Jizyad (a tax imposed on all non-muslims) was also abolished for the Parsees.

As Navsari prospered, the Parsi community grew and the Sanjanas began to encroach on the Bhagaria's rights to perform all ceremonies. Friction between the two groups increased and led to a law suit before a Hindu court which gave a decree that the Sanjanas must keep to their original agreement to serve the fire only. The Sanjanas decided that they would rather leave Navsari and in 1741 did so, taking the Atash Behram with them. A year later they installed it in a new temple at the village of Udwada, where it burns to this day.

The removal of the sacred fire distressed the Bhagarias and they resolved to consecrate an Atash Behram of their own in Navsari. With the help from the Parsi community and the priests of Surat, a new Atash Behram was enthroned in 1765. The Sanjanas were naturally a little jealous of this new Atash Behram, for it became a rival to their own 800 year old fire. They feared that fewer pilgrims would now come to remote Udwada, and so they evolved a legend to enhance its dignity. They created the new word "Iranshah" for it and humors were spread that the first Parsi settlers had brought it with them from Iran and it was somehow linked to the Xhavarenah of the ancient Kings of Persia. This legend is widely believed among the Parsees who continue loyally to make the pilgrimage to this day.

ln the eighteenth century, Surat became an important port of trade and commerce and during the next century and a half it was the largest center of Zoroastrian population in the world. The earliest consecrated Adaran fire was founded in Siganpur, not far from Surat, by Lovji Wadia, (shipbuilder) in the later half of the eighteenth century and another one was founded in Surat proper in 1771 CE. An Atash Behram was installed in Surat in 1823 CE.

Meanwhile, Bombay became a British possession in 1661 and the East India Company set out to make it the most flourishing port of India. This brought in a steady flow of Parsi settlers and Dar-i-Mihrs were established in 1672 by Hirji Waccha and in 1709 by Banaji Limji and the second Adaran of India was founded in 1735 by Maneckji Seth.

Between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, more than 50 Adarans were established in India as far a Karachi (1848) and Calcutta (1839).

Atash Behrams In India

Today there are eight Atash Behrams in India:

1. Udwada Anjuman(Shenshai) built in 11th century CE
2. Navsari Anjuman(Shenshai) built in 1765
3. Surat Vakil (Kadmi) built in 1823
4. Surat Mody (Shenshai) built in 1823
5. Bombay Dady Seth (Kadmi) built in 1783
6. Bombay Wadia (Shenshai) built in 1830
7. Bombay Banaji (Kadmi) built in 1894
8. Bombay Anjuman(Shenshai) built in 1898

The first two and the last Atash Behrams listed above are called Anjuman, meaning society, because they were built from donations made by various Zoroastrians. All others were entirely financed by private donations made by the respective families . Shenshai and Kadmi are the different calendars followed by the Zoroastrians.

Source :Global Directory Of Zoroastrian Fire Temples - Marzban J. Giara