Chapter-15: The Fire-Temple of Agnideva

June 1, 1995

By Indradyumna Swami

We awoke early to bathe and prepared to go to the temple. Although the devotees have given us the best facilities they can offer, they are austere by our Western standards. We are seven men (and one million mosquitoes) sleeping in two small rooms, and there has been no water in the bathroom since we arrived. Baku is in the desert, and the government rations the water. The devotees bring water for us in buckets up the eight flights of stairs.

After the morning program I had a meeting with my disciples. Although I have been here only once before, three years ago, I have more than 15 disciples here, most of them book distributors. I enjoyed hearing their sankirtana pastimes as they told how they distribute Bhagavad Gita in this Islamic country. They each distribute five to ten large volumes a day, mainly by going shop to shop and office to office. They say that they have gone to every town and village in Azerbaijan and that most people are receptive to Krsna consciousness.

After darsana with my disciples, Govinda Maharaja came to inform me that we were in hot water regarding our entering the country illegally. He visited the Home Affairs Department, which refused to issue the visas necessary for us to leave the country. There are two alternatives. We can go back to the border we entered through and plead with the soldiers there to stamp our passports and then obtain our visas here in Baku, or we can take the boat across the Caspian Sea to Krasnovodsk in Turkmenistan. From there we would have to drive six hundred kilometers across the desert to Ashgabat and then catch a flight to Bishkek in Kirghistan, our next destination in central Asia.

Since the moment we arrived, the devotees have been telling us about an ancient Vedic temple just outside Baku. They say it is a temple of Agni, the fire god, which was established in this part of the world thousands of years ago. They even say there is a plaque at the entrance to the temple with Sanskrit writing. I was fascinated by the idea that there could be an ancient Vedic temple in this remote part of the world, so I asked the devotees to drive us there this afternoon.

After a short drive outside the city into the desert, we arrived at the temple. It appeared the government had recently begun excavating the site and preparing it for tourism. At the entrance to the temple we found the carved stone Sanskrit plaque, which Sri Prahlada and Vinoda Bihari tried to decipher. It begins by offering prayers to Ganesh and goes on to mention the name of a sannyasi who resided at the temple and oversaw its development. As we entered the temple area, we found it was constructed similar to an ancient monastery, with rooms made from stone in the inside wall. The temple itself is in the center of the compound.

We inspected the many rooms and discovered that most of them go deep into the ground to escape the heat of the desert. The actual mandira where Agni was worshiped consists of a small  structure with a yajna pit, where fire is still burning from the natural gases below the surface. Fire also goes up through the walls of the temple with flames coming out of the structure on top. It was an incredible scene.

We were told that recently the government put gas lines in to regulate the flow of the natural gases to make it safer. But apparently, for thousands of years the natural gas fires burned without obstruction. One local man told us the fires went out briefly during the late 1800s, and the yogis who were worshiping there left, saying that Agni had become displeased and had himself abandoned the site.

The architecture of the temple is a curious mixture of Vedic and Muslim design. I would imagine that the original design was purely Vedic but that through thousands of years of development or reconstruction, it has blended with the Islamic tradition.

We visited several small rooms where the government is compiling artifacts, photos, and the history of the temple. I was surprised to see that the temple register goes back to the 1600s, where it is recorded that travelers from Europe visited the site at that time. The list was long, but included the following:

1671, S. Streis – Dutch sailor; 1683, Kempher – German traveler; 1689, Villot – French missionary; 1733, E. Lerh – German traveler; 1743, Canvey – English merchant; 1747, John Kuk – Russian surgeon; and 1770, Cmelin – Russian scientist.

From the information given by the government, it appears that the site was accessible to travelers because from the 15th through the 18th centuries Baku was one of the most important trade centers between Azerbaijan and India. Indian goods went by sea through Baku to the north of Russia and on to Western Europe.

There were accounts of people visiting the site from ancient times: “Coming after their raid on Media, Iran turned to the other road and

passing the flames rising out of the rock into the sea, had come to

their motherland.” —Panijsky, fifth century diplomat

“Within Shirvan and Baku on the surface of the ground there are such places, where fire burns eternally.”—– Persian manuscript by Khamdulla Kazviny, first half of the fourteenth century

“In one far slungfromthiscity of Bakuthere is one place continuously erupting fire.”—Azerbaijan geographer Abdar Rashid Bakury, beginning of the fifteenth century

And the European travelers had also written of their visits to this Vedic temple:

“Here, near the fire, were cooking for the settlement Sroganny ates-garva, called so to this fire. Others were burning lime. Two descendants of the ancient Persian tribe, newcomer Hindu fire worshipers were passively sitting around the wall built by them and prayed—gazing at the flame gushing out of the ground and worshiped.”—Kempher, German traveler,1689

“Near the wall there was seen a volcano erupting fire from eight or ten mouths. They call this place ‘Ateshgah’, that means ‘Home of the Fires’. Even nowadays it is honored by Hindus and Herbes. They come here to worship from different places and throw silver and gold coins and even keep two Dervishes to guard this sacred fire.”—Villot, French traveler, 1689

“Situated in the southern part of Russia, in the city of Baku, are a lot of things noteworthy of the attention of travelers. But without doubt the inextinguishable fire is the unique phenomenon that attracts all travelers.”—E. Berjozin, 1842

There were some photos of the temple from the 1800s and drawings from earlier centuries as well. We noted with curiosity that in one of the drawings, yogis are doing an arati to an altar with a number of deities on it. Who those deities were, or where they are now, we didn’t know.

Before leaving the ancient temple we offered our respects to Agnideva. It was an interesting visit and confirmed for us Srila Prabhupada’s statement in Srimad Bhagavatam that the Vedic culture once existed all over the world.