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ATESHGAH . A Zoroastrian term still used in New Persian, ateshgah, or ātashgāh (also pronounced āteshgāh ), originally meant "place of the fire" or, technically, "fire precinct." It derives from Middle Persian or Pahlavi ātakhshgāh, reflecting an Old Persian and Avestan nominative singular ātarsh (fire), plus Old Persian gāthu and Avestan gātu, gātav (place, space). The Avestan and Old Persian term ātar - produced the Middle Persian and New Persian word ātur or ādur (fire) as well. Consequently āturgāh and ādurgāh also have been used to denote places or precincts in which fires burn. A fire that burns in an ateshgah is regarded as spēnāg (holy) and is utilized for Mazdean or Zoroastrian rituals. It did not and does not have to be a constantly burning fire, or one of the highest ritual rank, nor be tended solely by the Zoroastrian magi or clergy. In practice, an ateshgah did not even have to be within an enclosed building but could be an outdoor precinct.

Another designation used in conjunction with ateshgah is New Persian ātashkada (also pronounced āteshkade, "room of the fire, house of the fire"), commonly translated as "fire temple," deriving from Middle Persian ātakhshkadag and kadag ī ātakhsh, originating from Old Persian and Avestan ātarsh plus Old Persian *katha and Avestan kata (room, small house). Usage indicates this term has consistently been utilized to denote a building which housed one or more ateshgah. By the fifteenth century ce, as attested in the Persian Revāyats (Treatises 2.18), Zoroastrians in Iran were using the phrases dar-i mehr and dar be-mehr, both meaning "court of Mithra," as equivalents of other terms for temples that enclosed ateshgah. Mithra (later Mihr, Mehr), as the minor Zoroastrian divinity of contracts and covenants, was believed to traverse the sky with "the radiant fire of liturgical glory before him" (Yasht, "Devotional Poem" 10.127). So that spirit's association with fire resulted in devotees' naming fire temples after him. The phrases dar-i mehr and dar be-mehr remain popular into the twenty-first century among Zoroastrians in Iran, India, and even the United States and Canada for referring to their current, functional fire temples. Yet another word for a fire temple building, namely agīārī, commonly rendered as agiary, arose among the Parsis (Persians) or Zoroastrians of India through the translation of ātashākada into the Gujarati language in premodern times.

Within a fire precinct of a fire temple, a fire is placed in a receptacle. That vessel has consistently been designated in New Persian as an ātashdān, usually translated as "fire altar," from Middle Persian ātakhshdān and Parthian *ātarōshan, preserved in Armenian as atrushan. It was rendered into Greek as bōmos (altar). The Iranian term reflects an Old Persian and Avestan nominative singular ātarsh plus stāna (place). The Parsis call the fire holder an āfrīnagānyu or afargānyu (place for blessings), based on a loanword from New Persian into Gujarati.


Fire precincts seem to have been utilized by pre-Zoroastrian or early Zoroastrian devotees in Central Asian Bronze Age communities (c. 21001750 bce) such as at Togolok 21. Archaeological excavation at the Median citadel of Tepe Nush-e Jan (c. mid-eighth centurysixth century bce) has revealed two fire precincts with square, raised, mud brick altars. Excavations at the contemporaneous Median city of Hagmatāna (Ecbatana, later Hamadan) produced a small open-sided pavilionlike chamber with four columns supporting a domed ceiling that seems to be a precursor of fire precinct architecture later popular in Sassanian times. Among the earliest precincts for holy flames during the Achaemenian Empire (550331 bce) is the open air one at Pasargadae. It contains two hollow white limestone plinths aligned north to south, with the southern one having stairs attached. Reliefs carved above tombs of subsequent Achaemenian rulers indicate the king or a magus climbed to the top of the southern plinth, faced the northern plinth, which bore a fire altar with flame, and performed devotions.

The Vidēvdād (Code to ward off evil spirits, 8.8196), a Young Avestan text codified under the Parthian regime (238 bce224 ce), provides the first scriptural reference to the creation of a holy fire of the highest ritual gradeādar warahrān in Parthian, ātakhsh wahrām in Middle Persian, and ātash bahrām, "fire of Verethraghna (Vərəthraghna) or Wahrām" (the divinity of victory), in New Persian and Parsi Gujarati. Each such fire was said to blaze within a dāityāgātu (fixed place or appropriate precinct), called dādgāh in Middle Persian, which apparently was another term for an ateshgah. It is created by a purification and fusion of flames that had been used for sixteen different functions. The same text noted that holy fires should be kept free from impurities and tended with care, and that magi should perform all such rites while wearing a paitidāna (Middle Persian padām, New Persian panām, Parsi Gujarati padān ), or "mouth and nose mask," so as not to pollute the flames with breath (Vidēvdād 8.7374, 18.1).

Establishment of the three most famous ādar warahrān of antiquity seems to date to mid-Achaemenian times at the earliest and mid-Parthian times at the latest. Possibly relocated more than once, their fire temples continued to be funded, staffed, and well maintained in Sassanian times (224651 ce). Ādur Farrōbay, considered the ādar warahrān of clergy and nobility, may have always been enthroned in Fārs at the site of Kariyan. Ādur Gushnasp, linked to rulers as the ādar warahrān of warriors, seems to have been originally established within a fire temple in Media (Kurdistan). Under the early Sassanians during the third century ce, it was moved to the site of Takht-e Sulayman southeast of Lake Urmiya (later in Iranian Azerbaijan). Ādur Burzēnmihr, regarded as the holy fire of farmers and pastoralists, seems to have been burned within a fire temple on a mountain called Revand northwest of Nishapur in Parthia (later Khurāsān), as noted by the ninth-century ce magus Zādspram (Wizīdagīhā, "Selections" 3.85).

Three ritual grades of fire were standardized by the Sassanian magi, and those ranks are still retained by Zoroastrians: ātakhsh wahrām, ātakhsh ādarān (fire of fires), or simply ādarān, and ādurōg ī dādgāh (small fire in a fixed place), or simply dādgāh. Only ātakhsh wahrām had to burn constantly. Flames of the ādarān and dādgāh grades would periodically be allowed to burn out. Forming a hall or portico whose four sides were open, the chahār tāq (four arches)or four columns supporting a gumbad ("domed roof," a term that eventually came to serve as an alternate for chahār tāq )became the quintessential architectural form for fire precincts. The chahār tāq usually was situated inside a fire temple and within it a holy fire burned upon a fire altar. That style is seen in ruins at locales such as Tepe-Mill near Tehran; Qala-ye Dokhtar near Qom; Kazerun and Mil-e Naqara Hana in Fārs province; Isfahan and Neyzar in central Iran, near Kermān city; and between Mashhad and Torbat-e Haydariya in Khurāsān.

As Iranians adopted other faiths, the ateshgah became a symbol of the old order that had to be changed. So in Armenia, Zoroastrian fire precincts were transformed into Christian churches at locales like Ejmiacin and Dvin after 300. The process gained momentum with the spread of Islam between the eight and thirteenth centuries. Most fire precincts were either transformed into mosques, destroyed, or abandoned. The chahār tāq style with its domed roof passed into Muslim religious architecture as domed mosques. Notable examples of ateshgah providing the infrastructure for a medieval Muslim masjid-e jāmiʿ (congregational mosque) are at the cities of Urmiya, Qazvin, Yazd, Naʾin, Isfahan, Natanz, Kermān, Nishapur, and Bukhara.

Modern Uses

Now, as in premodern times, holy firesespecially those of the ātash bahrām and ātash ādarān ranksusually burn in altars on stone platforms upon tiled floors, within a pāwī (pure space), surrounded by kash or kish (separatory furrows) inscribed on the floor of a fire precinct that is often modeled after the medieval chahār tāq. A few of several such fire temples functioning in Iran can be mentioned. The ātash bahrām named Ādur Farrōbay burns in a modern temple at Yazd. The ātash bahrām called Ādur Anāhīd, originally the fire of Persian royal families, is housed at a temple in the town of Ardakan of the Sharifabad area in Yazd. The capital city, Tehran, has an ādarān flame in the Bhika Bahram fire temple. The city of Kermān has the Banu Rostam Farrokh fire precinct, opened in 1924 to house an ādarān flame, plus a more modern fire temple within the same compound. Due to state pressure, access to fire temples in Iran is available to members of all faiths, who are requested but not required to cover their heads and remove footwear as signs of respect for the fires.

The largest number of Zoroastrian fire precincts is found in India. In about 941, some five years after their arrival in Gujarat on the west coast of India, the Parsis established an ātash bahrām named Irān Shāh, which now blazes in an ornate fire temple at Udvada and is the focus of pilgrimage by devout Zoroastrians. There are seven other highest-level fires, each with its own temple, including the Bhagarsath Anjuman ātash bahrām at Navsari, established in 1765. At the start of the twenty-first century, there are eighty-two fire temples in India housing ādarān flames (pronounced ādariān in Parsi Gujarati). Additionally, sixty fire temples with only dādgāh flames are supported by Zoroastrian communities there. Those Parsis do not permit nonbelievers or converts to enter fire temples. Devotees, who must possess Zoroastrian paternity, are required to don prayer caps or scarves and perform the pādyāb, or purification, and kustī, or holy cord rites, before worship.

As Zoroastrians dispersed globally, their praxes relating to fire went with them. The community in Pakistan worships at two fire temples with ādarān fires in Karachi, one with a dādgāh in Lahore, and another with a dādgāh in Quettaall dating from the nineteenth century. Devotees living in Sri Lanka (earlier called Ceylon) have worshiped at an endowed fire temple with a dādgāh at the city of Colombo since 1927. Only individuals born from Zoroastrian fathers are permitted to worshipafter donning caps or scarves, purifying themselves, and retying the cordat fire temples in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Zoroastrians in Hong Kong have the Pherozeshaw Kawasji Pavri Memorial Prayer Hall with a dādgāh flame on the sixth floor of a modern multipurpose steel and glass building. The community in England can attend religious services at two centers in LondonZoroastrian House, opened in 1969, and the Zartoshty Brothers Hall, dedicated in 2001, both housing dādgāh fires. Zoroastrians in Australia at Sydney (1994), Canada at Toronto (1980) and Vancouver (1986), and the United States in the suburbs of New York City (1977, relocated in 2001), Washington, D.C. (1990), Chicago (1983), Houston (1998), San Jose (1992), and Los Angeles (1985) utilize temples containing fires of the dādgāh level. Access to fire temples in Europe and North America is granted to persons of all faiths, with the fire oftenbut not alwaysburning within a fire precinct separated from the congregation by glass panels.

Each fire is intended to serve as an icon through which worship is directed toward Ahura Mazdā (later Ōhrmazd) the creator deity or god of Zoroastrians. Women abstain from visiting fire temples when menstruating and immediately after childbirth for reasons of ritual purity. At fire temples, laity offer fragrant firewood and incense as fuel for the fire. Facing the ateshgah while standing, or occasionally seated or kneeling, they quietly recite prayers such as those for the gāh (period or time) of day or night, the Ahuna Vairya (Ahunawar ; "As is the lord"), and the Ashem Vohū (Order is good). The central ritual surrounding fires in ateshgah is termed Bōy ([Offering of] Incense), conducted five times at the beginning of each period of the day by a magus. The presence of dādgāh fires is required for a range of other rituals, including the Yasna (worship), Vidēvdād or Vendidād (Code to ward off evil spirits), Āfrīnagān (Blessings), Farokhshī (All souls), and Jashan (Thanksgiving service).

See Also

Parsis; Zoroastrianism.


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