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Fire Temple of Azerbaijan: Hindu-Zoroastrian Fire worship

Travels along the Trans Caucasian Silk Route..............................Ramdas Iyer


The name Azerbaijan derives from the Middle and Old Persian Adar-badhagan and Atur-patakan meaning protected by fire. The region is known for its continuously burning natural gas fires, which to the ancients must have seemed like the miraculous phenomenon of an ever-burning fire - a symbol of special importance in Zoroastrianism. In ancient texts, Azerbaijan was known as the land of fire and burning hillsides.

As we entered the many rooms of the Surakhani Fire temple ( Surakhani Atash-Gah), former residence for priests and traders alike, we heard an eruption of Hindu Vedic chants of Om Ganapataye Namah float out of one cell, while another housed a Nataraja bronze. Little had I read about this World heritage sites history until I started pouring into the many articles available on the web especially from many Indian publications.
Traveling in this Caucasian country to celebrate my wife's 60th birthday, how we ended up in front of a natural fire pit in a Hindu Temple in an Islamic republic was indeed a welcome surprise.
Jonas Hanway commenting in his, An Historical Account of the British Trade Over the Caspian Sea, 1753 CE states "The Persians have very little maritime strength... their ship carpenters on the Caspian were mostly Indians... there is a little temple, in which the Indians now worship: near the altar about 3 feet high is a large hollow cane, from the end of which effuses a blue flame... . These Indians affirm, that this flame has continued ever since the flood, and they believe it will last to the end of the world. ...Here are generally forty or fifty of these poor devotees, who come on a pilgrimage from their own country."
Fire is sacred in many spiritual traditions, and has been used in religious rites for thousands of years. Along with water, earth, air and space, fire is one of the five essential elements.


No stranger to fire worship I have grown up with reverence to, Agni (Sanskrit: “Fire”) the fire-god of Hinduism, second only to Indra in the Vedic mythology of ancient India. He is equally the fire of the sun, of lightning, and of both the domestic and the sacrificial hearth. He is also the guardian deity of the southeast direction, and is typically found in southeast corners of Hindu temples.
An important deity since the Vedic times ( 1800-1200BC) when Aryan migration into India brought the mythology of Agni along with the rest of the Hindu Pantheon from the Ural steppes region and central Asia. The Zoroastrian Persians, a splintered Aryan community from that which entered India also worship fire, similar to the Hindus. Both religions share beliefs, mythology and a common set of values as written in the Rig Veda of the Hindus and the Zoroastrian holy book, The Zend Avesta.
So it is no surprise that Hindus would worship in Baku, an ancient Persian city which also happened to be a Zoroastrian fire temple. The Vedic worship through fire is different from the Mazdayasnian (Parsee-Zoarastrian worship). In the Mazdayasnian religion the fire itself is the divine presence.
In my travels within Iran in 2016, I visited the only active Fire temples in Yazd and in Chak, Chak in central Iran. However Agni is less worshipped as a mainstream deity in India but rather as a keeper of the hearth in every Hindu home where his favors are evoked during the Homa fire pit rituals conducted to mark important occasions like, birth, marriages and other religious rites. Agni for Hindus is the communicator between mortals and the lords of the heaven. All chants are done in his presence, by feeding the fire with ghee for the messages to be relayed to our lords and keepers in heaven.
Yes here in Baku I chanted mantras for my wife Pushpa's long health and happiness and hopefully it was conveyed to our Hindu Gods above.
The Baku Hindu trading community is thought to have originated primarily from Multan located in the Punjab region of the Indus valley (in today's Pakistan) and who plied their trade along the Grand Trunk Road, part of the old Aryan trade roads.

The Surakhani complex as it stands was clearly used as a Hindu temple. The single inscription mentioning Jvalaji/Jwalaji may refer to the equally rare uses of the term in Indian places of worship. In the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, there is a Jvalaji/Jwalaji temple constructed over a natural gas fire as is the Surakhani temple. The place is called Jalamukhi/Jwalamukhi. 'Jwala' means 'burning' or 'blaze of fire' and 'Mukhi' means 'mouth'.
However, the Baku complex is quite unlike other Hindu temples. Instead, the pentagonal perimeter structure consists of cubicles much like a caravan-serai and in the centre of the enclosed courtyard is a chahar-taqi building whose design is entirely consistent with the chahar-taqi Zoroastrian atash-gah of ancient and medieval Persia. There is a strong possibility that prior to its use as a Hindu temple, a predecessor structure existed that was a Zoroastrian fire temple. With the decline of the Zoroastrian community and an abandoned structure would have been a candidate for occupation and use by the growing Hindu trading community. The present structure could have been modeled on a previous Zoroastrian structure. Alternatively, the present structure could have been built over the ruins of a Zoroastrian atash-gah or it could be a renovation of a previous Zoroastrian atash-gah. Even today, local tradition holds that the structure was a Zoroastrian atash-gah.

Professor A. V. Williams Jackson (1911 CE) while commenting on the observations of Jonas Hanway (1753 CE), left open the possibility that Zoroastrians may have worshipped alongside the larger Hindu community at the shrine. The Sikh community must also have worshipped alongside the Hindu community.

In the 1800s, the population of Hindus and Sikhs in Azerbaijan declined. Sir Jivanji Jamshedji Modi (1854-1933) in his book My Travels Outside Bombay, Iran, Azerbaijan, Baku (1926) (translated from Guajarati by Soli Dastur) notes: "the original trade routes and customs changed and the visits of the Hindu traders diminished. And from the original group of the Brahmins, some passed away and a few that were left went back to their original home land." By the time of Modi's visit in 1925, the Surakhani atash gah had been abandoned.

According to authors from the 1800s, between the times when the atash gah was abandoned by the Hindus and at the time of Modi's visit in 1925, the Surakhani atash gah was briefly under the care of Zoroastrians.

James Bryce, in Transcaucasia and Ararat: Being Notes of a Vacation Tour in the Autumn Of 1876, noted, "...after they (the Zoroastrians) were extirpated from Persia by the Mohammedans, who hate them bitterly, some few occasionally slunk here (Azerbaijan) on pilgrimage" and that "under the more tolerant sway of the Czar (Azerbaijan was then part of the Russian empire), a solitary priest of fire is maintained by the Parsee community of Bombay, who inhabits a small temple built over one of the springs." (We do know that in the 1800s, the Parsees of Bombay lent their assistance to the Zoroastrians of Iran and sought to ameliorate the suffering of their co-religionists in their ancestral lands.)

A few years earlier, in 1858, French novelist Alexander Dumas (1802 - 1870 CE) had visited the atash gah and noted: "...the whole world is aware of the Atash gah in Baku. My compatriots who want to see the fire-worshippers must be quick because already there are so few left in the temple, just one old man and two younger ones about 30-35 years old."
There are twenty inscriptions embedded in the stone walls of the complex. Eighteen are in the Nagari Devnagri script, one is in Punjabi using the Gurumukhi script and one is a bilingual inscription in Sanskrit and Persian. The Devnagri portion of the bilingual inscription is dedicated to Lord Ganesh and Jvala-ji. It is dated Samvat 1802 (1745-46 CE). In Sanskrit, ज्वलति (ज्वल्) / jvalati (jval) is one of the many words meaning 'burn' or 'burning' even 'light' ['fire' is 'अग्नि' / 'agni'].

The transliteration of Persian/Farsi inscription - a four-line (quatrain) verse is:
Atashi saf kesheedhe hamchun dak
Jeeye bovani reside ta baudak
Sal-e no nozl mobarak baad goft
Khaneh shod ru sombole sane-ye 1158

The translation is:
The blaze (of fire) has drawn (came directly) like a dak(?)
From Bovani ( Bovan , Iran)* until it reached Baudak** (Baku?)
Blessings, he said, on the New Year
It was housed on Sanomad*** (in the) year 1158 (1745 CE).

  • There are several places/towns named Bovan in Iran - in the provinces of Azarbaijan, Kermanshah, Isfahan and Pars. The line in the inscriptions appears to state that a fire was brought directly from Bovan to Baudak.
  • *Baku is said to be a shortened form of the older name Baudak. Baudak is in turn a shortened form of Bad-Kubeh meaning 'wind-pounded' otherwise 'windy city'.
  • **Sanomad may be a corruption of Sombole, the month when the Sun is in the house of Virgo, the sixth month (August-September), in which month Nowruz - New Year' day - fell according to Zoroastrian Kadmi (Qadimi) calendar.

This verse seems to indicate that a fire from Bovan was brought to the Surakhani temple and housed there, perhaps in the alcove above which the inscription is found. It is quite possible that if the natural gas fire at Surakhani could not be consecrated in its making according to orthodox practice, another duly consecrated fire brought from Bovani, could have served that purpose.

The Punjabi language inscription is a quotation from the Adi Granth.

The other inscriptions include an invocation to Lord Shiva. Taken as a set, the dates on the inscriptions range from Samvat 1725 to Samvat 1873, corresponding to the period from 1668 CE to 1816 CE. The present structure is relatively modern and the 17th century is a possible date for its construction. One report states that local records exist that the structure was built by the Baku Hindu trading community around the time of the annexation of Baku by the Russian Empire following the Russo-Persian War (1722-1723 CE).
I salute the UNESCO World heritage organization for preserving such magnificent, historic and cultural properties, the world over. Such sites are truly an integrator of the myriad cultures and peoples of this world.
heritage Institute.com/ Zoroastrianism


Ramdas Iyer can be reached at Riyerr@aol.com



Posted by Ramdas Iyer 10:45 Archived in Azerbaijan Tagged temple world heritage fire hindu parsi zorastrian homa atash gah parsee Comments (3)

My-Son, The Ancient Champa Hindu Kingdom of Vietnam

Spreading and colonization of South East Asia by the early Hindus from India by Ramdas Iyer

I opened the NY Times today and realized that the famous North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap who threw both the French and the Americans out of his country had passed away. Growing up in India during the Vietnam war I remember that many Indians were mostly sympathetic to the American “cause” out of ignorance and also due to the existence of strong US propaganda there. As someone who came to the US out of love for everything American I could not accept the fact until I visited Vietnam in 2012 the extent of our misadventure there.

So this beautiful fall morning I decided to revisit Vietnam through the eyes of an Indian American. I had published a photo blog on Mi-Son Kingdom of the Champa Hindu people last year. Here I will try to elaborate on that text and include some fascinating facts about India and South East Asia from 1BC until the 19th Century.

I am peeved by the lack of knowledge nor interest exhibited by "bulk" tourists who are bused to fragile sights in hordes . While their money is important for protecting the sights the damage caused by touching and trampling cannot be quantified. Above all most of them do not have a clue of why they are even there except to fill a blank afternoon in the itinerary. So here is my contribution to those who wish to learn a bit more about Champa and to indeed fill in the blanks..

The transmission of Indian culture to distant parts of Central Asia, China, Japan, and especially Southeast Asia is certainly one of the greatest achievements of Indian history or even of the history of mankind. None of the other great civilizations - not even the Hellenic - had been able to achieve a similar success without military conquest.


Indian and Chinese kingdoms, the two great powers of Asia where predominantly conducting trade via land utilizing the silk route, from 500BC through 1000 AD). Indian and Chinese influences by land can be seen in Burma, Laos and North Vietnam. Sea trade was predominantly Indian in SE Asia since its navigators traded with the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt and as far as Rome at the height of the Roman Empire. It is believed that it was the Persians who developed the technology for carrying over 600 troops on large ships during Persia’s incursions into Greece around 400 BC. This technology was adapted by the early Indians to begin colonizing SE Asia and establishing Indianized states somewhere around 50 AD.

The first of these “Indianized” states to achieve widespread importance was Funan, in Cambodia, founded in the 1st century A.D. These local inhabitants were the Khmer people. Khmer was the former name of Cambodia, and Khmer is their language. The Hindu-Khmer Empire of Funan flourished for some 500 years. An elite practiced statecraft, art and science, based on Indian culture to the Malay Peninsula in the west. The first organized state to achieve fame was the Hindu-ised Malay kingdom of Srivijaya, with its capital at Palembang in southern Sumatra. Its commercial pre-eminence was based on command of the sea route from India to China between Sumatra and the Straits of Malacca. In the 6 th – 7th centuries Srivijaya succeeded Funan as the leading state in South East Asia.

By the 7th Century a powerful Indianized Buddhist Kingdom, Sailendra, rose in Java( Indonesia)challenging the supremacy of the Sri Vijaya Kingdom in Sumatra. A union of these two Empires resulted in Hindu/Buddhist dominated kingdoms until the early 14th century when the visitations of Europeans Spice traders eventually led to their colonization of SE Asia.
The various Indianized states and empires of this first 1500 years A.D., though founded by Indian colonization and maintaining diplomatic contacts with India, remained politically independent of the Indian kingdoms. The only exception to this was the temporary conquest of Malaya by the Chola kingdom of southern India in the 11th century, but the Sailendra kings of Srivijaya were victorious in a long war against the Chola armies of Peninsular South India. My ancestry for the past 500 years was rooted in the Chola Capital of Tanjore, which until this day is home to refined South Indian culture.
The patronage of Indian arts and culture by the Empires of Sri Vijaya (Sumatra), Mahajapit & Sailendra (Java), Funan( Cambodia),the Pagan( Burma) and the Champa (Vietnam) have given us some jewels of Asian architecture. They include the monuments of Pagan, (built from 1044 to 1287 AD), Angkor (Combodia;,889 to c. 1300 AD), the Borobudur (Java, early ninth century AD), Prambanan (Java 9th century) and Mi Son (Vietnam 4th-10th centuries). Though they were influenced by Indian culture, they are nevertheless part and parcel of the history of that respective country as witnessed by me between 1996-2012.

With this backdrop of a strong Indian political and religious influence in SE Asia we can begin to explore the Champa people and the eventual building of the magnificent Mi-Son Complex near Danang, Vietnam. The people of Champa (Cham people) were descended from Malayo-Polynesian settlers who appear to have reached the Southeast Asian mainland from Borneo and Aceh, Sumatra around the Ist century BC .

About 100 km from Danang, the famous US Air base during the Vietnam war, lies Mi-Son, the holy site of the Champa Hindu Kingdom that was established by Bhadravarman in the 4th century AD. in a Chinese dominated area. The Han dynasty held sway over Vietnam and Cambodia for 1000 years till the 10th century. The Cham rebelled against the Han Dynasty and drove it northwards creating a huge swathe of territory extending a 1000 km from Danang in the central Highlands southwards. Hinduism must have deeply influenced the Cham people who experienced the rule of Hindu kings over a millennium during their gradual move from Sumatra and Borneo into Vietnam.

The rulers of Champa, presided over a small territory between high mountains and the sea. This not only gave them extensive maritime access but also helped them stave any land-based invasion by non-maritime powers in their neighborhood. They were a belligerent lot resorting to fighting often with the Chinese to the north, and the great Khmer kingdoms(Hindu and Buddhist), then dominating Cambodia, Thailand, southern Vietnam and Laos. Due to lack of arable land in their narrow territory, they also resorted to piracy. The 53 plus rulers of Champa dynasty ruled the middle Vietnam for 900 years and built elaborate temples from the 4th century in wood and from the 7th century in stone, until their weakening and subsequent destruction by the 14 th century when the Minh kingdoms of Vietnam grew more powerful.


The Mi- Son Sanctuary dates from the 4th to the 13th centuries AD. The property is located in the mountainous border of Quang Nam Province, in central Viet Nam. It is situated within an elevated geological basin surrounded by a ring of mountains, which provides the watershed for the sacred Thu Bon river. and through the historic heartland of the Champa Kingdom, draining into the South China Sea at its mouth near the ancient port city of Hoi An. Hoi An is another World Heritage site that I visited is preserved wonderfully despite the many wars Vietnam endured. This is the base from where one explores the Champa sites.
The tower temples were constructed over ten centuries of continuous development in what was the heart of the ancestral homeland of the Cham clans who the kingdom of Champapura (Sanskrit for City of the Cham people).They owed their spiritual and cultural identity to the Indian sub-continent. Under this influence many temples were built to the Hindu divinities such as Krishna and Vishnu, but above all Shiva. Although Mahayana Buddhism penetrated the Cham culture, probably from the 4thcentury AD and became strongly established in the north of the kingdom, Shivite Hinduism remained the established state religion.


The main deity for all the temples was lord Shiva with the Mi- son complex dedicated to Bhadreswara; making the founding King Bhadravarman the god king ,by adding the Eswara (God) suffix similar to the Shivite Pandya kings who claimed to be Sundereswara (King Sundara plus Easwar)in Tamilnadu, India.( As a child I have worshiped Shiva at the Sundereswara Temple in Madurai.) They used the sanskritised Pali as the court language with several tablets still pockmarked by machine gun bullets in the complex today. Completely overgrown by forests the French archaeologists uncovered the Mi Son complex in the late 19th century. The Champa kingdom comprised of Amaravati nagar in the north( Mi-Son) and Po Nagar in the south. The Po Nagar Hinduism never really vanished and is still practiced by the minority Champa community of south central Vietnam. There are many Champa built pyramidal towers similar to Gopurams in south India. The worship is not that of classical Hinduism and has drifted to more animist form of Hindu worship seen in Bali.


The story of Mi-Son is exciting and very sad at the same time. Due to its
mountainous ground cover ,it served as a major Viet Cong Base operating inside south Vietnam. A single week of carpet-bombing campaigns by the US Military during August 1969 razed the site from more than 70 temples to its current 20. French Champa experts appealed to president Nixon in vain. In fact the hostile terrain was impenetrable by US forces that they had to finish off the elaborate and finely adorned tall buildings that did not collapse by B-52 aerial bombing with focused helicopter bombing. Upon mentioning this to my cousin Hari in India, the words that came out of his mouth were “An American Bamiyan?”




Although Cham art and those of Southeast Asia were all adapted from the arts of the Indian subcontinent, each Southeast Asian civilization possessed their own grammar and vocabulary to express their aesthetic characteristics and tastes. The ethnic aesthetics of indigenous people filtered the Hindu and Buddhist arts that come from India, resulting in a disparate artistic lexicon and differing artistic sensibilities.

The Champa Kingdom collapsed with the resurgence of Viet Kingdoms( Dai-Viet) in the 10th Century in the wake of the collapse of the Song Dynasty in China. As a traditional enemy, the Viets embarked on a genocide of the Champa people. Between 1200 and 1700AD the kingdom went through several attacks and counter attacks by the Khmer and the Viet including a brief takeover by the Mongols of Kublai Khan. The Champa kingdom seized to exist after 1832 when it formally became a part of the Nguyen Dynasty of Vietnam.

Much to our blessing the original Bhadreswara temple stands. Though started in the 5th century the current structures were renovated in the 10th century .Please see my photographs taken around 7 am on a wet, rain soaked day including a sculpture of shiva with two unexplored 6-ton bombs next to it. This visit to Mi Son was a highlight of my south east Asia trip. I plan on exploring other Champa and Khmer Hindu temples in Vietnam ,Cambodia and Laos in the future. Please note that a good portion of Cham people were converted to Islam by the Indonesians in the past 200 years and only 60 percent of the Cham claim to be Hindus. There is an elaborate Cham festival every year at Po nagar, Vietnam presided by Cham Brahmin priests.!!!!
This again shows that commerce and cultural intercourse changes entire civilizations and continents. Shouldn’t that be the lesson learnt from the Indians for western action in the Middle East. A couple of years ago I read an article in the Wilson Quarterly about how Central Asia and the fringe Islamic countries can become less polarized from the international community with the re establishment of the Silk Route for commerce. China is already successfully attempting that in Central Asia and Africa.
The Indian Hindu community has built over 300 temples in the US. While they are great centers for keeping an ancient culture alive , I would only hope some of the contributions can go back to India to restore the thousands of grand and historic monuments that are crumbling into oblivion daily. The End.
emailme @ ( riyerr@aol.com)

References and further reading sources:

Vestiges of Champa Civilization by Tran Phuong
Encyclopedia of Ancient Civilizations
UNESCO World Heritage Site
Hindu Colonies in the Far East. by R. C. Majumdar

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 07:51 Archived in Vietnam Tagged son india vietnam angkor hindu prambanan pagan colonization champa borobadur my- Comments (4)

Embedded in a Balinese Procession to appease the Gods, Bali

A Peek inside one of the great cultures of Asia................Ramdas Iyer

After my first trip to Bali in 1995 I was totally convinced that if there is a Paradise on earth it must be centered in Ubud, Bali. The sensory effects of the land combined with a predominantly Hindu people whose purpose in life seem to be one that is committed to ritual celebrations placating their various gods is a truly uplifting experience. Upon my return after nearly a decade in 2004 I was pleased to observe that the core of the culture was still intact but I could see irreversible changes taking place along the fringes of the villages and in the towns. Even though there was no concerted effort by Indonesia’s fairly secular government to disturb this idyllic Island, pressures of a growing Islamic population, commercial opportunism and mass tourism centered mainly around the beaches was a source of cultural erosion. As a frequent visitor to rain forests I can see similarities between deforestation of forests and cultural erosion of societies.
While many writers and photographers have highlighted Balinese culture in wonderful articles, I chose to present here my own photographic journey and the cultural richness of Bali using my own experiences growing up in India in a Hindu family performing similar rituals. The details of these ceremonies were extracted from various sources with spare commentary interspersed by me. An important distinction between Hinduism practiced in Bali is very dissimilar to the Classical Hindu practices. The paganized version practiced here is much akin to the brand of catholism I witnessed in Chichicastenango, Guatemala where petitions to Christ are made with animal sacrifices. Even in India today there are many paganized versions of pre Hindu styles of worship that exists alongside with Vedic Hinduism.

The question I hear frequently is how Bali became a Hindu Kingdom. As early as 200AD the SriVijaya Kingdom was established in Sumatra by the strong naval powers of south Indian kings. This kingdom eventually became the Mahajapit Empire occupying Sumatra, Java, Bali and later Cambodia. Buddhism and Hinduism alternated as the state religion between 500 AD and 1300 AD. With the spread of Islam under the sword, Hinduism was relegated to tiny Bali while the Javanese slowly converted to Islam after 1300. Since Hinduism and the Indic religious culture was ingrained in the Javanese mainland culture that the elites ruling Java left Bali alone as a safe haven for Hindus,

The Balinese devote most of their waking hours to an endless series of offerings, purifications, processions, dances, and dozens of other religious rites. Ceremonies and festivals guide a Balinese from birth to death and into the world thereafter. There can be few places of comparable size where ceremonial obligations hold such a sway over people's lives. There are festivals dedicated to the art of woodcarving, the birth of a goddess, percussion instruments. There are temple festivals, fasting and retreat ceremonies: parades to the sea to cleanse villages, special prayer days for the dead, nights of penance (sivaratri), harvest festival, blood sacrifices, and house deity anniversaries. But some ceremonies-such as the extraordinary mouse cremation at Ababi village near Tirtagangga takes place once every 10 years. I have personally witnessed elaborate cremation ceremonies in Bali that is a macabre spectacle.
In this article I wish to highlight the Pura Taman Ayum temple procession in Mengwi village during the Galungan ceremonies, an annual festival to appease the Island spirits. We all like parades but no parade on earth can match the colorful religious processions of the women of Bali.
A basic tenet of the Balinese religion is that rituals and ceremonies maintain harmony between the two equally powerful forces of good and evil, and that the proper and harmonious behavior of the people brings the supernatural forces under control.
Starting at the home of my guide Ketut I joined the cavalcade dressed in sarong and sash, with his family members. Over the years many small community platforms have been erected all over the island. Some big and some small, where the locals gathered to build decorations, stitch flowers into garlands, make religious paraphilia or even carve wooden effigies for funerals. Female members of Ketut’s family gathered at a nearby community platform with me firmly embedded with them. I knew they were teasing me a little bit including asking me to marry somebody’s daughter, They had all prepared elaborate offering platters some weighing in excess of 20 lbs. The platters consist of sweet cakes, glutinous rice, sumptuous quantities of fruits and flowers all decorated with cut patterns made from palm fronds.
Nobody is left out; peasants as well as aristocrats take part in the preparations. Rules govern exactly how much food, oil, palm leaf strips, lamak, and symbolic money are offered. Men ready the temple grounds; hanging friezes, canopies, and banners, building bamboo platforms and altars, slaughtering pigs, erecting penjor poles, performing guard duty, and covering the genitals of statues with checkered cloths.
Fashionable dress shows respect and is also a mark of social prestige. Women don rich handspun kain and ornament themselves with jewels, scarves, and pounded gold in their hair. At festival times a young woman looks her best. She's allowed to wear lipstick and makeup at religious events but not in daily life when it would be considered too flirtatious. Infant girls wear flowers in their hair and bright sashes around their tiny waists. Men wear a brocaded head cloth, kris, and colorful sarung.

We then proceeded to join the many women emerging from various corners of the village, all wearing the same pink-laced blouse and matching floral sarong. It was so well orchestrated that new entrants smoothly merged into the procession. After a couple of kilometers of walking we stopped for a while waiting for a neighboring village to join the procession. Then suddenly through the rice fields emerged over a 100 women dressed in white lace blouses and dark floral sarongs. Caught in the confluence of these streams of caparisoned women made me feel like I was in the Sangam at Allahabad, India where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers meet kicking off one of the largest religious gathering mankind has ever known with 15 million people taking a holy dip on Maha Shvrathri day.
What is great about Bali is that it is poor with rich traditions. So the people have a great self-dignity. One could tell the wealthy from the not so fortunate ones from the gold jewelry worn by some of them. Rarely have I seen a more egalitarian social festival that brings all people together using one common denominator: the welfare of the community. I must admit that the Haj maybe another one such event.
After 4 km about 200 of these fine women escorted by a few men and myself reached the grounds of the temple. I realized that I was the only non-oriental in the entire gathering and was often the subject of an occasional flash photograph by a camera-toting member of the Balinese diaspora.
The women systematically placed their offerings in front of the shrine of the trinity Siva, Vishnu and Brahma. There was no orchestration, no fumbling nor stumbling. There was no rehearsal nor was judging it all purely organic.
The priests began their chanting and amidst the clanging of bells and prostrations of the women, I made an exit towards the gate not wanting to make a spectacle out of private worship. I wish to make this point about the spectacular Hindu temples in India. They do not seek World Heritage status because doing so would interrupt the private nature of worship between man and his creator. While I would like all of humanity to enjoy cultures I myself would find it hard to be a non-believer amongst believers.
Here in Bali large celebrations, lasting for days and mobilizing thousands of people, are performed with startling efficiency. A large temple festival is like a stage for a lavish form of metaphysical theater, a three-ringed circus of the arts when the temple comes alive with devotees who crowd into the courtyard and parade between the shrines. For three or four days almost without break, ritual dances, festive music, dramas and cock-fights ( see my blog on travellerspoint) are performed as if the occasion were a costume party instead of a fervid act of worship. Finally, bloated with sensory pleasure, the gods are invited to return to their heavenly spheres.
No one who has encountered a Balinese procession will ever forget the total immersion into Balinese culture and the wonderful opportunity to interact with the people on a special occasion. Am I blessed!
Emailme at ( riyerr@aol.com)


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:07 Archived in Indonesia Tagged bali indonesia culture hindu balinese galungan Comments (2)

Centerstage in a Balinese Cockfight, Central Highlands, Bali

Religion and Roulette in a delicate balance


As an entrepreneur who had literally bet his house on his new business, I needed some serious relaxation in Paradise. It was indeed Ubud in Bali that I chose for that time. During this second visit in 2004 after 9 years of yearning to return, I spent a full week exploring the Hindu culture of Bali. Staying at “Taman Rahasya “ a coconut Grove that translates to secret grove in Sanskrit and great views of the volcano , Mt. Batur, I launched project "go Native". The backyard lead to miles of paddy fields with locals planting rice, kids flying kites and butchers chasing pigs, while ducks and geese were taking cover awaiting their turn at the abbotoir.Here I had the good fortune to meet a young guide/driver who helped me to simply merge with the locals.
The purpose of this trip was to attend several Hindu temple ceremonies, including the 210 day cycle Galungan and Kuningan ceremonies during when the island fills up with red-colored arc-shaped coconut leaf and bamboo decorations. With thousands of temples “dressed up” in new yellow clothes, small rural roads become incredibly pretty. The Kuningan holiday takes place ten days after Galungan, bringing the holiday period to a closing time. On this day, a special ritual ceremony is held for the ancestral spirits. The cockfight.


Cockfights have the ceremonial purpose of ritually spilling blood, an important pacification of the demons that escort Hindu temple festivals. In fact, cockfight is required, not just allowed at every Balinese temple festival or religious ceremony. The blood is an offering to the hungry forces of evil. But times are changing fast in Bali. The Indonesian Government has officially banned this sport after pressure from western animal rights organizations. Being an insider in Ubud and a ranking Hindu from India, I was given the inside track to one of this culturally significant battle of the cocks.


Dressed in my linen shirt, colorful sarong and head dress I quickly made my way into the massive gathering in front of the temple. Cock-fighting is the Bingo or slot games of the third world. Unlike the monotonous whir of the slots, there is literally blood and guts here - like the Romans throwing the Christians to the lions. There are crowds that jostle and shout. There is lots of frenzied action. Even if you don't bet, the scene may be worth the effort of getting there. Although this is almost exclusively a man's sport, there are always ladies who show up to sell snacks to the spectators.
The cocks that are used in cockfighting are specially treated in preparation for the cockfight. They are fondled, massaged, plucked, bathed, deloused, and fed the choicest mixtures of corn, rice, egg, and proprietary strength-building ingredients. It is said that a mixture of chopped grilled meat and jack-fruit leaves thickens the blood and prevents serious bleeding when injury results from the fight.
As the only foreigner albeit of Asian descent, I was given every courtesy by the frenzied crowd. Someone dragged a rickety chair for me to sit down. I had not gone digital SLR yet and I was a simple point and shooter having decided to finally rest my film SLRs for this paradise vacation. Standing on a chair is taboo in Asia since the oft soiled shoes in a tropical environment is nasty. I wish the westerners understand this too. They put their feet everywhere, much to my dismay. I cleverly removed my sandals, slipped a pair of ankle socks that I always carry in my back pack for walking on hot surfaces in the tropics. This way I could stand above the fray to witness this religious cock fight and present it to you here.

The ceremony started when the cocks are brought to the arena in small, flexible bamboo cages. The cages are lined up around the edge of the arena, inside the barricade, and their handlers’ squat behind them. Then a white-clad priest advanced to the center of the arena and presented offerings on the ground to the spirits “ butas and kalas”, chanting over them, ringing his bell over them, and finally pouring rice wine on the ground. Then he made similar offerings to the gods in a shrine built up off the ground at a corner of the arena. Blood shedding was on its way.

Usually there are 3 fights & each cockfight between 2 birds ends after three rounds or when one cock is no longer able to continue fighting. After the fights, the crowds don't automatically disperse like at the end of other sporting events, instead males will just stay behind chatting about the match or about arcane facts of cock lineage similar to equine racing. Often the visitor like me misses most of the significance. The preliminaries and the post script, the daily treatment of the fighting cocks, the arcane lore of the sport, and especially the intricacies of the betting are as integral a part of the story as the fight itself. And, unfortunately, they are aspects that most people miss because they occur in such a seemingly chaotic fashion as to make them unintelligible to anyone but the person who would take the time and trouble to investigate.
I hope these images contribute to your understanding of one of the great “blood sports” of Indonesia

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 16:47 Archived in Indonesia Tagged bali indonesia hindu cockfight Comments (1)

Citadels of Khorezm, Central Asia : Land of the Aryans

Where the seeds of Hinduism and Zoroastrinism were sown: Islam and Buddhism propagated.........by Ramdas Iyer

I was dropped off at the Uzbekistan border check post about 100 km from Bukhara, by my driver and wonderful guide Salim. The no man’s land created during the split of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan after the Soviet disintegration,was almost 2 km long. Having to lug ones gear this far was bad enough but the prospect of being assaulted and robbed was not too far either in this lawless land.This entire length was occupied by Iranian trucks carrying goods from Iran into land locked Central Asia through Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan towards Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan and into Xinjiang province of China. The two youthful soldiers on the Turkmenistan border, one of the most unpredictable ”stans” upon seeing me started talking about Indian movies and making crude remarks about Aishwarya Rai, India’s legendary movie star. They were however nice and informed me after repeated calls to the Command post that I cannot enter the country for 2 days, since the President was touring the border areas. The fate of the Iranian drivers also rested in Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov’s hands or rather his restless feet.

With great disappointment I had to turn back to Uzbekistan where I had learnt to deal with the Uzbek soldiers who had strip searched me just a week ago at the Termez-Tajik border. Fortunately I had a multiple entry Visa. Using one of the Iranian driver’s satellite phones I was fortunate to reach Salim in Bukhara who agreed to pick me up . Resting in the only roadside restaurant at the border I was surprised that the owner absolutely refused to accept payment for my tea and soup. That was only because he had pumped gas for a living in Elizabeth, NJ a few years ago now an obscure border post seemed to be his calling.
DSC_0373.jpgView from the high citadel

View from the high citadel

Through Turkmenistan I was going to reach Khiva, the legendary Silk Road City( read the Great game by Peter Hopkirk) near where Turkmenistan, Iran and Uzbekistan come together. Salim would not risk taking his car through the Kyzl Kum Desert( the 11th largest Desert in the world at 288000 sq.km) instead put me in a taxi to travel the 400 km to Urgench& Khiva. It seemed that I had finally lost touch with my handlers and my guardians were awaiting me at the Turkmenistan border to take me to Khiva. While disappointed about not seeing the great Aryan city of Merv in Turkmenistan, I whipped my lonely planet only to realize that I would be passing through the legendary Khorezm area. The most ancient archaeological monuments of Khorezm belong to Neolith epoch ( 6th Century BC). The Greek scientist Gerodot named these earths the country of thousand fortresses. During archeological excavations it was revealed that in 10th century BC there were irrigation canals in length not less than 300 km. Archeologists are still struggling with a riddle of the ancient cities which were found in waterless desert, naming Khoresm “the second Egypt”. There is evidence to consider Khoresm to be the native land of Zoroastrism. In the sacred book of Zoroastrians’ "Avesta" Khoresm was named “Aryanama..Land of the Aryans” Geographically the western areas of modern Uzbekistan, and also northern Turkmenistan and Aral Sea banks were parts of ancient Khorezm. The first written sources (519 BC) mention Khoresm as the state grasped by Persian governor Dariy I.

Khorezm is the birthplace of Zoroaster ( founder of Zoroastrianism), where the Avesta (the collection of sacred books of ancient Iranian religion, which dominated in near and Middle East prior to Arabian conquest of 8th Century AD )and the Rig Veda the holy text of the Vedic Indians were written( in Sanskrit), home of Al-Jibr founder of Algebra, where Al Beruni, the most original polymath the Islamic world had ever known was born and at times worked with Ibn Sina, the most famous Hellenistic-Islamic philosopher in Urgench.

My taxi driver was familiar with the many citadels in the area and we drove around for a few hours seeing and photographing a multitude of mud citadels, some built in the 3rd century BC. The history of this area rings of Aryan migration from the Steppes from 2500-1500 BC, beginnings of Zoroastrianism and dominance of Persia until 300 BC, of Hellenistic armies sweeping through the area in 325 BC, multiple invasion by Arabs in the 8th Century and the subsequent fleeing of Zoroastrians to Penjakent in Tajikistan, Mongol invasions and lastly the spread of the Soviets into this region during Stalin’s regime.
Split between Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, this area was untouched and was saved by Russian archeologists who did yeoman’s work restoring some of the great citadels like Ayaz Kala and Toprak kala. The Ayaz kala is a huge citadel with towering mud-brick rise dramatically from the surrounding plains. They were built on the edge of the Kizilkum Desert at different points between the fourth century B.C. and the seventh century A.D. as a means of protection from nomad raids. Within the forts are the remains of palaces and traces of the local agricultural population have been found in the surrounding areas. Abandoned for 1,300 years, the fortresses were rediscovered in the 1940s by the Russian archaeologist S.P. Tolstov.
The Ayaz kala is credited with being occupied by the Kushan kings of India. History being so complicated in this region, one needs to note that Kushans were a people hailing from Central Asia and settling in the Greaco- Bactrian area of Balkh, Afganistan.The Kushan Empire was originally formed during the 1st and early 2nd centuries AD. The Kushans expanded rapidly across the northern part of the Indian Subcontinent at least as far as Sarnath near Varanasi (Benares) where inscriptions have been found dated to the first few years of era of the most famous Kushan ruler, Kanishka which apparently began about 127 AD with Mathura, India as his capital..
They had diplomatic contacts with the Roman Empire, Sassanid Persia and Han China. While much philosophy, art, and science was created within its borders, the only textual record we have of the empire's history today comes from inscriptions and accounts in other languages, particularly Chinese. The Empire declined from the 3rd century and fell to the Sassanid (Persian)and Gupta Empires. In fact I had a hair rising experience seeing the western most Buddhist Stupa erected by Kanishka II near Termez around the 2nd century AD. The Kushans spoke in Pali and Sanskrit and practiced Buddhism and sometimes Zoroastrinism.

With all this history swirling in my mind, I climbed the tall citadel(300 meters) with only the howling winds of the desert. I must confess that I was genuinely scared. The cold desert, extreme loneliness, a paranormal fear of the unknown together with my belongings in a taxi nearly a kilometer away was not a very comfortable feeling. I imagined the forebears of our Vedic culture passing through this area as nomads and delivering incantations in Sanskrit and Farsi to ward of the Djinns: verisimilar to the fear that was pervading me. The thought of the great king Kanishka, responsible for spreading Buddhism to Central Asia and China standing at this great citadel peering into the splintered Persian empire as a multitude of warring Greaco-Bactrian Satrapies, was an ephiphany. I walked through the ramparts, the battlements and the remains of palaces. Nowhere in my travels had I seen such an imposing and remote citadel reaching back into time.( my recent visit to the Acropolis was a contemporary site of Ayaz Kala, another 6th century BC citadel is another such place).
After covering a few of the hundreds of fortresses, many in disrepair, I drove to Urgench crossing the mighty Oxus River on a pontoon bridge. Alexander crossed the Oxus 600 km upstream at Termez in the Uzbek, Afghanistan border, also the route taken by USSR to invade Afghanistan that I had recently visited. Urgench was a dusty and dirty bazaar town and just the thought of the great Al-Jibr , Al Beruni and Ibn Sina living here was simply incomprehensible.
For a history buff there is no place like central Asia where great cultures, powerful empires and great religions were born.

Posted by Ramdas Iyer 15:14 Archived in Uzbekistan Tagged fortress persia hindu khoresm zoroastrinism uzbek avesta rig-veda Comments (0)

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