Ateshgah of Baku
|The Ateshgah at Surakhani, Baku|
|Type||Ancient Syncretic (Hindu and Zoroastrian) Temple|
|Location||Surakhani, Baku, Azerbaijan|
The Baku Ateshgah (from Persian: آتشگاه, Atashgāh, Azerbaijani: Atəşgah), often called the "Fire Temple of Baku" is a castle-like religious temple in Surakhani, a suburb in Baku, Azerbaijan. Based on Persian and Indian inscriptions, temple was used as a Hindu and Zoroastrian place of worship. "Atash" (آتش) is the Persian word for fire. The pentagonal complex, which has a courtyard surrounded by cells for monks and a tetrapillar-altar in the middle, was built during the 17th and 18th centuries. It was abandoned after 1883 when oil and gas plants were established in the vicinity, ending the flow of natural gas to the temple and extinguishing the holy fire.
The Baku Ateshgah was a pilgrimage and philosophical centre of Zoroastrians from Northwestern Indian Subcontinent, who were involved in trade with the Caspian area via the famous "Grand Trunk Road". The four holy elements of their belief were: ateshi (fire), badi (air), abi (water), and heki (earth). The temple ceased to be a place of worship after 1883 with the installation of petroleum plants (industry) at Surakhany. The complex was turned into a museum in 1975. The annual number of visitors to the museum is 15,000.
The Temple of Fire "Ateshgah" was nominated for List of World Heritage Sites, UNESCO in 1998 by Gulnara Mehmandarova — president of Azerbaijan Committee of International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). It was also featured on an episode of Globe Trekker.
It was declared a state historical-architectural reserve by decree of the President of Azerbaijan on 19 December 2007.
The Persian toponym Atashgah (with Russian/Azerbaijani pronunciation: Atashgyakh/Ateshgah) literally means "home of fire." The Persian-origin term atesh (آتش) means fire, and is a loanword in Azerbaijani. Gah (گاہ) derives from Middle Persian and means "throne" or "bed". The name refers to the fact that the site is situated atop a now-exhausted natural gas field, which once caused natural fires to spontaneously burn there as the gas emerged from seven natural surface vents. Today, the fires in the complex are fed by gas piped in from Baku, and are only turned on for the benefit of visitors.
Surakhani, the name of the town where the Ateshgah is located, likely means "a region of holes" (سراخ/suraakh is Persian for hole), but might perhaps be a reference to the fire glow as well (سرخ/sorkh/surkh is Persian for red). A historic alternative name for Azerbaijan as a whole has been Odlar Yurdu, Azeri for land of fires.
Surakhani is located on the Absheron peninsula, which is famous for being a locality where oil oozes naturally from the ground and flames burn perpetually - as at Yanar Dag - fed by natural hydrocarbon vapours issuing from the rock.
In the 7th century Armenian geography Ashkharatsuyts, attributed to Anania Shirakatsi, a location called “Yotnporakyan Bagink” (“Place with seven worshiped holes”) is mentioned in the Paytakaran province, which is thought to be the Ateshgah. Armenian historian Ghevond (8th century), describing the invasion of the Khazars in the Caucasian Albania in 730 AD, mentioned area “Atshi-Baguan”. Sarah Ashurbeyli notes that the “Atsh” is distorted “Atesh” (“fire”) and “Atshi-Baguan” means “Fires of Baguan” referring to Baku. Word “Baguan” comes from the word “Baga” which means “God” in Old Persian. and "Bhagawan" also means God in Sanskrit.
“Seven holes with eternal fires” were mentioned by German traveler Engelbert Kaempfer who visited Surakhani in 1683.
Estakhri (10th century) mentioned that not far from Baku (i.e., on the Apsheron Peninsula) lived fire worshippers. This was confirmed by Movses Daskhurantsi in his reference of the province of Bhagavan (“Fields of the Gods” i.e., “Fire Gods”).
In the 18th century Atashgah was visited by Zoroastrians. This confirms the Persian handwriting Naskh inscription over the entrance aperture of one of the cells, which speaks about the visit of Zoroastrians from Isfahan:
- Persian inscription:
آتشی صف کشیده همچون دک
جیی بِوانی رسیده تا بادک
سال نو نُزل مبارک باد گفت
خانۀ شد رو سنامد (؟) سنة ۱۱۵٨
- Transliteration of Persian inscription:
- ātaši saf kešide hamčon dak
- jey bovāni reside tā bādak
- sāl-e nav-e nozl mobārak bād goft
- xāne šod ru *sombole sane-ye hazār-o-sad-o-panjāh-o-haštom
- Fires stand in line
- Esfahani Bovani came to Badak [Baku]
- "Blessed the lavish New Year", he said:
- The house was built in the month of Ear in year 1158.
The 1158 year corresponds to 1745 AD. Bovan (modern Bovanat) is the village near Esfahan. The word Badak is a diminutive of Bad-Kubeh. (The name of Baku in the sources of the 17th and 18th centuries was Bad-e Kube). At the end of the reference is the constellation of Sombole /Virgo (August–September). In the name of the month the master mistakenly shifted the “l” and “h” at the end of the word. According to Zoroastrian calendar Qadimi New Year in 1745 AD was in August.
Interesting information about Zoroastrianism in Baku is given by D. Shapiro in A Karaite from Wolhynia meets a Zoroastrian from Baku. Avraham Firkowicz, a Karaite collector of ancient manuscripts, wrote about his meeting in Darband in 1840 with a fire-worshipper from Baku. Firkowicz asked him “Why do you worship fire?” The fire-worshipper replied that he worshipped not fire, but the Creator symbolised by fire - a “matter” or abstraction (and hence not a person) called Q’rţ’ . Pahlavi Q’rţ’ (derived from Avestan kirdar) signifies “one who does” or “creator”.
Some scholars have speculated that the Ateshgah may have been an ancient Zoroastrian shrine that was decimated by invading Islamic armies during the Muslim conquest of Persia and its neighboring regions. It has also been asserted that, "according to historical sources, before the construction of the Indian Temple of Fire (Atashgah) in Surakhani at the end of the 17th century, the local people also worshipped at this site because of the 'seven holes with burning flame'."
Fire is considered sacred in both Indo-Iranian branches of Hinduism and Zoroastrianism (as Agni and Atar respectively), and there has been debate on whether the Atashgah was originally a Hindu structure or a Zoroastrian one. The trident mounted atop the structure is usually a distinctly Hindu sacred symbol (as the Trishula, which is commonly mounted on temples) and has been cited by Zoroastrian scholars as a specific reason for considering the Atashgah as a Hindu site. However, an Azeri presentation on the history of Baku, which calls the shrine a "Hindu temple", identifies the trident as a Zoroastrian symbol of "good thoughts, good words and good deeds".
One early European commentator, Jonas Hanway, bucketed Zoroastrians and Hindus together with respect to their religious beliefs: "These opinions, with a few alterations, are still maintained by some of the posterity of the ancient Indians and Persians, who are called Gebers or Gaurs, and are very zealous in preserving the religion of their ancestors; particularly in regard to their veneration for the element of fire." Geber is a Persian term for Zoroastrians, while Gaurs are a priestly Hindu caste. A later scholar, A. V. Williams Jackson, drew a distinction between the two groups. While stating that "the typical features which Hanway mentions are distinctly Indian, not Zoroastrian" based on the worshipers' attires and tilakas, their strictly vegetarian diets and open veneration for cows, he left open the possibility that a few "actual Gabrs (i.e. Zoroastrians, or Parsis)" may also have been present at the shrine alongside larger Hindu groups.
Indian local residents and pilgrims
In the late Middle Ages, there were significant Indian communities throughout Central Asia. In Baku, Indian merchants from the Multan region of Punjab controlled much of the commercial economy, along with the Armenians. Much of the woodwork for ships on the Caspian was also done by Indian craftsmen. Some commentators have theorized that Baku's Indian community may have been responsible for the construction or renovation of the Ateshgah.
As European academics and explorers began arriving in Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, they documented encounters with dozens of Hindus at the shrine as well as Hindu pilgrims en route in the regions between North India and Baku.
Samuel Gottlieb Gmelin's Reise durch Russland (1771) is cited in Karl Eduard von Eichwald's Reise in den Caucasus (Stuttgart, 1834) where the naturalist Gmelin is said to have observed Yogi austerities being performed by devotees. Geologist Eichwald restricts himself to a mention of the worship of Rama, Krishna, Hanuman and Agni. In the 1784 account of George Forster of the Bengal Civil Service, the square structure was about 30 yards across, surrounded by a low wall and containing many apartments. Each of these had a small jet of sulphurous fire issuing from a funnel "constructed in the shape of a Hindu altar." The fire was used for worship, cooking and warmth, and would be regularly extinguished.
"The Ateshgyakh Temple looks not unlike a regular town caravansary - a kind of inn with a large central court, where caravans stopped for the night. As distinct from caravansaries, however, the temple has the altar in its center with tiny cells for the temple's attendants - Indian ascetics who devoted themselves to the cult of fire - and for pilgrims lining the walls."
Zoroastrian local residents and pilgrims
There are some data that in addition to the Hindus in the temple were present Zoroastrians (Parsis and Guebres). Chardin in the 17th century reported about Persian Guebres, which worshiped forever burning fire that was in two days' journey from Shemakha (on the Apsheron).
The Englishman Ussher visited Ateshgah in September 19, 1863 He calls it "Atash Jah" and said that there are pilgrims from India and Persia German Baron Max Thielmann visited the temple in October 1872 and in his memoirs he wrote that Parsi community of Bombay sent here a priest who after a few years will be replaced. His presence is necessary, because here come the pilgrims from the outskirts of Persia (Yazd, Kerman) and from India and remain in this sacred place for several months or years.
In 1876 English traveler James Bruce visited Ateshgah. He noted that the Bombay Parsi Punchayat provides a permanent presence in the temple of their priest. Pierre Ponafidine visited the temple at the same time and mentioned about two priests from Bombay. E. Orsolle, who visited the temple after Bruce, said that after Parsi priest died in 1864, the Parsi Punchayat of Bombay a few years later sent another priest here, but the pilgrims who came here from India and Iran have already forgotten the sanctuary, and in 1880 there was nobody. O'Donovan visited the temple in 1879 and refers about religious worship of Guebres.
In 1898 in the «Men and Women of India» magazine was published an article entitled "The ancient Zoroastrian temple in Baku. Author calls Ateshgah as "Parsi temple," and notes that the last Zoroastrian priest was sent there for about 30 years ago (that is, in the 1860s.). J. Henry in 1905, in his book also noted that 25 years ago (i.e. about in 1880) in Surakhani died last Parsi priest.
Inscriptions and likely period of construction
There are several inscriptions on the Ateshgah. They are all in either Sanskrit or Punjabi, with the exception of one Persian inscription that occurs below an accompanying Sanskrit invocation to Lord Ganesha and Jwala Ji. Although the Persian inscription contains grammatical errors, both the inscriptions contain the same year date of 1745 Common Era (Samvat/संवत 1802/१८०२ and Hijri 1158/١١٥٨). Taken as a set, the dates on the inscriptions range from Samvat 1725 to Samvat 1873, which corresponds to the period from 1668 CE to 1816 CE. This, coupled with the assessment that the structure looks relatively new, has led some scholars to postulate the 17th century as its likely period of construction. One press report asserts that local records exist that state that the structure was built by the Baku Hindu traders community around the time of the fall of the Shirvanshah dynasty and annexation by the Russian Empire following the Russo-Persian War (1722–1723).
The inscriptions in the temple in Sanskrit (in Nagari Devanagari script) and Punjabi (in Gurmukhi script) identify the site as a place of Hindu and Sikh worship, and state it was built and consecrated for Jwala Ji, the modern Hindu fire deity. Jwala (जवाला/ज्वाला) means flame in Sanskrit (c.f. Indo-European cognates: proto-Indo-European guelh, English: glow, Lithuanian: zvilti) and Ji is an honorific used in the Indian subcontinent. There is a famed shrine to Jwala Ji in the Himalayas, in the settlement of Jawalamukhi, in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh, India to which the Atashgah bears strong resemblance and on which some scholars (such as A. V. Williams Jackson) suggested the current structure may have been modeled. However, other scholars have stated that some Jwala Ji devotees used to refer to the Kangra shrine as the 'smaller Jwala Ji' and the Baku shrine as the 'greater Jwala Ji'. Other deities mentioned in the inscriptions include Ganesha and Shiva. The Punjabi language inscriptions are quotations from the Adi Granth, while some of the Sanskrit ones are drawn from the Sat Sri Ganesaya namah text.
Examination by Zoroastrian priests
In 1876, James Bryce visited the region and found that "the most remarkable mineral product is naphtha, which bursts forth in many places, but most profusely near Baku, on the coast of the Caspian, in strong springs, some of which are said to always be burning." Without referencing the Atashgah by name, he mentioned of the Zoroastrians that "after they were extirpated from Persia by the Mohammedans, who hate them bitterly, some few occasionally slunk here on pilgrimage" and that "under the more tolerant sway of the Czar, a solitary priest of fire is maintained by the Parsee community of Bombay, who inhabits a small temple built over one of the springs".
The temple was examined in the late 19th and early 20th century by Parsi dasturs, some of whom had also visited the Jwala Ji at Kangra in the Himalayas. Based on the inscriptions and the structure, their assessment was that the temple was a Hindu shrine. In 1925, a Zoroastrian priest and academic Jivanji Jamshedji Modi traveled to Baku to determine if the temple had indeed been once a Zoroastrian place of worship. Until then (and again today), the site was visited by Zoroastrian pilgrims from India. In his Travels Outside Bombay, Modi observed that "not just me but any Parsee who is a little familiar with our Hindu brethren's religion, their temples and their customs, after examining this building with its inscriptions, architecture, etc., would conclude that this is not a [Zoroastrian] Atash Kadeh but is a Hindu Temple, whose Brahmins (priests) used to worship fire (Sanskrit: Agni)."
Besides the physical evidence indicating that the complex was a Hindu place of worship, the existing structural features are not consistent with those for any other Zoroastrian place of worship (for instance, cells for ascetics, fireplace open to all sides, ossuary pit and no water source. It cannot be ruled out that the site may once have been a Zoroastrian place of worship.
Exhaustion of the natural gas
The fire was once fed by a vent from a subterranean natural gas field located directly beneath the complex, but heavy exploitation of the natural gas reserves in the area during Soviet rule resulted in the flame going out in 1969. Today, the museum's fire is fed by mains gas piped in from Baku city.
Claimed visit by Czar Alexander III
There were local claims made to a visiting Zoroastrian dastur in the early 20th century that the Russian czar Alexander III had also witnessed Hindu fire prayer rituals at this location. However, this has been rejected as hearsay and of dubious gossip.
By a presidential order issued in December 2007, the shrine complex, which had hitherto been officially associated with the "Shirvanshah Palace Complex State Historical and Architectural Museum-Reserve" (Государственного историко-архитектурного музея-заповедника «Комплекс Дворца Ширваншахов») was declared as a distinct reserve by the Azeri government (the "Ateshgah Temple State Historical Architectural Reserve, Государственным историко-архитектурным заповедником «Храм Атешгях»).
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- Jonathan Lorie; Amy Sohanpaul; James Innes Williams (2006), The Traveler's Handbook: The Insider's Guide to World Travel, Globe Pequot, ISBN 0-7627-4090-6,
... Flames spontaneously erupt from the ground - hence the country's other name, Odlar Yourdu, or Land of Fires ...
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... Oil oozes up out of the ground in the region of the Apsheron ... natural oil fires were revered long ago by Zoroastrians, to whom fire is a sacred symbol ...
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... 'maybe, that before Moslem epoch it was Zoroastrian Fire Temple, which was destroyed by Arabs and later was restored by Hindu people for their purposes' ... Farroukh Isfandzadeh ... Not just me but any Parsee who is a little familiar with our Hindu brethren’s religion, their temples and their customs, after examining this building with its inscriptions, architecture, etc., would conclude that this is not a Parsee Atash Kadeh but is a Hindu Temple ... informed me that some 40 years ago, the Russian Czar, Alexander III, visited this place with a desire to witness the Hindu Brahmin Fire ritual ... gathered a few Brahmins still living here and they performed the fire ritual in this room in front of the Czar ... I asked for a tall ladder and with trepidation I climbed to the top of the building and examined the foundation stone which was inscribed in the Nagrik [or Nagari] script ... the installation date is mentioned as the Hindu Vikramaajeet calendar year 1866 (equivalent to 1810 A. D.) ...
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... Fire is held as a very sacred emblem both among the Hindus and Parsis ...
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... For a very long time, the two groups ( ancestors of Hindus and Parsis ) were in close co-operation ... showing tenets and rites that were the same and also the later dissentions ... Yasna, rite = Yajna ... Atar = Agni, ever present at all rituals ...
- Leza Lowitz; Reema Datta (2004), Sacred Sanskrit Words: For Yoga, Chant, And Meditation, Stone Bridge Press, ISBN 1-880656-87-6,
... His back left hand carries a purifying flame (agni) ... grasping a trident that Lord Shiva holds (trishul), and beating a drum(the damru which is lord Shiva's instrument) from which all of the sounds of the universe emanate ...
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... There is a 'trishula' (trident' the symbol of Shiva clearly visible on the cupola ...
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... The Atashgah ... is a castle-like former Hindu temple and monastery complex ... Zoroastrian symbol for "Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds ...
- Jonas Hanway (1753), An Historical Account of the British Trade Over the Caspian Sea, Sold by Mr. Dodsley,
... 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 iffues 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 ... they mark their foreheads with saffron, and have a great veneration for a red cow ...
- Abraham Valentine Williams Jackson (1911), From Constantinople to the home of Omar Khayyam: travels in Transcaucasia and northern Persia for historic and literary research, The Macmillan company,
... they are now wholly substantiated by the other inscriptions ... They are all Indian, with the exception of one written in Persian ... dated in the same year as the Hindu tablet over it ... if actual Gabrs (i.e. Zoroastrians, or Parsis) were among the number of worshipers at the shrine, they must have kept in the background, crowded out by Hindus, because the typical features Hanway mentions are distinctly Indian, not Zoroastrian ... met two Hindu Fakirs who announced themselves as 'on a pilgrimage to this Baku Jawala Ji' ...
- Stephen Frederic Dale (2002), Indian Merchants and Eurasian Trade, 1600-1750, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-52597-7,
... The Russian merchant, F.A. Kotov, identified all the Mughal-Indian merchants whom he saw in Isfahan in 1623, both Hindus and Muslims, as Multanis ... the 1747 Russian census of the Astrakhan Indian community, which showed that nearly all of these merchants came from Multan or nearby villages ... many of them traded for or with relatives in Azerbaijan or Gilan provinces who were, therefore, almost certainly Multanis themselves ... many influential Hindu merchants and bankers then lived in Bukhara and Samarqand ...
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... George Forster ... On the 31st of March, I visited the Atashghah, or place of fire; and on making myself known to the Hindoo mendicants, who resided there, I was received among these sons of Brihma as a brother; an appellation they used on perceiving that I had acquired some knowledge of their mythology, and had visited their most sacred places of worship ...
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... A society of Moultan Hindoos, which has long been established in Baku, contributes largely to the circulation of its commerce; and with the Armenians they may be accounted the principal merchants of Shirwan ... this remark arose from a view of the Atashghah at Baku, where a Hindoo is found so deeply tinctured with the enthusiasm of religion, that though his nerves be constitutionally of a tender texture and his frame relaxed by age, he will journey through hostile regions from the Ganges to the Volga, to offer up prayer at the shrine of his God ...
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... Travelling onwards, we met an Indian entirely alone, on foot, with no other weapon than a stick, who was on his road to Benares returning from his pilgrimage to Baku. He was walking with surprising alacrity, and saluted us with great good-humour, like one satisfied with himself for having done a good action. I believe that these religious feats are quite peculiar to the Indian character ...
- United States Bureau of Foreign Commerce (1887), Reports from the consuls of the United States, 1887, United States Government,
... Six or 7 miles southeast is Surakhani, the location of a very ancient monastery of the fire-worshippers of India, a building now in ruins, but which is yet occasionally occupied by a few of these religious enthusiasts, who make a long and weary pilgrimage on foot from India to do homage at the shrine of everlasting fire, which is merely a small jet of natural gas, now almost extinct ...
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... The Hindu calendar (vikramaditiy) is 57 years ahead of the Christian calendar. Dates in the Hindu calendar are prefixed by the word: samvat संवत ...
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... There are over 20 stone plaques, of which 18 are in Devanagari, one in Gurumukhi and one in Persian text. The temple was built on the spot where subterranean gas leaking out of the rocky ground used to burn day and night. Local records say that it was built by a prominent Hindu traders community living in Baku, and its construction coincided with the fall of the dynasty of Shirwanshahs and annexation by the Russian Empire following the Russo-Iranian war ...
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... guelhx - 'burn, glow; charcoal'. ... Lith zvilti 'gleam', Latv zvilnet 'flame, glow', OInd jvalati 'burns', jvala 'flame, coal' ...
- Bryce, James (1878), Transcaucasia and Ararat: Being Notes of a Vacation Tour in the Autumn Of 1876, London: Macmillan.
- Ervad Shams-Ul-Ulama Jivanji Jamshedji Modi, Translated by Soli Dastur (1926), My Travels Outside Bombay: Iran, Azerbaijan, Baku,
... Not just me but any Parsee who is a little familiar with our Hindu brethren’s religion, their temples and their customs, after examining this building with its inscriptions, architecture, etc., would conclude that this is not a Parsee Atash Kadeh but is a Hindu Temple ... informed me that some 40 years ago, the Russian Czar, Alexander III, visited this place with a desire to witness the Hindu Brahmin Fire ritual ... gathered a few Brahmins still living here and they performed the fire ritual in this room in front of the Czar ... I asked for a tall ladder and with trepidation I climbed to the top of the building and examined the foundation stone which was inscribed in the Nagrik [or Nagari] script ... the installation date is mentioned as the Hindu Vikramaajeet calendar year 1866 (equivalent to 1810 A. D.) ...
- J. M. Unvala. Inscriptions from Surihani near Baku
- Elliot, Mark (2004), Azerbaijan with Excursions to Georgia (3rd ed.), Hindhead, UK: Trailblazer Publications, p. 153.
- Byrne, Ciar (February 2, 2005), Man-made wonders of the world under threat from war, want and tourism, The Independent.
- Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue (2007), "Azerbaijan", cat. nos. 9 & 10. Vargas and Bazleh, Azerbaijan International 3.2 (Summer 1995).
- "President of Azerbaijan allocates 1 million AZN for protection of "Ateshgah temple" preserve". Azeri-Press Agency (APA). 1 July 2009. Retrieved 2009-07-21.
... allocated from the President’s Reserve Fund for protection and material and technical supply ...
- Alakbarov, Farid (2003). "Azerbaijan - Land of Fire". azeri.org.
External links and photographs
- Indian Inscriptions on the Fire Temple at Bāku (1908)
- “Atəşgah məbədi” - official web-site of museum fire temple Atashgah (in Azeri)
- Sanskrit invocation to Lord Shiva in an Atashgah inscription, with the Hindu devotional-form of the Swastika on top
- Punjabi inscription on the Atashgah beginning with Ik Onkar Satnam"
- The cremation pit on the Atashgah premises