Trans Eurasia travel

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Suraxani town is an unappealing sprawl but the unique 'Ateshgah' fire temple makes it by far the most popular Absheron destination for foreign tourists. It stands on the site of a natural gas vent that was sacred to Zoroastrians for centuries, though this temple was actually built by 18th-century Indian Shiva devotees. They lived in the surrounding pentagonal caravanserai and performed extreme ascetic practices such as lying on hot coals or carrying unbearably heavy chains. Such eccentric behaviour is depicted by a number of mannequins in the museum section.

Surrounded by a cloister of pilgrim cells, the temple's central stone shrine still burns impressively - flames lick around a central hearth and shoot in jets from the roof-corner flues. At least they do when lit. These days the gas fuelling the temple is piped from the mains as the natural gas pocket directly beneath the shrine has become exhausted. Note that this is not some new 'deception'. The last Hindu 'priest' sold his rights to the Baku Oil Company in 1879 who considered the Ateshgah an uneconomic waste of resources. To economize they switched off the gas supply and as early as 1881 travellers reported the temple 'closed and only re-lit for tourists'.

The exact history of the temple is uncertain. Some historical sources wager that the site was holy to the Zoroastrians from the 6th or 7th century BC, others that there was a temple here only after the 13th century AD. Whatever its precursors, the present Ateshgah is not Zoroastrian at all (contrary to assertions by many writers including Alexandre Dumas). Essad Bey reports that it was briefly the centre of a weird pan-theist religion in which reverence to mother earth was symbolized by kissing the breasts of naked female devotees. However, the present structure was built by Indian merchants in the early 18th century and used by Punjabi mystics who were probably devotees of Jawala-ji, a flame-faced incarnation of Devil. Suraxani was a sub-temple to Jawalamukhi, 56km south of Dharamsala (in Himachal Pradesh's Kangra Valley) where even now Hindu pilgrims go to see spontaneously-burning gas emerging from a holy rock within a Mughal domed temple.

There are some intriguingly decrepit old oilfields nearby the temple.