Zoroastrianism was the state religion of three Persian dynasties in pre-Islamic Iran. As one of the world’s oldest and living monotheistic religion, it helped to shape the world religions including Judaism, Christianity and Islam. From the idea of a single god, heaven, hell, judgment day to rituals of praying five times a day, in additional to a host of philological traces, such as the word namaz to mean prayer has roots in the Avestan word, nemangh, the footprints of Zoroastrianism on the major Abrahamic religion are as profound as perplexing.
An ancient Iranian religious preacher called Zoroaster or Zarathustra in Persian, who lived in the centuries 1200-1400 BC is attributed to be the founder of Zoroastrianism. Most of what is known about Zoroaster comes from the Avesta – a collection of Zoroastrian religious scriptures. For Zarathustra, the God was Ahura Mazda (or the “wise lord”), who created the world through his Holy Spirit, Spenta Mainyu, and considered man as the God’s chosen creation.
Zoroastrianism became the state religion of the ancient kings of Iran, under the Achaemenid Persian Empire (550-330 BC) spread over 26 satrapies or provinces, including the Indian satrapy of Gandhara, conquered by king Darius I (521-486 BCE). Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Empire, was a devout Zoroastrian. He ruled by the Zoroastrian law of Asha (truth and righteousness) but didn’t impose Zoroastrianism on the people of Persia’s conquered territories. In the later Achaemenian period, a common liturgical calendar was created to streamline the Zoroastrian rituals, temples were built up to house cult images and consecrated fires, and a monastic order was fostered throughout the empire. At the time of Alexander’s conquest of the Achaemenian Empire, most inhabitants of the towns and villages in Iranian satrapies were Zoroastrians. During the succeeding dynasties, Zoroastrianism consolidated as the imperial faith, supported by Persian urban elite. The beliefs of Zoroastrianism were spread across Asia via the Silk Road, a network of trading routes that spread from China to the Middle East and into Europe.
Taxila satrapy, as part of Achaemenian Empire, stretched from River Beas to the mountain ranges of Hindu Kush, and lay on the Silk Road, connecting north-western India to Iran and Central Asia. It owed its prosperity to the Central Asian trade. Over the centuries of Persian rule in Gandhara, many Iranians professing Zoroastrian faith had settled in the cities of Gandhara, including Taxila. They were known to the indigenous people of Gandhara as Kambojas, who were also mentioned in the Buddhist Jataka tales. The presence of Zoroastrian community in Taxila is attested through Strabo’s account who was a famous Greek writer from the first century AD. He quoted one of Alexander’s companion Aristobulus on the Indian campaign, that at the “great and flourishing city of Taxila, the dead were thrown out to be devoured by vultures” suggesting the presence of Zoroastrians in the city.
Greeks had been known to the ancient Iranians long before Alexander's conquest. The first Greeks they knew were the Ionians in Asia Minor. The Iranians called them Yavana, from the Persian form Yauna, the Persian way to say Ionian. In the wake of Alexander’s conquest of Achaemenian Empire, Greek mercenaries and fortune seekers from all walks of life, philosophers, poets, doctors, teachers, architects, artists and artisans, came to settle in the new Greek colonies of Asia. In the cities of Gandhara, where Iranian aristocracy had dominated the city life, Greeks began to settle among them, firmly establishing their rule and way of life. In many places like Taxila, the Indo-Greek kings founded new Hellenic cities, like Sirkap, established by Demetrios I in 200 BCE. The archaeological finds show that the Iranian nobles became avid patrons of Greek artists, architects and craftsmen, relishing their knowledge and skills. Iranian nobles became fully Hellenized in speech and habits, and began to embrace all things Greek.
However, despite the Greek political and cultural hegemony in north-western India, the Zoroastrian and Hellenic religions and culture began to intermingle. An aesthetic and religious expression of this fusion of cultures was a majestic temple called Jandial, built in Greek style on 45 feet high artificial mound, a short distance from the northern gate of Sirkap on the imperial highway. Given its Greek architectural style, Jandial temple is considered as an architectural wonder which is unparalleled in the history of temple architecture of Pakistan, Afghanistan and India.
Jandial temple entered into the ancient fictional-biographical account of Apollonius, a charismatic teacher and religious reformer from Tyana in Cappadocia (modern central Turkey) who travelled across the known world, from the Atlantic to the Ganges, in the 1st century CE.
“And they saw a Temple, in front of the wall, which was not far short of 100 feet in size, made of (porphyry) stone covered with stucco, and there was constructed within it a shrine, somewhat small as compared with the great size of the Temple which is surrounded with columns, and deserving of notice. For bronze tablets were nailed into each of its walls on which were engraved the exploits of Porus and Alexander”.
(Philostratus’ Life of Appollonius, 2.16-20)
Today, as the part of World Heritage Sites of Taxila, the archaeological ruins of this renowned temple stand in an isolated corner, enclaved by the sprawling housing colonies. Only traces of the foundation and ground plan of the Jandial temple have survived, excavated in 1912-13 by the renowned British archaeologist Sir John Marshall. The length of the temple is 158 feet and its width is 85 feet. It consists of an open vestibule called pronaos, leading to the closed chamber called naos, and a surrounding corridor called peristyle. At the entrance, there are four Ionic columns made of sandstone supporting a porch. The main shrine is rectangular in plan, and the outer wall is solid masonry with pierced window openings. Behind the main shrine, there is a room called opisthodomos through which there is a set of stairs that leads to a platform where a Parthian fire sanctuary rested. The massiveness of the columns suggests a stone roof, and stones similar to the rest of the structure. Three different types of stones have been used in the construction of the temple. The walls were made of hard limestone, moulding of the Greek cyma-recta type ran all around the outer and inner walls and comprised of soft porous stone locally called kanjur. The four Ionic coloumns were made of grey sandstones.
Although the early twentieth century British archaeologist declared the temple to be a Zoroastrian fire temple built in Greek style, the leading Pakistani archaeologist Dr. Saifur Rahman Dar challenged its position and argued it to be a Greco-Bactrian temple which was built by Greeks for the Greeks. Be that as it may, the historians of Zoroastrianism count Jandial temple as one of those sixty-six monuments of ancient Iranian history, dating from 550 BCE to 650 CE, which are likely to be classified as Zoroastrian fire temples. Despite the presence of Zoroastrian population in India, called Parsis, over a thousand years, who had fled their ancestral homelands in Persia to take refuge in western Gujarat in the 7th century, the ancient Zoroastrian temple at Taxila remained unnoticed, known only to few Parsi scholars. Currently, Zoroastrianism has an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 followers worldwide, and is practiced today as a minority religion in parts of Iran, India and Pakistan.
In the Zoroastrian religion, fire together with clean water are agents of ritual purity. Fire represents light, warmth and has purifying powers. Clean, white ash for the purification ceremonies is regarded as the basis of ritual life. Traditionally, Zoroastrians worship individually at home, or in the open, facing a source of light. Zoroastrian scriptures do not prescribe worshipping in a temple and make no mention of Zoroastrian places of worship. In ancient times, historical records state that when the community gathered for a religious event, they did so in open air gathering areas on hillsides, around a podium where fire was lit.
The tradition of fire temples started with the development of community fire houses that housed an ever-burning flame. The flame was kept going by professional fire keepers. The members of the community would light their house fires from the central community fire. Over time, Zoroastrians evolved the concept of worshipping in temples. Each fire temple contains an altar with an eternal flame that burns continuously and is never extinguished.
Once established as the central monastic institutions of Zoroastrianism, fire temples were built by the kings, prominent figures, and main clergies who devoted extensive land, income and taxes for them. Known in Persian as Atash-gahs (house of fire), the fire temples were administered by a priestly class. The professional fire keepers called atharvans were employed for tending the ritual fire. Dastur was the title of the high priest which means the upholder and promulgator of the law, who learned the entire Avesta and was proficient in conducting all the ceremonies. They also acted as community leaders, administrators, spiritual guides and teachers.
The alignment of the walls or pillars of the fire houses with the solar-based cardinal points has led some scholars to believe that the fire temples served as a solar-lunar observatory. Using the position of the sun at sunrise, noon-meridian and sunset, the fire temples were used to determine seasons and significant days of the year. Zoroastrians mark these days with festivals (or jashans) and they were particularly important for farmers in determining sowing times. The fire temples were also sites for holding imperial ceremonies to legitimize the change of kingships. Their role as institutions of religious learnings for the priests and lay followers have also been recognized, similar to the social role played by cathedral and congregational mosque.
The structures and functions of the multi-civilizational heritage of Greeks and Iranians in Taxila are poorly understood by the visiting public. The monuments of Taxila including the Jandial temple were inscribed on the UNESCO’s World Heritage Lists in the 80s, as they signified ‘a remarkable accomplishment of humanity, and serve as evidence of our intellectual history’. Sadly the Gandhara archaeological heritage sites, despite their preeminence, fail to tell the intellectual story of the past civilizations. For a visitor what remains on the ground at Jandial temple, for instance, are decaying walls of stone in wilderness and a signboard in shambles.
In spite of the national hype about boosting international tourism, maps, signage and educational content of heritage sites of Taxila, which are essential for visitors to understand and appreciate the cultural, historical, and natural importance of a heritage site are woefully lacking. There is an immense potential for attracting international tourism through the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in Pakistan. In the highly competitive market of attracting international visitors, cultural sites need distinguishing strategies that allow them to stand out and succeed. Sporadic attempts have to be made to educate the visitors about the site and enhance their visual experience through multi-media content.
The research intensive universities like National University of Sciences and Technology (NUST) with disciplines ranging from art and design to communications and artificial intelligence should take a lead in creating interactive visualization based on virtual and augmented reality. It will allow the users to view the real world enhanced with additional 3D graphics superimposed to their field of view either through mobile phones or virtual reality glasses. The use of ICT can guide visitors on interactive journeys through time and space, creating dynamic, immersive storytelling and educational experiences of the heritage sites. The vast scholarship in archaeology provides fertile grounds for historically accurate digital restorations of the sites and monuments such as Jandial temple, which can go a long way in increasing the competitive strength of our burgeoning tourism sector.
The writer is an anthropologist working for the Center for Culture and Development (C2D), Islamabad. He is also the Vice President of Council of Social Sciences Pakistan.
E-mail: [email protected]
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