The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
.Iranian Religions: Zoroastrianism
(the Âtash Bahrâm)
By: Prof. MARY BOYCE & FIROZE KOTWAL
The term now used by the Parsis as the name of their oldest sacred fire, the Âtaš Bahrâm (q.v.) established originally at Sanjân and now installed at Udwada, both in Gujarat; but this usage cannot be traced to earlier than the beginning of the twentieth century C.E.
The Iranian evidence for the use of this term
Irânšâh, "King of Iran", occurs, with Š, "King of kings" and Bahrâm Firôz Šâh "Victorious Bahrâm, King", as a term for the Âtaš Bahrâm of Kermân. It was so used by a learned high priest of that city, Dastûr Nôširavân Marzbân, whose copious verses form part of the Rivâyat of Bahman Asfandiyâr (Bahman Punjyâ), dated to 1626/1627 CE (see M. R. Unvala, Persian Rivâyats I, p. 166, col. 2, 1. 17, "Šâh-e Irân", p. 168, col. 2, 1. 16, "Irânšâh". B. N. Dhabhar's summary in Eng., Persian Rivâyat, p. 176, section 10 and p. 177, section 17). Dastûr Nôširavân appears to have used these various terms for the Fire both for elegant variation and to maintain the rhythm and rhyme of his verses (Dara S. Meherjirana, p. 346), but applying the expression "Irânšâh" to an Âtaš Bahrâm was not an innovation of his, to judge from the fact that this occurs as a proper name among Irani priests, given them presumably out of reverence for the Fire which their fathers served. The earliest attestation of this name is in 1494/1495, when it was borne by Mobed Irânšâh bin Malekšâh of Kermân, who completed in that year his verse Saddar (See E. W. West, Grundriss der iranischen Philologie II, p. 123; Shapurshah H. Hodivala, p. 300, with references for two other occurrences of the name, pp. 308 with 309, 316; Dhabhar, Persian Rivâyat, p. 610).
The Parsi evidence for the use of this term
The Parsi evidence for the use of this term is purely literary, the only source being the Qesseh-ye Sanjân, a poem composed by the priest Bahman Kaikobâd, who completed it in 1599. It tells the story up to that date of the Âtaš Bahrâm which the Parsis established at Sanjân after arriving in India; and Bahman refers to this Âtaš Bahrâm by expressions like those used by Dastûr Nôširavân for the Kermâni Âtaš Bahrâm: Âand Irânšâh. Of these Irânšâh (variant, Š) occurs five or six times, as does Âtaš Bahrâm itself (with slight variations in the number of occurrences between manuscripts), the other two less often.
Since Bahman's poem predates Dastur Nôširavân's, there can be no question of his having been familiar with the latter from Bahman Punjyâ's Rivâyat; and there is a problem therefore as to how their similar use of the term "Irânšâh" came about. Either of two explanations seems possible. One, that there had been literary contacts between Irani Zoroastrians and Persian-speaking Parsis before the latter part of the sixteenth century for which evidence has not survived. The other, that his use of the term "Irânšâh" was part of a general Zoroastrian tradition of religious verse brought with them by the migrant Parsis and maintained by the priests of Sanjân since the founding of their sacred fire. Such a tradition would have died out subsequently with the fading of knowledge of Persian among the Parsis.
Terms used of the Sanjâna Âtaš Bahrâm in prose documents
The first Parsi emissary to Iran, the layman Narimân Hôšang, who arrived in Yazd in about 1476, told the Zoroastrian priests that there was an Âtaš Bahrâm in Navsari (where the Sanjân fire was then being kept); and this information was repeated by later emissaries, all laymen, no other term for the Fire being used (For references see Dhabar, Persian Rivâyat, index p. 639 under "Atash Behram of Navsari"). Further, when the Sanjâna priest Hamjiâr Râm (who was living in 1516) made a marginal note about the installation of the Fire in Navsari, he too called it simply the Âtaš Bahrâm (D. S. Meherjirana, p. 348).
Numerous Parsi documents survive from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and among those compiled by Bomanji B. Patell the Sanjân fire is referred to (pp. 1, 5, 30, 33-35, 225, 855, 857-860, 867) simply as the Â, and (after other such fires had been established) as Puratâm Âtašbehrâm "the old Âtaš Bahrâm" and Sanjânwâlan Âtašbehrâm, "the Âtaš Bahrâm belonging to Sanjân". Its building in Navsari was called simply the Â "the Agiary (see under Âtaškada) with the Fire", this being then the only Parsi place of worship with a Fire burning in it continually (Kotwal, p. 666). In one document in which Sanjâna priests wished to refer to their Fire with particular reverence, that is, a letter written by them in 1746 to Manekji Naoroji Sett (leader of the Bhagarias (q.v.) in Bombay and a generous donor to the Fire), the term they chose for it was Srijî, an honorific used for gods and the most illustrious of men. (For this letter see Patell, pp. 859-60; Shapurji K. Hodivala, pp. 328-339; Jamasji and Jamshedji Meherjirana, pp. 122-126.)
Later developments among the Parsis
A number of manuscript copies had been made of the Qisse, but they remained in private possession, and this poem in Persian was unknown to the Parsi community at large. In 1826 Aspandiarji K. Dastur published a book on intercalation in which he cited a passage from the Qisse with the term Irânšâh in it, but his work was too specialized to attract wide attention. In 1831 a careful Gujarati translation of the whole poem by Framji A. Rabadi appeared, who used for this purpose "ten or twelve" manuscripts; but this was incorporated in a book of such uneven quality that it was generally ignored (S. H. Hodivala, p. 93; D. S. Meherjirana, p. 349). E. B. Eastwick's English rendering (made from a single, rather poor manuscript) came out in 1844 in a learned journal with a naturally restricted readership, and although it was followed in 1855 by an anonymous verse translation in Gujarati, interest in the poem remained slight. It was not until about the beginning of the twentieth century that the Sanjâna priests at Udwada came to study it seriously, and they concluded from it that Irânšâh had been the proper name of their Âtaš Bahrâm; and they then evolved the explanation that it had been so called because it was consecrated to be the earthly representative of Yazdegerd III, the last Zoroastrian king of Iran – an explanation which runs counter to what is said in the Qisse about the particular reason for establishing the Fire. The first published reference to this interpretation appears to have been in 1905, in a work by Jivanji J. Modi, who in one place (pp. 71-73) made several allusions to the "Iranshah Fire". When in 1920 S.H. Hodivala published his English translation of the Qisse (again from a single, but good manuscript), he accepted (p. 106 n. 34) that this was the Fire's original name; but this idea was then still unknown among the Parsis generally (S. K. Hodivala, pp. 309-313). In 1935 Shavaxah Darashah Shroff (under the pen-name "Frozgar") published his Sri Êrânšâh Âtašni Gît "Song of Sri Irânšâh Fire"; and in 1942 for the bicentennial celebrations of bringing the Fire to Udwada the celebrated Parsi poet Ardashir Faramji Khabardar composed his Srijî Êrânšâhnô Garbô "Dance-song for Srijî Irânšâh". (D. S. Meherjirana, pp. 302, 312). Thereafter acceptance of the Udwada interpretation grew steadily and by now it is believed by almost all religiously minded Parsis, and even the few skeptics among them tend to refer to the Fire as the Irânšâh.
The early history of the Sanjân Âtaš Bahrâm
The only source for the early history of the Sanjân Âtaš Bahrâm is the Qisse-e Sanjân, which givens only broad chronological indications. (The poem as a whole will be discussed later in the Encyclopaedia. Here only the relevant verses are summarized with explanatory comments in brackets. In 1922 the lithographed text, not very correctly reproduced, of a single ms. was published by Unvala, Persian Rivâyats, II, pp. 343-354, and Hakeem S. Qadri prepared an edition by collating four manuscripts, which was published posthumously in 1964 (For references to translations other than those already given see the bibliography.)
The Qisse tells how the founding group of Parsis met a violent storm on their voyage from Diu, and prayed to the divinity Bahrâm (q.v., patron of travelers), vowing if they were saved to kindle a great Fire for him. By the blessing of his Fire they reached land, and with the permission of the local rajah settled in a place which the Dastûr who led them named Sanjân. They prospered, and set about establishing an Âtaš Bahrâm. Priests and laymen worked together for months, helped by having with them all the âlât (q.v.) from Khorâsân (that is, the ritual necessities for the task, which presumably included ash from an Iranian Âtaš Bahrâm and probably nirang and a vara). Also, several parties of other priests and laity joined them, bringing ample resources, so that the Fire was consecrated as the religion required.
After 700 (or 500 according to some manuscripts) years (probably in about 1465) a Moslem army attacked Sanjân. The Parsis fought beside the Hindus to defend it, but in vain. Priests rescued the Fire and, accompanied by their families and some lay people, carried it to Bahrot Hill (one of a group of forested hills in which there are caves, about 14 miles (22.5 km) south of Sanjân). There they remained, enduring hardship, for twelve years. They then moved, with their families and the Fire, to Bansda/Vansda (a small inland town, deep in forest, which was within the Sanjâna priests' jurisdiction or panth). The Fire was received there with much honor, and Parsis journeyed to venerate it. But the ways to Bansda were not easy, and after two years Changa Âsa (q.v.) a prominent layman of Navsari, proposed to its Zoroastrian assembly (anjoman) that they should bring the Fire there (being a larger place, Navsari, the chief town of the Bhagaria priests. with easier access. The Sanjâna priests who tended the Fire agreed, and it was installed in Navsari in a "fair house", xoš xâna (probably of necessity a modest building, the times being unsafe for any ostentation by non-Moslems. And there Bahman Kaikobâd, a descendant of one of the three priests who had rescued and tended the Fire, leaves its story.
When the Fire was installed at Sanjân it was set presumably in an altar-like pillar with hollow top, like the traditional fire-holders (see âtašdân) of Iran; but during its wanderings it must have been kept in a portable metal vase, an âfrinagân (q.v.); and since the Navsari authorities had no other model, they made for its permanent receptacle a larger version of this, which was to be the prototype for all other holders of Parsi sacred fires (Boyce, p. 172). From the late nineteenth century the Irani Zoroastrians began to replace their traditional holders by these handsome vases, imported from Bombay, which are by now general among them also. (As a result the misleading term "fire altar", used by non-Zoroastrians for fire-holders of the old type, has had to be dropped in favor of "fire vase".)
The later history of the Fire
When the Fire was brought to Navsari, it was agreed between the Sanjâna and Bhagaria priests there that the former should have the exclusive right to tend the Fire and to benefit from all offerings and donations to it, and that the latter should provide all other religious services, as was their hereditary right. This agreement worked harmoniously for many years, with the Fire leaving Navsari only briefly, from 1733 to 1736, a lawless period when, with bands of brigands roaming the countryside, its priests carried it for greater safety to Surat. By then, however, their agreement with the Bhagarias in Navsari had been breaking down for some decades, for the growing number of Sanjâna priests led some of them to increase their incomes by performing services for the townspeople – an infringement hotly resented by the Bhagarias; and eventually, a legal judgement going against the Sanjânas, they withdrew with their Fire to Bulsar/Valsar, a town some 20 miles (32 km) from Navsari, by then under Sanjâna jurisdiction. The Fire was temporarily housed in one of its two agiarys, until a layman built it its own; but the Sanjâna priests of Bulsar wanted agreements with those serving the Fire which the latter found restrictive, and after only two years they left, taking the Fire to the little fishing village of Udwada, also within the Sanjâna panth, where it found a permanent home.
There it continued to be the chief object of Parsi pilgrimage, with pilgrim numbers increasing after Udwada became linked by rail with Bombay/Mumbai. All Parsi sacred fires are honored by an anniversary ceremony (sâlgiri) on the day in the month of their founding; and since both are unknown for the Sanjân fire, its ceremony is held on day Âdur of month Âdur (q.v.), with pilgrims coming especially then, and throughout Âdur month, and on day Bahrâm in every month. The privilege of serving the Fire remains with nine families, all descended from the three priests who rescued it from the sack of Sanjân; and the position of High Priest, Dastûr, passes in turn from the head of one family to another.
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