Baku – Pillars of Fire (2006)

Baku – Pillars of Fire (2006)

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Baku is a bustling oil town on the shore of the Caspian, its coastline studded with oil rigs, platforms, tankers, refineries, the works. Baku’s legendary `Pillars of Fire’ were nothing but gas fields which could not be capped and hence burnt away. Local people began to worship these fires as a supernatural phenomenon. From here, fire worship travelled south into Persia where it attained the status of a full-fledged religious faith – Zoroastrianism. Now, Persian Zoroastrians are clustered in the desert town of Yazd in Iran. The majority of them, however, migrated to Mumbai, which is now home to a prosperous Parsi community.

Oil was found in Baku in 1823 and commercial production started in the early 20th century. Enterprising oil barons like J.D. Rockfeller, Alfred Nobel and others were the first to move into this region where they literally hit pay dirt. Legend has it that when a birthday cake with slices bearing the names of various regions of Europe and beyond was presented to Hitler, he picked one slice, Baku. Hitler’s desire to capture and control Baku came to naught as the Germans were repulsed at Volgograd. Baku supplied 85 per cent of all the oil used by the Allies in the Second World War.

The Ateshga or the Fire Temple at Surakhany on the outskirts of Baku was built at the ancient site of the `Pillars of Fire’ but now is fed by piped gas. In 1743, Hindu fire-worshippers and mendicants were given the responsibility of reviving the Ateshga. Many Indian merchants pooled money to reconstruct the temple and their names are inscribed in Sanskrit and Gurmukhi at the temple site. There is a 700-strong Indian presence in Baku today, virtually all of them businessmen working in the petroleum and pharmaceutical industries.

We visit the Azeri royal palace, which is quite modest compared to the palaces we have back home. There are two caravanserais – one built by Indian traders and the other by Multanis, both of which have since been converted into elegant restaurants. Contrary to our expectations, Baku, despite the overwhelming presence of oil rigs and platforms, is a sprawling garden city with lovely architecture and fine vistas.

(Excerpted from a lengthier article on The Caucuses published in Frontline dated Jan 27, 2007)

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