The naturally occurring fire of Yanar Dağ can survive wind, rain and even snow. Snowflakes that dare to extinguish this eternal flame diffuse in the air even before they even have the chance to touch the ground. The element of fire is often described as an untameable force that is both creative and destructive, both dangerous and playful, both terrifying and awe-inspiring.
What is it about the element of fire that ignites such deep polarity within us?
Recently, I began practising candlelight meditation each evening. I’m a highly visual person. I can’t cope with closing my eyes and embarking on a quest towards emptiness. Nor have I found any mental peace in wrapping a mala around my fingers and repeating the same mantra over and over again. But with a tiny little light as my focus point, the events of the day disappear, my angst and anxiety begin to burn away and the warmth that emanates from the flame overpowers the frozen lake in my heart.
The light that beams proudly and gently from the flame is different to the electric lights that power our homes. Even as I gaze upon the tiny candle flame, I have the unmistakable sense that I stand witness to a potent power that captivated the curiosity of our earliest and most ancient ancestors.
What is this flame that watches me? Why am I so enchanted in its presence? And what is it about light that gives it the strength to illuminate and enlighten; not just our homes but also our souls?
Zoroastrians and Fire
Contrary to popular belief, Zoroastrians do not worship fire. Rather, fire is seen as an earthly representation of all that is good and pure around us. In Zoroastrian ceremonies, fire represents the embodiment of the spirit of Ahura Mazda, the formless Supreme Being.
Fire can both purify as well as burn. In Zoroastrian beliefs concerning death, judgement and the final destiny of the soul and of all humankind; it is believed that all souls will be submitted to fire and molten metal to purify them of misdeeds. Good souls will continue on, while corrupted souls will burn in anguish.
The Atashkadeh–also known as Agiari–is a Zoroastrian Temple. It is home to a holy fire which represents goodness and purity. The Atashkadeh has an inner sanctum where the fire is maintained and where ceremonies of the inner circle are conducted. Once the fire is consecrated, it is not allowed to ever go out, although it can be transported to another location if necessary; as was the case when the Zoroastrian community immigrated to India.
The early Zoroastrians placed great importance on fire, recognising fire as a symbol of divine light, knowledge and enlightenment; associating it with truth and purity.
The Land of Fire
Azerbaijan is known as ‘The Land of Fire’, for it is a country where flames burst forth from the mountains and the sea. The natural fires of Azerbaijan played a crucial role in the ancient Zoroastrian religion, which was founded in Persia and flourished in Azerbaijan in 1000 BCE.
Naturally occurring fires were once abundant in Azerbaijan, but with time, their sacredness was tempered for the sake of economic exploitation. The origin of the natural flames of Azerbaijan is attributed to its enormous gas reserves. When the exploitation of these reserves began, most of the natural fires burned out due to a reduction in underground pressure. Of the natural fires that burn today in Azerbaijan, Yanar Dağ is the most breathtaking.
A 15-metre long wall of unquenchable fire burns continuously alongside the edge of a hill, where the flame extends its fingers into the atmosphere through a thin, porous sandstone layer. There are stories, but no one knows how this fire began and why this fire has burned continuously for 4,000 years. The experience is most impressive at night and in winter.
Locals bathe in the warm spring waters across the hillside, whose sulphur-filled water can be ignited with a match. The glow of the flames at night attracts Zoroastrians from across the world, who remember their ancient ancestors as they return to this area to worship. Mud volcanoes dot the landscape in the vicinity, erupting regularly, sprouting mud balls high into the air.
The Eternal Light
A hidden fire will forever burn inside you like a silent volcano. This fire will wax and wane, but it can never be vanquished.Dipa Sanatani. “The Little Light.”
As strong as fire is, it is also deeply sensitive. It needs fuel to burn and if we do not cherish its gift, it will burn out. On the other hand, if we allow it to grow too strong, it will destroy–and perhaps even purify–everything that stands in its path.
In The Little Light by Dipa Sanatani, she uses the metaphor of a flame to describe the cyclical journey of the soul on earth. The narrative inspires us to believe that the human experience is born of love, light and compassion.
Perhaps in seeking out fire–we discover our own.