Customs To Observe At Atash Behram Or Agyari


The Holy month of Adar has commenced. Adar is the Divinity that presides over fire. A number of fire temples across India will celebrate their Salgreh (Anniversary) this month. The devout will flock to different Atash Behram and Agyari to offer gratitude and seek divine blessings! Recently, I was talking to a few friends who wanted to understand the reason behind certain customs and ceremony that we observe when visiting an Atash Behram or Agyari.

Bathing: Having a bath and preferably a head-bath, before visiting a place of worship is a common practice across many religions. Bathing is seen as a way of purifying oneself before entering a sacred space, and respecting the Divine. It is symbolic of cleansing the body, mind, and spirit, in preparation before engaging in prayer or participating in a religious ceremony. Zoroastrians believe that cleanliness is Godliness. An unclean body or a polluted environment is to move away from Godliness. Washing is a process of purification and restoring Asha.

 Dress: Wear clean, comfortable and decent clothes. One should keep in mind that we are visiting a place of worship for an uplifting spiritual experience, not a party or a fashion show! Some often argue why one cannot visit an Atash Bahram wearing shorts. The short answer is – if one is invited for an audience with an important dignitary, would one go dressed shabbily or wearing shorts? It is simply a matter of decorum. Even certain clubs do not allow members or their guests to wear shorts! We refer to the consecrated fire as Atash Padshah or Monarch. Would it be proper to stand before a Monarch in shabby clothes?

The head must be properly covered – in Zoroastrian tradition, hair is ‘naso’ or dead matter. Hence, we are required to cover our heads, especially while praying or attending a religious ceremony. It is believed that hair that falls off renders the surrounding, ritually impure. Even in good restaurants, chefs and kitchen staff keep their heads covered to prevent any hair falling in the food; surgeons and nurses in hospitals, particularly the operation theatre, also cover their heads for the same reason – medical hygiene.

Covering the head is also a mark of respect – be it in the presence of an elder or the Holy Fire. In ancient rock reliefs of the Achaemenian, Parthian or Sasanian era, no king, queen, priest, soldier or commoner is seen bareheaded. This tradition was continued by Parsis, all the way from Iran to India. Rarely would you see an old portrait of a bareheaded Parsi lady or gentleman.

Padyab Kushti: Before commencing formal prayers or entering the room where the sacred fire is enthroned, the devotee is required to wash with clean well water, the exposed parts of his body (hands and face) and ritually untie and retie the sacred kushti which is worn around the waist. This is an act of cleansing one’s own aura or the unseen energy enveloping the devotee. Aura is often described as the distinctive atmosphere or quality that surrounds or is generated by a person, thing, or place. We often say that certain people, objects or places either give us good vibes or bad vibes. The object behind performing the Kushti ritual is to cleanse one’s personal atmosphere before entering the sanctified atmosphere surrounding the consecrated fire.

 Footwear: Shoes and slippers are removed before walking on the carpeted area inside the fire temple. However, one is encouraged to wear socks and not walk bare foot in any area that is not carpeted. In some cultures, walking barefoot is seen as a mark of reverence, humility and respect. However, the object behind leaving footwear outside is to maintain hygiene inside the sacred space. Shoe soles carry outside dirt, which should not be brought inside.

Oil lamps: Devotees generally light one or more oil lamps at an Atash Behram or Agyari. Ideally, these should be lit in the evening and placed near the Holy Well in the fire temple complex. The custom of lighting oil lamps at an Atash Behram or Agyari goes back to the time when there was no electricity, and oil lamps were a source of light inside the building to aid both – priests and laity in finding their way around at night. To this date, there is no electricity inside the building where Iranshah is enthroned and devotees and priests are able to walk through the main hall before entering the chamber only with the aid of the soft light of these oil lamps burning inside ancient glass chandeliers. These flickering flames add to the mystique of such places of worship. (Though not an Atash Behram grade fire, there is no electricity even at the Boyce Agyari at Tardeo in Mumbai. There is a natural charm sitting at a place of worship like this, which is illumined during the day with natural sunlight and during the night with the glowing Holy Fire and dancing flames of dozens of oil lamps. The scent of burning sandalwood further lifts the spirit.)

Offering To The Fire: We offer fragrant sandalwood to the fire, which in turn gives off fragrance. When offering sandalwood to fire, we should visualize our offering as a gift to the Divine. It also reminds us that throughout life, we should continue to offer to this world our good thoughts, words and deeds, which in turn, will make the world fragrant. We apply the holy ash to our forehead as a way of ritually connecting to the fire and reminding ourselves that ultimately, we will all be reduced to ash. While sandalwood is our gift of fragrance it is Baawal Kaathi (logs of the Babool tree) which actually sustains the fire. Hence, offering along with sandalwood some Kaathi, or putting some money in the kaathi fund donation box, would also be very meritorious.

 Sit Or Stand During Boi Ceremony?

The Boi ceremony is performed by ordained Zoroastrian priests in each of the five Geh or watch of a day of twenty-four hours. The Persian term for the ceremony is ‘Bui daadan’, which means to ritually offer ‘fragrance’. During the ceremony, the priest offers Maachi – which are six to nine elongated pieces of sandalwood, arranged in the form of a manch (platform) for the fire.

Whether a devotee should sit or stand during this ceremony is not stated in any known Zoroastrian text. However, as part of ritual tradition, priests always stand while offering the Atash Niyaish, which is a litany to the fire.

During the Boi ceremony, the priest rings the bell while reciting the words, “Dushmata, Duzhukhta, Duzhvarshta,” which means, “bad thoughts, bad words and bad deeds”, leading some imaginative minds to conclude that if one stands up at that moment, it implies paying respect to evil. A fire temple is a consecrated place of worship and the object of reverence is the Holy Fire. Where is the question of any evil force being present at such a sacred, purified and consecrated place of worship? With the ringing of the bell, the priest symbolically and ritually drives away the forces of evil (all bad thoughts, bad words and bad deeds) and if one decides to stand up, it does not mean the devotee is offering respect to evil. The act of standing up is an act of respect to the Holy Fire, through which the forces of evil are being driven out of this world.

Be Mindful: While at any place of worship we need to be mindful so as not to disturb other devotees, by praying loudly, no matter how melodious our voice may be. Pay your respects at the threshold of the sanctum sanctorum and make place for other devotees to pay their respects. If you borrow a prayer book from the cupboard or shelf, make sure that you put it back where it belongs – don’t just leave it on any bench. Also, avoid carrying mobile phones inside, but if you do, ensure that it is switched off. The focus should be on the Divine and not phone calls or messages beeping on the phone.

Noshir H. Dadrawala
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