Where Alexander's world met Persia and India

Ammad Ali on the ancient Zorostrian fire temple site at Jandial, near Taxila

Where Alexander's world met Persia and India
The year was 44 A.D. Greek philosopher Apollonius of Tyana travelled hundreds of miles to meet the King of the Indo-Parthian dynasty, Gondophares, near the walled city of Sirkap. This was the second city of Taxila. The site where he stayed was later discussed by the Sophist, Philostratus, in his book Life of Apollonius where he recounts his journey to India and the significant places that he saw – around one-and-a-half century after the travels of Apollonius.

Philostratus notes that Apollonius of Tyana stopped over at a Parthian fire sanctuary of Hellenic style. Today, that once opulent and vast Zoroastrian fire temple welcomes visitors with a few signs of what it once was. There are some fragments of sandstone columns and walls standing on a mound to the north of Sirkap city. Thanks are due to Sir John Marshall and Ghulam Qadir, who uncovered this temple concealed under layers of soil and the passage of centuries.

Mr. Isphanyar M. Bhandara - Image Credits - Murree Brewery Co. Ltd.

The temple is quite similar to the better known Greek temples of the era. The structure is in limestone and kanjur with plaster on the facade. Kanjur is a porous form of sedimentary stone, used in Gandhara. Technically, the temple would be a distyle-in-antis (i.e. it had two columns between two projecting walls). A pronaos, naos and opisthodomos can also be discerned (entrance hall, cult room and back chamber respectively). Philostratus, the author of the Life of Apollonius, writes that the temple was decorated with copper plates showing the exploits of Alexander of Macedon and King Porus. He notes that just outside the city walls was a temple of near 100 ft of Porphyry and in it was a shrine – small considering the size of the temple and its many columns. Here there copper tablets and reliefs representing the feats of Alexander and Porus. The elephants, horses, soldiers and armour were portrayed in a mosaic of silver gold and oxidised copper. They also told of the noble and generous spirit of Porus – for it was not until after the death of Alexander that he placed them in temple. They represented Alexander as conqueror and Porus himself as conquered, wounded and receiving.

Archaeologists have shown that there were windows, which is also unusual for a Greek temple. A convincing explanation is that they did not serve to let in light, but oxygen for the sacred fire. This is one argument for the thesis that the temple was dedicated to Ahuramazda. There are stairs inside the opisthodomos (back chamber), so there must have been a second floor. This is important because it proves that there was an elevated superstructure – definitely not a Greek element, but something that can easily be explained if the temple was dedicated to Ahuramazda. The sanctuary was, in this interpretation, a large artificial mound. Numismatic evidence indicates that the sanctuary was still used in the late 6th century AD.

Mr. Ghulam Qadir excavated this temple in 1912-13 under the direction of Sir John Marshall. It measures 158 ft by 85 ft and has all the characteristics of a Hellenic temple .The back chamber is entered through the back door flanked by semi-circular columns. A flight of steps from the back side on the west leads up to the solid mass. The front porch rested on four Ionic columns and two pilasters of dark brown standstone.

But the question still remains as to how a Greek temple could be a Zoroastrian fire temple too.

Farzana Cooper, a Mumbai-based illustrator and historian of Zoroastrianism says,

“This monuments was built during Indo-Parthian times before the Kushans and much prior to Sassanid times. Indo-Parthians were influenced by Hellenistic art. The languages they spoke were Aramaic, Greek, Pali (Kharoshthi), Sanskrit, Prakrit and Pahlavi. Though they were tolerant of Hinduism and Buddhism, they mainly retained Zoroastrianism. The city of Taxila was their capital and you see most of their cultural influence, of Greco-Persian art, concentrated in Taxila, Peshawar, Kabul and Sistan.”

Archaeologists have shown that there were windows, which is unusual for a Greek temple. A convincing explanation is that they did not serve to let in light, but oxygen for the sacred fire

The Indo-Parthian rulers were originally a group of rulers from Central Asia who had once been vassals of the Persian Empire. After its decline and subsequently the decline of the conquering Greeks, they took over the regions of the Hellenic empire in the East. Gondophares I , the first Indo-Parthian ruler, was originally a ruler of Sistan in eastern Iran, from where he extended his borders up to Sindh – bordering on western Gujarat and encompassing Punjab.

Isphanyar M. Bhandara is the President of Rawalpindi Parsi Anjuman and a former member of the National Assembly of Pakistan. He notes:

“This land has a long history associated with Zoroastrianism. Even many indigenous tribes of North Western India have Zoroastrian roots. Unfortunately nothing has been done to document and to preserve Parsi and Zoroastrian heritage. Taxila had a pluralistic society based on interfaith harmony – the signs are the Jandial Zoroastrian Fire Temple, Jain temples in Sirkap and Buddhist stupas.”

The Jandial temple has been included since 1980 on the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites. However there is not even a guide at the site – leaving any tourists and students to their own devices. Such is the manner in which we neglect a site that was once an important place of worship for Zoroastrians in a land where Buddhism and other traditions flourished side by side.

All photos belong to the writer unless stated otherwise. The writer tweets at @Ammad_Alee