If the Dar-e-Mehr were the world, the fire altar would be its center. A large brass urn, the altar looks like a giant’s burnished goblet.It sits at the front of the small room, surrounded by metal pokers, tongs and other paraphernalia, and it is protected on all sides—whether from impurity or more mundane threats—by a chest-high glass partition. When I visited this Zoroastrian temple in early spring, there was a steady stream of worshipers. Having donned white topes and fixed white headscarves, the men and women sat quietly among the orderly rows of chairs. Under the benevolent gaze of a portrait of the prophet Zarathustra, they recited their whispered, ancient prayers. Sanctified and sanctifying, the fire seemed the perfect image of the resilience and tenacity of this 3,000 year-old tradition.

The fire, however, is a fake.

Mobed Kobad Jamshid, one of the volunteer priests who serves the community, told me that the fire is unconsecrated, fueled by natural gas and only ignited for special ceremonies. A consecrated, wood-burning fire requires round-the-clock attention, Mobed Jamshid said, and the community simply does not have enough priests to ensure that the flames remain lit and free of impurity. Nazneer Spliedt, the president of the Indian Zoroastrian community organization, the Zartushti Anjuman of Northern California (ZANC), echoed this sentiment when I spoke to her a few days later. “People enjoy coming to the Dar-e-Mehr, but I like to remind them that it’s not even a consecrated fire temple, so they might as well be at home and say their prayers. Zoroastrianism is such an independent religion anyway: we don’t have to do what the priests tell us, we don’t have a fixed day to go to temple, and you can practice your religion by yourself, at home.”

Read the full story from 2009 in Killing the Buddha.