Visions in white

Visions in white

Whirling dervishes

Visions in white

It’s not going to be a music and dance show,” said Galip Baydar, “so please do not clap in-between or after it’s over.” Then, dispelling moments of awkward silence around, the Turkish scholar of Sufism explained, “It is communion with god. Allah.”

I was at Mevlânâ Kültür Merkezi (Mevlâna Culture Centre) in Konya, the town in the middle of the Anatolian plateau, which forms most part of Asian Turkey. Here, in the 13th century, the Sufi mystic and poet Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi lived and prayed and taught. And gave the world sema — the whirling dance of the dervish.

A divine atmosphere

The lights went dim. The circular auditorium — semahane —  came to silence, as if it held its breath. The dervishes — semazens — led by the semazenbashi, the dance master, entered, one obediently behind the other, gliding over the floor in slow motion, their black cloaks melted at the edges in the translucence of the hall. A veil of serenity engulfed the hall as the dervishes stood in semicircle around the rim of the floor facing the centre, their tall camel-hair hat, the sikke, slanted forward as they gazed humbly at the floor. Didn’t Galip Baydar say that the sikke symbolise the tombstone of ego?

The shaikh, the master, entered last and slowly coasted to the red sheepskin meant for him across the hall from the musicians’ podium. The Natt-i-Serif, the recitation from the Koran, began in a sombre note. This was followed by kudum, a short spell of beating of the kettledrum, which symbolises the command of god.

The Ney, the third of the seven-part-dance, took over from the kettledrum
Ney, the open-ended reed flute, is the motif of pain of separation and yearning to unite. And Rumi’s poetry in Mathnavi, his magnum opus, written in Farsi, never tires from singing paeans to ney.

be-sh'naw în nay chûn shikâyat mê-kon-ad
az jodâ'îy-hâ hikâyat mê-kon-ad
k-az nayestân tâ ma-râ be-b'rîda-and
dar nafîr-am mard-o zan nâlîda-and
sîna khwâh-am sharHa sharHa az firâq  tâ be-gôy-am sharH-é dard-é ishtiyâq

(“Listen to the reed (flute), how it is complaining,It is telling about separations. Ever since I was severed from the reed field,men and women have lamented in my shrill cries. (But) I want a heart torn, torn from separation, so that I may explain the pain of yearning.)The thirst of its notes reverberated around the auditorium. Like tears transmuted to sound, floating drunkenly. The dervishes, all along, sat still, like wax figures.

The shaikh took a step forward, and the dervishes followed. They encircled the hall three times, while bowing at one another, acknowledging the divine manifestation in the soul of the dervish being bowed at. This ritual is known as Sultan Veled Walk, in honour of Rumi’s son.

The dervishes, now back in their place at the rim, shed their black cloak, the khirqa, symbolising relinquishing nafs — their ego and worldly attachments. They were in white now, implying the shroud which covers a dead body. White long-sleeve jacket, the destegul, over tennure, the sleeveless white frock, with a broad black belt at the waist. They were reborn now, each, a soul ready for divine communion. They came, one by one, to the shaikh, their arms crossed, right over left, at the shoulder, indicating oneness of god. They bowed at the shaikh, who in turn kissed their hat as a mark of approval for sema.

Magical moves

The song and the music took on a sublime hue. The dervish, their hands still crossed at the shoulder, slowly turned to whirl, anticlockwise around the ball of the left foot. And as they whirled, their hands slowly unfurled, like blossoming of a flower. The right hand a little above and across the shoulder, palm facing up to receive blessings from heaven. And the left palm faced down grounding the earth. Head tilted to the right.

With each spin, their snow-white skirts flared, now like the waves in the ocean, now like the clouds in the sky. Each dervish a drunken swan, swivelling his way beyond space, beyond existence. His body, bodiless. His mind abandoned the confine of any form and defused with the spirit of the universe, the strain of its invisible cord leading up to his Allah. Their collective ecstasy radiated from the floor and engulfed the auditorium, acquiescing everyone around to a numb submission. Not just the whirling semazens, we all, watching the ritual, were possessed. A transcendental experience which certainly levitated the mind to a higher, undefinable order.

The music stopped. And so did the whirling. For how long did the whirling go? And I realised I had transcended the temporal dimension of being. And for sure, I wasn’t the only one. Then remembered scholar Galip Baydar’s discourse. Must be between 10 to 15 minutes. The semazens bowed to the post. This whole sequence, from getting approval from the shaikh to the bow after the whirling, is called selam — salute. The semazens took a short respite, and then lined up again for approval from the shaikh for the second selam.

Each selam signifies a certain profoundness of creation and relationship with the creator. At the fourth selam, the shaikh, a revered elderly figure, calmness personified, slowly began to turn, and whirl, joining the semazens.

The music stopped. All got back to their places. The semazens put on their black cloak. The ritual ended with the recital from the Koran, and then the fatiha — in memory of all the prophets.

The shaikh left the hall first, followed by the rest. The last semazen disappeared behind the door at the far end. But left their swirling aura, their dance of ecstasy, like twirling clouds, forever imprinted in my mind. My mind, it was still whirling.

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