Turkey | Going round in circles

Turkey | Going round in circles

She could throw a whirling dervish out of whirl. I cannot get this line out of my head and, to my complete dismay, I find myself mentally humming the rest of the song as I watch the four Mevlevi spin in front of me. I mean, here I am at a performance I have been dreaming of ever since I planned the Turkey trip, and I am thinking about Maria and her whirling and whistling abilities?

A secret turning in us,

Makes the universe turn.

Head unaware of feet,

And feet, head. Neither cares.

They keep turning.

(from The Essential Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks)

The entire ritual is based on symbolism, the dancer departing from his ego and turning towards truth and spiritual perfection. The English-speaking guide explains the significance of each element of the performance but his voice fades away from my consciousness as the musicians begin playing in the background. The initial segment is an eulogy to Prophet Mohammed and the sound of the flute (known as the ney, thought to breathe life into all creatures) is especially mesmeric.

After a few minutes, the four dancers enter the room dressed in traditional long, black coats, with tall conical fez on their heads, and greet each other formally three times. As they begin moving, the first step is to remove their cloaks, symbolizing the shedding of ego, or falsehood. The dancers’ arms are open, the right hand directed to the skies, seeking god’s benefaction, and the left hand facing the ground, passing this blessing on to all things around him. The whirling of the dervishes is supposed to replicate the movement of planets revolving around the sun (or, as in this case, god), each rotating on his own axis, while slowly circling around the room. The whirling is anti-clockwise, the minds of the spinning men on meditation mode; Let yourself be silently drawn, by the stronger pull of what you really love (Rumi).

Today the whirling dervish is one of the most visible and popular icons within Turkey, found everywhere from fridge magnets to tea coasters. While weekend performances are popular within Istanbul, the annual ceremony at Konya is on another scale altogether and attracts thousands of Sufi followers from across the world. The lodge where Rumi lived is now a museum and the entire town is a silent and enduring homage to the philosopher-poet.

And Maria, Mother Superior, don’t take this personally, but you just cannot throw a whirling dervish out of whirl.

WHERE TO GO

In Istanbul, the more authentic Sema performances (avoid the ones in restaurants) are held regularly at the Galata Mevlevihanesi, the hall for the Mevlevi at the southern end of Istiklal Caddesi in the throbbing Beyoglu shopping district. You can also catch performances at the atmospheric Sirkeci station, the old railway station where the Orient Express used to end its long run from Paris. I booked my performance at the Cemberlitas Press Museum in advance on email (galatamevlevi@gmail.com) through www.rumimevlevi.com/en/index.php

The Whirling Dervish Festival at Konya is held from 10-17 December each year. Turkish Airlines (www.thy.com) connects Konya with Istanbul through multiple flights; fares from TRY138 (around Rs4,250).

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