“Dancing is not rising to your feet painlessly like a speck of dust blown around in the wind Dancing is when you rise above both worlds tearing your heart to pieces and giving up your soul.” Jelalludin Rumi

I am lost, in the sheer grace, the intensity, and the swish of billowing skirts and the soft tap of nimble feet. Haunting Sufi music from a band of musicians with drums and reed flutes and a recitation of the Koran sets the stage. We are at the Hodja Pasha Cultural Centre, a 500 year old restored bathhouse or hamaam in the old Sirceki area of Istanbul. Four dancers enter the room slowly in their flowing white skirts and immaculate white coats, long hats called sikkes and black cloaks. My guide explains that the dance is loaded with symbolism and meaning- the white coat represents the burial shroud, the black cloak represents the tomb and worldly attachments, the conical sheepskin hat represents the tombstone. The whole dance represents a journey: turn towards truth, grow through love, transcend your ego and arrive at God or perfection. It is said that the dance unites the three facets of human nature: the mind, the body and the heart.

The Mevlevi Sect was founded by the poet and mystic Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi also called Mevlana Rumi, in the 13th Century. Rumi’s 26,000 couplets called Mesnevi are known for their tender lyricism and spiritual devotion. Their ritual known as the Sema was meant to release the soul from earthly ties and enable it to communicate with the divine. The word ‘Dervish’ refers to a door and is meant to signify the entrance from the material world to the spiritual. The mysterious Sufi sect has been known for spirituality, self denial and religious tolerance. The word ‘Suf’ means wool in Arabic and this originated from the plain woollen robes that the Sufis wore rejecting materialism.

The dervishes lay out sheepskins on the floor and bow to the sheik, their religious leader and then to each other. Slowly they make three rotations with their arms crossed in a posture of subservience, to symbolize spiritual rebirth. They then remove their black cloaks, making the journey from darkness to light. Then they turn slowly, right hands above with their palm facing downwards and left hand above, symbolising receiving God’s grace and positive energy from the heavens and passing it to the earth. As instruments of God, the dervishes do not have the power to retain the energy. The movement is also symbolic- mimicking the movement of the earth around its own axis as well as its journey around the sun. The dervishes move faster and faster in a synchronised way, their eyes half closed till they are a twirling blur. “Why do they whirl?” I wonder. My guide says that revolution is a natural order of things from the planets to the atom. Even the blood in our body is constantly circulating. Rumi said,” Wherever you turn there is God,” Maybe that explains why the dancers twirl round and round fluidly in a trance like state, never dizzy or knocking against one another, feet never faltering. Their eyes glaze and their heads flop to one side. They say that the dance had its origins in Konya, a city in the Anatolia region of Turkey. When Rumi was roaming the streets he heard the rhythmic beat of a goldsmith’s hammer on the anvil along with the chants from the Koran and he started whirling joyfully in tune with it and reached a trance- like state. He later danced in front of his followers accompanied by his poems. The rest is history!

There is a technique of course to the whirling- the dervishes keep their left foot solidly planted and the skirts have their hems lined with mesh. They say that the dervishes train on a wooden board one metre square, with the toes of one foot positioned against a nail! Being a dervish means learning to control your body through special breathing techniques that help you to overcome nausea arising out of spinning. But the essential ingredient is beyond just careful footwork and the deep concentration. It’s the mystical journey, the devotion and the spiritual union with God. Who can be a dervish? I ask my guide. Today dervishes can be ordinary people like students, office workers or teachers. It takes almost a year‘s training where they learn to play music, read the Koran and write calligraphy.

In the 1920s Kemal Ataturk, banned the Mevlevi sect in his bid to secularise Turkey and all the ‘tekkes’- the training schools of the dervishes were closed. In 1975 the Dervish lodges was recognized by the government as cultural organizations and UNESCO declared the Whirling Dervishes as ‘a masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage’ and gave it a special status, shared by arts like Kabuki and Khmer Shadow play. Today the Whirling Dervish is a popular motif found on souvenirs and there are evening shows in lodges which attract many tourists.

The show finishes as the dervishes line up in their black cloaks and file out in silence. The audience goes away without clapping (we have been told in advance not to applaud or take photographs). Kaleidoscopic images of the dervishes spinning like tops, mysterious and otherworldly, haunt me as I walk out into the cold night. “Come whoever you are”, said Rumi. It’s a message of tolerance that the modern world could do with.

Published in the Speaking Tree, Times of India, 2012