“The heart is greater than the heaven and the circling spheres,
So why constrict it with thoughts and whispering doubts”

—Shams-e-Tabriz

 

Whirling dervishes perform in Istanbul.
Whirling dervishes perform in Istanbul.

Lesser known than the great Anatolian Sufi poet Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi, is his teacher, lover, spiritual guide and friend, Shams-i-Tabriz, a wandering Sufi mystic or dervish. It is Shams who lit the heart and soul of the mere religious scholar, Rumi, and introduced him to the intoxication of Divine Love. It is with Shams that Rumi first began to pray and whirl (to the rhythmic beats of the goldsmiths in the village), giving birth to the Mevlevi Order of the Whirling Dervishes. In fact, it is said that Shams drove Rumi to divine madness through his disappearance. And it is for Shams that Rumi poured forth his poetry like an everlasting river.

 

Istanbul, the grand city of layers and layers of historical and religious influences.
Istanbul, the grand city of layers and layers of historical and religious influences.

I arrived in Istanbul, the grand city of layers and layers of historical and religious influences from Christianity to Islam, pagan rituals and practices dating back to the Byzantines, and the Ottoman Empire. These were all familiar historical terms we all have grown up with. And in the midst of this fabric, a gentle, persuasive, non-invasive, stream of Islamic philosophy wove its way to connect and sublimate one and all through music and spirituality. In Istanbul, apart from visiting the main Sufi Museum, Galata Mevlevihanesi Müzesi, we were fortunate to be introduced to the Sufi way of life by a scholar Cetin Demirhan, in his humble ‘lodge’ (‘Sufi Sofrase’—a dwelling where studying, cooking, and dancing all had a place of its own).

 

High in spiritual energy, the lodge felt warm, welcoming, and peaceful. Books on salad with dill and parsley, stuffed aubergine with a ‘turlu’ of vegetables and chilled stewed pears in red wine and herbs. It was one of the best meals I had in Turkey.

 

We sat in his lodge while he related the inspiring love story of the 13th century mystic sage, Shams-i-Tabriz, and the well-respected religious scholar, Mevlana Rumi. He described how sparks flew when they met and how Rumi gave up scholarly pursuits and family life to lock himself with Shams, for six months, absorbing and learning the secrets various spiritual traditions filled the many shelves of the lodge.

 

In one corner lay a Turkish flute (ney) and a framed drum (daf), both used in Sufi music. I even saw Turkish translations of books by J Krishmurthy and some of Ayurveda. On special request, Cetin cooked his visitors a ‘Sufi ’ meal. He explained that Sufi cooking involved chanting of prayers while the food was stirred in the form of Sufi symbols. On the menu was a traditional tomato vermicelli soup, warm bulgur wheat, cucumber of the heart. Rumi fell so in love with Shams, that his wife, children, friends, and students were devastated by the relationship. However, when Shams work was done he left a heartbroken Rumi behind to move to Damascus. His wife and son brought Shams back for the sake of Rumi’s sanity. They arranged Shams’ marriage within the family to keep him in Konya, but jealousy took over and Rumi’s son plotted to murder Shams in the middle of one night. With Shams finally merging with the Divine, Rumi’s love and longing was expressed in volumes of poetry culminating in the famous Mesne vi.

 

From the lodge I embarked on a pilgrimage to Konya to celebrate the annual festival of the ‘Wedding Night’ of Rumi, called Seb-i Arus (the death of a Sufi saint is celebrated as his wedding night in celebration of his union with the Divine). My heart was beating in anticipation. After paying homage to the resting shrines of Rumi and Shams of Tabriz, I continued my evening attending the night of Sema, the dance of the Whirling Dervishes. Their black robes symbolising the darkness of ignorance were discarded to reveal flouncy white skirts. Their tall caps symbolising the tomb of carnality and their hand posture indicating receiving and giving, they danced with complete dedication.

 

The next morning, as I was driven along the famous Silk Road to Cappadocia, visiting underground cities and Caravan Serais, I was invited to another evening of Whirling at a traditional Caravan Serai called Saruhan. There were six dancers in a small hall and I sat up close feeling the swish of the skirts take my breath away. It was then that I realised, it is true when Rumi said: Stop acting so small. You are the universe in ecstatic motion.

 

By Mala Barua