A secret turning in us makes the universe turn.

Head unaware of feet,

and feet of head.

Neither cares. They keep turning.

                                                                       -Rumi

Tapping our feet to a melody is perhaps the best expression to our emotions within. We delight in dancing our cares away, twirling to the joyous waves that emerge from our heart, and giving in to the moment. And much like the rest of us, the Whirling Dervishes too spin to this symphony of love, albeit a spiritual one.

An ancient order from Turkey, the dervishes don themselves in the entirety of pure white to dance round and round in an enthralling rhythm. They leave their egos behind, their white skirts billowing in the air as they submit to their intense love – a beautiful quest to unite with the almighty creator. 

Ancient Origins

Dance, when you’re broken open.

Dance, if you’ve torn the bandage off.

Dance in the middle of the fighting.

Dance in your blood. Dance, when you’re perfectly free.

Image by Finella S from Pixabay

The 13th-century poet Rumi once stumbled across a horde of goldsmith apprentices who continually hammered at the gleaming metal. Each time they struck the gold, they invoked the name of Allah to give it shape. The resulting rhythm was so uniquely beautiful that it is said to have incited a divine joy inside the poet. He lost all care and burst happily into a dizzying whirl of dance that led to the order of the Whirling Dervishes. 

The ceremony of Sema

When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy

Photo by Sufi Dance Sicily Women

While it’s easy to liken the constant whirling of a happy child to this dance form, it takes from months to years of rigorous practice for the Dervishes to perform in a special ceremony called the Sema. Attend a performance, and your soul will be entranced by the musical movements of the dervishes as they twirl in beautiful precision, the air made almost tangible with their raw love for God. 

The ceremony starts with a heartfelt melody to the Prophet Muhammed. A series of drum beats and flute tunes chime in the air as the dervishes enter in a file, bowing to each other, and the Lord. They shrug off their black cloaks, a symbol of them leaving their earthly lives behind. Only to be reborn in a spiritual form. And then, the whirling begins! Clad in white gowns that swirl like open umbrellas they move faster and faster, making for a majestic breath-taking sight! As they whirl gracefully on the floor, their tall hats (Sikke) sway, adding just a hint of colour to the otherwise bleached environ. 

Both hands stretched outwards, their right palms face upwards to soak and channel the bliss and spiritual energy from the heavens. Their left palms point downwards, in an act of passing the obtained to the people. The dance is simply ethereal, reminding you of the earth that orbits the radiant sun in its quest to obtain ephemeral light. At each turn, the name of Allah is invoked, with the dervishes pirouetting to become one with God.

Where can you watch a performance in Turkey?

Come, come, whoever you are,

wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving,

it doesn’t matter.

Ours is not a caravan of despair.

Come, even if you have broken your vow a hundred times.

Come, come again, come.

Istanbul and Konya are some of the best cities to catch a beautiful performance. 

Konya holds a huge Mevlâna Festival in December – the resting place of Rumi and his son. It is a lot like a pilgrimage for Sufis around the world who come to Konya to witness this dance form in its complete spiritual beauty. 

As for Istanbul, the Galata Mevlevi Lodge is a great option to experience the trance of the whirling dervishes. The Lodge houses a museum, a beautiful garden, and a circular hall for performances. The hall is set with wooden tones and the ambience here adds more to the enchanting performance. You can also head to the Hodjapasha Dance Theater, a 15th-century Turkish bathhouse. The whirling dervishes perform here to enchanting Persian and Turkish music. After the hour-long show, you can also grab a drink at their bar. 

Women as whirling dervishes

I am so small I can barely be seen.

How can this great love be inside me?

Look at your eyes. They are small, they are small

but they see the greatest things.

While the traditional order in Konya only had men perform this dance, the old order is changing swiftly! Today, women are given a choice to don a white gown, a Sikke, and dance. The Foundation of Universal Lovers on the European side of Istanbul is the place that encourages women to walk the spiritual path of a whirling dervish. All you need is a pure heart, and the ability to love freely. 

Much like the legendary Mirabai who danced with abandon to her beloved Krishna, the Whirling Dervishes use their very selves to attest their complete love for God. With this secret turning and whirling, they raise a tumult of the very particles in themselves and those in the air around them.  The whole act in ways, signifies a universal synergy, rippling with a warmth that transcends humanity.