Photo Essay – Turkish Delight in Delhi

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When Konya’s whirling dervishes came to town.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Sufis of Delhi get their high through qawwalis. In Turkey, they whirl around. Here in Nizamuddin’s tomb they clap, sing, shout, smile, jump, and wave. There in Rumi’s shrine, they quietly spin themselves into a trance.

The other day the whirling dervishes came to the India International Center (IIC) where the open-air theater was packed with society ladies, retired bureaucrats, and goras of the expatriate community. Finally, a chance to see those white-robed performers you only see on National Geographic covers. And they were the real thing. Straight from Turkey. The troupe was sent by the Municipal Committee of Konya, the birthplace of the 13th century Sufi poet Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi. (A side thought: is Konya’s Muncipial Committee as corrupt as Delhi’s MCD?)

The concert began without much fuss. The five musicians settled down with their zither, drum, flute, and lute. Just the sound of the flute, and a song by a young man possessing an old man’s raspy voice, was enough to transport me to the Ottoman world. Topkapi Palace. Anatolian valleys. Amorous sultans. Harems. Eunuchs. The Armenian massacre. Hamams. The Battle of Kossovo. Janissaries. Orhan Pamuk. European Union. And Istanbul.

There was no ripple in my Turkish reverie as dancers appeared in black cloaks and conical hats. Slowly and in bird-like movements, they thrice walked around the stage, and thrice bowed to a red-colored sheepskin that symbolized the presence of Rumi. They then gathered in a row, and took off the cloaks to reveal white tunics underneath.

The dance, Sama, started. Solemnly. Heads tilted. One arm faced down to the earth, the other pointed up – towards the sky (eagles were flying). It is said that dervishes are neither here nor there. As intermediaries between heaven and earth, their job is to pass down wisdom from Allah to his chosen people. Their attire too is creased with deep meanings: the conical hat is their tombstone, the black cloak their coffin, and the white tunic their shroud.

But let’s go back to the whirling. The dervishes twirled and swirled in gentle motion. Their skirts swelled, bulged, and ballooned out. Their movements made graceful curves. While the singer continued singing and the musicians continued playing (flute overwhelmed the other instruments). Everything and everyone gradually dissolved into a blur. Sama tried to end up in Fanaa. Nothing remained tangible. All became unreal. But it soon ended. The dancers stopped, put on the cloaks, bowed before the audience, gathered the applause and left, leaving us back in Delhi.

Young Man with an Old Man’s Voice

Straight from Turkey

Sufi with Shoes

White Tunics Underneath

Neither Here Nor There


Salaam Aleikum