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The writings of 13th-century philosopher Jalal al-Din Rumi and his mystical dervish friend, Shams-i-Tabrizi, gain new meaning for Phorum Dalal in these times of forced social distancing. By Phorum Dalal
The month’s activity is confined to the house and peppered with hurried and infrequent trips to the grocery store. Travel has taken a new definition since mid-March for most of us under lockdown. Naturally, people have relied on humour to deal with an unprecedented situation. Memes show house plans depicted as maps and mock check-ins: ‘landed in the bedroom’, ‘checked out of the kitchen’, and ‘spent the evening in the living room’. Others use exaggeration and pop culture to drive home the frustration: ‘How many years does March have?’
I have been living alone in Mumbai, practising the mandated social distancing since the lockdown was announced in India on March 24. My bucket list, too, reads a little different now: master the art of mopping, wash clothes without pulling a muscle, recreate that antipasti from Massimo Bottura’s live session on Instagram, and reduce binge trips to the refrigerator. The mind, in the robust company of the heart, though, has wandered incessantly—from revisiting all the destinations visited in the past year by sifting through the phone gallery, to dusting old memories of growing up, to loitering in the by-lanes of helplessness.
A few weeks into this new normal, the noise cancels out and the soul looks for release. My thoughts effortlessly turn to Konya in Turkey, the time spent following the story of Mewlana Muhammad Jalal al-Din Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi poet, and his spiritual companion, Shams-i- Tabrizi. Eight hundred years on, Rumi’s words seem to have passed the test of time. Reading his writing at bedtime and scrolling through his quartets on social media during odd hours of the day have made life more meaningful and its challenges a tad more bearable.
A Leaf Out Of Konya
Konya is a town at the centre of activity in the Anatolia region of Turkey—where Rumi spent the last 40 years of his life during the Seljuk era. It is here that he met Shams, the mystical wandering dervish who questioned Rumi’s path and directed him towards Sufi music, poetry, and movement. Konya tells the story of their union and separation. My visit last year fell a few days before Rumi’s death anniversary (December 17), which is celebrated as the Seb-i Arus (‘Wedding Night’), his union with the divine. The city was dressed in a festive cloak, with performances and markets lighting up the Mevlana Cultural Centre.
At every place of significance, I closed my eyes to picture an older era, when Rumi walked the same paths and stumbled upon the friend who would go on to influence his life immensely. The spot where Rumi and Shams first met is on Konya’s Alaeddin Hill, a huyuk (hill) formed by the building of settlements over former settlements through the ages. Here, on November 30, 1244, Rumi sat teaching by a fountain, his books left by the ledge. Shams, a wandering dervish, tossed them into the water. Enraged, Rumi asked him what the meaning was to his act, to which Shams replied, “It is time to live what you have read.” The two spent the next six months of exchanging ideas. At the spot today, you can find the sculptural monument of Majma’ al-Bahrayn (The Union of the Two Seas)—two big waves wrapped around each other.
I sat mesmerised during a sema, or whirling performance, done by the semazens (whirling dervishes) of the Sufi order. As the lights dimmed and a pin-drop silence fell among the audience, the semahane (stage) became a symbol for the universe. Rumi once wrote of the performance: ‘Do you know what whirling is? It is like Shams-i- Tabrizi opening the eyes of the heart and seeing the sacred lights.’ The sema ceremony represents a mystical journey of man’s spiritual ascent through love to find the truth. The whirling dervishes remove a black cloak that represents ego’s shroud. Beneath, their white attire is a symbol of being born to truth. They cross their arms on the chest, representing unity with god. As they whirl, their arms fall to the sides. The right-hand rises to the skies to receive god’s beneficence, and the left points to the earth. Between the two, the dervish revolves around his heart, conveying god’s spiritual gift to the people, embracing mankind and all creation with affection and love. Instruments called taqsim and ney (a reed flute) represent the divine breath, which gives life to everything. Whirling leads the dervishes to nirvana. At one point, the movement looked so stoic and calming that it evoked within me a feeling of complete surrender.
The Mevlana Museum where Rumi is buried was once a rose garden; it is located in the town centre of Konya. It houses the tekke (Sufi lodge) that Rumi’s son, Sultan Velad, set up for the sect’s orderly functioning. A year after Rumi’s ‘walk to god’, construction of his mausoleum on the premise was commissioned to Badr al-Din Tabrizi, an Iranian architect and scholar from Tabriz. The tomb stands on four columns. Done up in glazed turquoise tiles on the outside, a green dome is held by 16 cusps and a chamber below. In 1925, owing to Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s vision of a republic, there was no place for mystical orders and the lodge was closed down. He turned it into a museum, and all the dervishes became museum staff. The matbah (kitchen) was the place where men cooked and ate their meals. It is also where aspiring boys and men were given a chance to consider whether they wanted to join the sect. For the first three days, a newcomer had to sit without talking and observe the workings of the day. The head of the kitchen, who was second in command after the head of the lodge, would talk about the challenges on the path and try to discourage the newcomer. If during these three days, the newcomer made a mistake, the kitchen head would change the direction of his shoes at the entrance as an indication that he must leave.
Through the courtyard, past the Tilavat Room— done up with wood carvings in the kundekari technique—an inscription reads: ‘This location has become the mecca of lovers, who came here incomplete is completed.’ Here, along with Rumi’s tomb, 63 coffins are placed from East to West. When I visited the Sufi poet’s final resting place, some of his followers recited the Quran, some folded their hands in prayer, some conversed with him muttering under their breath, and some simply stood with tear-streaked smiles on their faces. I quietly wiped a tear-off, only to look up into the eyes of a woman staring at me. Without a single word exchanged, she smiled at me understandingly. Rumi was right, love doesn’t need a language. The sea of visitors paying homage to Rumi at his tomb must have receded now, with lockdowns in place across the globe. But the prayers must still linger on, I imagine, from faraway lands.
In Rumi’s poetry, Shams remains the essence. A stone’s throw away from the museum, his resting place is a simple mosque called Sems-i Tebrizi Tomb and Mosque. Shams is the maverick who challenges your thought process and forces you onto an unexplored path. He is revered for questioning society and forcing people to overcome their nafs (the self, or ego). In these difficult circumstances of today, his teachings are inspirational. ‘No hoarding essentials,’ he would have chided us! Shams and Rumi’s friendship lasted three-and-a-half years, during which Shams left without notice numerous times and Rumi called him back. Shams was married to Rumi’s foster daughter Kimya, who was the love interest of Rumi’s son Ala al-Din. Shams’s death was as mysterious as his ways. According to one version, Rumi’s son pushed him into a well and killed him. Another version says Shams simply disappeared on the way to Tabriz. A minaret is named after him in Khuy, which is an indication that he may not be buried in Konya after all.
I sat outside his tomb on a park bench and recalled some of his words: “Fret not where the road will take you. Instead, concentrate on the first step. That’s the hardest part, and that’s what you are responsible for. Once you take that step, let everything do what it naturally does and the rest will follow. Do not go with the flow. Be the flow.” The sunset in front of me, and I picked up an oak leaf—now dried between pages of my book on Rumi. It is a totem to remind me of my encounter with the mystical poet and his dervish friend.
Visiting the tombs of the two Sufi giants puts you onto the path of healing. Their words are a balm to the aches and pains of the human experience. As I sit at my desk today and ponder our exceptional circumstances, with no travel plans on the charts and the words ‘lockdown’ and ‘social distancing’ looming large, I indulge in a conversation with Rumi and Shams in my head; they reply through lingering memories of literature.
How does a human isolate herself from the rest of the world indefinitely? We are social beings, after all! “Patience,” Rumi says, “is not sitting and waiting, but foreseeing. It is looking at the thorn and seeing the rose, looking at night and seeing the day. Lovers are patient and know that the moon needs time to become full.”
For someone who travelled every month and effectively lived out of a suitcase, this confinement comes as a challenge. The urge to discover new lands and swim in waters of unknown rivers tugs at my angsty nerves.
“East, West, South, or North makes little difference,” says Shams, the Turkish oak leaf leading me to answers. “No matter what your destination, just be sure to make every journey a journey within. If you travel within, you will travel the whole wide world and beyond.”