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The insider's guide to Whirling Dervishes

By Sunaina Gulati for CNN
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(CNN) -- A million people are expected to descend on Konya, a city in central Turkey, from December 10-17 for a mystical dance festival. And we're not talking about ballet, salsa, hip hop, tap or hip-swinging Bollywood boogying. The Whirling Dervishes Festival is in a class all of its own, highlighting a spiritual dance form that is believed to help dancers attain a union with God.

Who are the Whirling Dervishes?

The Whirling Dervishes are a part of the Sufi branch of Islam, known for its mysticism and asceticism. Scholars of Sufism have defined it in many different ways throughout the times, but they all agree on its fundamental character as being the inner, esoteric, mystical, or purely spiritual dimension of Islam. To become a Dervish, one must take a vow of poverty and live in monastic conditions, similar to Christian monks. For these Dervishes, spinning is their way of worshipping God.

What is this festival about?

The festival commemorates the death of a great philosopher and mystic of Islam, Mevlana (also known as Rumi) whose doctrine advocates unlimited tolerance, positive reasoning, goodness, charity and awareness through love. His philosophy is encapsulated in one of his poems:

Come come whoever you are
Whether you are a non-believer,
Whether you worship fire or an idol,
Whether you have repented a hundred times,
Whether you have broken a vow of repentance a hundred times,
This is not a vow of desperation;
Come however you are.

Where do the dances fit in?

The Dervishes dance in honor of their great teacher. This form of dance which is known as "Sema" is not just a routine movement of the body and arms but a spiritual experience that combines the music, the listening and the dance as one. The ritual is sacred and focuses on the relationship between the body and soul, man and god, lover and beloved, with an ideal submission of God reiterated throughout. There is nothing hurried or rushed. The Dervishes step forward, arms crossed in front of their chests. Raising their arms, holding their right palm upward toward heaven and their left palm downward toward earth, they gradually start whirling in a counterclockwise direction.

Why the whirl?

Science has shown us that the fundamental condition of our existence is to revolve. A man's very existence depends on this movement -- revolution in the atoms, structural stones of his body, movement of his blood etc. However, all of these are natural, unconscious revolutions. The Whirling Dervish actively causes the mind to participate in the revolution of all other beings. Akin Cakmut, who has been practicing the dance for many years since he first started at the age of 13, told CNN, "Everything turns in the universe. The world turns, the sun turns, your blood under your skin turns, and also the Dervish turns."

What about the dress, the white robes?

It's all part of the experience. The white robes represent shrouds (their ego's shrouds) and the black hats tombstones (their ego's tombstones). The dance goes through different phases. Akin explains, "The meaning of the first part is who are you? You are thinking who am I? The second part the Dervish understands, ok, I am human, I am living. In the third part the Dervish understands there is a force, and the dervish gives his heart to God. In the fourth part, your soul comes back to your body, and you understand that, yes, I am human I am a person."

It all sounds very peaceful and spiritual. So why were they banned?

In the 1920s the Dervishes were banned from Turkey out of fear that their religious roots would lead them to revolt against the new secular government. It was only nearly 30 years ago that the authorities allowed them to perform again, seeing their uniqueness as a big draw for tourists. And indeed today, the Whirling Dervishes have become a big tourist attraction and they can be found performing their dance in theatres, clubs and restaurants all around the country.

But the performance is everything outside the realm of conventional entertainment.

That's true but it's hard not to be taken aback by it. Dervishes themselves find it hard to explain what they experience. Akin says, "I can't explain it perfectly because it is between me and God."

Whirling Dervishes believe that everything in the universe turns.

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