An exhibition of photographs taken by Bulgarian photographer Alexander Mihaylov with the theme ‘Traditions’ was recently held at the Bulgarian Embassy in Delhi. Geographically located on the border between the East and the West, the exhibition celebrated the customs and rituals of people of Bulgaria, be they Bulgarians, Turks or Roma, Muslims or Christians.
It did so by attempting to present illustrated stories about customs in different parts of the Balkan nation–customs that have survived since antiquity and are still respected. They have all been photographed in the locations concerned and capture the inimitable atmosphere of the particular celebration.
DEMIR BABA TEKKE
The tekke dome stands in the middle of a small yard, shines in the forest. To the right of the gate there are five water spouts with water flows into a tiny pool with a bottom glittering with coins. Legend has it that, in times of drought, Demir Baba pierced the rock with his hand and five springs were formed with “live water” gushing out.
A few metres from the spring, a human face is chiselled into the stone representing a witch. Believers stand three paces away from her in with outstretched arms. If they are pious, they have to be able, to “gouge out” her eyes without looking.
Kazalbash Muslims are a closed community with rituals differing considerably from those of traditional Sunni Islam. They do not forbid consumption of alcohol, light candles in their temples and venerate saints and their images.
NESTINARI (FIRE DANCERS)
Until the Balkan War in the beginning of the 20th Century, fire-dancing was a familiar practice in nearly all the villages in the Strandzha Mountain area of Bulgaria. Dancing on glowing embers is the culmination of the fire-dancing festival, but preparation for it starts early. Assimilated into the Orthodox Church calendar, the ritual is associated with honouring Emperor Constantine who legalised the Christian faith in the Roman Empire.
Local legend has made them into the first fire-dancers. This takes goes back to the times when Our Lord was still walking the earth. He decided to find his “deputy” among the people and put them to trial. He built a fire with flames reaching the skies and called together all the young men. He who dared play in the fire and did not get burnt would be the chosen one. Only the young man, Constantine, stepped on the glowing embers and did not get burnt, which was a sign of his sinless nature; therefore he could become God’s friend.
The village of Ribnovo located in the Rhodope mountains of Bulgaria just a little less than 200 km from capital Sofia is inhabited by Muslims like many other villages in the region. It’s preserved an ancient wedding ritual which is similar to the one observed thousands of kilometres away mong the people of the Far East, Africa and the indigenous inhabitants of America.
The wedding ritual has been woven into the Islamic faith of the people of Ribnovo.
The bride carefully gets ready at her home to meet her future husband. She has to leave her home disguised: her face is covered with a thick layer of white cream and decorated, or rather dotted, with sequins of different colors. Garlands hang from her headscarf and her clothes and adornments shine brightly. Locals call the disguised bride Gelina. Gelina leaves her home with closed eyes. She can look at nothing else but her own reflection in a mirror until she reaches her husband’s home.
In Bulgarian folklore calendar, the first Sunday before Lent (Nedelya Siropustna) is a holiday known as the Cheese-Fare Sunday or First Sunday before Lent, or Forgiveness Sunday. On this day, everybody visits their older relatives and young people seek their parents’ forgiveness for the mistakes they have made during the year. This is how the long Orthodox Lent begins and only Lenten food cooked without fat is to be eaten until the Resurrection of Christ or Easter.
The cleansing power of fire is an important element of the rituals performed on this day. After sunset, huge bonfires are lit and festivities are organised around them.
Bulgaria is one of the few places in the world where authentic masquerade rituals are respected even in modern times. The names given to masquerade celebrations in Bulgaria differ according to the areas where they are held. The masquerade men are most often called kukeri. In the past, the mummer’s ritual revealed a profound conception of the relation between life and the element powers of the Universe.
On some of the costumes, decorated with copper and bronze belts, phallic symbols can be observes. The weight of the masquerade costume will sometimes be as much as 100 kilograms. Noise is an important element of celebrations involving mummers because it scares away the evil of the past year.