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New Europe

Day Thirty-one: The Rila Mountains

The White Brotherhood 
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Mass paneurythmic dancing, the highlight of the year for the White Brotherhood.
Michael Palin - New EuropeI'm not disappointed. Climbing a steeply winding mountain path up from the campsite, I emerge onto a broad saddle of grassland and there ahead of me, framed by grey rock walls, dabbed with patches of unmelted snow, over a thousand people dressed in white are moving slowly round in huge concentric circles.

It looks less like dancing and more like one of those mass PT displays the Chinese are so fond of. Breathing deeply and regularly, and emitting a low cosmic hum, the participants raise and lower their arms (in what I'm later told are variations of
the thirty-seven movements laid down by The Master), point their bare feet at an angle to the ground and stare beatifically off into the middle distance.

After half an hour or so there's a welcome change of tempo, from the near-funereal to the almost jaunty. The choreography becomes gradually more ambitious. Circles stop and face the centre, turn and move the opposite way, break up and reform in a series of kaleidoscopic patterns, and all in near-silence.

Gone are the anoraks and fleeces of the sunrise ceremony. The all-white dress code has been largely observed and with the sun, the mountains and the clear glacial lakes all being in the right place at the right time, the White Brotherhood and their paneurythmic dancing make an inspiring sight.

This being a national park, and a weekend, curious spectators appear. Walkers dressed in shell-suits or shorts that look like underpants stop and stare, or blast away with their cameras before waddling on and I find myself admiring the Brotherhood for their poise and stillness and, yes, style.

When it's all over I join Damitar and his family for a picnic. They're good people, bright and generous with their time. But as Damitar explains once again about love, harmony, circles, symbols and the prayer of movement and dance
I realise that they are the converted. Their Master's voice has a relevance for them that cannot easily be shared with outsiders. They're more interested in protecting their purity than selling a watered-down version to the rest of the world. As we begin our long descent from this beautiful place I reflect, a little wistfully, that perhaps the White Brotherhood is not the place for a meat-eating, wine-loving comedian.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Thirty-one: The Rila Mountains
  • Country/sea: Bulgaria
  • Place: Rila Mountains
  • Book page no: 76

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