The young girl stepped to the rhythm of drums and bagpipes. Coal embers glowed in the dark in the ground before her, a star shape within a circle of grass. She was dressed in white; red and blue embroidery heavy on the hem and sleeves, hair covered in a white scarf. Oblivious to the crowds around, she appeared immersed in the music, the beats, focused on the fire. Suddenly she ran nimbly into the fire as if called at a certain time. Sparks shot up in a spray where her feet touched the coals, leaving a trail in the dark night as she crossed the circle from one end to the other. She turned around, once again tapping lightly to the rhythm, until the fire seemed to call again……….
We were witnessing an age old ritual wrapped in mystery and pre-Christian in its conception. Many would want to claim that the Nestinarstvo, the fire dance ritual with Christian icons belonged to them. Here in the Strandja Mountains, the local Bulgarians hold fiercely to their roots. In the village of Bulgari, 3rd of June is the day of its patron saints Constantine and Helena. Come darkness, specially chosen dancers, the nestinaris dance in the village square on embers holding up icons of the saints, to the accompaniment of drums and bagpipes. Their bare feet go unburnt and unblistered. They scoop out coals in their hands, sending showers of fire dots in the air. The fire allows them……..
It was through a google search that we had chanced upon this very private custom of a tiny village in the lush forests and low lying mountains of a little known national park in Eastern Europe. We chanced upon the Nestinarstvo.
Bulgari goes into festivities almost a week before the fire dance. The icons are brought out from the church, washed in a holy spring and prepared for the holy day. The nestinaris are chosen by the saints themselves, the quality of being able to enter the fire passes from one generation to the other. Not everyone is born to be a nestinari. Not every nestinari gets to dance every year. They might go the edge of the fire and not be ‘called’.
We arrived at Bulgari around mid-day of 3rd of June. The heavens had opened in a thunderstorm and pouring rain that seemed to threaten the fire. Legend has it that when people tried to shift the festival to the weekend, never ending rain would rout the chances of the fire being lit. On 3rd of June it was safe- however much it rained, at one point it would relent allowing the preparations to proceed.
Food stalls, souvenirs and people in their traditional costumes thronged the streets of a usually sleepy village. Barbecues filled the air with aroma of grilled meat and vegetables. A wrestling match was held in the nearby school grounds with a ram bound nearby- the prize for the winner.
Around 2:30 pm, the firewood was lit. But 4:30 pm, people had started claiming their places around the circle where the dance would take place. With some trepidation we claimed our own piece of the pavement and settled down to an uncomfortable four hour wait. May be the saints decree that some penance is needed to be able to witness the fire-dance from close quarters.
It was a five hour wait. Traditional music blared, speeches were made, folk- dances circled the village square until darkness fell. A man would come intermittently to poke at the pile of firewood, flattening it out in stages.
I don’t quite know how we made it through four hours. But suddenly the wait was over. Drums and bagpipes heralded a procession of traditionally dressed men and women. They circled the church three times and then entered the ringed circle around the fire. All other sounds died out. In a flash the street lights were off, leaving just the fire burning in the dark.
The nestinaris, edged closer to the fire as if drawn to a magnet. Then one of them lightly leaped on to the embers, others followed. The crowd held in a trance, followed their bare feet over the fire……the fire dance had begun and …..the rain had stopped.