The village of Bulgari, or Shambala in Strandzha mountain

Author: Maria Pavlova

Translator: Dr. Juliana Chakarova


Original: “Село Българи, или странджанската Шамбала”

It is probably all coincidence, but both days we spent there one of our cameras would stop functioning at the same time. In addition, I lost many of the conversations I recorded… Well, perhaps it was destined to be this way, whatever that means. One can expect anything to happen in the village of Bulgari. I felt so different there – for instance, despite the clouds I was sure that it wasn’t going to rain on July 3rd in the evening and that the nestinari would perform. I’m not really a strong believer, but somehow I knew (as if it was the most natural thing in the world) that the saint wouldn’t allow it to rain.

A woman told me a story from some years ago – her father was on his death bed when a female fire dancer came to their house and told him, “Get up!”. The man got up and wasn’t sick anymore. Nowadays, she said with pain, people don’t believe anymore, that’s why they have to go to the doctor.

I also lost the notes about my immediate impressions from there. I would make notes while moving around. But that’s one more reason to remember everything. After all, when I started writing this material, just a few days had passed… The sound of the drum and the bagpipe didn’t make me cry unlike my husband – tears still well up his eyes when he listens to the recordings. I felt the place in a different way – it was like stepping into a fairy tale, but just making the first steps. And my nine-year-old daughter kept saying that she felt like dancing, and wouldn’t stop dancing on the street. She was overtaken by the thrill, by the anticipation of the dance – both a little scary and exciting.

In general, the ritual nowadays is what it was before. On July 3rd in the morning people take the icons of the saints Constantine and Helena out of the church and carry them to the place about a hundred yards away. The icons get decorated there using red cloth and ancient coin-and-bead strings. To the sound of the music, three boys carry the icons to the holy spring (called ayazmo) of Saint Constantine (the next day the icons are taken to the holy spring of Saint Helena). People chose a churchwarden who takes care of the icons and the holy spring. He also gave us healing water. The ritual of sacrificing a lamb continues with boiling the meat and making soup. I have to admit, I didn’t really like this part of the event.

In the afternoon, the fire dancer Mihail Georgiev who lives in the village of Yasna Poliana (I found out that his father was born in the village of Bulgari) started the fire. It was just next to the church. The music program began around five. When it ended, Mihail spread the embers around in circle, and the dance started. It was about 9:30 pm. This walking on the glowing embers lasted 4 or 5 minutes.

The event was attended by reporters from one of the German TV channels and from some Bulgarian TV channels. Most of the tourists took pictures using their cameras, phone cameras and camcorders. At one point I caught myself worrying more about the recording. At least my excuse is that I was planning to create a site about nestinari phenomena, maybe even write a book. But soon after that I wanted all these technical devices, all these fireworks of flashes to disappear; I wished they were never invented and never existed. During the dance Mihail stayed for a few seconds with both his feet buried in the embers, without moving. I wished people didn’t pollute the place like that. At moments like that I feel both the urge to be there with everybody and somehow be completely alone…

In the vicinity there were fairgrounds with stalls offering grilled sausages, beer, knickknacks. There were also tents put up next to the chapel of Saint Helena. In general, all the people saw the dance in the evening. A young woman from the village told me that she was watching the dance for the first time. Years ago on the second day of the holiday – July 4th – the icons were carried around the village to each house, and people would wait for them, but nowadays this ritual is not performed anymore.

The two days I spent in the village I lived in the house of the old woman named Zlata Daskalova, one of the most famous nestinari from the past. No fire dancers live in the village anymore – they have all passed away. I heard a story of the 18-year old man Kostadin Mihajlov from the village of Brodilovo who danced on the embers that evening with Veselina Ilieva, also from Brodilovo. A young woman also danced; her name is Marinela Gradeva… The young man told me he had had the urge to walk on the embers for a long time, but Veselina didn’t allow him to do so. One time he danced when she wasn’t there. He believes in God and says that the icon helps him. Kostadin has a lovely voice and sings beautifully – he sang just before the dances started. Have the other nestinari sung like that or do they sing like that? The idea to ask this question didn’t occur to me then. In fact, it’s not possible to bear a lot while you are in the village of Bulgari – it becomes unendurable and that’s it. If you want more, you have to come back again.

The truth is, I had read so much about the rituals that when the picture became alive, I just remembered it. A not expected, but easy to explain déjà vu. I went back in time. But I also wanted to understand some things that you can learn only by being there. For example, how hot it is around the embers after the event. Unfortunately, there were just a few logs this time, next to a car. The air was cool, and I was very close to the dying out fire while listening to the program. I could stand the heat as long as I wasn’t in the direction where the wind was blowing. And if we multiply the heat 5 or 10 times, maybe I can imagine how hot it was before.

… The village of Bulgari is nestled in the hills of Strandzha. It looks like the mountain tries to protect it from foreign eyes. As one nuclear physicists had said, he had the feeling that the word decays when he turns his back toward it, but as soon as he looks at the world, it gains back its old shapes again. We order the chaos and make something meaningful out of it. But even if this is true, when we look in the same direction, we don’t see the same. Some people see more, like nestinari. Like shamans, wise-men, kids, or people in love. Perhaps nestinarstvo is epiphany, but the interpretation, putting it into words is different for every fire dancer.

I have imagined how the mystique Shambala reveals itself, but not to everybody. How something big raises, emerges, comes to view out of the “haze” of the trees and the paths, like a diamond in the mountain, glittering from the dew. And here they are – the people who have always been there – they come to you, speak, tell you stories.

There are places, difficult for science, places marked with invisibility. Only the strength of one’s perception can help reach the depth of a place like that. With a few exceptions, nestinari didn’t have much education before. Nowadays we read a lot, dig all the time, while they didn’t do so. Actually, I’m not sure about the digging. How could I know what they had in their minds during the 363 days of the year when there was no fire? Did they think about their own power, did they try reasoning at night, did they stay awake? Did they have fears, were they spellbound? But we can be sure of one thing – those men and women devotedly believed in the power given to them by Constantine and Helena, they believed there is “the upper world” that they have to obey. When the Mother of God wanted something from them, they told it to the rest of the villagers, and people listened – build either a small chapel or a path. The icons spoke to them, whispered advise and prophecies. They felt such pains, such anguish, specifically as June started, after the fair in Vlachov Dol valley, but the fire helped them get rid of this tension.

Is it illness, is it power, or maybe something else? I don’t think anybody knows for sure. And I don’t think there can be only one name for it. But whatever it is, what’s important is that nestinari changed minds. They even do it now, but it’s not the same. Before, nestinari were charismatic, they danced for themselves, to get rid of the suffering, but they also did it for the others, maybe more so – to make them believe. They wanted to share this boundless experience, so unutterable and huge for our tiny size. It is believed that the cloth from the icon about which I’ll tell later has been intentionally dropped in the fire. Or maybe it was somebody’s kerchief? Facts intertwine with make-believe stories, names are confused, but there is something that saves the fire dancers and their clothes while in the fire – even the silk doesn’t burn at a temperature of maybe more than 500 degrees Celsius.

… The sky came down during the fire dance. We also felt particles of that miracle – it overwhelmed me and is still haunting me. Whatever nestinarstvo is, whatever trance is, this walk on embers is a road to the boundless. And if one human being can walk on embers, we all can. After those four people danced, many of the viewers went through the embers. To the best of my knowledge, nobody was burnt.

Nestinarstvo opens the celestial gates. The fire is quiet frightful while the logs are burning (I kept asking myself if witches were burned on such stakes); but it ceases to be frightful for nestinari – for them it becomes water, gold, a reflection of the boundless. This gift to tame the fire vortex is bestowed upon few. Even if it’s illness, it’s a gift to turn it into faith. That’s why it’s such a pity that there are no more fire dancers in the village of Bulgari. Instead, people from nearby villages dance on the embers. Despite that however, on June 3rd, the village turns into a special place. The past can’t be erased just like that; some day the fire in its full glow might come back to life. Like in the psychological Shambala, something bigger then the visible reveals to the few that possess the rare gift, but by entering it in their dance, those people leave traces for us, too. Like bread crumbs. The fire goes calm, becomes golden and like a tamed beast lies down at their feet.

Often fire dancers’ relatives feared the dance; husbands wouldn’t let their wives to take part in that, threatened and stopped them. And I mean, seriously threatened them. Parents feared for their kids. But we see it from another angle, maybe because it doesn’t directly affect us. And in fact, I didn’t notice that trance on the faces of the four nestinari. Perhaps that possessing is like love – rarely is it Big. Maybe I saw something that was smaller and could be easily controlled, that’s why the four of them stepped onto the embers at the same time.

… I went to the village of Bulgari, saw the event and left. The next few days I spent in the town of Sozopol at the Black Sea coast, and the fire dance vanished from my mind. I couldn’t bear it – not the dance, but the expectation, the magic of the mountain, the music that didn’t stop the whole day. As if I had dreamed all that. My life went on. Life stream is steady, and it doesn’t get easily affected by miracles. But still? Isn’t nestinarstvo, even just the feeling of that dance a bridge to the spiritual dimension? Don’t the earthy and spiritual meet and exist together for just a while? And didn’t I along with the other visitors bring at least a sparkle by just being there, so that the embers don’t die out and are not left desolate. Like in that naïve moment in the story Peter Pan when people bring the fairy back to life through their faith that she exists. I hope so. I hope that not only the village gave us something, but that we also gave it something back. I would like to remember the best side of it, regardless of the fact that there was more attraction than pure tradition.

It’s possible that I go there again. And that I meet again kindred souls, kindred seekers.
… I have the recordings of only two conversations. Here are some excerpts from them.

Ralio Petkov Ivanov, 89 years old.

«I was born here and have been living here since. This village is the oldest in Strandzha… I was a mayor once – between 1948 and 1951, the youngest mayor. My mother, Marula Stamatova Valkova, danced on fire. There were three nestinari at that time, elderly women: Mila Dimova, Marijka Ivanova, and my mother. They were such dancers, not like now. Magnificent… They had spells; between May 10th and June 3rd they really changed. They felt something, a tension. I used to ask my mother. “Well, son,” she would say, “it’s such power, you know, and when it comes, nothing can stop me, I have to get in the fire…” But now the fire is small. Back then it was at the same place, but the embers were 20 centimeters high. And they would start dancing, but what a dance it was! What you see now is made up. The real dance was somewhere until 1945. I remember one time: the icons that the fire dancers held had kerchiefs on – to make the icons pretty. And what do you know – a kerchief fell into the fire. The dancer bent over, we were looking – lots and lots of people – she bent over, holding the icon, moved around looking for the kerchief. When she found that piece of cloth, it wasn’t burned a bit. Everybody stayed in awe! I saw it with my own eyes. It’s real, pure, I was there… It was the same time when I met professor Sharankov from Sofia…»

“I have read his book. He was here twice during the event, saw everything, talked to the nestinari…”

«Yes, he was a big friend of mine. I took him to visit one of the dancers, Zlata Daskalova. He had examined her feet the day before. Then he told her, “Interesting, your feet are just like mine.” The next day he wanted to see her again. We went there, knocked at the door, and the old woman Zlata answered. It was an old little house – most of our houses are like that. She opened the door, “Hello.” The professor was staying at her daughter’s house then. They started talking, and the professor said,

“Grandma Zlata, can I ask you something?” “Go ahead,” she said.

And he was like,

“Can we arrange a meeting with you and the other nestinari? We will build a fire, you will dance and we’ll record it. We want to make a movie and you’ll get paid.”

“If you are here to talk about money,” she said, “get out of my house and the village!!”

The poor man (he was a big man, like me), he didn’t know what to do.
”I’m sorry, grandma Zlata!” he said.

She started shaking. I told her that the professor doesn’t know these things. He also kept saying,

“I apologize, grandma Zlata, I was wrong, please, forgive me!”

Finally she calmed down. She told him,

“We are not allowed to go into the fire another day!! We don’t even dare to go near the fire in our kitchens when we cook! Only during those two days we are ordered to dance at certain hours, and we don’t get burnt…”

After we left, I explained to the doctor that it didn’t occur to me to worn him. The women danced that evening and the next one. The professor checked their feet again after that.

“They are okay!” he said. “Just like before.”

… I told him,

“Professor Sharankov, it’s possible that those spells are because of nervousness.”

I meant that I felt this too sometimes when I had problems, and I had told my mother about it.

“No, son, your nervousness – it has nothing to do with what we do! Our power is from above…”

My mother started to dance as soon as my older brother was born. The fire dancers didn’t have any family connection between them. There are some younger folks now, one is from the village of Gramatikovo and has some relatives in Bulgari, but not with the fire dancers… So sometimes when there are meetings, they build a fire and dance. But it’s not the same.»

“And why aren’t there anymore nestinari in Bulgari?”

“They all died. Vesa from Brodilovo is a good dancer – she keeps the tradition alive. My power, she says, comes from above. But the others died.

Ilia Vlaev was my landlord during those two days when I stayed in Bulgari:

«Veselina Ilieva, the old woman who danced last night, went into the fire for the first time in 1983, if I’m not mistaken, after she was only a spectator and even laughed at the fire dancers. Back then she fainted near the fire, where the ropes are. Rumors say that an old woman standing next to her told Veselina,

“Daughter, you are like a piece of ice, the power got you, you gotta go in the fire.”

Veselina Ilieva took her shoes off and stepped in. And the woman who spoke was one of the youngest daughters of the old Zlata Daskalova, in whose house you are staying.”

“There were two women fire dancers with the same first name: Zlatka Daskalova and Zlatka Stamova…”

“That’s right, and I bought the house of the first one without knowing who it belonged to. I had the house sanctified because the neighbors told me that it belonged to poor people who didn’t have money to do it. Instead, they just put some holy water at the four corners of the foundation. One of the bottles was still seen. It’s so strange how the water would still be there in 2001 if it was put there in 1960, in an open bottle. I could see it through the bottle neck – the water looked as shiny as melted lead. I can’t explain that… As the tradition required, I made boiled mutton soup, had the house sanctified, and that night I had a dream. An old woman, tall and slim, came to me and we talked. She said that it was good that I had sanctified the house. And also she said many other things… The next day I told about this to my neighbor – she is from that family. She said,

“The woman in your dream was grandma Zlata.”

“Which Zlata?”

“Zlata, the fire dancer who used to live in this house. She stayed in your room during her last days and slept where you are sleeping now. You had a dream about her. It was Zlata…”

The next year Veselina Ilieva saw me in the village of Kosti and told me,

“You are Ilia, right?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“And you had a dream about the old woman Zlata, right?”

“That’s right,” I said, “I had a dream about her.”

“She told you this and this and this.”

I asked her who she was.

“Well, I’m Veselina Ilieva,” she said, “and I’m a fire dancer.”

“And who told you all this?”

“I don’t need anybody to tell me this since I’m a fire dancer, too.”

… As the saying goes, when they built fire here for the nestinari before, they would bring 12 carts of logs,, dry oak logs. The size of the embers circle was huge, and it was unbearably hot. And old women told me,

“When Zlata danced, the earth would shake…”»

So the circle closed. I have read exactly the book we talked about with the old man Ralio – the book by Emanuil Sharaknov written in 1947. The author told the story about him and Ralio going in the house of Zlata where I stayed for two days. So the conversations that I saved were completing the puzzle. My landlord told me that Zlata thanked him for sanctifying the house. I didn’t have any dreams, but somehow I didn’t allow myself to fully open to the phenomena of nestinarstvo. I don’t think I’m ready yet. Maybe some day… The source is there and is open for everybody.

“… I have no fear at all. It’s a power. You get as cold as a piece of wood, as the weather when the snowflakes fly in the air. You feel cold shivers all over your body. When the big heaviness, the suffering, the pain in your chest is gone, you feel all light and start dancing. I don’t fear that, it doesn’t make me wonder – it’s just a power that gets you…” (Zlata Stamova from the village of Bulgari)

“Why isn’t the tradition of fire dancing as strong nowadays? I think because people don’t have faith anymore, and the power doesn’t come to us like before. Fire dancing will be lost in Bulgaria and will be given to another people…” (Ilia Dimitrov, male fire dancer from the village of Novo Panicheri).

(The two excerpts are from the book I mentioned.)

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