Account of the Sarmoun Brotherhood

Desmond R. Martin
© 1965

Not so long ago I found myself walking through a mulberry grove in what might have been an English garden — if one did not look upwards to the frowning crags of the Hindu Kush, or at the robes of the monks of the Sarmoun community.

Established here in North Afghanistan for many centuries, the brotherhood (and the sisterhood with which it is affiliated) maintain this settlement as a sort of country retreat, where aspirants are trained in the ancient arts of service and self-discipline characteristic of the cult. Elderly monks and lay members, perhaps from as far afield as Tunisa or Armenia, make their last pilgrimage here, to the Shrine of Musa the Patient, the pilgrimage of retirement.

The Sarmouni (the name means 'The Bees') have often been accused of being Christians in disguise, Buddhists, Moslem sectarians, or of harbouring even more ancient beliefs, derived, some say, from Babylonia. Others claim that their teaching has survived the Flood; but which flood I cannot say.

Like their namesakes, however, members of the order are not argumentative, being concerned only in discharging the terms of their motto: 'Work produces a Sweet Essence' (Amal misazad yak zaati shirin).

With only one break — at the time of Gengiz Khan's irruption across the Amu Daria to the north, when he destroyed Balkh, the 'Mother of Cities' not far away — they seem to have lived here for so long that no records remain of their origins.

Theirs is a good life, as much of it as I was allowed to see. Many of the devotional exercises, such at the communal 'Zikr,' or Remembering, are held in private. The Brethren, numbering no less than nine hundred, mainly lived in the hill-settlements called 'Tekkies,' artistically sited oratories surrounded by vines and patches of herbs.

Each monk is specialist of some sort: in gardening, local medicine, herbs, mathematics as known to them, calligraphy or even falconry. One of the planes they grew most carefully was Chungari (Herb of Enlightenment); this I was not able to see, nor could I obtain a sample of it. According to Afghan folklore it has powers connected with mystical revelation.

Within the monastery walls numerous industries are carried on. Working with felt, pelts, wool and looms, the inhabitants produce articles of surpassing beauty and durability. Some of the carpets today called Bokhara actually originate there. The Abbot, Baba Amyn, allowed me to stay in a wood-lined cell, and talked to me in Hindustani, which he had learned during three years spent in India as the servant of a Prince: a part of his training, as he said.

I was issued with a bowl, a sheepskin run, horn, belt and cap, the standard dervish equipment, though I had little idea as to their significance or uses.

One evening I was allowed to inspect some of the treasures of the community, and was assured that they had not before been seen by any non-initiate. They had been declared 'deconsecrated,' as it were, because a new phase of teaching, somewhere to the westward, had superseded the ritual to which they belonged. Henceforth they would merely be museum pieces.

An articulated tree, of gold and other metals, which seemed to me unbelievably beautiful and resembled a Babylonian work of art which I had seen in Bagdad Museum, was by far the most impressive. It served to indicate the postures assumed by dervishes in their Yoga-like exercises, which, performed to special music, they studied for self-development. A tall pillar of lapis lazuli, about nine feet high by two feet in diameter, was used for the Daur, a turning movement, in which the devotees circle round, one hand on the pillar, to achieve a particular state of mind.

On a wall faced with white Afghan marble, delineated in polished rubies glowed the symbol of the community. This is the mystical 'No-Koonja,' the ninefore Naqsch or 'Impress,' an emblem which I was later to see in various forms embroidered on clothes. This figure 'reaches for the innermost secret of man,' I was informed.

Its operation could only be manifest, at the right time and under special conditions, by the Lord of Time, the head of the community. He, unfortunately, was absent. In any case he did not reside at this monastery, but at another very secret place called Aubshaur. He is referred to, with great deference, as a sort of human incarnation of all teachers. He is the Surkaur, or 'Workleader.'

Since the marble, rubies, and lapis are all mined in Afghanistan, and many of the miners and prospectors are adherents of the Sarmouni, this extraordinary richness of endowment was perhaps not as strange as it seemed to me at the time.

There are many legends about Sarmoun-Dargauh ('Court of the Bees'), and one of them is this. True knowledge, it is asserted, exists as a positive commodity, like the honey of the bee. Like honey, it can be accumulated. From time to time in human history, however, it lies unused and starts to leak away. On those occasions the Sarmouni and their associates all over the world collect it and store it in a special receptacle. Then, when the time is ripe, they release it into the world again, through specially trained emissaries.

It is not only in the West, I though, as the greybearded chief of the story-tellers told me this, that legends about a secret knowledge linger on. He was not very forthcoming when I started to ply him with questions trying to see how far their doctrine had developed.

Were there any such emissaries in Europe? There was one, but he must not speak of him. But surely it would help everyone if he was publicly known? On the contrary, I was informed, it might be a calamity. He had to 'work like a bee, in private.' Could a visitor like myself have some of the 'honey'? No, myself least of all, strangely enough; because I had seen and heard so much, I could have no more.

"Have you not seen that you are not allowed to take photographs, even, though other foreigners have been allowed to take them?" I had seen the treasures, that was the most that anyone could have.

Another evening, I watched the enactment of the beautiful Ceremony of the Key. As the sun was setting, several dozen of us assembled, under the direction of the 'Master of Presentations,' who was resplendent in a patchwork robe, intricately embroidered. In the light of the dying sun a dervish with crossed arms, hands on shoulders, knelt before the Abbot, deputising for the Surkaur.

Upon being handed a large key, he advanced towards a carved door that was set in a big square wooden structure, a piece of scenery, decorated with flags and maces and other emblems of power and authority. He put the key into an ornate lock and turned it. Suddenly, by means of a clever piece of engineering, the whole structure slid apart. The seen was lit by a procession of men carrying candles and intoning the Saidd dirge in honour of the teachers.

Then we saw that the pieces of the box were turning on pivots and rearranging themselves into different shapes; the scene was completely transformed. Gardens, orchards, birds in flight, and other motifs, made from wood and painted cloth, now replaced the rectangular structure.

The meaning of the drama was explained to me. It was an allegory, based on the idea that all teaching is transformed by mankind into something unnatural, institutionalized, like the box. "The Key of the Real Man opens up the real joy and meaning of life."


First publication of the above article: Major Desmond R. Martin, The Editor of The Lady, "Below the Hindu Kush," The Lady, vol. CLX11, No. 4210, December 9, 1965, p. 870.

Reprinted in Documents on Contemporary Dervish Communities: A Symposium, Collected, edited, and arranged by Roy Weaver Davidson (London: The Octagon Press, 1966), pp. 22–24.


Glossary

Terms from the Glossary of the booklet which appear in the article:

Aabshar, Aubshaur: Persian, 'Waterfall.'

Chungari: 'Herb of enlightenment,' literally 'Howness.' An aromatic but non-narcotic herb consumed by dervishes at special times.

Darga (Dargauh &c): Court

Daur (Turkish usage = Devr); from Arabic: 'Turn,' a movement made by dervishes. One form of it is in the whirling of Maulavi dervishes.

Dervish: Persian, 'one who waits at the door.'

Nu-Kunja (No-koonja, &c): 'Nine-sided: Enneagon.'

Naqsch (Naqsh): Impress, diagram, design.

Sarkar: Persian, 'Work-Chief.'

Sarmoun(i): Community named after the bees.

Surkaur: see Sarkar.

Tekkie, Takia, Takiy (&c.): Dervish centre, generally a building, sometimes with special characteristics in its building or arrangement inside.

Zikr (zikker, dhikr &c): A litany. Lit. 'Repetiton.'