I often think of the town of Svrljig as Serbia’s middle child. Overshadowed by noble and ancient Niš, as well as by younger sibling Knjaževac, there’s Svrljig, just kind of looking for attention. And Svrljig, the middle child, is also kind of hard to pinpoint… and not just on a map, as it is a pretty small town. I mean in an ethnocultural sense. It is considered to be part of, or at least transitional to, the Šopluk, Serbia’s rugged eastern frontier which includes Timok region and the Stara Planina, but it’s also very close to Ponišavlje, the Nišava river valley. This is reflected in its costumes, where the men wear garments very much influenced by Timok region, and the women wear clothing that would look at home in the surroundings of Niš.
Svrljig lends its name to a microregion, also. The Svrljig district includes the Svrljig Mountains, which are wedged between the Nišava and Svrljig valleys. The Svrljig Timok river (Svrljiški Timok) runs through the town and the valley, and the foothills and peaks north of the river are also part of the district. Now, Svrljig is a pretty unusual word, and what exactly it means is a conundrum. Some think it comes from the local names for a species of fish found in the local river: the barbel, zvrljuča (mren, in standard Serbian); the eel, zvirluka (jegulja, standard). It may be a corruption of the Latin word spelunca, cave, because the region truly does have many caves. It may refer to heavy forests, if we consider the earliest recorded name for the district: Sfeligovos in Greek might be a corruption of the Slavic Svelug (sve = all, lug = forest), which conforms to certain patterns of words in early Slavonic. Finally, some suggest it may come from the Slavic verb vrljugati, to wind back and forth. A vrljug would be curlicue or spiral, perhaps describing the winding course of the Timok river.
Today’s Svrljig arose on the spot where a village once stood. During the late medieval period, it was known as Derven (‘grove of trees’, lending some credence to the Svelug etymology?); the Turks called it Isferlik; the Austrians, Isperlech. Liberated during the Timok uprisings of 1833, It was declared the seat of a municipality in 1904 and the name Svrljig was established for good.
Ethnoculturally, the region has some fascinating aspects of culture. It is an area where the making and playing of Svrljig-type bagpipes, svrljiške gajde, persists. The production of wool for opulent rugs and colourful weaving led to the development of the Svrljig variety sheep, svrljiška ovca, today considered a protected heritage breed in Serbia. Modern-day Svrljig has made famous two popular dishes through festivals dedicated to them: the janija, a stew of lamb, onions, potato and spinach, and belmuž, a not-at-all low calorie dish made from cheese and flour, each have their moment of glory at the annual Janijada and Belmužijada.
The local folklore offers beliefs in dragons, vampires, and fairies (vile) both good and maleficent. The moon is involved in foretelling weather and fortunes, and people make wishes on a new crescent moon. Aleksa Vasiljević, teacher in Svrljig during the late nineteenth century, recorded many customs, proverbs and superstitions of the Svrljig region. Personally, I find the prohibitions and warnings for little children entertaining: don’t kill frogs, because your mother will die; don’t sit with your back turned to someone, because you’ll be carrying them soon (i.e. at their funeral); cover your mouth when you yawn, or else an evil spirit might fly in; don’t whistle in the house, or we’ll get mice! It really is amazing what Serbian parents have in their battery of weapons, when training their kids.
As in other sheep raising regions, St. George’s Day, Đurđevdan, is a very important holiday, with many traditions regarding the first milking of sheep and the first pasturing of sheep in mountain pastures called bačije. But in Svrljig, two other saints eclipse this: St. Michael the Archangel (locally called Sveti Ranđel) and St. Theodore Tiron, or Sveti Todor. St. Michael is considered “elder among the saints”, since it is believed that God created him first, before time immemorial. Many people, and not only families celebrating the saint as their slava, will prepare the slava bread on this day, especially if they feel that the Archangel has answered a prayer they have offered. He is seen as a protector of livestock against the attack of wolves, and a particular protector for those who develop pneumonia (called golema bolest, the great illness)
St. Theodore is central to a week-long festival in the first week of Lent, called Tudorica. Fasting begins this week, and inhabitants of Svrljig district have the custom of fasting so strictly, that they only eat once a day. This style of fasting is called tudoričenje. During the week, young men of each mahala (neighbourhood) of Svrljig and its surrounding villages prepare their horses, feeding them particularly well, grooming them, polishing saddles and stirrups, and preparing decorations for their horses: wool tassels and braids, new blankets, etc. On the eve of St. Theodore Saturday, Todorova subota, (the first Saturday of Lent, at the end of this first week), dinners are held in honour of the young riders, with elaborate toasts. The next morning, the riders all head out on their ornate horses, wearing their best clothes and themselves decorated with sashes, embroidered cloths and flowers. They all meet at the church, and as a large group ride around the church three times. They disperse and visit all of the village neighbourhoods, vineyards, and orchards. When they arrive at a home, the senior woman of the household offers him a specially prepared loaf of bread, upon which are a bunch of basil and a glass of wine. He drinks to the health of the household, takes a bite of the bread, and offers his horse some bread. The basil is tucked into the horse’s bridle or mane, and he continues to the next house. The mutual consumption of bread by both horse and rider are meant to symbolize and strengthen the bond of loyalty between them; the wine is for their health, and the basil to ensure that they are as good and pleasant to one another, as sweet and as pleasant as basil. The day culminates in racing competitions, where the winning mahala or village attains a certain prestige for the whole year. If this is reminiscent of the Sienese Palio, there are many reasons for this. The Sienese inherited a cultural practice from Rome, while in this custom ethnographer Milenko Filipović sees remnants of an ancient Thracian cult of horse and rider. Romans were the great borrowers, and it is believed that the cultural and ritual significance of horses came to them from the Thracians. It persisted in Serbian folk life through the Vlachs, direct inheritors of Dacian and Thracian mythology. The role of Tudorica in Svrljig seems to be the young men’s parallel of what Lazarice are for young women. The Lazarice custom takes place in late Lent, and serves a social purpose of introducing young women eligible for marriage to village society. Similarly, the riders in this early-Lenten custom are all young men of marrying age, who were eligible to become that autumn’s bridegrooms.
The material culture of Svrljig centres on wool and hemp as their primary fibres. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we see the influx of cotton and linen cloth and cotton and silk thread for embroidery, but in the distant past all ornamentation was of woolen thread and braid.
There is a great pride in the local costume of Svrljig, which in both male and female variants shows a certain restraint and simplicity. There has been a revival lately of production of costume pieces as interest grows locally and beyond for the folklore of the region. Specific crafts and trades are once again being practiced, and the costume is more and more seen outside of folkloric settings. In fact, member of parliament Milija Miletić created a sensation when he attended the first session of the 2015 parliament in his folk costume.
The traditional men’s costume conforms very much to the pattern seen in Timok region male costume. The predominant material is heavy wool cloth, sukno, dyed brown, with limited ornamentation in black braid, gajtan. Embroidery is limited or absent on men’s shirts, but socks can be very colourful. The parts of a typical male costume of Svrljig district include:
Košulja – linen or hemp shirt with short collar (“Russian” or “Mandarin” collar), little embroidery along collar, cuffs, and front opening; everyday skirts had no embroidery
Čakšire, čašire – drawstring pants of dark sukno wool cloth, with black braid ornamentation along hems or front openings.
Jelek – also made of deep brown sukno, with similar black braid ornamentation
Gunj, gunjac – sleeved sukno jacket, worn on festive occasions and as a winter garment
Veliki Gunj – a hooded cape with arm openings, once a general winter garment but later limited primarily to shepherds
Pojas – wide woolen striped sash
Barla – animal skin hat of the šubara type, worn only by adult men
Čarape – knit woolen socks, either monochrome for everyday or embroidered and beaded for festive wear
Opanci pertljaši – the Svrljig men’s opanak, or pertljaš (binding strap style) is characterized by intricately interwoven tanned leather strips on the upper portion of the shoe, and a large, broad hook at its end.
The women’s costume conforms less to the TImok pattern in style, but shares a colour palette and fundus of materials with it. The forms of the costume more closely resemble south Morava costumes, such as those in and around Niš; Niška Banja is a mere 20 km away. The general components of a typical Svrljig female costume are:
Košulja – generally hemp or linen cloth with stylized ornamentation on chest and sleeves in the past; cotton cloth in the late 20th century, with botanical/floral ornamentation on chest and cuffs. In the late 20th century women also began wearing a short blouse, košulja, with underskirt, podsuknja.
Regla – a blouse type of garment, worn over the košulja, which entered the costume in the late 19th century under the influence of urban costume, which adopted it from Austro-Hungarian fashion.
Suknja, levka, dugan – woven wool or hemp skirt, multicoloured vertical stripes; sewn from two parallel pieces of cloth stitched together lengthwise. The levka is the festive skirt, with a satin or velvet hem and often with interwoven metallic threads; the dugan is a two-coloured everyday skirt.
Pregača, pregljača, kecelja – in the 19th century, these were wonderfully ornate woven costume pieces, colourful and full of geometric designs; 20th century onward, they transition to a dark cloth apron with floral embroidery, influenced by lower Morava culture.
Jelek – another example of Morava zone influence is the tendency toward dark velvet cloth for these vests, but with limited braid or srma decoration along the edges; in the distant past, made from sturdier hemp cloth, monochrome or striped, with limited braid ornamentation.
Pojas, kanica – a woven sash which for women in this district is always of just two colours.
Marama, ubradač – plain white kerchief, sometimes with small crochet lace trim.
Kovilje – sprigs of maidenhair grass, augmented with feathers and flowers, worn tucked into or pinned to the kerchief; kovilj is a type of grass prized for its fine fibres which quiver when walking or dancing.
Čarape – knit woolen socks, dark base with multicolour ornamentation
Opanci – like the men’s opanak, made of tanned leather with finely woven upper, but with no hook.
I acquired my Svrljig costume from several collectors. I particularly love the vest, because it is absolutely different from the typical dark velvet or wool ones seen in folk ensembles. It seems like it was sewn at home, not by a craftsman, making it all the more dear to me. The skirt is one worn on festive occasions, and the apron shows at the same time simplicity and authenticity of form, and beautiful finesse and skill of embroidery. The blouse is particularly old, as more recent costumes seem to favour floral embroidery. These geometric designs are stylized flowers, and to me are stunning in their bright colours and form. The arrangement of embroidery is very similar to blouses of women in the Niš area.
For Further Reading:
Bjeladinović-Jergić, Jasna. Narodne Nošnje Srba U XIX I XX Veku. Beograd: Etnografski Muzej, 2011.
Filipović, Milenko S. Trački Konjanik: Studije Iz Duhovne Kulture. Beograd: Prosveta, 1986.
Kostić, Aleksandar. “Opančar Koji čuva Tradiciju Izradu Svrljiškog Opanka.” Društvo. Južne Vesti, 23 Dec. 2016. Web. 1 June 2017.
Kostić, Aleksandar. “Regla, Levka, Dugan, I Vez Svrljišku Nošnju čine Jedinstvenom U Srbiji.” Društvo. Južne Vesti, 27 Dec. 2016. Web. 1 June 2017.
Petrović, Sreten, Nedeljko Bogdanović, and Aleksa Vasiljević. Kulturna Istorija Svrljiga, knjiga IV: O verovanjima i običajima iz Svrljiga. Niš: Narodni Univerzitet, 1996.