When you think of mystic or Sufi poets, how many women Sufis can you recall? There are few female names in the realm of mystic poetry, and fewer still that are well known. There are, however, certain names that form an integral part of the culture and oral literary tradition — not to mention folklore — of specific regions. Kashmir is one of those regions that take their poetesses seriously, with several female names in the literary tradition, which even children are familiar with. One of those names is Lal Ded, the fourteenth century mystic from Kashmir.
To merely call Lal Ded — Lalleshwari, as called by Hindus, and Lal Arifa, as called by Muslims — a poetess, would be an insult to her huge following and oral traditions handed down over generations. One way to introduce Lal Ded (literally meaning Grandmother Lal, or Lal the womb) to the uninitiated is to draw a parallel with Kabir, the poet sage claimed by both Hindus and Muslims as their own. Lal Ded belongs very much to that category — her writings a confluence of Shaivite and Sufi mysticism.
The book of translations of Lalla’s poetry- I, Lalla: The poems of Lal Ded, rendered by the poet, cultural theorist and curator Ranjit Hoskote, beautifully presents Lalla’s writings for what they truly are, and Lalla for what she was—or rather, the different forms that she holds. The introduction would be extremely fascinating to the person who wishes to know about the origins and compilation of Lalla’s utterances. Called ‘vakhs’, Lalla’s poems are the earliest known manifestations of Kashmiri literature and contain a mix of Sanskrit terms and phrases from the Hindu-Buddhist universe, along with smatterings of Arabic and Persian, mirroring the Islamic effect. More precisely, as described by Hoskote, it is the confluence between the Yogic and Sufi traditions.
The utterances, true to form, deal with self-knowledge and a convergence with the divine, as opposed to ritualistic observances:
“Neither you nor I, neither object nor meditation/ just the all-creator, lost in His dreams. / Some don’t get it, but those who do/ are carried away on the wave of Him”
The vakhs reveal a very simple and straightforward approach to spirituality, a delight to experience — “ The Lord has spread the subtle net of Himself across the world/ See how He gets under your skin, inside your bones / If you can’t see Him while you’re alive, / don’t expect a special vision once you’re dead”
The vakhs abound with references to the soul as the abode of the divine, emphasising the futility of searching in places of worship, or going on pilgrimages. There are several ‘companion vakhs’ too, which are the continuation of a single stream of thought.
“I, Lalla set out to bloom like a cotton flower/ The cleaner tore me, the carder shredded me on his bow / That gossamer: that was I / the spinning woman lifted from her wheel / At the weaver’s, they hung me out on the loom.First the washerman pounded me on his washing stone/ scrubbed me with clay and soap. / Then the tailor measured me, piece by piece, / with his scissors. Only then could I, Lalla, / find the road to heaven.”
Pick up this one if the mystic and the divine attracts you, if poetry beckons to your soul, or if you are simply curious about the ‘matron’ saints of Indian Sufi tradition.
(This article was first published in Shelf Life column in Financial Chronicle)