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Table of Contents
  Section 1: Paper Presented at the Seminar
1. The Guru and the Pandit
2. A Re-appraisal of Lal Ded
3. Lal Ded : Her Spiritualism and World Order
4. Reconstructing and Reinterpreting Lal Ded
5. Lal Ded - The Poet Who Gave a Voice to Women
6. Language of La
l Ded's Poetry
7. Lal Ded and Kashmiri Chroniclers
8. Lal Vaakhs - Their Journey from Memory to Manuscript
9. Lalleshwari the Liberator
  Section 2: Book Extract
10. Lal Ded
11. Lalleshwari and Kabir
12. Concluding Remarks
  Section 3: Some Select Lallavaakhs
13. Some Vaakhs of Lal Ded and their English Translation
  Download Book

Koshur Music

An Introduction to Spoken Kashmiri




Reconstructing and Reinterpreting Lal Ded

by Dr. S. S. Toshkhani

Dr. S. S. ToshkhaniLalleshwari, Lal Ded, or simply Lalla, as many like to call her, is not just a medieval woman poet in whose verse we hear the first heart-beats of Kashmiri poetry-she is easily the most popular and most powerful symbol of Kashmir's civilizational ethos. While her 'vaaks' or verse-sayings continue to dazzle us with their high wattage incandescence, her role as a spiritual leader who resolved the crisis of her times caused by a clash of two belief and value systems-one indigenous and the other alien cannot but be regarded as momentous, whether or not history recognizes its true significance. In both these capacities it was her intervention that ensured continuity and saved indigenous cultural structures from a total collapse at a time when the advent of Islam in Kashmir was accompanied by an unprecedented political and social upheaval.

If Lal Ded's immense impact on the Kashmiri mind has practically remained undiminished despite the passage. of almost seven centuries, it is essentially because of the fusion of the poet and the saint in her, or, to use the words of Dileep Chitre (which he has used for another great Bhakti poet, Tukaram), because of "a poet's vision of spirituality and a saint's vision of poetry" that she presents in her verses. We are amazed at her deep sense of compassion, her mystical insights and spiritual vision, her profound awareness of the human condition and her Shaiva-world view which makes her look at existence as manifestation of one, indivisible, consciousness. More than anything else, we are indebted to her for shaping the Kashmiri language in a way that it formed the basis for the Kashmiris to forge their indigenous cultural identity.

Ironically, this very image of Lal Ded as a spiritual giant and poetic genius fused into one-reinforced by the many hagiographical accounts, myths and legends surrounding her-has led to attempts at appropriating her for ideologies and causes totally alien to her thinking and temperament. We thus come across not one but several image constructs of the saint-poetess, some of them mutually irreconcilable, linked inextricably with predilections, perceptions and motives of those who have created them. And these tend to blur and distort facts about her life, making it extremely difficult for us to arrive at what we can call an authentic Lal Ded-a flesh and blood Lal Ded occupying a specific space and time in history, or at least a poetic version of what Lal Ded was or must actually have been like. With whims, fancies and notions being the basis of these various constructs, we are left with the problems of exploring the true dimensions of her creativity and of locating the real founts of her inspiration. And this cannot be settled by mere interpretations of scholarly differences or semantic hair-splitting. The task has been made immensely complicated by the intervention of nearly seven hundred years of history about which people are still hesitant to talk freely and openly.

The purpose of this paper is to examine some of the image constructs of the saint-poetess which are patently false, and have no basis in facts, but are passed on as products of genuine scholarship. These images and fabrications are being circulated persistently with surprising frequency not out of any desire to present the truth, but to suppress it. The most formidable attempt to appropriate Lal Ded in this manner comes from those who want to snatch her for Islam. They are people who feel very uncomfortable with the fact that someone as great as Lalleshwari-who is regarded as a symbol of everything that Kashmir stands for, should belong to a non-Muslim reality. Masquerading as scholars but motivated and conditioned by their religious reflexes, they try to subvert this fact by floating imaginary anecdotes about her conversion to Islam. One such anecdote that continues to be repeated with total disregard to historical plausibility is that she met Sayyid Mir Ali Hamadani, the Islamic missionary most revered by Kashmiri Muslims, and received "spiritual enlightenment” from him. Sayyid Hamadani had come to Kashmir with a large entourage of fellow Sayyids to escape the wrath of Timur and there he engaged in proselytizing activities on a massive scale. Prof. Jaya Lal Kaul has in his brilliantly researched book "Lal Ded" very convincingly proved the utter impossibility of such a meeting having ever taken place. Referring to Persian sources, he has quoted Mohammad Azam Dedamari's explicit statement that the story of her being present before the Sayyid "has not been held as proved by scholars". Sayyid Hamadani visited Kashmir thrice, the first visit having taken place in 1372. And if Lal Ded died in the reign of Shihab-ud-din, as Persian chronicles point out, he could in no way have influenced her. Persian chronicler Peer Ghulam Hassan, too makes no mention of a meeting between Lal Ded and Sayyid Mir Ali Hamadani, but states that she did indeed meet Jalal-ud-din Bukhari and Sayyid Hussain Samanani and it was at his hands that she was "converted" to Islam. ‘Bibi Lalla Arifa', a pamphlet published from Lahore, to which Prof. Jayalal Kaul has referred, is more categorical, saying that she accepted Islam at the hands of Sayyid Hussain Samanani. "This should be obvious to all", the pamphlet adds, emphasizing the claim and giving a fanciful account of the supposed meeting. According to the pamphlet, Lal Ded ran for miles together to receive Sayyid Samanani at Shopian and "being elated to receive the secret doctrine, became his chief disciple". Repudiating this claim which Sufi, the author of "Kashir", a history of Kashmir published from Pakistan, says is based on "Lalla Arifa's own later day vaaks," Prof. Kaul writes: "Not a single verse-saying of hers has been discovered up to date even among the doubtful and spurious verse-sayings ascribed to her which would bear out either this anecdote or similar other anecdotes concerning her".

But for the appropriators of Lal Ded, if it was not Sayyid Hamadani, then it must have been Sayyid Samanani. Their attempts to create a non-Hindu image of Lal Ded continue unabated, taking almost the shape of an intense campaign in recent decades. A special Lal Ded Number (1979) of Sheeraza, a journal published by the Jammu and Kashmir State Art Culture and Languages, for instance, is illustrative of this obsession which shows itself in article after article obviously with the editor's tacit agreement. One such article "Lal Ded Shah Hamadan ke Huzoor Mein" (Lal Ded in the Presence of Shah Hamadan), written by Mufti Jalal-ud-din, says, "It does not matter whether these anecdotes are corroborated by history or not. It is eventually popular belief that settles the issue". Jalal-ud-din's is not just an individual opinion-it represents a whole mindset that shows no signs of changing even today. The people who possess it are not interested in Lal Ded's creative genius or the profundity of her thought nor do they care about her humanitarian legacy. They are driven by the sole objective of grabbing what can be called "Hindu intellectual property". That is why they show Lal Ded running towards a baker's oven desperate to cover her nudity as she had seen a "man" when she supposedly encountered Sayyid Hamadani. The miracle of the oven is surely prompted by a hegemonistic design to establish the superiority of Islam over the creed of the "infidels". Sayyid Hamadani was on a proselytizing mission and what bigger fish could there have been for him to cast his net ?

The Sufi image that some have tried to foist on Lal Ded is also a mischievous and motivated construct as it is virtually an attempt to de-Hinduise her and to create confusion about her faith. The man who began it all, though not exactly with that intention, Sir Richard Temple, appears indeed to have been a confused person, saying different things at different places. At one place he says that Lalla was a Shaivite Hindu and at another place he discovers that "she deeply and quickly absorbed the Sufi line of thought after her contact with her contemporary and friend" Sayyid Ali Hamadani. Soon afterwards he counts similarities in "the doctrine and practice of Naqshbandis and the Yogic exercises of the Hindu Shaivas". Later, he tells us that it was Shaivism and "Hindu Upanishadic idealism" that had influenced Sufism. If that be the truth then how is it that she is influenced by Sufism as preached by Sayyid Ali Hamadani? Why not directly by Hindu Upanishadic thought? If Sayyid Hamadi was at all a Sufi, he was not of the type who would believe in the doctrine of Wahadat-ul-Wujud or oneness of existence and certainly not in universal brotherhood and love. The humiliating and degrading conditions he laid down in his book "Zakhirat-ul-Muluk" to guide a Sultan in treating his non-Muslim subjects are enough to prove this. The various Sufi orders said to have been introduced during that time in Kashmir were all orthodox in nature, preaching strict adherence to Shariah and not liberal humanism as is made out to be. They remained confined to the correct practice of the Quaranic beliefs and "hardly came out of zuhd, ibadat, taqwa and riyadat, the limits set by their founders", having nothing to do with the type of Sufism based on the doctrine of Mohi-ud-din ibn Arabi. Their emphasis was on proselytization and not on the belief in unity of being and universal love.

Writers like P.N.K. Bamzai and Dr. R.K. Parmu, who followed Richard Temple in his queer conclusions, created further confusion by making even stranger and mutually contradictory statements. 'Lalleshwari's association with Shah Hamadan", writes Bamzai, "was due to an identity of the faith of Sufis and Hindu mendicants and saints in Kashmir", adding that "the order she founded was an admixture of the non-dualistic philosophy of Shaivism and Islamic Sufism". One is at a loss to understand what one can make of such pronouncements which have nothing to do with history or facts of Lal Ded's life. In what way was "the faith of the Hindu mendicants and saints of Kashmir" different from that followed by the general mass of the people ? And which religious or philosophical order was founded by Lal Ded? The word "admixture" leaves one stumped, but even before one recovers one finds him saying in the same breath that Shaivism, "the dominant religion of the time", was "ossified into a set of complicated rituals". Did the "Hindu mendicants", he refers to follow any other religion then?

Dr. R.K. Parmu is even more sweeping in his statements, blissfully ignorant of how they contradict each other. Branding the entire Hindu society of Lal Ded's time as "corrupt", he tells us that "Lal Ded preached against the Shaiva religion as it was practiced by the Tantric gurus of those times". Did she really? And who were these "Tantric gurus" any way?. But wait, Dr. Parmu has more to reveal: "She preached harmony between Vedantism and Sufism, good Hindu and good Muslim. What are the sources that he and Bamzai rely upon to make such pronouncements? Which of Lal Ded's vaakhs testifies to this? Or, which historical source? Or can just whims and notions replace historical investigation?

Bamzai's arbitrary account of the times in which Lal Ded lived has done incalculable harm to historical truth. If he is to be believed, the "pious lives" that Sufi saints of that period lived had the Hindus so charmed that they decided to embrace Islam en masse ! Of course, by implication all other led impious lives. Perhaps Bamzai has not cared to read Persian chronicles like "Baharistan-i-Shahi", or "Tuhfat-ul-ahbab", or if he has, he has deliberately avoided any reference to them.

There are several verses of Lal Ded in which she refers to her attainment of self-realization and spiritual enlightenment. For her it is a real experience of life. There is no shadow of doubt or uncertainty about it in her mind. And, what is more, there is a tone of tremendous self-confidence and assurance in her verses when she tells us about her mystical illumination. As, for instance, in these lines:

Samsaras ayas tapasi

Bodhu prakashu lobum sahaj

Into this universe of birth I came

By Yoga gained the self revealing light !

(Trans. Nila Cram Cook)



Loluki naru vaalinj buzum

shankar lobum tami suuty

My heart I parched as farmers parch the grain

And from that fire there came a wondrous boon

And Shiva in a flash I did obtain

(Trs. Nila Cram Cook)



lal bo tsayas swaman bagu baras

vuchhum shivas shakath milth tu vah

tati lay karum arnrit saras

zinday maras tu karyam kyah

I, Lalla, entered through the door of the garden of my mind

And saw Shiva and Shakti united into one, O joy!

There I became immersed in the lake of nectar

And died even while I was still alive

What will now death do unto me ?



adu lali mye praavum param gath

And then I, Lalla, attained the supreme state.

And if that is the case, why hasn't anyone asked so far what need had Lal Ded to go to a Sayyid Hamadani or a Sayyid Samnani, or anyone else for that matter, to become his "murid-e-khas"? You cannot disregard or dilute the Shaiva metaphysical content in her thought by harping on such stories and fabrications. The secret of her phenomenal popularity, even during her own lifetime, was the great spiritual heights she had attained and this greatness sometimes gave her courage to even question her own Guru:

gwaras pritshyom sasi late

yas nu kenh vanan tas kyah nav

pritshan pritshan thachis tu lusus

kenhas nishi kyah tany drav

A thousand times did I my Guru ask

What is the name of the one who can’t be named

And asking again and again I tired myself out

How has something come out of nothing?

One cannot imagine how someone like her could have submitted meekly before the Sayyid missionaries at the fag end of her life and agree to give up her life long faith? Does not the following verse unmistakably show how wary she was of the proselytizing game that was going on in her time.

ha tsyatta kava chhuy logmut par mas

kavu goy apuzis pazyuk bronth

dushi boz vash kornakh para dharmas …

O mind, why do you feel intoxicated by someone else’s wine?

Why do you mistake the unreal for the real?

Weak mindedness has let you to be overcome by others’ faith.

In another vaakh, Lal Ded says of herself: "Lalla merged herself in the light of pure consciousness (chitta jyoti) by means of the mysterious syllable Om, and thus did away with the fear of death". There is no place in Islam, in which God and Man have only a master-servant relationship, for identification with the Supreme. Nor do orthodox Sufi order entertain such thought. Mansur had to pay with his life for saying "ana'I haq" (I am Truth).

What then is the source of Lal Ded's mysticism? Where from does it derive if not from Sufism? Prof. Jaya Lal Kaul and Prof. B.N. Parimu have very clearly shown how the Shiva philosophy of Kashmir forms the basis of her thought. "As I find", writes Prof. Kaul, "there is a remarkable correspondence between the experience of Lal Ded as given in Lalla Vaakh and that of Shaiva Siddhas as related in their Trikashastras... This should undeniably prove that she was a Shaiva Yogini, not only because she uses, whenever she needs to use them, the technical terms only of Tiika Darshana but, more so, because of her concept of God, her Yoga technique her own anubhava, direct perception and experience - all these are of Trika system." Prof. Parimu is equally specific: "The key to Lalla's mysticism is the Shivadvaita or the Trika philosophy of Kashmir". The mystic strain that is so prominent in Lal Ded's poetry, in fact, combines her quest for gnostic illumination with the depth of emotional experience. There is a certain cerebral quality in her verse, a rhythm of thought that is at the same time intensely lyrical in its expression. In his book "Triadic Mysticism", Paul E. Murphy calls her the "chief exponent of devotional or emotion-oriented Triadism". He writes: "Three significant representatives of devotionalism emerged in Kashmir in the five hundred years between the last half of the ninth and the end of the fourteenth centuries, they were : Bhatta Narayana, Utpaldeva and Lalla. Predominant in all three is the advocation of a path of love unencumbered by techniques and means."

Bhatta Narayana, the direct disciple of Vasugupta, wrote the Stava Chintamani in the 9th century. The work, which Murphy calls "a love poem", has 120 verses on the communion between Shiva and Shakti "under the form of Prakasha and Vimarsha or Light and Self-Awareness". Utpala, who according to Lilian Silburn was "both mystic and genius, powerful metaphyscian, astute psychologist and above all, great poet", and "next to Abhinavagupta the most notable and audacious figure of the Self-Awareness {patibhijna) School", wrote Shiva Stotravali, described by Murphy as" the most beautiful of Shaiva love songs written in an intensely touching though simple style". Lal Ded, whose verses record her own mystic life, shares with these two Shaiva poets, who preceded her, a sharp feeling of the immediate presence of Shiva, the Divine Being. The poetry of all the three of them stems from "an intense resignation to the divine will", and reflects their vivacity, originality and deep sincerity. There is a striking similarity in many passages of theirs which can be compared for their "emotions, intoxications and sufferings", and the metaphors and images that express these. For instance, Utpala in his mystic ardour and with a mind inflamed by powerful longing approaches Shiva, the compassionate Lord, to attain communion with him and clenches Him with an impassioned cry and "holds Him in his fist":

"Here you are, I hold you in my fist! Here You are, I've seen You-where are You fleeing?"

[Stavachintamani, Tn. Paul E. Murphy]

This has a perfect parallel in Lalla, who evokes the sane image in this expression of hers:

andryum prakash nyabar tshot um

gati rot um tu karmas thaph!

I diffused outside the light that lit-up within me

And in that darkness I seized Him and held Him tight!

Images and metaphors relating to the concept of Shiva's self-luminosity abound in Shaiva devotional poets, and the Bata or "darkness" that Lal Ded refers to is the dark Mystical Night of anguish and suffering which ultimately leads to the Night of Undifferentiatedness.

Bhatta Narayana uses the image of the dark cavern of heart where "darkness is dissipated on all sides by the Brightness Supreme". Here too there is a striking similarity in the words "the interior cavern" used by Bhatta Narayana and "andryum" the "inner" (light) that Lal Ded has used.

Lala Ded expresses her mystical feelings-the pangs of separation from Shiva, the passionate urge to unite with Him, the desperate quest and the frustration of losing the direction, the difficulties of the path, the intensity of suffering which only strengthens her determination to seem Him face to face and possess Him, the total surrender of will and the ecstasy of the final beatitude-in imager and metaphors that are powerful and stunningly beautiful:

lal bo drayas lolare

tshandan lustum dyan kyoh rath

vuchhum pandith panini gare

suy mye rotum nechhatur tu sath

I, Lalla, set out with burning longing

And seeking, searching, passed the day and night

Till lo! I saw to mine own house belonging

The Pandit, and siezed my luck and star of light

(Trs. Nila Cram Cook)



lal bo lusus tshandan tu gvaran

hal mye kormas rasani shyatiy

vuchhun hyotmas taary dithmas baran

mye ti kal ganeyi tu zogmas tatiy

I, Lalla wearied myself searching and seeking

Exhausting my strength my every nerve as I

looked for Him,

I found His doors slammed and bolted

My longing became all the more intense

And I stood there watching for Him.



ayas vate gayas nu vate

semanzu svathe lustum doh

chandas wuchhum har na ate

navi taras dimu kyah bo

I came by the highway, but by the highway I did return

I found myself stranded halfway on the embankment

With the light of the day having faded away

Searching my pockets, a penny I did not find

What shall I pay now for being ferried across?



mal wondi zolum

jigar morum

tyeli lal nav dram

yell dally traavymas tatiy

I burned the impurities of the mind

And killed my desires

Then only I did my name Lalla became known

When I surrendered completely before Him



panas laagith ruduk mye tsu

mye tsye tshandan lustum doh

panas manz yeli dyuthukh mye tsu

mye tse tu panas dyutLim tshoh

In seeking 'me' and Thee' I passed the day

Absorbed within Thyself thou hadst remained

Concealed from me! I wondered for away

When I beheld Thee in myself, I gained

For Thee and me that rapure unrestrained

(Trs. Nila Cram Cook)



pot zuni wathith mot bolanavum

dag lalunaavum dayi sunzi praye

lalu lalu karith lalu vuzunovunum

milith tas man shrotsyom dehe

Waking up at the end of moonlit night

I called the 'mad one'-my mind

And soothed his pain with the love of God

Crying "It is I Lalla, it is I Lalla", I awakened the Beloved

And by becoming one with Him my mind and body became pure!

The first step in this "mystical progression" is, according to Silvia Silburn, self-annihilation or destruction of all doubt and dualism, and the culmination is communion with the divine, which in Shaiva triadic terminology is self-realization of one's Shiva-nature, a stage in which nothing remains but Shiva-consciousness-"soruy suy to boh no kenh" (He is everything, and I am nothing). The ultimate mystical selfrealization in Lal Ded, therefore, means absorption in Shiva.

But Lal Ded does not remain hovering in the high heaven of mystic experience alone. She has her feet firmly planted on the earth. There is no tendency in her to separate the experiences of mystical life from the experiences of ordinary life. Instead of disregarding everyday experiences she elevated herself through it to the ultimate experience of liberation, which in Trika metaphysics means swatantrya or absolute freedom of will, which is the nature of Supreme Shiva Himself. Abhinavagupta explains it as expansion of one's self to include the whole universe. Kashmir Shaivism, it should be noted, does not reject the phenomenal world as unreal or illusory but regards it to be the self-expression of Shiva-His poem, His work of art, His projection of Himself on a screen which is also Shiva. Lal Ded's expression of her longing to attain oneness with transcendence, therefore, should be taken to mean expression of her feeling of unity with Shiva's immanent form also. If "Shiva is all", then to her, He is not different from the ordinary man we find on the streets-he who laughs and sneezes and coughs and yawns:

ase paande zvase zame

nyathuy snan kari tirthan

vahri vahras nonuy ase

nishi chhuy tu parzantan

Yes, He it is who laughs and coughs and yawlns

He, the ascetic naked all the year

Who bathes in sacred pools in all the dawns

But recognise how He to you is near

(Trs. Nila Cram Cook)

For Lal Ded, there is no difference between the 'I' and the 'other' ("par to pan"), immanence and transcendence, universal and individual consciousness-subjective and objective reality being but aspects of the ultimate reality which is one and indivisible. She sees life as an eternal and continuous flow of consciousness:

asi aasy tu aasi asu, asav

asi dor kar patuvath

shivas sori nu zyon tu marun

ravas sori nu atugath

We have been in the past

In future also we shall be

Forever the sun rises and sets

Forever Shiva creates and dissolves and creates again.

It is not that she is talking in riddles or in paradoxes about cycle of births and re-births and immortality of the soul. She is talking of human life which is a stream that flows onwards and onwards. It is this experience of reality that is at the core of her mysticism, which begins as the quest for the ultimate and culminates in a vision that is profoundly humanistic. And this is what marks her as a great poet. Lal Ded is not a professional philosopher, nor her verses any philosophical treatise, but she is deeply concerned with the predicament and ultimate destiny of humankind.

Yet Lal Ded's poetry is not the poetry of social concern in the sense it is made out to be by some scholars. In their eagerness to construct her image as some sort of a social reformer out to reform the medieval Kashmiri society and rid it of the evils afflicting it. This is again a false image, a deliberate twist given to her spiritual humanism to suit ideological considerations. There is no use digging for communitarian ideals from her verses, for they are just not there, though she does feel disturbed by social injustice and discrimination of which she herself is a victim, and is outraged by the sham and pretence that go in the name of religion. She also displays a deep sensitivity towards human suffering, her heart bleeding at the sight of the learned man dying of starvation while an utter fool beats his cook (for not having cooked a tasty dish):

gatulah akh vuchhun bochhi suuty maran

pan zan haran puhuni vavu lah

nyash bod akh vuchhum vazas maran

tanu lal bo praran tshenyam na prah

I saw a learned man dying of hunger

Trembling like dried leaves falling in harsh winter wind

An utter fool I saw beating his cook

(For not having prepared a delicious dish)

Since then I am waiting for being free of worldly attachments.

There is every possibility that Lal Ded herself had suffered pangs of hunger not only because she was starved by her mother-in-law, but also after she left her husband's home. This is what this verse seems to suggest:

tsal tsetta vondas bhay mo bhar

chaany tsyanth karan panu anad

tse ko zanuni kshod hari kar

kival tasunduy toruk nad

O, restless mind! Do not fear

The one who is Beginningless takes care of you

You do not know when he will satiate your hunger

Cry to Him alone for help!

In another verse she says:

treshi, bwachhi ma kreshanavun

yany tshei tany sandarun dih

Do not torment your body with the pangs of durst and hunger

Whenever it feels exhausted, take care of it.

It should be obvious, therefore, that Lag Ded is not unaware of the harsh realities of life like hunger and poverty, nor ignorant of the agony and anguish of existence. Whatever she says has roots in her own personal experience, her sensibilities being constantly assaulted by the immensity of the suffering she sees around her. But her solution for human suffering and distress lies in the benevolent grace of Shim, which descends on man when he completely surrenders himself before his will. The intensity of her social awareness turns her almost into a rebel, even as her egalitarian ideas and ideals find expression in spiritual terms. Shiva, she says in one of her verses, shines like the sun on the high and the low alike:

rav matu thali thali taapitan

taapitan uttam-uttam dish

varun matu lotu garu atsytyan

shiv chhuy kruth tu tsen vopadish

Does the sun not shine everywhere alike

Or does it shine only on the best places?

Does not the water god "Varuna" enter every home?

Or does it enter only the homes of the fortunate?

While the way she asks such disturbing questions does reveal how intricately and intimately her spirituality is linked with her universal humanistic concerns, it would be too much to assume that she was actually a social activist. Yet there are people who like to persist with the theory that Lal Ded "synthesized the best" in Shaivite and Islamic traditions, whatever that may mean. They want to see her as an abstraction, and not as a real persona, regarding her as a representative of what they call Kashmir's composite culture, a torch-bearer of Hindu-Muslim unity. With obvious political motivations, they project her as though she were a spokesperson of the present day secular discourse and utilize her for scoring points in current political debates, not caring to think how cliched their arguments based on false premises have now become. Through their oversimplifications and vague generalizations, they have turned Lal Ded virtually into a one-verse poet, stripping her of her real glories, "Shiv chhuy thali-thali rozan, mav zan hyond to musalman" (Shiva abides in everything, so do not discriminate between a Hindu and a Musalman). Is that then the quintessence of her poetic thought? The only basis of her greatness? The verse appears to be a spurious one, although Rajanaka Bhaskara has included it in his collection of "Lalavakyani”. Lal Ded had spent her early youth in the reign of Udyan Deva, the last Hindu king of Kashmir, and of queen Kota Rani. Even when Islamic rule was finally established in 1359 A.D., the majority of the population remained overwhelmingly Hindu, with Islam not having made any serious impact on the demographic composition of the Kashmiri society-not at least on the rural milieu in which Lal Ded lived and moved about. To whom then has the verse been addressed? Who was discriminating against whom? The fact is that attempts to show Lal Ded's verses as a part of the current secular debate, are being made only as a strategy to condone the barbarities inflicted on Kashmiri Hindus dining the six hundred years of Islamic rule. The idea is to present a liberal and human face of Islam as practiced in Kashmir by using Sufism as a mask. Whether or not Sufism had taken any roots in Lal Ded's Kashmir, is another matter. The strategy seems to have worked, for a general impression has been created that she was either a Sufi mystic herself or was deeply influenced by Sufism.

Whether or not Lal Ded had a social reformer's zeal, she was strongly egalitarian in her views and was more aware than most devotional poets about the prevailing social conditions of her times. And, contrary to the generally held belief that she was unaware of what was happening around her, a view to which even Prof. Kaul subscribes, there is enough evidence in Lalla's vaaks to show that she was very much conscious of what was going on around her, including the sweeping political changes that were taking place during her time. This is at least what the following lines of hers appear to suggest:

hyath karith rajya pheri na

dith karith tripti na man

In ruling kingdoms there is no relief

In giving them away there yet is grief

(Trs. Nila Cram Cook)

Is she not is referring here to the Kota Rani-Rinchin Shah Mir affair that eventually brought in Muslim rule to Kashmir?

Lal Ded is scathing in her attack on hollow ceremony and ritual in religion, her emphasis being on inner experience. She has no belief in "sacred places and sacred times", pilgrimages and fasts supposed to bring religious merit. She scoffs at what A.K. Ramanujam calls "orthodox ritual genuflections" and recitations. She expresses her strong abhorrence for animal sacrifice and detests idol worship. She must have surely provoked the orthodoxy at whom she misses no chance to take pot-shots. In this she reminds one of the Kannada Vachana poet Basvanna, and also of Kabir and Nanak whom she anticipated. Surely, hers was a strong voice of protest in medieval Kashmir-perhaps the only voice raised so fearlessly.

With Lal Ded not conforming to any of the image constructs built around her by those who want to reduce her to an idea or an abstraction according to their predilections, what could the real Lal Ded have been like? To reclaim her authentic persona, we have no option but to discard the motivated myths and invoke the actual text of her verses. In this context, it must be noted that Lal Ded recited her vaaks to actual audiences who were enraptured and mesmerized by her words, which happened to be in their own mother tongue. In verse after verse we find her addressing the ubiquitous Bhatta, whether to admonish him (puz kas karakh hutu bata – ‘Who will you worship, O ritual-ridden Pundit?'), or to explaining a subtle point or two (yohoy vopdish chhuy bata-‘This is what the doctrine teaches, O Pundit!'). This clearly shows that she knows her audience. Not that Lal Ded belongs to any one community-her message is certainly universal-but she does have the Pandit in mind whenever she has a point to make.

To find out the authentic Lal Ded, then, we have to rely mainly on the internal evidence that her vaaks furnish. Packed with sufficient biographical material, as the vaaks are, we can reconstruct with their help her mystic life, her experience as a woman, as a saint and as a poet, her view of the relationship between God, man and the world. An image as near reality as possible. But in this there are problems. Lalla vaaks have been orally transmitted from generation to generation and are available only in randomly available versions, with practically no chronological sequence. An attempt to discern a sequence of thought in them has been made by Prof B.N. Parimoo, who has tried to link them as thematic units under some broad divisions in his book, "The Ascent of Self". The book, written in 1978, is the first exercise of its kind undertaken by anyone and can be deservingly called a significant contribution to Lal Ded studies. "The cue to the arrangement of the verses", says the author, "is taken from the 'I-ness' categorically denoting personal experience".

But admirable as Prof. Parimoo's attempt to "re-interpret" the vaakhs is, one cannot be certain that while picking up the autobiographical threads he has arranged them according to actual chronological sequence, that is, exactly in the order they were composed. Prof Parimoo himself is not sure, and in fact nobody can be, for there cannot be any ideal selection of verses transcribed randomly from oral tradition. The author of the book, however, does not appear to have taken as much care as he should have in making his selection. Quite a number of verses he has included are obvious interpolations. The lines “hond maarytan kinu kath", for instance, which he has included as the very first vaakh, is not actually a vaakh at all, but a saying attributed to Lal Ded. His total reliance on the account of Ramjoo Malla for biographical information because it does not "tilt the purpose of this book" appears to be rather curious.

Before referring to the text, therefore, we have to be sure how far genuine it is. This accentuates the need of a critically valid text of Lalla Vaaks-something that has not been attempted quite seriously so far, except a solitary attempt made by Prof. Jaya Lal Kaul. Laments Prof. Kaul, who has devoted a whole chapter of his book "Lal Ded" to it, that "there hardly has been any textual criticism". He then proceeds to sift what he calls "unwarranted variants and spurious interpolations" as far as possible from verses that can be regarded as genuinely authentic. Of the total 258 vaaks that circulate in the name of Lal Ded and occur in various collections, he has included only 138 in his collection and even their authenticity he is not prepared to "vouch for". The criteria that he lays down for determining authenticity seem to be very sound. These according to him should be: "The evidence of diction and prosody, and the quality and cast of thought, the way it is organized in the process of expression, in a word, the characteristic style of Lal Ded". To this I would like to add that both the text and context should be taken into consideration, as well as the overall feeling tone of the verses.

Prof. Kaul has pointed out : "There are 35 verses that occur both in ... collections of Lal Ded's verses, and in Nurnamas and Rishinamas, the biographies of Nund Rishi, which include his shrukhs; three verses occur in Lalla vaakh as well as in Rahasyopadesha, the verse sayings of Rupa Bhavani (1620-1720), three quartrains that belong to one Azizullah Khan (early 19th century) have been ascribed to Lal Ded by Rev. J. Hinton Knowles in his Dictionary of Kashmiri Proverbs". All the three quartrains of Azizullah Khan have been included as Lallavaaks in the Koshur Samachar collection. Interestingly, one of these quartrains has been translated by that great Indian translator A.K. Ramanujan in the name of Lal Ded, and quoted as such by K. Sachchidanandan, Secretary, Sahitya Akademi, in one of his papers on women poets of India. The verse, as given in the Lal Ded Number of Koshur Samachar is as follows:

daman basti dito dam

thitay yithu daman khar

shastras swan gatshi haasil

wuni chhay sul tu tshandun yar

Obviously, neither the diction (she could never have used words like ‘yaar' or 'haksil’) nor the quality and cast of thought of this verse is that of Lal Ded, but it continues to be ascribed to her again and again. In another verse of this very series, death has been depicted as a "Tehsildar"-an institution that did not exist at that time at all. The confusion prevailing in this regard is mainly due to interpolations, a game indulged in by many, not without a strong element of deliberateness. Lines from other poets heavily laden with Persian and Arabic words have been passed on as Lal Ded's as in an attempt at what can be called linguistic subversion. Some of her ardent and overzealous admirers too have tried to put words in her mouth, though out of reverence for her. The total incompatibility of diction seems to have never bothered the perpetrators of such distortions. Yet nobody can claim that the language in which Lallavaakhs have been passed on to the unsuspecting inheritors of her oral legacy is the language in which they must have originally fallen from the celebrated poetess' mouth. The only sure way to ascertain their authenticity would be a linguistic comparison with extant Kashmiri works of periods immediately preceding or succeeding Lal Ded, as written evidence of no contemporary work is available. These works are the 'Chhumma Sampradaya' verses which can be assigned to the 11th or 12th century, 'Mahanaya Prakasha' by Shiti Kantha, 'Banasur Katha' by Avtar Bhatta and 'Sukha-dukha Charit' by Ganak Prashast. I had the good fortune of studying all these works while preparing my doctoral thesis on the linguistic peculiarities of 'Banasura Katha', and so I am aware of their significance in presenting a somewhat coherent picture of the medieval development of the Kashmiri language and their immense value in tracing earlier forms of a good number of Kashmiri words. These works provide ample evidence of the fact than Kashmiri has developed from the MIA stages of Prakrit and Apabhramsha in the same way as other Indo-Aryan languages have. Anyone who cares to go through these works will be able to gain valuable knowledge of the linguistic situation that actually prevailed in Kashmir from the 11th-12th century to the end of the 15th. If would be useful to give here one example each from the above mentioned works to give a feel of the state of Kashmiri language used during this period:-

bhava svabhave saba avinashi

sapana sabhava vi uppanna

te az niravidihi agam prakashi

idassa dishti kachi vipachhanna

(Chumma Sampradaya)



yasu-yasu jantus samvid yas-yas

nila pita sukha-dukha-swarup

udayis datta samanyi samaras

kama kampana tas-tas anurup

(Mahanaya Prakasha)



dhik-dhik myaanis yadava zammas

vanati atsa majja kachan

yudha kara namet swakammas

ushe atha chhon iha than

(Banasura Katha)



him zan tape viglyos pape

kukaram chitto

(Sukha-dukha Charit)

A detailed description of the linguistic features of these works is not possible here; but one can clearly notice the thread of linguistic development that runs through them. Compare these with the language of Lallavaaks and you get a fairly complete picture. Grierson has called the language of Lal Ded's vaaks "Old Kashmiri", but it does not require any special insight to see that it is quite "modern" compared to the language of the illustrations cited above because of the many changes it has undergone due to oral transmission. However, we can come as near to an authorized version as possible by reconstructing their text with the help of Banasur Katha and Sukh-dukha Charit. This is a desirable but extremely difficult task.

Even so, those who take the deliberately distorted and mutilated text to be genuine, ignoring the fact of its massive interpolation, must know that Lal Ded could in no case have used the heavily Persianised language of the 19th or early 20th century nearly six hundred years back. It is of utmost importance therefore, that to arrive at authentic Lal Ded, we should discard all the spurious elements introduced by those who are interested in building false image constructs.

Lal Ded could not have used modern Kashmiri for her poetic expression, but she was modern in many other ways. She had in her the characteristic modern self-reflectiveness, the insistence on accepting as authentic only what she herself could experience directly, the broad catholicity of outlook that called for tolerance of diverse views and made her define her relationship to God in terms of oneness of all existence, the deep existential anguish she felt while reflecting on the human condition. She was modern in the universality of her concerns, in her choice of metaphor and image, in her rejection of every kind of sham and pretence, in her fearless assertion of what she saw as truth. Indeed, at times it appears that she is more modern then most of the contemporary Kashmiri poets.

Lal Ded's struggle as a woman has been largely overlooked. She may not have been a conscious feminist in the sense the term is understood today, but she did show the courage of resisting the oppressive structures of patriarchy and refusing to play the traditional role of a submissive daughter-in-law. Rebelling against social tyranny, she broke the shackles that bind a woman even before her birth, and asserted her right of taking her own decisions. She challenged the orthodoxy and threw the rigid codes of dress and decorum followed by the medieval society of her times to the winds and roamed about with barely any clothes on like the great Kannada Shaivite poetess, Mahadeviakka. Perhaps it was her last act of defiance against a social set-up whose arbitrary and gender discriminatory rules she did not find acceptable.

It is in accordance with these facts that we shall have to reconstruct the image of the great saint-poetess of Kashmir, noting that she does not fit into most of the image-constructs that have been built around her. The Shah Hamadan anecdote and the so-called miracle of the oven seem to be an insult to such a fearlessly and fiercely independent woman. She started her spiritual journey as a tormented soul, but attained a stage where self- realization and self-awareness gave her tremendous inner strength and the confidence that derived from that strength:

kesari vanu volum ratith shal

I dragged the lion from its den like a jackal.

It is this that explains the pervasive influence that Lal Ded has on Kashmiri psyche to this day. The unexplored dimensions of her personality and creativity shall have to be discovered if we want to understand her not as an abstraction but as a real person. She is quintessentially Kashmiri, having shaped the Kashmiri language and literature, as she did, but she is also universal in her appeal. Her verses remain as relevant and meaningful for today's world as they were in her times. Let me conclude by quoting a line from one of her own most powerful vaaks:

yim pad lali vany tim hridi ank

Brand on your heart what Lalla spoke in verse!


1. Lalavakyani: Rajanaka Bhaskara.

2. The Word of Lalla: Sir Richard Temple. C.U.P., 1924.

3. Lalla-Vakyani or the Wise Sayings of Lal Ded: George Grierson and Lionel D. Barnett, Royal Asiatic Society Monograph, Vol. XVII, London, 1920.

4. Koshur Samachar; Lal Ded Number. Kashmiri Samiti, Kasmiri Bhavan, Amar Colony, New Delhi, 1971.

5. Lal Ded : Prof Jayalal Kaul, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, 1973.

6. The Ascent of Self: Prof B.N. Parimoo, Motilal Banarasi Dass, Delhi, Second Ed., 1987.

7. A History of Kashmir. P.N.K. Bamzai, Metropolitan Book Co., 1962.

8. A History of Muslim Rule in Kashmir. RK. Parmu, Peoples Publishing House, New Delhi, 1959.

9. Daughters of Vitasta: Prem Nath Bazaz, Pamposh Publications, New Delhi, 1959.

10. Kashir : A History of Kashmir (2 vols)., S.M.D. Sufi, Light and Life Publishers, New Delhi, Reprint, 1974.

11. Kashmiri Sahitya ka Itihas : Shashi Shekhar Toshkhani, Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages, 1985.

12. The Way of the Swan: Nila Cram Cook, Asia Publishing House, Bombay, 1958.

13. Sheeraza (Kashmiri) : Special Number on Lal Ded : Jammu and Kashmir Academy of Art, Culture and Languages, Srinagar, 1979.

14. Triadic Mysticism : Paul E. Murphy : Motilal Banarasi Dass, Delhi, 1999.

15. Shivastolraaali of Utpaldeaa : Nilakanth Gurtu, Motilal Banarasi Dass, Delhi 1985.

16. Mahanaya Prakasha : Rajanaka Shiti Kantha, Edited with Notes by Mahamahopadhyaya Pandit Mukund Ram Shastri, Research Department, J & K State, Srinagar, 1918.

17. Banasur Katha: Avatar Bhatt, MSS. Bhandarkar Oriental Institute, Pune.

18. Basasura Katha : (Ph.D. dissertation), Shashi Shekhar Toshkhani.

19. Sukha-Dukha Charit : Ganaka Prashasta, MSS. BOI, Pune.

Lal Ded: The Great Kashmiri Saint-Poetess



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