Lalla Ded – The Epitome of Kashmiriyat

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BY: Mir Imtiyaz Aafreen

Something from within has continuously been motivating the human souls from almost all the cultures to rise above the material considerations for the realization of the Divine Truth i.e., God in this very life. Numerous men and women since ages have been setting out on a spiritual odyssey for self-realization leading to doorstep of the ultimate Truth. Most of the sages across cultures have declared this realization of the divine truth as the sole purpose of human existence, as Swami Vivekananda remarks:

“He is born in vain who, having attained the human birth, so difficult to get, does not attempt to realize God in this very life.”

From the beginning, Kashmir has been an abode of spirituality and divine wisdom (Shardapeith/Peervaer) and in every age many great souls have shined on its spiritual horizon to enlighten the hearts of men and undoubtedly Lalla Ded is one of them. She emerges as the most potent spiritual figure when superstition and superficiality had devoured the spiritual and moral ethos of religion.

Today when we are vacillating between spirit and the matter, and facing the powerful currents of spiritual and moral bankruptcy, Lalla Ded emerges as a harmonising voice of peace and tranquility. She represents the basic spiritual ethos of Kashmir and emerges as a pioneer of ultimate wisdom. Lalla Ded is the most celebrated poetess among all the social and cultural sections of Kashmiri society. The Hindus commemorate her by the name of Lalleshwari and Muslims adore her as Lalla Aarifah but for all the people irrespective of caste, creed and colour, she is Lalla Ded or Granny Lal. She has been residing in the collective memory of Kashmiri people since ages and her name has been a house-hold name in Kashmir. Knowles in his Dictionary of Kashmiri Proverbs has collected some 1600 proverbs from Kashmir, none of these have greater repute than the sayings of Lalla. We can hardly find a person who has not some of them ready on the tip of his tongue. In this way she and her work is of utmost importance and the people of Kashmir derive spiritual sustenance from her poetry. Her uncommon style and powerful message places her poetry at the level where her poetry can be compared with the great poets from any tradition. She caught the attention of many noted scholars like George Grierson, Lionel Barnett, Coleman Barks, Aurel Stein and Sir Richard Temple and different scholars from different parts of the world have tried to interpret her poetry with a great respect and devotion.

Her poetry has been translated widely, including English translations by Jane Hirshfield in Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women , Coleman Barks in Naked Song: Lalla , The Poems of Lal Ded , Sir George Grierson in Lalla-Vakyani or The Wise Sayings of Lal-Ded, A Mystic Poetess of Ancient Kashmir, B N Parimoo in The Ascent of Self, Paul Smith in The Book of Lalla Ded, Muktananda in Lalleshwari, J L Bhat in Lal Ded Revisited and Ranjit Hoskote in I, Lalla.

Though much legend has clustered round her name Lalla, little is really known about her. All that can be affirmed of her is that she certainly existed, and that she lived in the fourteenth century of the Christian era, being a contemporary of Sayyid Ali Hamadânî at the time of his visit to Kashmir in 1379-80 to 1385-86 A.D.

Lal Ded was born in Pandrethan, about 10 kilometres away from Srinagar. She married at the age of twelve, but her marriage was unhappy, after being ill-treated by her husband and her mother-in-law, she left home at twenty-four to take renunciation. Her indomitable spirit and profound creativity were too expansive to be encased in the outmoded familial and societal structures. The proverbial ‘neelvathh’ (Blackstone) that her heartless mother-in-law covered with thin layers of boiled rice to look a huge mound, has become a metaphor for oppressed Kashmiri womanhood. She called it a day and chose the life of a wandering ascetic, a course seldom charted by women in those times. Leaving the conjugal bliss, she went out to embark on the path of self-realization. She resolutely decided to free herself from the patriarchal bondage and undertook a spiritual odyssey for the realization of the inner truth and transformed her feminine selfhood, capable of exploring the spiritual and metaphysical dimensions of life. She reaches a spiritual state where the discrimination on the basis of color, creed and gender gets dissolved and her mental and spiritual horizons broaden to such an extent that she embraces the whole universe to be one with its creator. Her wanderings took her to a guru who instructed her to take the spiritual inner path and she began to compose her ‘vaakhs’ only after the period of rigorous discipleship was over. She says:

“The Guru gave me only one Word:

Enter into thyself from the outer world.

The guru’s precept came to me as God’s word,

That’s why I started dancing nude.”

The folk-tales tell us about her nude wanderings which has been challenged by many noted scholars for being symbolic in nature. However, it is said that when she was asked why she does that, she is said to have retorted that there was no ‘man’ about; till one day, in the course of wanderings she saw from a distance, Sayyed Mir Ali Hamdani, popularly known Shahi Hamdan. It is said that suddenly she cried: ‘I have seen a man !’ She ran down the street to hide her nakedness. When a grocer refused to give her shelter, she jumped into the burning oven of a baker who closed the lid out of fear of being apprehended for murder. But the poor baker was amazed, almost to the loss of his wits, when she came out of the lower opening of the oven, wearing celestial garments of emerald green, and greeted the saint.

Lalla Ded is considered to be a mystic of Kashmiri Shaivite tradition. Her mystical poetic compositions are called Vakhs, which literally mean speech, her verses are the earliest compositions in the Kashmir language and are of a great importance in the history of Kashmiri literature. Her adherence to Shaivism and close association with many Muslim Sufi’s especially Mir Syed Ali Hamadani played a key role in the making of her worldview as she exchanged many spiritual discourses with him. The Kubrawi Sufi Order to which Mir Syed Ali Hamadani belonged is looked upon as a staunch protector of the rights of the defenseless and the poor. The Sufi’s from this order rose against oppression and argued that beside the secular king should stand a divinely guided advisor, whose duty will be to make sure that the rights of the weak are protected. The Sufis from this order took exercises in the restraint of breathing, strongly reminiscent of the yoga exercises of the Shaivism and Lalla seems to have embraced them whole-heartedly. How superbly she puts forth her spiritual self-realization in her poetry:

“When my mind was cleansed of impurities, like a mirror of its dust and dirt,

I recognized the Self in me:

When I saw Him dwelling in me,

I realized that He was the Everything and I was nothing.”

Like most of the Sufi saints especially Kashmiri Rishi’s,  Lalla lays special emphasis on the purification of self (Nafs) and the internalization of the Divine Truth.

True mind, look inside this body,

This body they call the Self’s own form.

Strip off greed and lust, polish this body,

This body as bright as the sun.

(R Hoskote: Poem 141)

Her spiritual discourses with the great Sufi saint of Kashmir, Sheikh Nuruddin (RA) also known as Nund Reshi  are found in many books of Sufi literature. Lalla Ded and Sheikh Nuruddin (RA) were contemporaries and it is recorded that they had a close association with each other. Sheikh Nuruddin (RA) was also a notable poet, reformer and mystic of his time. Numerous proverbial sayings of Lalla Ded and Sheikh Nuruddin (RA) are found in Kashmiri language even today. Even some of their poetic expressions have intermingled to such an extent that at times it becomes very difficult to decide who is the real composer of these verses. Due to these spiritual interactions, her poetic canvas gets expanded and some basic tenets of Sufism like Wahdat ul Wujud (The unity of Being) are beautifully reflected in her poetry.

“You are the sky so are you the earth;

You are the day, the atmosphere and the night;

You are the grains, the sandal (wood), flowers, and water;

When you are everything, what may be offered to you in


Her poetry does not possess only metaphysical and spiritual dimensions but at times her poetry seems to raise a potent cry of protest against bigotry and casteism prevalent in her society. She satirizes the prevalent Hindu tradition of sacrificing animals for pleasing the idols. It is said that Lalla found a Brahmin leading a sheep to be sacrificed to propitiate a god, in order to secure redemption from sin. She breaks her silence and pointing towards the sheep, directly admonishes the Brahmin with these verses:

“It will cover your shame and keep off cold from your body,

It feeds on grass and has water for drink.

Who has taught you, foolish Pandit,

To offer as food the living creature to propitiate an insentient stone?”


Lalla Ded seems to have reconciled the Hindu Shaivism with Islamic Sufism. She transcends the communal boundries and emerges as a voice of synthesis among different communities.  Lalla was not a bigot and to her all religions were at one in their essentials, she adopted this doctrine of reconciliation from both the Sufis and the Hindu philosophers. Pir Ghulam Hassan rightly points out in  Tārīkh-i Hasan:

“The Hindus say she is one of them.

The Muslims claim that she belongs to them.

In truth, she is from among those close to God.”

The Kashmir of her day held Buddhist monks, Brahman teachers and Sufi saints with a great reverence and she may have learnt something from each of them. In an utterance ascribed to her she says,

“Shiva, like the sun, shines everywhere;

Do not discriminate between a Hindu and a Muslim:

If thou art wise, recognize thy self;

That is the way of knowing the Lord”

Lalla came to be loved and revered by all sections of Kashmiris irrespective of their religious beliefs. With her message of religious tolerance and brotherhood, the timeless Lalla became a part of the collective consciousness of all Kashmiris.

B N Parimoo sums up her teachings in ‘The Ascent of Self’ like this:

“Lalla Ded teaches the people to rise above the plane of sensory perceptions to the subtle plane of recognition and true knowledge. That is the plane of correct understanding. Once man rises to that height, narrow-mindedness and stubborn discrimination between man and man on the basis of accidents of birth, race, caste and creed are wiped out. Her teaching has a devastating effect on the religious bigotry of man whose understanding is warped by misconceived notions of the ultimate Truth. Her philosophy is simple. God-realization is an act of self-realization and recognition of the fact that though apparently cast in different moulds, we are all made of the same stuff. The essence of creation is one and the same. The Mighty Being pervades us all. Her teaching boils down to the basic tenet of all religious teaching – The Universal Spirit is One, and we are but His earthly tabernacles. We must realize Him whose manifestations we are.”

As far as her poetry is concerned, there are no authentic manuscripts of Lalla’s compositions and her poetry has been transmitted through oral traditions. Collections made by private individuals have occasionally been put together, but none is complete and no two agree in contents or text. However her vakhs are on the lips of numerous Kashmiris, she still lives through her lyrical and spiritual compositions in the hearts and minds of the people

“A thousand times my Guru I asked

How shall the Nameless be defined?

I asked and asked but all in vain.

The Nameless Unknown, it seems to me,

Is the source of something that we see.”

Her poetry is rich in visual imagery, stirring in music and scintillating in the metaphorical leaps. It has a great contemporary relevance as it contains, insightful wisdom, the determination to resist authority, and the quest for freedom. Like Rumi’s reed-flute, she renders her spiritual longing for the divine ‘home’  like this,

“With a rope of un-spun thread am I towing my boat upon the sea.

O would God make me reach the shore:

As water leaks out from the unbaked earthen vial,

My soul yearns to reach its home.”

Her poetry heralds the emergence of a female voice in the middle of male-dominated literary tradition. The poetry of Lalla Ded not only mirrors her metaphysical ascension and self-realization but also celebrates the spiritual flight of Kashmiri womanhood. At a time when women were generally projected as ‘devoted’, ‘self-sacrificing’ and yet devoid of ability to think or make decisions, Lalla creates her own space and emerges as a social reformer. Krishna Misri writes, “Lalla Ded’s vision of religion and society was radical. Denouncing formalism in religion and the grip of traditional Brahmanism, she decried ceremonies, rituals and worship of trees, rivers, idols and stones in temples. Truth, she enjoined her countrymen could be realised by creating an atmosphere of purity, simplicity and equality. Her message of unity of God and universal brotherhood was profound and timely”.

Up, woman! Go make your offering.

Take wine, meat and a cake fit for the gods.

If you know the password to the Supreme Place,

You can reach wisdom by breaking the rules.

(R Hoskote: Poem 19)

Adding a new dimension to religion, she tried to make it relevant to the changing socio-political needs and conditions. Her poetry is rich in philosophical theme and content and it seems to roll down to generations looking forward for inspiration. In the times when Kashmir seems to be at crossroads, her voice may infuse a new resolution to the people. In the words of Ranjit Hoskote –

“Everywhere in the subcontinent, we find regions deeply tormented by ideological and religious schisms, suffering the legacy of terror as well as the insensitivity and repression of a State that cannot fathom the true feelings of its people. Everywhere, too, we find individuals who are uncertain of whether their journey through these troubled landscapes will be a pilgrimage towards illumination or an excursion into nightmare. In the depths of this crisis, I would like to believe that Lalla’s voice can still exert a redemptive power over those who hear her. As she says in poem 90:

Resilience: to stand in the path of lightning.

Resilience: to walk when darkness falls at noon.

Resilience: to grind yourself fine in the turning mill.

Resilience will come to you.”


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