Lalleshwari, locally popular as Lal Ded, was a Kashmiri mystic of the early medieval period, renowned for her devotional lyrical verse. Her spiritualist compositions, musings, methods and practices were universal, holistic and transcendental in appeal, and thus inspired Hindus and Muslims alike. She managed to express insight in brevity, simplicity and above all, encompassive generality, surpassing most of her comparatively narrow-minded contemporaries. She emphasised sentimental abstraction and was a pioneering, vocal critic of superficialities as idolatry. She was instrumental to the body of vernacular mysticism in the region, and a harmonising influence and crucial link between traditional mysticism, the popular Bhakti movement and Sufism. To erstwhile sensibilities, Lal Ded was a tantalising oxymoron: a revolutionary reformer and an idealist empath. She made the esoteric accessible.
Lalleshwari was born in Pandrethan (ancient Puranadhisthana), about 7 kilometres to the southeast of Srinagar, in a Kashmiri Pandit family, during the reign of Alaa-ud-din Khilji.
Evidence strongly suggests that Women in erstwhile Kashmir, received liberal education. She was supposedly inspired by exposure to Shaivite teachings and preachings, early on in her life, as substantiated by her poetry, which indicates that she was educated as a young child, at her father’s house.
She was married at the age of twelve where, she was renamed Padmawati, keeping consistent with a patriarchal Kashmiri Pandit tradition, by her-in-laws. Her marriage was dissatisfactory: She was continually tormented by her mother-in-law, while her simpleton and gullible husband, persisted oblivious, mundane and extremely passive, in pretty much every aspect. She left home at the age of 24 to take Sannyasa (renunciation) and become a disciple of the Shaivite guru, Siddha Srikantha (Sed Bayu), whom she ultimately surpassed in spiritual attainments. She carried forth the torch of Shaivism (erstwhile known as Trika) in Kashmir, and much proliferated it. She furthered the tradition to such extensivity, that the once-esoteric (locally held as such) mysticism became augmented in local lore and folk narratives.
Lal Ded was stylised independently and varyingly by each community, she was simultaneously co-existed as the Lalla Yogini to the Hindus and the Lal’arifa to the Muslims
It so happened that Lal Ded’s husband approached her guru, Sedha Mol, beseeching his help to convince Lal Ded to return home to him. The guru assented, and the following offers glimpses into the deliberation that ensued. It depicts the insightful spontaneity and wondrous poetic wit of Lalleshwari:
Lal Ded’s Husband:
No light equals the light of the sun,
No pilgrimage is there like the one
To the Ganga
No relative excels a brother, and
No comfort is there like that of a wife!
No, light parallels the light of
No pilgrimage is there, like
The one, on one’s knees.
No relative’s better than one’s own pocket, and
No comfort is there, like a warm blanket:
There is no light like
The knowledge of ultimate TRUTH,
No pilgrimage, like the one
of the love of the Supreme,
No relative like the Lord himself,
The Influential Mystic
The prominent Kashmiri Sufi proponent Sheikh Noor-ud-din Wali (also popularly known as Nooruddin Rishi or Nunda Rishi) was heavily influenced by Lal Ded. This culminated in the conception of the historically eminent ‘Rishi order’ of saints and later gave rise to many Rishi saints as Resh Mir Sàeb (aka Baba Hyder Reshi).
Lal Ded has since been entangled with later day Islamic culture and popular lore, and her vibrancy analysed through a Sufi prism.
She is also known by a host of other nominals, including Lalla Aarifa, Lal Diddi, Laleshwari, Lalla Yogishwari and Lalishri.
Lalla also had a social reformist facet to her, and her preachings often mildly chided and directed adherents to look beyond superficialities, more than scratch the surface and delve deep. She was averse to indiscriminate investment of faith in icons or idols, and warned against superstition, meaniningless ritualisms and excessive extrinsic pomp. She instructed pupils and self-stylised Godmen with insight, to discover God inside one’s soul, as an abstract, intrinsic, all-pervasive entity. One such composition, that waries against irrational, blind customs and offerings, goes as follows:
O, you dull pandit, you offer
A living ram to a lifeless stone,
It ‘li cover you in woollens.
And shield you against cold;
It’ll feed on water and natural grass,
Who has advised you to sacrifice
A live-lamb as an offering
To a dead rock?
She was the originator of the style of mystic poetry called vatsun or Vakhs, literally “speech” (Voice). Known as Lal Vakhs, her verses are the earliest compositions in the Kashmiri language, and are a crucial part in the history of modern Kashmiri literature. She inspired and interacted with many Sufis of the region.
Her various works were analysed and retold more poetically from an Islamic perspective. Sufi retellings, not only adapted but embellished her works to cater to abstract Islamic sensibilities, rendering them more concise, artistic and poetic in nature. The introduction of these subtle alterations helped capture popular imagination and summit Lal Ded’s legacy as an omnipresent, transcendental, cultural figure.
In his The Trio of Saint Poets, I, P. N. Razdan aptly comments, “Lalleshwari is credited with laying the reinforced concrete basis of the language [Kashmiri] by her dext(e)rous coinage of apt idioms and proverbs to infuse life and dynamism into it from its very infancy. The language, thus enriched and ornamented by lively idiom pregnant proverb, depth of philosophical thought and messages of social welfare and peace, became the main vehicle of communication of ideas among the Kashmiri people. Her cryptic, terse sayings still continue to enliven scholarly discussion and resolve social problems.”
One of her elegant and summarising compositions goes as follows.
With a florist’s heart and
Offer him the flowers of Bhakti.
Shiva is omnipresent,
Distinguish not between
A Hindu and a Mussalman
We existed ever before and’ll exist for ever;
We permeate all, did so earlier and’ll
Continue prevailing all, for ever;
The immortal soul shuttles between life and death,
The sun ceases not rising and setting.
nor is it destroyed:
Siva ceases not coming and going:
Although, Lalleshwari contended and observed faith in a formless (nirankaar) and attribute-free (nirgurn) divine, and held it to be the highest transcendental vantage point(and hence the one providing broadest view towards the other specifics beneath) and spiritual epitome; Keeping consistent with her broad, outlook, she nonetheless, entertained faiths towards formful manifestations of deities and never condescended towards or belittled other ideologies, as long as they observed utmost, selfless devotion. Though contemporaries held her as a paragon of spiritual prowess, and she was venerated by the masses, she never held any designations, belongings or material attachments.
The unique, simple-devotional character of her saadhana helped enable spiritualism as commonplace and household, for posterity. By ridding Shaivism of customary ritualisms and fringe practices, she made it readily accessible and universal in appeal. Her practice replaced esotericism with devout emotion.
While Lal Ded was stylised independently and varyingly by each community, she was simultaneously co-existed as the Lalla Yogini to the Hindus and the Lal’arifa to the Muslims; But both affectionately referred to her as Lal ‘Ded’ (Lal Granny); That precisely makes it all the more grave a misfortune that in contemporary reality, these connotations are increasingly intercompeting and undoing the very inherent underlying unity of spiritualism that Lal Ded strived to expose. Her single greatest prowess lay in being able to broad-mindedly entertain any depiction, portrayal and attribute ascribed to the formless deity, and visualising the abstract Almighty in every deed and manifestation. She was perhaps the first figure to effectively and popularly, reconcile Abrahamic and monotheistic Dharmic beliefs.
Though most ascetics belonging the Shaivite esotericist order were digambar (lit. sky-clad) , i.e. went fully naked, extending the paradigm to nuns i.e. yoginis, a rarity in the first place, was grossly unimaginable and considered a heinous thought: a unanimous double standard that conflicted with the ideological prescriptions of the sect’s philosophy. Lalla, against fierce objection, calmly but inflexibly, adopted and committed herself to this sign of utmost devotion and renunciation, both metaphorically and materially. She deemed it an essential prerequisite, a necessity of austerity.
Lal Ded single-handedly rid mysticism of bearing privy to a particular creed, community or language, or even faith, and helped fashion Shaivism into a syncretic, all-embracing, queerness-welcoming sect.
Lore has it that, such was her repute, aura and immaculate knowledge, that despite the sheer cultural shock incurred by her defiant act, none, not even the most vocal of opponents dared practically act against her. Streetsfolk would often leer and pass jibes at her, as she passed, but in every instance, her stoic self-consummation and indifference, besides unyielding adherence to her choice of renunciation and inadvertently nonconformist naturalism, would causes the chastising, the mocking and the rebutting to subside in mere moments, and critics to disperse, having received no audience in unheeding ears.
Her writing prominently featured erotic innuendos, sexual metaphors, such analogies and artistic and bodily hedonistic (albeit strictly non-materialistic) symbolisms that are now tantric staples, at stark odds to the prevailing local Shaivite customs. Her aesthetic of freely using carnal longing to exemplify divine euphoria, besides her vernacular and colloquial dialectic, led to the relatability, universality of appeal and pluralism of her works.
No longer were the esoteric arts and divine devotion, a sole-entitlement of snobbish, smug Sanskrit-tongued pureblood Brahmins. Lal Ded single-handedly rid mysticism of bearing privy to a particular creed, community or language, or even faith, and helped fashion Shaivism into a syncretic, all-embracing, queerness-welcoming sect. Seekers no longer needed to rely on Seers and High-Priests to liaise and initiate their way to God, as spiritualism became essentially a personal journey of self-discovery.
She inadvertently carved out a syncretic tradition of her own, and in her wake, her legacy transcended narrow intra-religious and inter-religious sectarian bounds. Ever serene, she never altered her convictions or doctrine to conform or cater to contemporary paradigms. In herself, she was pure, consistent and transcendental in outlook: for the apparent conflicts and biases mirrored in her, would go on to be proven the observers’ own.
- M. G. Chitkara (1 January 2002). Kashmir Shaivism: Under Siege. APH Publishing. pp. 14
- Kashmir’s wise old Grandmother Lal Aditi De’s review of I, Lalla by Ranjit Hoskote in The Hindu/ Business Line
- Mystic insights Abdullah Khan’s review of I, Lalla by Ranjit Hoskote in The Hindu