Lalla: The Voice of Wisdom from Kashmir

By Chintan Girish Modi




“Concertina wire is the most widespread form of vegetation is Kashmir today. It grows everywhere, even in the mind,” writes Ranjit Hoskote. These words might come across as ruminations on the increased military presence in Kashmir coinciding with the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019, and the subsequent communication blockade imposed by the Indian government, but they actually appear in Hoskote’s introduction to his book I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded. 


Published by Penguin Books in 2011, this volume brings forth the voice of a 14th century mystic whose poems have been translated from Kashmiri into English by Hoskote. Over the last few centuries, these poems have circulated in Kashmiri popular culture in the form of songs, proverbs and prayers. Each poem of Lal Ded is called a vakh, which is usually translated as saying, verse-teaching or utterance. These vakhs are important to Kashmiris because they contain wisdom, the determination to resist authority, and the quest for freedom. 


Restless mind, don’t infect the heart with fear.
That virus is not for you.
The Infinite knows what you hunger for.
Ask Him to carry you across.
“I began to translate Lalla because she provided a connection to an ancestral past, to a homeland and a language that I had lost, as the descendant of Kashmiri Saraswat Brahmins who migrated to southwestern India in several waves of diaspora between the tenth and fourteenth centuries. Translating Lalla allowed me to learn the language of my ancestors; or rather, the language I might have spoken as a matter of course, had my ancestors not emigrated from the valley,” writes Hoskote.


At a time when politicians in India are dividing people along religious lines, it is helpful to recall that Lal Ded has been venerated by both Hindus and Muslims for nearly seven centuries. She is known by different names such as Lalleshwari, Lalla Arifa, Lalla Yogini, or simply Lalla. Hoskote’s book locates Lalla in the wider context of interfaith dialogue that Kashmir is known for. This context is not addressed in television debates that frame the conflict quite simplistically as a conflict between Islamism and Hindutva. 


Shiva lives in many places.
He doesn’t know Hindu from Muslim.
The Self that lives in you and others:
That’s Shiva. Get the measure of Shiva.


Hoskote identifies her as “a yogini, trained in the demanding spiritual disciplines and devotional practices of Kashmir Shaivite mysticism” but refuses to align himself with Hindu scholars who reject any hint of Islamic influence on Lalla’s beliefs or her acquaintance with Sufism. In fact, he believes that the spirit of Kashmiri Hinduism has eroded over time with the rising Wahhabi influence in the valley, the exodus of the Pandits, and the fact that Pandit shrines are now looked after Hindu priests from the plains, employed by the Indian armed forces. “To these outsiders, many elements of Pandit ritual practice would seem either strange or positively anathema,” he says.


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.


Whatever is known of Lalla’s life is primarily through legend. The Persian chronicles that lay out the chronological details emerged nearly four centuries after she died. From his literature review, Hoskote finds that modern scholars typically suggest Lalla was born in 1301 or between 1317 and 1320. The site could have been either in Sempore near Pampore, or in Pandrenthan near Srinagar. “She is believed to have died in 1373, although no one is certain where; the grave ascribed to her in Bijbehara appears to be of much later provenance,” he writes. 


You made a promise in the womb.
Will you keep it or won’t you?
Die before death can claim you
and they will honour you when you go.


According to the narrative pieced together by Hoskote, Lalla had an early marriage. She became a wife at the age of 12 but her heart was more inclined towards spiritual aspirations than conjugal bliss. She used to stay absorbed in meditation, and visit shrines. This made her husband quite suspicious, and even angry, so he treated her with cruelty. Her mother-in-law often made her go without food. Steadfast in her faith, Lalla overcome all these challenges. She renounced home and family at the age of 26, and found a guru who instructed her in the spiritual path. She began to compose her vakhs after the period of discipleship was over, and she ventured out into the world as a wandering mendicant.


I trapped my breath in the bellows of my throat:
a lamp blazed up inside, showed me who I really was.
I crossed the darkness holding fast to that lamp,
scattering its light-seeds around me as I went.


Even in 2019, it is not uncommon to come across women who endure domestic violence instead of leaving their husbands either because they are not economically independent or because they are expected to protect the family’s ‘honour’ or because single women are considered ‘loose’ and ‘available’. Hoskote writes, “To renounce the state of marriage, to wander, gathering spiritual experience: this was not an easy choice for a Brahmin woman to make in the Kashmir of the 14th century. As a disciple, she had been secure within her guru’s protection; her true ordeals began only after she had left her guru’s house and set off on her own, with no armour against the full force of social sanction.”


They lash me with insults, serenade me with curses.
Their barking means nothing to me.
Even if they came with soul-flowers to offer,
I couldn’t care less. Untouched, I move on.

Lalla did not give up. She took the humiliation in her stride, and kept her focus on the inner life. She wanted to transform her consciousness, and decode the mysteries of the cosmos. Pleasing her husband or endearing herself to the mother-in-law was not really on her priority list. Through her immense dedication, Lalla journeyed from being a questor to a teacher. Her deep knowledge is recorded in the vakhs. Hoskote writes, “Lalla’s poetry is fortified by a palpable, first-hand experience of illumination; it conveys a freedom from the mortal freight of fear and vacillation. She cherishes these, while attacking the parasitic forms of organized religion that have attached themselves to the spiritual quest and choked it; arid scholarship, soulless ritualism, fetishized austerity and animal sacrifice.”


My Master gave me just one rule:
Forget the outside, get to the inside of things.
I, Lalla, took that teaching to heart.
From that day, I’ve danced naked.


You must read the book to learn more about Lalla’s place within a long lineage of Kashmir Shaivite practitioners, her engagement with Tantra and Mahayana Buddhism, and how she became the foundational figure of the Rishi order of Kashmir Sufism initiated by Nund Rishi aka Sheikh Nur-ud-din Wali. This history of confluence needs to be accessed more widely because the history of Kashmir does not begin in 1947. It is long, rich, diverse and complicated. “A generation of Muslim children have grown up in Kashmir, who have never known Hindus. Their counterparts, a generation of children born to the Kashmiri Pandits who escaped terrorism in the early 1990s, have grown up in refugee camps in Jammu and elsewhere in northern India. They have no first-hand acquaintance with Kashmir or Kashmiri Muslims.”


It is this estrangement that makes it possible for the Indian state to exploit the grief of Kashmiri Pandits, and for the Pakistani state to capitalize on the pain of Kashmiri Muslims. The cultural ethos that Lalla’s poetry grows out of is under attack. Those who claim to protect Hinduism, and those who fight on behalf of Islam, have lost the capacity to see each other’s humanity. Their hearts are filled with a hatred that masquerades as moral superiority. If we let it pass, we will lose a crucial opportunity to act. We must address it. As Hoskote remarks, “In an epoch dominated by majoritarianism, sectarian intolerance and the deployment of faith as a political instrument, Lalla asserts the duty of critical intelligence, to be exercised alongside the right to belief.”


(Note: The lines in italics are Lalla’s poems translated by Ranjit Hoskote, and excerpted with gratitude from I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded. We hope this educational resource will be utilized by teachers initiating conversations about Kashmir with their students. Chintan Girish Modi is an educator, writer and peacebuilder who works on gender and LGBTQ issues. You can reach him at chintan.prajnya@gmail.com)