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Kashmiri poetry reflects and recognizes Kashmiri culture, history, and traditions

“Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular.” ― Aristotle

By: Tanveer Maqbool

Kashmir, located in the country’s northern part has always been a place of indispensable recreation. The picturesque landscape has remained a point of attraction and endowed with its own spiritual charm, it has inspired poets and writers throughout the centuries. The erstwhile Kashmiri poets continue to enthral the imagination of present-day readers, leaving them with a feeling of joy and peace of mind and adding lyrical beauty to this rich cultural heritage of the valley.

Poetry is defined as the manifestation/expression of emotions and ideas. It has always been a vital part of the rich culture of Kashmir and forms an illustrious part of Kashmiri literature. The poetry of Kashmir dates back to many centuries and it revolves mainly around three languages, Sanskrit, Persian and Kashmiri, besides Urdu, Hindi and other languages. It inherits in it the reflection of the social life and was used to express the pleasure and displeasure, approval and disapproval of the various political and social changes. The poets have illustrated the culture, tradition, and essence of life in Kashmir exquisitely in their poetic verses.

Kashmir’s affluent literary history has produced eminent poets and writers and it has substantially contributed to the field of literature. The literary work of Kashmiri writers has been recognized and accoladed internationally as well. Sufi tradition and the Sufi shrines have always added to the already rich heritage of this place. The land discerned for its scenic grandeurs has innumerable shrines which are held in devotional esteem by people of all religious faiths. These holy places have become a synergy of brotherhood.

The history of Kashmir underwent a number of sociopolitical transitions since the 12th century and had a considerable influence on the poetic tradition. This was followed by the birth of various genres of poetry. From Lal Ded and Nund Rishi’s powerful devotional poetry that was influenced by Sufi mysticism to Rupa Bhawani’s poetic blend through contact between Kashmir Shaivism and Sufi Islam. From Habba Khatoon’s romantic lyricism to poetic discourse during the Sikh regime.

Kashmir, often described as the abode of saints, has produced a number of spiritually evolved persons.

Born to a Kashmiri Pandit family in the 14th century, Lalleshwari popularly known as Lal Ded was a prominent saint and a mystic poet. Lal Ded is also known by various other names, including Lalla Aarifa, Lal Diddi, Lalleshwari, Lalla Yogishwari/Yogeshwari and Lalishri.

‘Padmavati’, was the name given to her by in-laws. Married at the tender age of twelve years, it is known that Lal Ded was ill-treated by her in-laws. Living by the harsh treatment for about 14 years, Lal Ded at the age of 26 years renounced her family and became a devotee of Lord Shiva. She was a disciple of Shaivite guru, Siddha Srikantha (Sed Bayu) whom she later surpassed in spiritual attainments and became a torch-bearer of Shaivism in Kashmir.

Lal Ded was the architect of mystic poetry called ‘Vaakhs’ and her ‘Vaakhs’ have been venerated and admired by all races and regions. Her Vaakhs signify the finest teaching for mankind and are a true inspiration to strive for unity, harmony and brotherhood among the people. She was of the view that all religions lead to the same path though they may appear to differ in practices.

shiv chhuy thali thali rozan

mo zan batu to musalman

truk hay chhukh tu pan praznav

sway chhay sahibas suuty zan

Shiva abides in all that is, everywhere. Then do not discriminate between a Hindu and a Musalman. If you are wise, know yourself, that is true knowledge of the Lord.

Nund Reshi, another prominent Kashmiri Sufi mystic of the 14th century, gave the first direct reference to Lalla in his verse:

That Lalla from Padmaanpora (Pampore),

did drink nectar tumbler after tumbler.

She was a saint and she did bring up a saint,

O’ God, give me her vision and knowledge.

Ame padman porchi Lalley

Amrit chovnas galigaley

The Lalla of Padmanpora served me the amrit (her breast feed) makes me immortal.

Immortal in our religion means one who is not subject to death and decay. The soul which transcends the biology of a body is immortal. Lal fed the Sheikh with such a drink that did not feed his body but his spirit and it made him immortal.

Exact date of Lal Ded’s death is not known. It is said she died in Bijbehara. Lal Ded by her vaakhs is still alive.

Sheikh-Ul-Alam also known as “Nund Rishi”, "Sheikh Noor-ud-Din Noorani" and by the honorary title "Alamdar-e-Kashmir" was born in Qaimoh village (Kulgam) in year 1377. Sheikh-Ul-Alam was a prominent Kashmiri saint, a poet and Islamic preacher. He is believed to be amongst the founders of Rishi order of the region.

Married to Zai Ded who later became a hermit after the death of her children, Sheikh-Ul-Alam also renounced the worldly life at the age of thirty years and started meditation in a 10-feet deep cave in his native village.

His poetic rhythm is an amalgam of spiritual literary knowledge and has tremendous influence on the life and literary culture of Kashmir. In his verses, known as ‘Shrukhs’, Sheikh-Ul-Alam diversified and highlighted the religious and moral principles and did often call for peace. He strived for Hindu–Muslim unity.

Sheikh-Ul-Alam is also accredited for translating the Quran into Kashmiri language.

His couplets are very popular with the people even today and the crux of his poetry is that he persuaded people to give up their vices and control their evil self.

A strong advocate of propositioning the reconstruction of society, Sheikh-Ul-Alam in his Shrukhs protested against the evils of society. Concerning the social inequality he asked the rich to take care of poor people by giving Sadqah etc. Through his verses he protested against the caste system, hypocrisy and the corruptive and ignorant administration.

He also was a visionary with profound insights about the environment he lived in. One of his most quoted couplet, which is considerably relevant in today’s world regarding climate change issues, is below;

“An poshi teli,

Yeli van poshi”

Food will thrive only

Till the woods survive

An unparalleled linguist and poet, Sheikh-Ul-Alam passed away in 1440 at the age of 63 years. He was buried at Charar-e-Sharief and his shrine counts amongst the most sacred Muslim shrines in India and the place is visited by a large number of people regardless of their religion, caste and creed.

In the galaxy of mystic poets, saints and sufis who have decorated the empyrean of the Reshiwari (Kashmir), Rupa Bhawani illuminates as a bright star. Rupa Bhawani was born in Safa Kadal area of Srinagar city in year 1620. She was the daughter of Pandit Madhav Joo Dhar who initially introduced her to the practices of yoga. Pandit Madhav Joo Dhar is also considered as the spiritual guru of Rupa Bhawani.

Married at an early age, Rupa Bhawani lived a harsh life. The pain and agony was similar to the life led by Lal Ded. Ill-treated by her mother-in-law and husband, she abandoned her in-laws house in the quest and pursuit of God.

Rupa Bhawani’s poetry also takes the form of the vaakhs, thought up by Lal Ded in the 14th century. In her rich mystic poetry, influence of both Kashmiri Shaivism and Islamic Sufism can be found. Her poetry is so vibrant with her presence that on reading them one feels that she is very near, giving knowledge to her children with powerful words of renunciation, and dispelling ignorance with the weapon of Eternal Truth. She was well versed in Sanskrit, Persian, and even Kashmiri, her top work Rahasyopadesha, contains around one hundred and forty vaakh (couplets) of mystical poetry.

Also affectionately known as Roopa-ded, she addressed the women to develop their divine intellect of self-respect and inner peace for the betterment of the society as a whole. She proposed this visionary thought which in the modern day terminology is referred to as women empowerment.

The Muslim populace here in the valley called her by the name ‘Roopa Aarifa’ and she commanded great respect amongst them as well. Her progenies (from her paternal side), referred as Sahibi Dhars, have carried her message forward. Even today, the nirvana ceremony is held with great piety and devotion at her birthplace (Safa Kadal) where she also had attained nirvana and at Wushkara area in Baramulla town. She performed her initial penance ‘tapasya’ in solitude at Khanqahi Sokhta, in Wusan and Manigam (Ganderbal), and near Chashma-i-Shahi on Zabarwan hills in Srinagar district. These places, including her birthplace at Safa Kadal, are now famous as Ropa Bhawani Asthapanas.

Kuni na tamaahe kunina takabure

Shamiyuth sore pure rav

Pal pal pali tai tas na mure

Vaetit vaates pure rav.

Desire nothing, take pride in nothing

Contain the senses, and the inner sun will rise

Grow with each moment and lose nothing

Reach that state and be full as the sun.

Rupa Bhawani entered mahanirvanain 1721. The day is commemorated in Kashmir as Sahibi Saptami.

Habba Khatoon was born in 1554 in Chandrahar (Pampore) area of Pulwama. Her real name was Zoon (translated as the moon) and she was popular by the name of ‘Zooni’. She was also known by the honorary title The Nightingale of Kashmir.

Her poetry was acknowledged and recited by all, and more imperatively her poetry was on a different discourse compared to the older peers.

Born in a village and at a time when girls were not enjoying the rights to read and write, Zoon unlike her friends learnt Arabic and Persian from a religious educator in her native village.

Her father got her married at quite young age to an illiterate boy; however the marriage didn’t last long and ended in divorce. Zoon at that time had already shown interest in poetry and had composed a lot of songs. Singing under the chinar shades was her hobby and it is said that once Yusuf Shah Chak happened to pass by and listening to her melancholy and gazed by the beauty of Zoon both fell in love. Soon they got married and Zoon changed her name to Habba Khatoon. However, the happiness didn’t last long as Yusuf Shah was called to Delhi by the then Mughal Emperor and was imprisoned in Bihar.

With this desolating and heartbreaking incident, Zoon became a wanderer as she couldn’t bear the pain of separation and was always optimistic of the return of her beloved. She tuned and deciphered her pain in the form of poetry and heartbreaking songs, which are still very popular and sung in Kashmir to this day.

However, women poets before her wrote of spirituality and mysticism but the ‘Nightingale of Kashmir added the clause of romantic lyricism to Kashmiri poetry.

In Gurez valley of Bandipora district, a pyramid-shaped peak that rises over the town is named after the melody queen.

Vany dimai aara balan

yaara kunyi melakhnaa

vany dimai aaravalan

dubara yaara melakhnaa

I’ll seek you down the wandering brooks

Praying we must meet again

I’ll look for you where the jasmines blow

Don’t tell me we shan’t meet again



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