Cultural Syncretism in Kashmir

Shiv chuy thali thali rozaan
Mav Zaan Hyound ta Mussalman
Trukhay chukh ta panunuy paan parzaan
Ada Chay Saahibas Zaani Zaan (Lalla-Ded, quoted in Mattoo 2007)

Shiva abides in all that is everywhere
Then do not discriminate between a Hindu and a Muslim
If you are wise seek the Absolute within yourself
That is true knowledge of the Lord (from “Lal-Ded’s Vakhs”)

Kashmiris have taken pride in inhabiting a cultural space between Vedic Hinduism and Sufi Islam. The traditional communal harmony in Kashmir enabled the peaceful coexistence of Muslims and Hindus, mutual respect for their places of worship, and an ability to synthesize not just cultural but religious practices as well (for conceptualizations of Kashmiriyat, see Kaw 2004; Razdan 1999; Rushdie 2005; Whitehead 2004: 335–40). Deep reverence for each other’s shrines and the relics housed in those shrines is a well entrenched aspect of the culture. Salman Rushdie (2005: 57) describes this sentiment of “Kashmiriyat” succinctly in his fictionalized account of the history of J & K, Shalimar the Clown: “The words Hindu and Muslim had no place in their story. . . . In the Valley these words were merely descriptions, not divisions. The frontiers between the words, their hard edges, had grown smudged and blurred.”

A fitting symbol of this syncretic ethos of Kashmir is Lalla-Ded, a figure revered by both the Pandits and Muslims of Kashmir. Lalla-Ded was born in 1334 into a Kashmiri Brahmin home in village Simpur, about four miles from Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir. She was brutalized in a marriage that was arranged for her by the elders once she crossed the threshold of puberty. Unwilling to acquiesce to the constraints placed on the “traditional” woman and questioning the self-abnegation of women that disallows them from reconciling their private selves with their roles as public contributorsto the community, Lalla-Ded disavowed the psychosocial narratives inscribed on the female body in defiance of the continued conscription of women (Bhatnagar, Dube and Dube 2004: 30).

Challenging a Patriarchal and Hierarchical Society

I would argue that by committing the sacrilegious act of crossing the threshold of the husband’s house in order to choose a life of asceticism, Lalla-Ded subverted the traditional reliance on male authority. She was a yogini, a professed woman ascetic, who disseminated the yogic doctrines with an unquenchable zeal. Her passionate pursuit of self-knowledge led her down the tortuous path of a yogic life, but the flame of her devotion blazed bright. Lalla-Ded is a watershed in the cultural and spiritual development of Kashmir. Bazaz’s assessment of the “splendid” role that Kashmiri women of ancient times played in the social and cultural life of Kashmir is glorious but romanticized, and discounts the disparagements that intellectually inclined women had to combat in order to emerge as public figures.

But unconditional freedom from sexualized hierarchies does not exist in any social matrix. Bazaz’s assessment of Kashmiri women in ancient times is sanguine but mythical in that it ignores the “internal dynamics of patriarchal and hierarchical societies, essentially biased against women. Rigid, reprehensive customs and conventions placed women inferior to men in status, rights, power and freedom in these societies. Discrimination and equality were accepted as a natural scheme of things” (Misri 2002: 7). The women whose positions on the political and artistic zenith Bazaz chooses to foreground were affiliated with the royalty in a monarchical regime basking in the freedom from economic constraints and societal limitations that women of other classes were tormented by. But Lalla-Ded sought, in the social arrangement to which she had access, concepts and tools for a new society which would be liberated from gendered forms of oppression. She intervened in patriarchal national history by speaking from her location about the political realities that had woven the web of prevalent social relations. Lalla-Ded’s ability to be alert to how a woman’s aspirations for personal emancipation are mediated by her responsibility towards her community, and the ways in which this sense of responsibility inflects her own emancipatory thought, underscores her importance for me. She rejected a sexualized persona in order to break the power nexus that underlined the objectification of “the damsel in distress.”

Although a Sufi mystic, childless Lalla-Ded eroded the construct of woman as goddess or mother that binds her to a form of subordination that is the ultimate paradigm of social relationships in traditional societies. Most historians are of the opinion that Sheikh Noor-ud-Din Wali, the founding father of the predominant Sufi sect in the Kashmir Valley, Rishiism, acknowledged Lalla-Ded as his spiritual mentor. There is a legend that the infant Noor-ud-Din adamantly refused to be suckled by his mother, Sudra. When the infant was brought to Lalla-Ded, she reprimanded him for his rejection of nourishment. Subsequently, the boy allowed his mother to nurse him. Later, Lalla- Ded facilitated Sheikh Noor-ud-Din Wali’s immersion into the intellectual radicalism generated by her philosophy of Religious Humanism (Bazaz [1959] 2005: 138). The recorded poems and paradigmatic sayings of Lalla-Ded and of Sheikh Noor-ud-Din Wali enrich Kashmiri literature and add layer upon layer to the culture. (For renditions of syncretic Kashmiri literature with a rich spiritual content, see Kaul 1999; Murphy 1999; Parimoo 1978;Sufi 1979.)

After extensive research on poetry and literature in the Kashmiri language, Sir George Grierson (1911) drew the inference that Lalla-Ded is the oldest Kashmiri author. Her verses retain their relevance in various parts of the Valley even centuries after the decline of mysticism: “Lal Vakyas [wise sayings], rich in philosophical theme and content, rolled down to generations through word of mouth in Kashmiri, language of the masses” (Misri 2002: 9). A prolific scholar of Lalla-Ded’s religious philosophy, Professor Amar Nath Dhar, sent me an eloquent e-mail (on 18 April 2008) about her composite spiritualism and its cohesive impact on Kashmiri society, which dissipated because of the relegation of the syncretism that was lived by Lalla-Ded and Noor-ud-Din Wali to circumscribing political, literary and cultural realms:

Nund Rishi alias Sheikh Noor-ud-Din Wali was greatly influenced by Lalla-Ded. Holding her in very special regard, he was not averse to the Hindu belief in the avtarhood of Lalla-Ded. The Rishi order founded by him evolved in theValley itself after the advent of Islam. It was Sheikh Noor-ud-Din Wali’s unqualified veneration for the saint-poetess Lalla that had a great impact on devout Kashmiri Muslims, his followers. That explains why for centuries the Muslims in the Valley have continued to own her, delighting in memorizing her sayings and quoting them on festive occasions such as marriage ceremonies and cultural functions, as the Kashmiri Pandits do as well. The Sufis in Kashmir, especially those who were not alien to the Valley but rooted in the humanistic Rishi tradition nurtured by Noor-ud-Din Wali (Nund Rishi) and his followers, contributed a lot to the preservation of the composite Kashmiri ethos.

Although she was born into a Hindu family, Lalla-Ded “was greatly influenced by Islamic Sufiistic thought and may, in truth, be said to be above all religious conventionalities” (Sufi 1979: 167). The most significant contribution of Lalla-Ded to the Kashmiri language and literature is that she translated the sophisticated, esoteric concepts of Saiva philosophy and her mystic experiences into the vernacular and made them accessible to the many. She employed metaphors, idioms and images from experiences with which ordinary people could relate, in her translations of abstruse concepts. Her deployment of the easily recitable verse form of the vaakh in Kashmiri, the language of the masses, enables the incorporation of her utterances into the common mode of speech. She sought to forge a relationship with her Creator which did not require the intercession of a religious male figure, a Brahmin priest or a Mullah.

While further researching Lalla-Ded as a mystic and a poet, I found Sir Richard Carnac Temple’s heart-warming translations of her verses. I was particularly inspired by the one in which the self is foregrounded as the cure of all spiritual, physical, mental and material afflictions:

Lady, rise and offer to the Name,
Bearing in thy hand the flesh and wine.
Such shall never bring thee loss and shame,
Be it of no custom that is thine.

This they know for Knowledge that have found –
Be the loud Cry from His Place but heard –
Unity Betwixt the Lord and Sound,
Just as Sound hath unison with Word.

Feed thy fatted rams, thou worldly one,
Take them grain and dainties, and then slay.
Give thy thoughts that reek with “said and done”
Last-fruits of Knowledge, and cast away.

Then shalt see with Spirit-eyes the Place
Where the dwelling of the Lord shall be:
Then shall pass thy terrors of disgrace:
Then shall Custom lose her hold on thee.

“Think not on the things that are without,
Fix upon thy inner self thy Thought:
So shalt thou be freed from let or doubt”: –
Precepts these that my Preceptor taught.

Dance then, Lalla, clothed but by air:
Sing, then, Lalla, clad but in the sky.
Air and sky: what garment is more fair?
“Cloth,” saith Custom – Doth that Sanctify?

(R.C. Temple, “‘Cloth’, Saith Custom – Doth that Sanctify?,” in Temple [1924] 2005: 172–73)

Lalla-Ded was a visionary whose promethean verses broke the intractable frameworks of conventional thought and behaviour, which pinioned the self.

Self-Awareness Erodes Constrictive Conventions

She pre-empted the modern-day psychoanalytic promulgation of the concept of self-awareness:

Lalla has yet another hard saying. The sense of it adopted in the English wording is that she utters a cry of despair. Like Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, she has been bearing on her back a burden of worldly illusions and pleasures, compared to a load of sugar-candy, and the knot of the porter’s string that supports it has become loose and galls her. She has found that such a burden produces toil and pain. Her wasted life in this workaday world has become a weariness, and she is in despair. She has recourse to her Guru, her spiritual Teacher. His words cause her intolerable pain, such as that experienced by the loss of a beloved object – the worldly illusion that she must abandon. She learns that the whole of the flock of factors that make up her sentient existence have lost their proper ruler, the mind; for it is steeped in ignorance of Self. (Ibid.: 227)

Recognizing one’s strengths and weaknesses enables one to pave the tortuous path toward self-advancement – a much sought after goal that would allow people of different intellectual dispositions to relegate life’s peripherals to the background and face the vicissitudes of fate with courage and faith in themselves.

It is a herculean task not just to recognize the self, but to channelize the confidence which the said recognition fosters. Self awareness enabled Lalla-Ded, unobstructed by a false consciousness, to practice religious, cultural and social iconoclasm in an idolatrous and cult worshipping society. Again anticipating the psychoanalytic emphasis on maintaining serenity and verbalizing destructive emotions in order to defang them, Lalla-Ded exhorts the believer to

Keep thy mind calm as the Peaceful Sea,
Slaking and quenching the fires of Wrath,
Lest from thy bondage thou set them free
And the words of rage, as flames, break forth:

Words that shall sear, as with fire, thy mind
Burnt in anger to be healed in truth.
What are they? Nothing. Nothing but wind,
When thou hast weighed them in scales of Truth. (Ibid.: 181)

In an age in which the culture was pervaded by conservative sensibilities, well-defined gender roles and the confinement of women to home and hearth, Lalla-Ded’s blatant mockery of confining conventions was condemned by the upholders of the hegemonic order.

Her honed self-knowledge and sublimation of needs highlighted by society taught Lalla to maintain an unscarred mind in the face of thoughtless condemnation and adversity. Critical intelligence, particularly when expressed by a woman to break down societal, religious and cultural edifices, has always been intimidating and has invited virulent criticism, as it did in Lalla’s case. The ravages of time and the putative liberation of women in the twenty-first century have not diminished the potency of Lalla-Ded’s radicalism, the tangible beauty of her poetry, and its pertinence in this day and age.

In an enlightening conversation that I had with Mohammad Yousuf Taing, former secretary of the Cultural Academy and Director General Culture, J & K government, he pointed out that it is also believed that Lalla-Ded was greatly influenced by discourses on mysticism and on the different schools of Sufi thought given by Mir Syed Ali Hamadani, Shah Hamadan, a regal Central Asian Islamic scholar and mystic who disseminated and perpetuated Islamic teachings in predominantly brahminical fourteenth and fifteenth-century Kashmir. In fact, educated Kashmiri Muslims are of the firm opinion that the verses which Lalla-Ded composed after having forged a spiritual alliance with Shah Hamadan and other Muslim scholars reverberate with Islamic thought.

Lalla fills her teaching with many things that are common to all religious philosophy. There are in it many touches of Vaishnavism, the great rival of Shaivism, much that is reminiscent of the doctrines and methods of the Muhammadan Sufis, who were in India and Kashmir well before her day, and teaching that might be Christian with Biblical analogies, though the Indians’ knowledge of Christianity, if any, must have been very remote and indirect at her date. (Temple [1924] 2005: 165)

Lalla-Ded’s secular and anachronistic teachings were a death-knell for orthodox religion. Sheikh Noor-ud-din Wali placed Lalla-Ded in the role of the mother who honed his knowledge of the ethos of Kashmir (for a delineation of Lalla-Ded’s religious philosophy, see Bamzai 1994; Murphy 1999).

Impact of Lalla-Ded’s Teachings on Pandit and Muslim Communities

Lalla-Ded’s poignant verses, pulsating with the pain and damnation of peripheralized social and economic groups, were not written down but were ensconced in the language and cultural discourse of the ‘hoi polloi’, and continue to reverberate in the day and age of political paranoia and religious fundamentalisms. She chose to break the mould of patriarchy in a stiflingly traditional society by not allowing her intellectual and spiritual freedoms to be curbed.

Through her poetry, Lalla-Ded questioned restrictive cultural mores, religious, social, economic and gender hierarchies, and the relevance of esoteric knowledge. She deconstructed traditional dichotomous categories and anticipated the postmodern notion of the implosion of the Supreme and Nature, the individual Self with the Universal Self. The true devotee, from the non-dualist point of view, ‘is one who recognizes that He is all in all and that all creation and all experiences are but modes of Him’ (Temple [1924] 2005: 169). Lalla renders her teachings with sensuous imagery, making them easier to visualize. For instance, she illustrates her teaching of the implosion of dichotomous structures and of the unity of the Self with the Supreme using the analogy of the melding of ice, snow and water. She explains that the three are different, but the sun enables the blending of all three. Similarly, true knowledge enables the soul to recognize not only its oneness with the Supreme, but also with the entire universe (ibid.: 179).

Nyla Ali Khan is the author of Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism, Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir, The Life of a Kashmiri Woman, and the editor of The Parchment of Kashmir. Nyla Ali Khan has also served as an guest editor working on articles from the Jammu and Kashmir region for Oxford University Press (New York), helping to identify, commission, and review articles. She can be reached at