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Lalleshwari: The Rebel, The Poet, The Saint


Lalleshwari (about 1320–1392) mostly known as Lal Ded, was a Kashmiri mystic of the Kashmir Shaivism school of philosophy. She was the creator of the style of mystic poetry called Vaakh, i.e. speech/voice. Known as Lal Vaakh, her verses are the earliest compositions in the Kashmiri language and are an important part in the history of modern Kashmiri literature. It is believed that she was educated in the early part of her life at her father's house. Married at the age of 12, she suffered unendurable mistreatment and left her marital home at the age of 24 to take renunciation. Lal Ded stands as not only a pioneer Kashmiri poet, an intrinsic part of the folk tradition of the region, but also as a foremost female rebel saint-poet. She propounded the belief that one did not need priests, learned men or a particular language to approach God, as God was available to all.

The objective of this paper is to shed light on her journey from a well educated girl, to a married woman, to a saint who discovered the ultimate meaning of life. It will attempt to study the contemporary society as shown in her Vaakh. The paper will also point out that while listing out the Bhakti tradition we must remember the regional poets and their contribution to the spiritual and poetic world. The final objective of the paper is to explain that in the contemporary times when we are subjected to various pressures and being bound to social or religious norms, we must recall that living in turbulent times, she was able to retain her faith, eclecticism and tolerance. That it is only the path worth following.

Key Words: Lalleshwari, Lal Vaakh, Kashmir Shaivism, Mystic poetry, Rebel, Society, Saint.

Introduction: Her Life-sketch

Lalleshwari (or Lal Ded, as she is fondly called) was a saint-poet born in Pandrethan, a village in the suburbs of Srinagar in the second decade of the fourteenth century. She was given primary education and her teacher has been identified as Siddha Srikanth by scholars. He is arguably the one whom she refers to in her vaakh frequently. She was married into a family in Pampore at the age of twelve and the oral tradition tells us that her husband was not a good match. He did not have the sensitivity or the subtlety of mind to understand her deeper expectations from life and appreciate her spiritual pursuit. Moreover her mother-in-law was oppressive and was unable to understand that Lalleshwari thought at a higher plane. Even while performing all the household duties for many years her concerns lay far beyond a mere householder. In Kashmiri tradition, there are countless stories of how cruelly she was treated at her in-laws house. The Kashmiri language is full of proverbs connected with her unrelenting patience, legendary wisdom and spiritual power. It is said that she left her marital home at the age of twenty-four to take renunciation. Towards the end of her life Lalleshwari is believed to have gone to Bijbihara town in Anantnag district in South Kashmir. It is said that her soul arose as a flame to merge into the ultimate being (1392 CE). According to historical sources, she flourished during the reign of Sultan Alauddin and passed away during the reign of Sultan Shihabuddin.

The objective of this paper is to study the vaakh and trace Lalleshwari’s journey towards spirituality. She is one of the rare women in Indian history who is known because of the impact she has left in the intellectual tradition. It would discuss her contemporary society and the challenges she faced as a woman ascetic. The paper would recognize her poetic excellence while composing these philosophical verses. Finally the paper would discuss her great characteristic of a saint and her unmatched spiritual knowledge as expressed through her vaakh.

Lal Vaakh:

This paper has taken Prof. Jayalal Kaul’s work into consideration while giving a reference or English translation of the vaakh. The number of vaakh has been indicated while quoting it in the paper. Prof Kaul has provided 138 vaakh in his work. (Kaul, 1973) Authors Sham Misri and Sarla Gurtoo Mishri have been able to consolidate 315 of Lal vaakh from written and oral tradition. (Misri, 2015) The vaakh have been translated into English by many foreign and Indian scholars, Richard Temple, Coleman Barks, Jayalal Kaul, Jaishree Odin, and Ranjit Hoskote. It is acknowledged by scholars that Lalleshwari was a rare genius-both as a saint and as a poet. It is essentially through the vaakh that she gained popularity in Kashmir. As Professor Jayalal Kaul very aptly observes, the vaakh made a tremendous impact on the whole population of Kashmir. Hindus were a majority and the natives of the valley and Muslims being the fresh converts were also receptive to the wise sayings of this saint. The religious polarization has not taken place and the vaakh were accepted among both the communities. (Kaul, 1973) Later when the Hindu population decreased in the valley Lalleshwari and her vaakh still impacted the psyche of the regional people and continued to be held in reverence as Lal Ded (grandmother Lal) by both Hindus and Muslims. She is called Lalleshwari among the Hindus and Lalla Arifa among the Muslims. This explains that the Kashmiris as a community have always thought very highly of her spiritual attainment despite their different religious perceptions.

Lalleshwari as a Rebel:

The rebel characteristics of Lalleshwari have been demonstrated on two levels. One is at the personal and another at the spiritual level. Scholars have argued that while discussing her spiritual journey, her personal struggle as a woman has largely been neglected. (Toshkhani, 2002) Lalleshwari was a feminist in the truest sense of the word. She rebelled against the social structure of her times and challenged the orthodox rules. Asserting the right of taking her own decisions she broke the shackles that socially bind a woman. Being spiritually awakened she even threw the codes of dress and decorum followed by the society and roamed about without any clothes on in the streets of Kashmir to spread the knowledge that she had attained. The arbitrary and discriminatory rules of society were not acceptable to her and she defied the social set-up at every stage of her life. Her poetry, while elaborating the most complex mystic concepts, is also a woman’s work giving voice to other women. As an example, here is a popular vaakh, (yihay māira rūp pay diye)
As a mother a woman suckles a baby,
As wife she dallies amorously in love,
As Maya she takes one’s life in the end,
And yet in all these forms a woman she,
Siva indeed is hard to reach;
Then heed the doctrine this teaches you. (Vaakh 81)

In the last line of the vaakh, ‘āmi pana so’dras nāvi chas lamān’ (vaakh 1) she says ‘zua chum barman garu gatshuha’ which means ‘God! My heart longs to go back home. In this popular vaakh while describing the suffering of this mundane world she prays to God to ferry her across this world. It could also be understood as the prayer of an unhappy woman caught in a bad marriage who longs to return to her paternal home. It is interesting to note that even while discussing mysticism and abstract concepts; it is the women’s voice that is expressed unequivocally. In one verse with reference to Chakrayāga of the Kaulāchāra of the Śākta cult, she says, ‘Lady! Arise and prepare for worship, with wine and flesh and cates. If you know the changeless Supreme state of Paramashiva... It matters not if violating custom, you practice ‘left handed’ rites. (vaakh 61)

Lalleshwari was aware of the harsh realities of life like hunger and poverty. Her verses about the mundane world are rooted in her own personal experience. She says in a vaakh, ‘gāṭulah akh vuchum bwachi sū ty marān’ (vaakh 9) (I have seen a learned man die of hunger.) While her ideas find expression in spiritual terms, it is her strength as an ordinary individual that catches attention. Scholars have argued that it is possible that she herself had suffered pangs of hunger. There are folk tales that she was starved by her mother-in-law and some of the vaakh seem to suggest that probably she suffered from hunger after she left her marital home. In one vaakh she says, ‘Moderate in food and drink, I lived a controlled life, patiently bore my lot, my pain and poverty, and loved my God’. (25) and in another vaakh she is praying to God to help her in troubled times, ‘Have no fear, O restless mind, the eternal one takes thought for you... Cry to him alone for help.’ (29)

Dr. Dwarka Nath Munshi argues in his essay that Lalleshwari was a rebel in many ways. Everything that she did or said had the intention behind it to correct the prevailing wrong beliefs and practices and show the true path to knowledge. Another act of rebellion that we find in Lalleshwari is on the spiritual grounds. She understands that spirituality is not something that one can achieve only by superficial activities. She laments against animal sacrifice offered to stone idols in a much quoted vaakh, ‘laz kāsī shīt nivārī’. The sheep protects a person from cold and covers their privacy by providing them wool while only surviving on grass and water. She objects when this animal is slaughtered to be offered to a lifeless stone. (65) According to Lalleshwari, rituals, pilgrimages and temples are of no use unless one finds the true meaning of spirituality which is a purely internal enterprise. She attempts to break these monopolies and find a universal science of spirituality. Her spiritual insight is so broad and expansive that it is capable of covering all the religions under its umbrella. In another vaakh, she questions the logic of worshipping a stone which is identical with the stone of the temple. ‘Dīva vaṭa divur vaṭa’
The idol is but stone, the temple is but stone.
From top to bottom all is stone.
Whom will you worship, O stubborn Pandit
Let prāṇa and the mind unite as an offering to your God. (66)

Lalleshwari was a path-turner even in the way of her teaching and the language of her vaakh. Her role is significant as the creator of what we know as the modern Kashmiri language and literature. She is not only placed first in the chronological order of Kashmiri poets but also as a piece of literature her vaakh remain unsurpassed. Prof. Kaul argues that Lal Ded’s vaakh have helped to make Kashmiri an adequate vehicle for the expression of philosophical thought. (Kaul, 1973: 65) Her poetry is an effective expression of her aspiration, experience and feeling. She herself gives it the name vaakh, ‘My vaakh gave me the strength to seize the darkness that lurked within me.’ (92) The vaakh were sometimes vivid and direct and sometimes allegorical. Thus attempting to move away from the regular language of philosophical discourse she became a pioneer of modern Kashmiri language. (Toshkhani, 2002: 53)

Another act of rebellion that we find in Lalleshwari is when she defies the authority of the guru. Gurus are highly respected by all mystics especially by Trika followers. In several vaakh we witness her reverence for her guru. ‘Follow the guru’s word and gain true knowledge of the self within.’ (22) It is only when she has surpassed his knowledge that she turns to her own intellect to find answers. gwaras prishtham sāsi laṭe
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 the something that we see. (24)

She had several discussions with her guru to resolve problems in the spiritual path that she had chosen to follow. She openly expresses her dissatisfaction when he is unable to give an answer that appeals to her mind. Even while believing in the notion that guru’s grace descends upon beings and enables them to comprehend the secret of knowledge, she also held the idea that one’s own intellect and constant efforts will be significant in this journey. (55) In Indian discourse it is rare to admit the shortcomings of a guru and even rarer to say that one’s own resources have helped finally. Lalleshwari thus becomes one such rare figure who points out her guru’s inadequacy as a mentor. What makes her stand out among other mystic poets is the fearless confidence of self-reliance depicted in her verses. She emerges as an individual liberated from all the norms, rituals and conventions. Her verses remind one of the Vagambhrini Sukta of the Rgveda by the Rishika Vak where she says, ‘Ahameva svayamidam vadāmi, juṣṭam devebhiruta mānuṣebhiḥ. Yam kāmaye tam tamugram karomi, tam brahmāṇam tamṛṣim tam sumedhām. (Rgveda, 10.125.3) Lalleshwari’s verses are expressed in a much similar tone. Her verses are an expression that becomes a powerful voice for all the men and women who wish to find a way out of this circle of human life.

Lalleshwari as a Poet:

Like the saint Andal of Tamilnadu of the eighth century and the Kannada female mystic, and saint poet, Akka Mahadevi in the twelfth century Lalleshwari is also known for her mystic poetry. The history of Kashmiri poetry begins with her when she composed these metrical verses called vaakh. Vaakh is essentially a four lined stanza with no rigid rhyme scheme. She used them for communicating her intense mystical experience. The vaakh are aphoristic and replete with wisdom and Lalleshwari’s great popularity as a mystical poet mainly rests on them. They are an indication of her genius as a saint and a poet together. She is a great poet because she is intensely spiritual and on the other hand, she is highly spiritual because she is gifted with an extraordinary poetic sensibility. Despite the passage of almost seven centuries her immense impact on the Kashmiri mind is imperishable, essentially because of the blend of the saint and the poet in her. To use the words of Dileep Chitre (which he has used for another great Bhakti poet, Tukaram) it is because of ‘a poet's vision of spirituality and a saint's vision of poetry’ that she presents in her verses. (Chitre, 1991) Prof. Kaul observes, ‘Lal Ded did not compose her vaakh as a deliberate contribution to literature or philosophy. She did not sing them nor write them for kirtan, as the later day Bhakta saint-singers did.’ She was neither a preacher nor a social reformer. Her verses are an expression of her inner experience and sometimes of what she observed around her. They are the outpourings of her soul. (Kaul, 1973: 43-44)

In Lalleshwari’s vaakh the metaphors are not ambiguous, they come from ordinary life. Even while dealing with intense Shaivite practices she chooses very simple metaphors in her verses. Those who form the backbone of village economics such as the porter, carpenter, weaver, blacksmith etc find their work celebrated in her poetry. Unfettered by the conventions of serious philosophical discourse set by previous generations, she notices the material world around her with a poet’s eye and uses it as her vocabulary of choice. She has described complex yogic processes by using easy metaphors. In one of her vaakh she says, ‘Dama dama ko’rmas daman āye/ damādam ko’rmas daman-hāle. (98) Slowly I stop my breath in the bellows-pipe (of my throat) to suspend its processes and thoughts. In this vaakh she uses a blacksmith’s metaphor to explain an intense disciplined practice of breath control as a part of yoga. She says that the process of inhalation and exhalation of a yogi for creating a world of awareness within him is like a blacksmith who is pressing a bellows pipe to control his forge. Her vaakh are filled with such lively metaphors, similes and illustrations from a simple life. They also reflect the mixed group of audience that she was addressing. (Mattoo, 2002:34). She explained the unity of Supreme with all things by quoting examples from daily life. In the following vaakh, she uses water and its two forms ice and snow, as metaphors to explain the holistic sustenance of the Universe saying, ‘tū’ri salil kho’ṭtā’y tū’re’ (83)
When water freezes in the cold it turns to snow and ice.
Reflect, O man, that one becomes three different things,
And when the sun shines, the three melt into one again.
So, when the Sun of pure consciousness shines,
The world of living and lifeless things,
The universe and whatever exists, are, in the Supreme, seen as one.

In another vaakh, she relates the metaphor of grindstone and axle to the self and compares the self with the axle of the grindstone. The moving axle becomes the driving force which brings about the motion of flat stones that grind the wheat to fine flour. She says, ‘grata chu pheraan zere zere.’(56) The grindstone moves on its axle, only axle knows the grindstone’s mystery. When the grindstone moves, fine flour can come out. The wheat will move itself towards the grindstone.

The style of vaakh is exceptional in the entire scope of Kashmiri poetry. The peculiarity of Lalleshwari’s style is a direct result of her way of dealing with the dialect. She carves each expression with excellent beauty, yet the reader never feels any guile in her language. She was a visionary par excellence. Without making arbitrary statements, she makes verbal pictures that empower reader’s intellectual resources and transport him to a higher domain where his own revelations get centrality. Her poetry isn’t just a learned discourse. For Lal Ded herself her vakh is the mantra and love of the God. It is a talk for the pragmatic reason for blessing and divinizing human instinct.

Lalleshwari as a Saint:

Lalleshwari’s poetry is equipped with first-hand experience of a journey towards illumination. The vaakh clearly reveal the ordeal that she had to pass through in her life directed towards the Supreme. Some verses deal with the beginning of her quest as she struggles to train and channelize her body and mind. Other verses of hers specifically deal with the experiences and her introspective contemplation. Some other groups of verses project her outward inclination, before she takes on the role of a teacher instructing others to free themselves of the worldly attachments.

Lalleshwari initiated herself into the Shaiva yoga domain starting with prāṇayāma which related to the control over breath (Parimoo, 1978). She talks about the yogic process of arousing the kundalini through controlling the breath, managing the energy of prāṇa, meditational techniques and a simplified way of living. The control over breath helps in awakening kundalini (the latent energy in body). The path to the Supreme and the union with Him was a difficult terrain to cross and attain. To manage and control the senses and the vital nerves was a difficult task for her. She explains this metaphysical feat in many of her vaakh. She uses various metaphors to express her struggle. She says in a vaakh, ‘How I wish I were to know how to bring my nāḍīs into my grip, tearing into shreds, collecting and pulverizing the kleśas, then would I learn, by and by, how to pound and prepare the potion, Shiva is difficult to attain and this is the lesson you should bear in mind.’ Once she attained the true knowledge she roamed around the streets of Kashmir trying to impart it to the common public. Liberated not only from the social bounds but also from the chains of ignorance, she wandered without any clothes for the rest of her life. She taught the lessons in an aphoristic language. She says in one of her verses, ‘kyāh kara pāntsan dahan ta kāhan’ (6)
Ah me, the five (bhutas), the ten (indriyas),
And the eleventh, their lord, the mind,
Scraped this pot (body) and went away.
Had all together pulled on the rope,
Why should the eleven have lost the cow? (Why should the soul have gone ashtray?)

The 'five' are the elements: earth, air, fire, water and ether, while the ten are the karmendriyas and jňānendriyas. The eleventh is the mind. To her, all these seem to be working at cross-purposes while ruling the functioning of jivātma, the human self. The metaphor of the cow not being led in the right direction could be associated with the Yajurveda which refers to jivātma as a cow. She comments on how one can lose one’s bearings in life if all the eleven mentioned above are not in harmony. (Matto, Online)

Describing her own mystic journey through the verses, Lalleshwari also sets a guideline for other seekers on the path to eternity. She asks them to follow the customary routine of controlling their breath and puts the condition of completely surrendering their ego and denouncing all the worldly attachments. A person who can succeed in overcoming these obstructions in the path to salvation would effortlessly become one with the supreme by losing his own identity. This, according to Lalleshwari, is the prior and the final lesson for any seeker in search for true knowledge. The only conditions that she puts for spiritual awakening are of shunning the ego, followed by surrendering personal identity and merging it with the universal self. She praises such a yogi and says, ‘Dvādashānta manḍal yas dīvas thaji.’ (71)
He who knows the Dvādashānta manḍal as the abode of God,
And knows the constant sound that is borne upon the prana rising from the heart to the nose,
All vain imaginations flee from his mind, without effort, naturally,
He knows no God other than the Self, nor need he worship any other God.

Through the practice of prāṇāyāma, the one who has achieved the highest stages of spiritual development by awakening kunḍalinī to its highest stage called Dwādaśa Manḍala, is worthy of all honour and worship according to Lalleshwari. The awakening of kunḍalinī is a stage where all the worldly attachments would dissolve from the mind and the follower becomes one with the supreme lord. She guides everybody to understand the significance of the awakening of the kunḍalinī power present in all human beings. Thus through her verses she leads people to attain liberation through the process that she followed and became liberated from the mundane sorrows.

The scholarly significance of Lalla’s poetry liberally recommends that she was primarily Shaiva in orientation. Ideas propounded by Trika philosophers of Kashmir like Somananda, Utpaladeva, Abhinavagupta, Kṣemaraja and many others are clearly reflected in her vaakh. Her creative ability has a strong liking with the Pratyabhijňā school of Shaivism that was a monistic philosophy based on the core idea of the subjectivity of reality and recognition of the Self. Her verses describe Shiva as the transcendental reality and talk about the need to do away with the dualist beliefs in order to create an altogether new space for self-actualization ultimately arriving at a state beyond constructs. She says, ‘Lal bo tsāyas swaman bāgabaras.’ (130) I, Lalla, entered by the garden-gate of my own mind, and there saw Shiva and Shakti sealed in one, and there itself I merged in the lake of immortal bliss. She discusses the thirty-six elements in one of her vaakh. (125) By knowing Shiva, one can negate one’s condition of vacancy to affirm genuine being. In this outright communion with Shiva, as Somananda says, the seeker turns into an incarnation of Shiva: bhavati sivamayātmā sarvabhave sarvah. At this phase of attainment, all sorts of ritualistic worship and function become gratuitous: pūjakah pūjanam pūjyam iti sarvam śivah sthitah. In Lalleshwari’s words, Yi karu’m suy artsun, Yi rasini vichoaram thi mantar, Yihay lagamo dhahas partsun, Suy parasivun tanthar. (138) Whatever work I did became worship of the Lord, whatever word I uttered became a mantra. Whatever this body of mine experienced became the sadhanas of Shaiva Tantra illuminating my path to Paramashiva.

Lalleshwari gives utmost importance to the concept of Omkara of which she is a great interpreter. She elaborately explains its power in achieving higher stages of yoga with the help of prāṇāyāma. The yogi who is able to master the recitation of Om with complete concentration along with the rhythm of his breath would be able to form a bridge between him and the universal consciousness. She shares her experience and says that she has gradually mastered this method. As a result of which her ego has vanished and she became detached from the world as enlightenment dawned upon her. ‘Omkār ye’li layi o’num’ (94) When I became one with Omkara, my body blazed as red-hot coal. Then I gave up the path of the six (indriyas), and betook myself to the straight true path.

Among the most famous of Lalleshwari’s verses are those which bear a constant reference to the universal principles of equality and oneness of all. These are the key principles enunciated in the whole of Indian discourse. ‘Siva vā Keshava vā Zin vā.’ (73) Siva or Keshava or jina, or Brahma, the lotus born Lord, whatever name he may bear, may he remove from me the sickness of the world. Lalleshwari’s role as a spriritual leader is remarkable, whether history recognizes its true significance or not. She flourished during the time of advent of Islam in Kashmir which was accompanied by an unprecedented political and social upheaval. She roamed around preaching religious harmony through her verses. It was her intervention that saved indigenous cultural structures from a total collapse and ensured continuity of tradition. She resolved the crisis of her times which could have occurred due to the clash of two belief and value systems. Preaching equality in one of her verses she says, ‘Shiv chuy thali thali rozān’ (57)
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.

The vaakh are a reflection and representation of the socio-cultural and political life of that period. Such is the power of her poetry that even after seven hundred years of history full of political, social and economic upheavals it has not undergone and major change.


As a result of her journey through a difficult married life and facing the rejection from the society due to her spiritual conviction, Lalleshwari’s poetry not only celebrates the power of the Almighty but also attacks inhuman treatment that she gets from the contemporary society. She is a saint who exists as a symbol of poetic sensibility across centuries. Her poems carry all themes ranging from religious to social in her journey towards the Supreme. She was able to leave messages for all generations to come. Sir Richard Temple in his book ‘The Word of Lalla’ says, The vaakh of Lalleshwari have become part of day to day conversation in Kashmiri households. Her religion is not bookish. Her religion is a mix of people, hopes and miseries. Her vaakh are of high standard, spiritual, brief, to the point, sweet, full of hope, lively and representative of the status of a common man.’

The vaakh represent human brotherhood, harmony, goodness and service to mankind. This significance makes them popular even after years of their composition. Writing about Lalleshwari, Prof. Kaw argues that it is remarkable about Lal Ded that living in turbulent times she was able to retain her beliefs, her eclecticism and tolerance. Today, when we are subjected to enormous distress and we feel injured in our soul, we need to recall her equipoise and emotional balance so that our lives become liveable. In this world there is always bound to be a contest between the forces of good and evil, and a clash between compassionate humanism and fundamental extremism. We have to find our way through the negative forces and constantly push towards the better path. (Toshkhani, 2002:65) If we follow her path we can retain our sanity and survive these troubled times. It is her voice of humanity that can be a light of hope for us and guide us to the divine. This is Lalleshwari’s relevance to the modern age.


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Shikha Rajpurohit, Research Scholar, School of Sanskrit and Indic Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi