”Muslim and a Hindu identify was thrust upon her by the names given to her, Lalla Arifa or Lalleshwari, respectively, to suit a particular religious inclination, as though she were a trophy of conquest or resistance. But for the common men and women of Kashmir, she was just their mother.”
Kashmir’s very own spiritual bard, Lal Ded, (1320-92) is an interesting character from the pages of the locally documented history in the valley. Lalleshwari was the innovator who is known to have “brought the difficult Saiva philosophy out from the cubicles of the Sanskrit-knowing scholars into the wide, open spaces of the Kashmiri knowing people.”
The revered poetess was at once the “universal mother”, and a “recognized saint” respected by Hindus and Muslims alike as a pioneering contributor to the canon of Kashmiri literature. Lalleshwari represented the lived essence of mystical wisdom in a “domesticated” form that could be understood even by the unlettered commoner.
As is common with mystical lyrics that emerged in many local regional languages as a product of the Bhakti-Sufi movement in the subcontinent, Lal Ded’s vaakhs encapsulate the love and longing for the Beloved (Siva) while delineating in striking detail the journey of the seeker.
Her unique genius is in her method of localizing the wisdom and experience through a depiction of common sights observed in the valley. In doing so, she gifts to the local language the most oft-quoted idioms that have become part and parcel of the use of language in the valley down to present times. Many women have been known to follow in Lal Ded’s footsteps over the centuries, from poetess Rupa Bhawani in the 17th century, Animal in the 18th century, and the poetess and Sufi singer Bimla Raina in the 21st century. These women have served over the years as media for creative dissemination of the experiences of love in life, and religious practice, integrating them through the lens of culture to carve out a space for reflecting on identity in a more inclusive way.
As I listened to a young Kashmiri girl, who at 17 is herself an aspiring poetess, recite her own verses of love and longing for her beloved on a rainy evening, it seemed to me that the promise of a culturally prominent tradition of poetry and oral narratives has not been given its due importance over the decades of conflict. Women still write in the valley, but their voices remain largely unheard of.
This article seeks to outline the historical role of women in Kashmir as part of the larger historical trends in the Indian subcontinent. I attempt to portray women in a re-imagined role as creative culture-weavers, actively contributing to community and culture through the literary tradition and oral narratives. My purpose in this article is also to further outline the scope of new creative and adaptive roles that could be supported to empower women in the valley and enable them to be instrumental in the revival and sustenance of a culture of coexistence, collaboration and sustainable peace as they operate at the nexus of faith, literature, and culture.
Lal Ded and the tradition of Culture Weavers
Lal Ded, as a culturally transcendent figure, is believed to have deeply influenced her younger contemporary from the Sufi tradition, Sheikh Nuruddin Wali, famously called Nund Rishi, who is revered as the founder of the Kashmiri Rishi tradition. Camille Adams Helminski in her seminal work Women of Sufism, highlights the central role of women as authority figures in the Sufi tradition and in that context, suggests the potential of older women from other traditions to influence Sufi saints. Helminski explains that Sufi masters were known to have been influenced by older women; pious mothers or even at times a “mystical aunt”. In Kashmir, Nund Rishi’s acknowledgment of Lalleshwari’s spiritual power and role as a saint in inspiring his own aspirations to acquire such grace further demonstrates deep respect and a mutual learning process that was encouraged as a major part of the dialogue of traditions in the valley.
Women of faith in the Indian subcontinent were not uncommon across history though they do not feature as major figures in popular hagiographic literature nearly as often as their male counterparts. During the medieval times, there have been many instances of pious women, educated in classical literature and religious texts, acting as bridge builders and facilitators of dialogue for the dissemination of traditional teachings to the larger community. They served as the patrons of religious leaders, teachers, and community matriarchs in certain cases across the subcontinent too. Helminski expands on the role of the bridge-builder and writes about the larger community exchanges that women from less privileged classes participated in to access and integrate religious wisdom in their lives; “the women” she observes, “were also the addressees of mystical folk poets who were able, particularly in the Subcontinent, to explain the mystical path in simple, easy verses which the women could sing while spinning or grinding grain so that their household chores were transformed into symbols of spiritual activities.”
As is evident from the contribution of Lal Ded in Kashmir, the bardic poetess model was a figure who brought in the likes of these women of faith with their philosophical discourse and the lyricism and common orally transmitted wisdom of the folk poets to embody a unique mother-saint role with her special skill of imparting wisdom to not only teach through folk poetry but also to enrich cultural understanding and expression through her linguistic innovations.
Helminski writes, “in the folk poetry of the Western part of Indo-Pakistan as well as in Bengal and partly in the songs of the Ismaili community, women appear as the true depositories of mystical love and yearning. This idea was taken over from Hindu literature but elaborated in a perfect way by the Muslim mystical poets who finally identified themselves with the suffering heroines of their songs. The wisdom which the illiterate women thus learned and memorized thanks to the activities of the folk poets constituted a major source of inspiration for the population of the rural areas and brought the ideas of mystical Islam to the masses, women being generally the most devout representatives of this current.”