Lal Ded or Lalla, the great 14th century Kashmiri poetess and mystic, has been venerated both by Hindus and Muslims for nearly seven centuries. Known as Lalla Yogini by the Hindus and Lal Arifa by the Muslims, Lalla's mystical poems or Vakhas — despite the passage of hundreds of years — continue to inspire, guide and offer succour to the people of Kashmir on a daily basis.
Questing for truth
Born as Lalleshwari in a Brahmin family near Srinagar, she was married at the age of 12. But her spiritual inclination did not give her a happy married life. Brutalised by her husband and her mother-in-law, she left her home at the age of 26 and became a disciple of a famous saint of her time. Later, after completing her apprenticeship in spirituality, she went out as a wandering, clotheless mendicant. As a ‘quester' of the ultimate truth, she challenged the existing social practices and religious ritualism. And during those spiritual journeys and detours, she came out with her Vakhas or sayings (or ‘Utterances' as Ranjit Hoskote has suggested in his book). Each of her vakhas ‘strike us like brief and blinding bursts of light: epiphanic, provocative, they shuttle between the vulnerability of doubt and the assurance of an insight gained through resilience and reflection.' Self knowledge, renouncement of worldly desires and intense longings to annihilate the self in order to finally merge with the Supreme Being or God are the main motifs of Lalla's utterances. Here is an example:
True mind, look inside the body,
this body they call the Self's own form.
Strip off greed and lust, polish this body,
this body as bright as the sun.
There is another one:
I, Lalla, wore myself down searching for Him
and found a strength after my strength had died.
I came to his threshold but found the door bolted.
I locked that door with my eyes and looked at Him.
Meticulously researched and beautifully written, the book starts with a 69-page introduction which explains the social, historical and philosophical context of Lalla's poems. For the uninitiated, it gives a grounding of the poetic and spiritual legacy of Lal Ded. And for others it unearths the hidden meanings of Lalla's Vakhas. About the proprietorial claims of the Muslim monopolists and the Hindu exclusivists over the spiritual heritage of Lal Ded, the author takes a neutral stand. He emphatically says that Lalla was a seer or yogini of Kashmiri Shaivite sect and a Sufi-saint at the same time. And that is why he refers this mystic-poet by her ‘most celebrated and non-sectarian appellation Lal Ded. In the colloquial, this means Grandmother Lal; more literally, it means Lal the Womb'. When it comes to rendering Lalla's words in English, he does an excellent job. Though this reviewer is not familiar with the Kashimiri originals but has read a number of translations of Lalla's poetry. So, he can confidently claim that the translation is of high quality. No stilted language, no vague phrases and no attempts to temper with the true spirit of the poems for making it more accessible to the Western readers.
At the end of this book in ‘Notes to the Poems' Hoskote provides a detailed commentary on the 146 Vakhas included in this collection. The commentary will help readers (non-Kashmiri readers in particular) to understand the cultural background of the poems, and to decipher the meaning of those phrases and proverbs which are rooted in the Kashmiri ethos. I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded is a wonderful offering.
I, Lalla: The Poems of Lal Ded, translated by Ranjit Hoskote, Penguin India, Rs. 450.
Published in HINDU LITERARY REVIEW dated 07 August 2011