‘I belong to Ranjha’ – the syncreticism of Lahore’s Shah Hussain

Lahore, the ancient city of Loh, the age-old halt for invaders, is also the home to eclectic Sufis. Men and women who shed conventions and discovered newer planes of spirituality found a home in this city. The merging of centuries’ old Indus valley bastion – the Punjab and its primordial language – with core strands of Islamic Sufism was a unique moment in South Asia’s cultural evolution. And, no one can better represent the composite soul of Lahore than its poet and Sufi master Shah Hussain, whose identity has forever fused with his Hindu disciple Madhu Lal. Those who seek Lahore’s Mela Chiraghaan or Festival of Lights still frequent the 16th century shrine of Madhu Lal Hussain.

Shah Hussain’s father, Shaykh Usman, was a loom weaver, and his grandfather Kaljas Rai (Kalsarai) was a convert to Islam who gained the confidence of the state during the reign of Emperor Firoz Shah Tughlaq. Shah Hussain Lahori was born in 1538 AD near Taxali Gate, Lahore. His early religious education was followed by induction into the Qadiriya order by Hazrat Bahlul Daryavi at a very young age. As a devout Muslim in his early years, he gained a formal outward knowledge and imbibed the spiritual moorings of Lahore, including the blessings of Hazrat Usman Ali Hajvery, aka Data Saheb, whose shrine has guided scores of saints, fakirs and yogis for nearly a millennium.

Hussain’s grandfather Kaljas Rai (Kalsarai) was a convert to Islam who gained the confidence of the state during the reign of Emperor Firoz Shah Tughlaq

Mythological accounts suggest that at the age of thirty-six, while studying a commentary on the Quran, Shah Hussain was struck by a line which equated the ‘life of this world’ to ‘game and sport.’ He asked his instructor to explain the concept but his teacher’s response did not satisfy him. He is said to have interpreted this verse as a means to undertake sport and dance. It is said that Shah Hussain pursued dancing, sport and frolicking but his mentor Hazrat Bahlul Shah Daryavi was not alarmed as he thought his student was spiritually intact. Continue reading “‘I belong to Ranjha’ – the syncreticism of Lahore’s Shah Hussain”

‘Throw Away the Books’ – Bulleh Shah

Rumi Foundation brings out a ‘Sufi journal’ called Hu. This year two of my essays have been published in the journal. I am posting the first one on Bulleh Shah.


If God was found by bathing and cleansing

He would have been found by frogs and fish

If God was found by wandering in the jungles

Stray animals would have found him

O Bulleh, the Lord can only be found

By loving hearts – true and pure…

(Translation by author)

Fifteenth century India witnessed a spiritual-cultural synthesis that was navigated by hundreds of yogis, Sufis and poets of India. Very much a people’s mobilisation, the Bhakti movement articulated a powerful vision of tolerance, amity and co-existence that is still relevant today. The powerful and soulful voices of Sufi poets of the sixteenth century therefore sing a shared tune: of love, rejection of formal identities based on caste, organized religion and class.

Bulleh Shah (1680-1758) of Kasur in Central Punjab is an extraordinary voice that provided a mystical message beyond caste, institutionalized religion and ideologies of power. Born in 1860 and named Abdullah Shah in a Syed family, he found a Murshid (spiritual master) in Shah Inayat who was an Arain (traditionally a non-landowning group). Bulleh’s family disowned him for trampling his caste and therefore identity in the rural context. However, Bulleh Shah, driven by Sufi ideals of equality of humans, rejected the formalized social identity framework based on hierarchies. The quest for knowledge, and the thirst for spiritual completion – what the masses perceive to be the domain of religion – was a pursuit beyond these divisive and hereditary conceptions of formal religion. When the orthodoxy declared him as an infidel, Bulleh replied: Continue reading “‘Throw Away the Books’ – Bulleh Shah”