"They light countless cotton-seed oil lamps, seeking the eternal light of love under the adoring gaze of two souls woven into one. They come to perpetuate the triumph of tolerance over forces of bigotry," writes Parvez Mahmood
In Lahore, the city of saints, one of the most revered Sufi-poets is Shah Hussain, whose short poems in the genre of the ‘kafi’ haven’t ever lost popularity and appeal – ever since they were composed over four hundred years ago.
For the biography of the saint, this author has mainly relied on Tazkirah Awliya-e-Pakistan by Allama Alam Faqri (1992) and Lahore; Its History, Architectural Remains and Antiquities by SM Latif (1892); both books being downloadable from the internet.
Shah Hussain was a contemporary of Hazrat Mian Mir and had cordial relations with Guru Arjan Singh. He is also said to have witnessed the execution of Dullah Bhatti at the Kotwali near present day Landha Bazaar. The incidents of his early life indicate that the River Ravi – or one of its major loops – used to flow round the fort to outside the city walls near the Taxali area. Aurangzeb built his royal iconic mosque much later.
Shah Hussain was born in Lahore in 1538 outside Taxali Gate, about the time when Sher Shah Suri ousted Emperor Humayun from India. By the time that Shah Hussain gained maturity, Emperor Akbar had assumed the crown. He, therefore, lived through a historical epoch. Unlike most of the saints buried in Pakistan, who claim noble birth and trace their roots to Arabia and Central Asia, Shah Hussain’s ancestors – probably his paternal as well as maternal grandparents – were cloth weavers by caste and converted from Hinduism to Islam. He enrolled in the local mosque-madrassah at a tender age and learned the Quran by heart.
Shah Hussain had devoted his life to religion and there are numerous stories about his reading the whole of the Quran in one sitting at night. He spent twelve years in prayers and meditation at the Darbar of Data Ganj Baksh. At the age of 36 years, however, he gave up religion, got his beard and head shaved and immersed himself in dance, wine and worldly pleasures. His sudden regression from religion must have been as scandalous as had been his admiration as a holy man. There could be many motivations for his renunciation of virtuous life.
One reason could have been the concept of Malamati Sufism, meaning that one becomes self-blaming, disreputable or reproachable. People believe that his ostensible turning away from religion was feigned because he realised that the acclaim he was attracting for being holy was drawing a curtain between him and his God. Another could be a feeling of pride in his popularity. Hubris is a cardinal sin. And amongst the Sufis, hubris of being pious is despicable. A saint who finds an iota of pride in being idolized thus offers penance by an outward show of depravity. Elif Shafak depicts this concept from the life of Shams Tabrizi, a Malamati Sufi of the 13th century and the mentor of Maulana Rumi, in her book The Forty Rules of Love. A pretentious soul cannot find God’s mercy. Like Rumi before and Bulleh Shah after him, Shah Hussain too spent his life in endearing his beloved through dance and music. There are others who believe that by indulging in worldly pursuits, Shah Hussain wanted to screen his direct relationship with his Creator as he knew the dangers of seeking the world;
Shah Husain, hyati lorrein, te marn theen aggay mar wo‘
Shah Hussain; Seeking worldly pleasures amounts to perishing
Ultimately, he only cared for the Supreme Being, as he said,
Rabba meray haal da, mahram tooN
Oh God, you alone are aware of my circumstances
Even in his apparent sacrilegious state, his devotees continued to ascribe miracles to him. Faqri (ibid) lists seven supernatural events ascribed to Shah Hussain, including his simultaneous presence in Madinah absorbed in worship and in Lahore immersed in pleasure.
Shah Hussain was a contemporary of Hazrat Mian Mir and had cordial relations with Guru Arjan Singh. He is also said to have witnessed the execution of Dullah Bhatti at the Kotwali near present day Landha Bazaar
Once, when Shah Hussain was passing through Shahdara across the river from Lahore, his eyes fell on a boy of matchless beauty. The saint fell deeply in love with him. Shah Hussain was then fifty-four years old while the boy was only sixteen. Besides the age difference, the boy, named Madho Lal, was a Hindu of the Brahmin caste whereas Shah Hussain was a Muslim of an artisan class. (Faqri. Ibid). This was, as is said, love at first sight. To be near the boy, Shah Hussain shifted his residence to Shahdara. He says,
nadyon paar raanjhan da thaana
keeta kaul zaroori jaana
mintaan karaan mallaah de naal
Far across the river lives my Love
I made a pledge and must go to him
I beg the boatman to take me there
The elders of Madho were deeply offended but the love was mutual. They lived together till the death of Shah Hussain six years later in 1599 at the age of 60. Their love was so intense that they are now known by a single name that of Hazrat Madho Lal Hussain. They were impervious to the societal opposition to their love. Shah Hussain says;
While it is difficult to ascertain the nature of his Madho Lal relationship, the poet was accused and suspected of indulging in physical rather than spiritual association with his most ardent follower. He was however, impervious to his reputation and the two continued to live together till the death of the Shah Hussain. Even later, Madho Lal continued to revere his master and lived close to his mausoleum first in Shahdara and later, after his body was exhumed due to flood inundation and reburied at the present site in Baghbanpura. Madho and Hussain lie buried side by side in the same enclosure. The mausoleum is called darbar or Royal Presence and is named Hazrat Madho Lal Hussain; embodying one soul living in two bodies.
Hussain wrote two kafis that are addressed directly to Madho Lal;
Madho Lal! Piyaare ki parwaasa dam da?
Madho Lal! My dear, Have no trust in life?
Ve Madho! Main wadda theyaa badnaam!
Madho! I have been slandered
There are many things we learn from the poetry of Shah Hussain. First is about the richness of Punjabi language at that remote time centuries ago. We learn that the language has continued since the days of Baba Farid in the 12th/13th century with only a little variation in idioms and words. In Pakistani, Punjabi has undergone more change and has lost more speakers – to Urdu – after the partition of Punjab than in the previous centuries. The language spoken by the Sikhs even now is closer to the one used by classical Punjabi and Sufi poets.
Another important reference in the Kafis of Shah Hussain is to the story of Heer-Ranjha, indicating this celebrated love has ancient roots. Waris Shah, who chronicled the best form of this folk-tale came a century later in the 18th century. Shah Hussain says;
Ni Maeen, mein-nooN khairyan di gal na aakh
Ranjhan mera, mein Ranjhey di, KhairaiAn nuN kuri jhak
Lok janeiN, Heer kamli hoi, Heeray da ver chak
Kahay Hussain Faqir sain da, jan da maula pak.
(O Mother, don’t tell me about the Khairays
Ranjha and I belong to each other, Khairays wait in vain
People think that Heer is insane, as Heer loves a menial
Hussain, Lord’s suppliant; His life belongs to the Pure)
Here is another reference,
Ranjha jogi, main jogiani, kamli kar kar sadian
(Ranjha and I are wandering saints, People think I am frenzied.)
Shah Hussain is one of the first poets to have employed the kafi genre in Punjabi poetry. The word kafi has its roots in the Arabic word kafa meaning group and the form is derived from Qasidah that is meant to be sung. Kafi is a short poem with one or two lines as the refrain that are repeated to create the mood. Shah Hussain wrote his poems set to classical Hindustani ragas.
Shah Hussain’s poetry is intensely sad. His poems about women tell the story of forced marriages, loss of love and bitter separation; all amounting to their low status in social strata. His two kafis reproduced below tell the tale of girls living in forced bondage. The words and tone of these heart-touching kafis convey a pain that bring tears in the eyes. They are amongst the many all-time classic poems of Punjabi language, of which this saint has written several.
Najm Hosain Syed has described the poetry of Shah Hussain in an impressive manner. He says, “The mother and the daughter in the folk-song were both helpless votaries of an accepted convention, bowing before the acknowledged power of an unchanging order. Here in the Kafi, the daughter assumes the power of choice and rejection. She stands outsides the cycles of time and society.”
Main wi janan dhok Ranjhan di, naal mare koi challey
Pairan paindi, mintan kardi, janaan tan peya ukkaley
Neen wi dhoonghi, tilla purana, sheehan ney pattan malley
Ranjhan yaar tabeeb sadhendha, main tan dard awalley
Kahe Husain Faqir namana, sain senhurray ghalley
(I have to go to the abode of Ranjha. Who will accompany me?
I begged and beseeched but now I set out alone.
The River is deep, the bridge creaky, wild animals occupy the ferry.
I hear that Ranjha has remedy for love but my malady is unique.
Says Hussain, the worthless beggar. My love beckons me.)
The second Kafi in the same context is:
Mai Ne Main Kinon Aakhaan, Dard Vichore da Hall ni
Dhukhan di roti, Soolaan da saalan, Aahen da baalan baal ni
Dhuan Dhukhay Mairay Murshid Wala, Jaan Phoulaan taan laal ni
Jungle bailay Phiraan Dhoudaindi, ajay na paayo lal Ni
Kahay Hussain Faqir nimanaa, Shoh milay tan theevan nihaal ni
(O Mother, who do I tell the pain of separation,
Bread of torment, curry of lashes, fuel of agony
My love’s fire smolders; when I scrape, its red hot
Says Hussain, the worthless beggar; would be delighted to find Lord.)
Like a true Sufi, Shah Hussain is self-effacing and self-depreciation in his poems. He says about himself;
Aap kamina, teri aqil Kamini, kaun kahay tooN danA
You are low born, your vision is limited, who says that you are wise?
He constantly refers to himself as faqir, an Arabic word, meaning renunciation of worldly possessions and dedicated to worship of God. In each of his kafis, Hussain terms himself as Faqir Namana (Worthless Faqir), Faqir Sain Da (Faqir of the Owner), Faqir Maula Da (Faqir of the Master), Faqir Rabba Na (Faqir of the Lord), Faqir Gadaii (Faqir Beggar), etc.
The annual celebration of Madho Lal Hussain is held in March and is called “Mela Chiraghan” or the “Festival of Lights.” There was a time, as late as the 1970s, when it was celebrated throughout the city with oil lamps lighted in the streets and houses of the walled city. In the 18th century, Maharaja Ranjit Singh himself would lead a procession barefooted from the Fort to the mausoleum.
Even now, the three-day festival attracts large crowds where devotees sing and dance. They light countless cotton-seed oil lamps, seeking eternal light of love under the adoring gaze of two souls woven into one. They come to perpetuate the triumph of tolerance over forces of bigotry.
Above all, they come to laud his enduring poetry that has remained as popular and relevant as it was composed over four centuries ago. It is also as timeless as the revolving universe, as symbolised by the captivating, immortal motion of the spinning wheel;
Ghum charkhaya, teri kattan wali jeevay, nalian wataN wali jeeway
(Whirl, O spinning wheel; May your weavers live long.)
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org