Meet the Rebel Mystic Poetess, Lal Ded, who Preached Religious Tolerance in 14th Century Kashmir

Editor’s Note: Kashmir As I See It From Within And Afar, written by Ashok Dhar is the author’s personal account of growing up in Kashmir interwoven with the rich cultural history and geographical analysis of the state, that aims at offering various solutions to the long territorial battles that Kashmiris have suffered throughout history. The author propounds that peace will not arrive in the valley until the Kashmiris examine the true meaning of Kashmiriyat. Dhar recounts that the ideological basis of Kashmiriyat lies in the teachings of the rebellious mystic poetess of 14th century Kashmir, Lal Ded.

Here are a few excerpts from the book:

When I was growing up in the early 1960s in Srinagar, I remember accompanying my father for the morning bath at the neighbouring ghat on the Jhelum (Vitasta) river, near the Ganpatyar temple. After a quick dip in the water, we would attend morning aarti prayers at the oldest temple of Lord Ganesha in Kashmir.

Just a hundred metres away was a mosque at Malyaar, visited by Muslims in the locality as it had a hammam bathhouse. Everyone longed for a free hot-water bath for warmth in the winters. Even today I remember the soothing aarti at the temple (Om Jai Jagdish Hare) and the azan recital of the taqbir from the mosque. It was a common thing for Kashmiri Pandits (Hindus) and Muslims to meet at a shop serving halal meat after offering prayers. Such was our life while growing up in Kashmir, full of stories of religious tolerance and cultural amalgamation. In fact, the first word I ever spoke was from a lullaby sung into my ear by my maternal grandmother and mother.

Hukus bukus telli wann che kus,

Onum batta lodum deag,

Shaal kich kich waangano,

Brahmi charas puane chhokum

Brahmish batanye tekhis tyakha.

This was, and still is, the most popular lullaby in Kashmir. Years later, as I grew older, I learnt the correct version of the lullaby and realized how deeply it was rooted in Kashmir’s spiritual tradition. The lullaby is ageless; while some believe it to be penned by Lal Ded, others ascribe its origin to the origin of Kashmir and

Kashmiri culture. It continues to serve as a poetic medium to pass down Kashmiri culture and ethos from generation to generation. The song, which has a calming effect on all children in the lap of their mothers, has such depth that it may help people understand what separates Kashmir’s culture from others. The actual song and its meaning is as follows:

Tse kus be kus teli wan su kus

Moh batuk logum deg

Shwas khich khich wang–mayam

Bhruman daras poyun chokum

Tekis takya bane tyuk

[Who are you and who am I? Who is the creator that

permeates both you and me?

Each day I feed my senses/body with the food of worldly

attachment and material love (moh: attachment)

For when the breath that I take in reaches the point of

complete purification (shwas: breath)

It feels like my mind is bathing in the water of divine love

(bhruman: nerve centre in the human brain, poyun: water)

Then I know I am like that sandalwood which is pasted for

divine fragrance symbolic of universal divinity. I realize that

I am, indeed, divine. (tyuk: tika applied on the forehead)]

Hukus bukus or Tse kus be kus. Respect for universal divinity is a cultural ethos in Kashmir that begins very early in life for pursuing more spiritual than material goals. There is the belief that one is indeed divine, that the creator permeates all of us, that what feeds our senses or body is only attachments. Such thoughts of universal divinity are ingrained in Kashmiris when they are toddlers, and remain the connecting link for Kashmiris from generation to generation.

Memories of shikara rides on Dal Lake, trekking in the Zabarwan Hills, eating fresh fried trout in Pahalgam and visiting temples, Sufi shrines and dargahs often flash upon the inner eye. Three words also keep reminding me of a distinct identity— Kashmiriyat, Sufism and Kashmiri Shaivism. Kashmir is a land where three religions—Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam—have coexisted.


I believe that the core value of our Kashmiriyat (synergic culture) was inspired by the verses of Lal Ded. She was a devout follower of Kashmiri Shaivism. The verses of Lal Ded became the inspiration for Sufis and saints who came to Kashmir. For over three hundred years, Lal Vaakhs were orally transmitted from one generation to another. The leading Sufi figure, Sheikh Nuruddin, also known as Nand Rishi, was highly influenced by Lal Ded. Lal Ded, along

with Rishi Nuruddin, sowed the seeds for the Rishi order of saints, thus giving rise to many Rishi-saints. One Kashmiri folk story recounts that as an infant Rishi Nuruddin refused to be breastfed by his mother and was instead breastfed by Lal Ded.

Lal Ded was a strong critic of idolatry and saw it as a useless and even silly ‘work’ which adjured the worshipper of stocks and stones to turn to yogic doctrines and exercise for salvation.

Idol is of stone; temple is of stone;

Above (temple) and below (idol) are one;

Which of them wilt thou worship, O foolish Pandit?

Cause thou the union of mind and soul.

She further castigated the fanatical followers of the so-called ‘religions’ by saying:

O mind, why hast thou become intoxicated at another’s


Why hast thou mistaken true for untrue?

Thy little understanding hath made thee attached to other’s


Subdued to coming and going; to birth and death.

Lal Ded’s spiritual vision was universal. Through her verses, she advised against equating religious rituals with spirituality. Her mantra of universal harmony, brotherhood and universal divinity spoken during her lifetime can be applied to address the existential problems in South Asia and all over the globe. Above all, there was congruence between Shaivism and Sufism, as both believed in communication between man and God. This laid the foundation

for what is referred to as Kashmiriyat, but some also call it lihaaz. Though not the majority, some people have begun describing Kashmiriyat as some sort of lihaaz, which means being tolerant and respectful of diverse narratives and people of different faiths.

The following excerpts from the book, Kashmir As I See It From Within And Afar, written by Ashok Dhar, have been published with permission from Rupa Publications. The hardcover of this book costs Rs 595.

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