The central courtyard outside the shrine of Bulleh Shah in Kasur, Punjab. -Photo by Bushra Shehzad/Hosh media
The central courtyard outside the shrine of Bulleh Shah in Kasur, Punjab. -Photo by Bushra Shehzad/Hosh media

Bulleh aashiq hoyo rabb da huyi malaamat lakh
Tenu kaafir kaafir aakhde tu aaho aaho akh!

Bulleh you became god’s lover and for this were disgraced
They call you, “Infidel, infidel”, you reply to them, “Yes, yes!

Over the years we have seen a growing identity crisis in Pakistan. Small wonder – since the only Pakistani identity left to us, without it turning controversial, is our national anthem, which hardly anyone understands; saluting our national flag, on which the green symbolises Islam, and the white which has the pole running through it, symbolises religious minorities; the image of our founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah on our bank notes, devoid of his ideology; and the brooding profile of our national poet Allama Iqbal.

Now, I wasn’t around during partition or the birth of Pakistan. I was born in a country already created, and I refuse to believe that it’s impossible for this country to survive or prosper because of some irreparable ideological defect during its inception. In fact, an objective study of the history of this land leading up to partition is required, not so that we hold our heads in dismay, but so that we may learn from the past and be wiser about our future.

Born as a Pakistani, it is my birthright to learn about and celebrate all that makes up the diverse cultural identity of this land. One of the basic mistakes that our leaders of the past made was to try and artificially create a homogenous culture around the Urdu language and what was perceived as mainstream Islamic culture, at the cost of the indigenous rich languages of this land with the wisdom that has flourished here for centuries.

Learning about real cultural heritage is about much more than simply preserving our past. It’s about learning how to live, about being aware of basic human values and aspirations in the context of what is today Pakistan.

The annual three-day Urs festival of the great poet-saint Baba Bulleh Shah was held at his shrine in Kasur a week ago. During the festival, one TV channel called me on their show and gave me all of eight minutes to sing and speak about the poetry of the saint. Another channel wanted to invite me for an hour-long program on Michael Jackson, which I politely declined. Granted that Michael Jackson, like Bruce Lee is a folk legend even in Pakistan, but have we lost touch with our indigenous folk heroes to the extent that we need to import icons to make up for our own cultural ignorance?

A malang dancing to a Sufi kalam being sung by other malangs at Bulleh Shah's shrine. -Photo by Bushra Shehzad/Hosh media
A malang dancing to a Sufi kalam being sung by other malangs at Bulleh Shah's shrine. -Photo by Bushra Shehzad/Hosh media

You can hardly blame the mainstream media for giving negligible airtime to one of the greatest poets of the subcontinent, if not the world. After all, they’re just trying to run a business and cater to the popular tastes of the disconnected and disenfranchised youth of Pakistan – the youth that have gone through better or worse educational institutions and never been taught about what poetry has been composed in Punjabi by Baba Bulleh Shah, Shah Hussain, Baba Fareed, Guru Nanak … or in Sindhi by Shah Abdul Lateef Bhittai, Sachal Sarmast, Sheikh Ayaz … or in Siraiki by Khwaja Ghulam Fareed … or in Pashto by Rehman Baba or Khushal Khan Khattak … or in Balochi by Mast Tawakali … And we are not even aware of our cultural heritage in the languages of Northern Pakistan, in Shina, Burushaski, Balti, Wahi etc.

It was during the time, when I set out in search of the source of my own personal faith, and studied the teachings of various traditions, that I discovered that the same universal message of humanity exists in the very fabric of my land. Even though my Punjabi was poor, it was initially Baba Bulleh Shah’s poetry that made complete sense to me and opened the lids of this cultural treasure chest.

Parh parh aalim faazil hoyo kadi apne aap nu parheya hi nai
Ja ja andar mandar maseetaa kadi man apne vich varheya hi nai
Aiwein roz shaitan naal larhda kaddi nafs apne naal larheya hi nai
Bulleh Shah asmaani urhdi pharda, jerha ghar bettha onhon pharheya hi nai

You read and read and call yourself a scholar but you never studied about yourself
You keep visiting temples and mosques but you never entered inside yourself
Every day you fight against Satan but you never fought against your own ego
Bulleh Shah, you grasp for the flight of heaven, yet you never grasped what is within your own house

Baba Bulleh Shah, who was born in 1680 in the town of Uch in Punjab, was loved for his character and the truth that he uncompromisingly expressed in his poetry. Even during his lifetime, his verses were picked up and spread far by local bards. But he was also reviled and feared by the powerful clerics of his time who saw in his message, a threat to their own claims of sovereignty.

When he passed away in 1757 in Kasur, the clerics of the town forbade his burial calling him an infidel, so his followers and friends had to bury him outside the city limits. But soon his tomb started attracting thousands of people who came to pay homage or seek for solace or wisdom, and the town of Kasur started growing around his shrine, so that today it is situated at the very heart of Kasur.

There are many popular anecdotes and myths about his life, which have also been presented recently in the memorable theatrical production of Bulleh by the Ajoka group of Lahore. His father, Muhammad Darwaish was a poor imam at a village mosque, so that at a young age, Bulleh was forced to tend cattle to make ends meet. He alludes to these times in the following verse:

Lokaan de bhaanay Ranjha chaak maheen da
Ranjha ta lokaan vich kaheenda
Saadda ta deen eemaan ve vehrhe aa varh mere
Mai tere qurban ve vehrhe aavarh mere

For people you are Ranjha the herdsman
But Ranjha speaks from within the people
Such is my faith and way of life, enter into my courtyard
I am sacrificed to you, enter into my courtyard

Bulleh Shah’s family was proud of their Syed ancestry, which meant that they claimed ancestry of the Bani Hashim clan of the Prophet Muhammad. When he associated himself with his spiritual guide Shah Inayat, who was considered to be from a low-born Arain family, he provoked his clan’s resentment. In his classic satirical manner, he replied to them through these verses and rebelled against the division of humanity based on castes:

Bulleh nu samjhaawan aayaan behnaa te bharjaayaan
Man le Bulleh saadda kehna chadd de pala ‘Raiyaan
Aal e Nabi aulaad e Ali nu tu kyun leekaan laayaan
Jehrha saanu Syed sadde dozakh Milan sazaayaan
Jo koyi saanu ‘Rain aakhe beheshti peengaan paayaan

Bulleh’s sisters and sisters-in-law came to persuade him
Listen to us Bhulleh and forego the company of Arains
Why have you crossed out the ancestry of the Prophet and the lineage of Ali
Whosoever calls me Syed shall receive the punishment of hell
Whosoever calls me an Arain shall sway on the swings of heaven.

Listen to Bulleh Nu Samjhawan Aaiyan by Abida Parveen with Lyrics here.

Later Shah Inayat was also irked by Bulleh Shah’s independent attitude and refused to meet him for a while. Bulleh who had declared his love for his spiritual guide was heartbroken. In order to make amends, he broke more social taboos and became the disciple of a dancing girl. He then came in disguise and performed in front of his old teacher, who he knew was fond of dance. Shah Inayat was touched by this act of dedication and humility and accepted Bulleh Shah back among his company.

Iss ishq di jhangi vich mor boleenda
Saanu qibla te Kaaba sohna yaar diseenda
Saanu ghayal kar ke phir khabar na leyaa
Tere ishq nachaaya kaare thaya thaya

A peacock speaks in this grove of passion
My beautiful beloved appears as my Qibla and Kaaba
You smote me with love and then stopped inquiring
Your love made me dance to the sound of my anklets

Bulleh Shah lived in turbulent times when the Sikhs were rebelling against the Mughal Empire. He is said to have had close relations with the ninth Guru of the Sikhs, Guru Tegh Bahadur, whom he tried to dissuade from seeking revenge upon Muslims for the cruelty that the emperor Aurangzeb had inflicted upon his people. When Guru Tegh Bahadur himself was beheaded, Bulleh hailed him as a Ghazi or a ‘holy warrior’, further provoking the anger of the religious zealots of his time.

When Bulleh Shah’s religious beliefs were brought into question, he replied with these immortal verses:

Na main momin vich maseeta
Na mai vich kufr diyaan reetaan
Na mai paakaan vich paleetaan
Na mai Musa na Firaun
Bulleh ki jana mai kaun

Neither am I a believer in the mosque
Neither am I an infidel
Neither amongst the virtuous nor amongst the sinners
Neither am I Moses nor the Pharaoh
Bulleh, who knows who I am

Listen to Bullah, Kih Jana Main Kaun by the Wadali Brothers with lyrics here.

Bulleh Shah was openly defiant towards those whom he perceived as merchants of religion. In one of his most satirical verses, he compares them with dogs who he says are better at what they do.

Raateen jaagen karen ibaadat
Raateen jaagan kutte tethon utte
Bhowknon band mool na honde
Jaa rurhi te sutte tethon utte
Khasam apne da darr na chade
Bhawen wajan jutte tethon utte
Bulleh Shah koyi rakht vehaaj le
Nai te baazi le gaye kutte tethon utte

Staying awake and praying at night
The dogs are also awake, superior to you
They never stop barking
And go and sleep on a pile of rubbish, superior to you
They never leave their master’s door
Even when beaten with shoes, superior to you
Bulleh Shah you’d better achieve something
Or the dogs will win this contest, superior to you

Baba Bulleh Shah spoke with directness and skill in exposing the deceits of the cruel and the self-righteous while forever re-enforcing the belief in the oneness of reality, which is why he is considered as one of the great Sufi sages of this land.

Bulleh shoh asaan theen wakh naheen
Bin shoh theen dujjha kakh naheen
Par vekhan waali akh naheen
Taaheen jaan judaayaan sehndi e
Mooh aayi baat na rehndi e

Bulleh, the beloved is not apart from me
Besides the beloved there is naught else
But the discerning eye is missing
Whereby life endures separation
The words that arise may not be suppressed


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