Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience



Your Name:

Recipient Email:

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

Author Image

Arieb Azhar is a singer songwriter based in Islamabad. He studied Philosophy and Indology from the University of Zagreb in Croatia, where he also used to lead an Irish Celtic World Music band.

Learn more about him here.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (43) Closed

Cosmic Lion Sep 03, 2013 03:47pm

"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". Things have not changed much.

sukhbir Sep 03, 2013 05:23pm

Dear Arieb Azhar Sahib, may the almighty bless you and your music with all the wisdom that Bulleh Shah gave us. Yes you are right when you wish to return to your roots, sorry OUR roots, that were so richly watered by the greats like Bulleh, Nanak, Waris Shah and others of their ilk. Sing my friend Sing the verses of Bulleh and make our lives rich. God Bless you.

Bacchus Piggawala Sep 03, 2013 05:33pm

Arieb Sahib, Very nice. Please do more. And do it in the Urdu papers as well. The cultural vacuum, that we've created for ourselves is killing us. The next generation needs to know more of this stuff. Otherwise we're doomed.

Khawar T khyam Sep 03, 2013 05:38pm

Well written. Thanks for adding into my knowledge.

Ravindra patel Sep 03, 2013 06:00pm

"Na me Bhagvan hu, Na me Setan hu, Dunia jo chahe samje, Me to Insan hu" : Film Mother India

aaa Sep 03, 2013 09:09pm

Bigger irony than this is that go to any uneducated person in village who does not have access to media and they have heard all this poetry and know the meanings as well and can rectie some couplets as well. And the ones educated in pakistan have only heard the popular indian english songs. I came to this conclusion a long time ago our education has taken away from us the true beauty of our local culture and labeled it as something as backward. If you truely want to know the history of pakistan get hold of some original letter of allama iqbal, they tell truely how correct our textbooks are.

Javed Sep 03, 2013 09:19pm

Alas, some human thinkers finally in Pakistan.

vinay Sep 03, 2013 10:12pm

touched by this story about bulleh shah. great stuff Arieb Azhar bhai


GPR FIX Sep 03, 2013 10:46pm

@Cosmic Lion: In fact it has gotten worse!

SBB Sep 03, 2013 11:02pm

Superb - thank you! Didn't know that much in detail about Bulleh Shah, but clearly the people of the sub-continent need to preserve this legacy.

Imran A. Sep 03, 2013 11:05pm

It's amazing how the clerics never seem to get it and nothing has changed! Anyways, great writing. Keep up the good work!

Mr Singh Sep 04, 2013 12:21am

after reading this article someone can say Pakistan also has its own culture, not only borrowed Arabian culture. superb article about great poet.

conspirashidulrehman Sep 04, 2013 02:14am

clerics lost , once again. Salute to People who respect Bulleh Shah

Shahid Pirzada Sep 04, 2013 02:20am

Very nice. Keep learning about the land and keep spreading the word. Eventually people will understand.

Sikandar Khan Sep 04, 2013 02:26am

Excellent!! Great job. We need to know everything we can about our owns bards. Some of them are no less than Shakespeare. Thanks

Zara Sep 04, 2013 03:00am

Thank u very much...a lot of poetry I heard now makes so much more sense.

Vijay@toronto Sep 04, 2013 03:09am

Azhar Sahib: As a GREAT lover of Bulley Shay (though a staunch Hindu), all I can do to pay my respects to you for this SUPERB article, is to touch your feet. May Allah bless you (along with Bullah Baba) with all that your heart desires.

Saifur Rahman Sep 04, 2013 04:03am

Bulleh Shah, taught people to liberate themselves from the prison of bigotry and shallow mindedness that is found in almost in all religions. This is what Rabindranath Tagore (Indian philosopher and Nobel Laureate) once mentioned in one of his writings:

Shehriyar Khan Sep 04, 2013 04:42am

Brilliant! Pakistanis need to hold on to their own cultural heritages.

Bulay Bullah Sep 04, 2013 05:44am

Great article. Check out this great book on Bullah Shah:

Sanjeev K. Yadav Sep 04, 2013 08:23am

So....wonderfully written....very knowledgeable ....Bulleh is like Kabir of Punjab.....thanks

Aisha A Sep 04, 2013 11:01am

Very well written and enjoyable, brought back memories of my late uncle who wud humm bulay shah kafi on breakfast table.............. our sufi kalam is a miracle. Thankyou

Bulleh Sep 04, 2013 11:24am

I as Hindu can completely understand what Bulleh shah is saying mandir/masjid/church/synagogue is one's own body and kabba (sanctum Sanctorum) is one

harhaf Sep 04, 2013 11:44am

@SBB: Whenever anything good written about pakistani muslims or pakistani cultural you indians come and comment saying it is SUBCONTINENT thing ... even when you guys do appreciation of Dawn you say one of the best subcontinent newspaper ..... ha That is kind of mentality you have.....always bringing in your India and never acknowledging anything pure Pakistani

bhuKh Sep 04, 2013 11:47am

Thanks for taking me to this spiritual journey....through this article.

Dixit Sep 04, 2013 11:52am

I am surprised that during that old period muslims were more tolerant than today's so called civilised culture.

Abbas Shah Sep 04, 2013 01:15pm

Nice work Mr Azhar but to blame media is quite unfair cause we do not have the audience for watching such kind of program. However this should be started from the very important level.

Caz Sep 04, 2013 01:39pm

@Cosmic Lion: Absolutely. We all remember the inhumanity of the so called educated people after the assassination of the Governor Taseer of ( part) Punjab and the mullah's behaviour regarding his funeral prayers!

Sehrish Sep 04, 2013 01:55pm

I love Bulleh Shah's personality and rebellios nature. He always thinks out of the box and he is very different than others. Thanks for writing this piece. Much appreciated.

Dhanus Menon Sep 04, 2013 02:23pm

@Shehriyar Khan:Te pakistani culture is Arab at least thats what your people say. Pakistan should declare itself as an Arab nation.

Jasdeep Singh Faridkot Sep 04, 2013 02:24pm

Bulleh Shah is the very soul of Punjabiyat. He is for Punjabis what Shakespeare and Wordsworth are to the English. Perhaps even more importantly he introduced Punjabi Sufism.

Kamran Sep 04, 2013 02:40pm

Thank you for enlightening us about the fascinating history behind Bulleh's verses... A man ahead of his times, he was. Either that or we have gone a long way backwards since partition...

Azhar Sep 04, 2013 02:41pm

Baba Jee Kalam is truthful, and it is very essential for the to know about it.

Tathagata Mandal Sep 04, 2013 03:18pm

@Shehriyar Khan: Why only Pakistanis? The people of South Asia need to look into what's wrong with us. We need to remember our past to make a better future, a future free of borders of all kinds! In India, people hardly remember poets like Bulleh Shah, Khusro, and other luminaries. We need to move together in this respect, don't it?

Sayeed Alatf Hussein Sep 04, 2013 03:25pm

We are Pakistanis by name. We have forgotten our culture our religion. We have forgotten who we are. Every thing is western. Food, cloths, music you name it yet we dislike America. Any one given half a chance to go and live in America they would jump at it. Even the parents looking for a husband for their beloved daughters want some one from the west. It is a shame. Thank you for a great article. We need to get back to our roots.

H Nasir Sep 04, 2013 03:47pm

Good. We have deviated away from these spiritual valiues, these big men -Sufis-- Its our ethos.Lets again identify with them for peace in our land.

Bulleh Sep 04, 2013 04:37pm

Love of Heeras and Ranjah of Bulle Shah is the love of Gopis and Radha for Krishna(Purush,Husband) and it means "RAS LILA". Gopi and Radha are Heeras and Krishna is Ranjah. Heeras represent countless innumerable souls(human,animals and birds) and Ranjah represents god. Heeras represents sheeps(childrens sons and daughters) Ranjah represent Shepherd(Father).Father son relationship and Husband wife relationship is the relationships between soul and God.

Singh Sep 04, 2013 05:02pm

I loved the article, but even more so I loved that all my favorite kalaams and the exact recordings I like were posted along with them in an article written by one of my favorite singers. I'm not gonna lie somewhere along the line, I stopped paying attention for a minute or two to consider the fact that Arieb Azhar liked the same music as I did. )

sun Sep 04, 2013 05:33pm

Bulleh Shah it means Boole Shah means Boole means innocent like a child, who know nothing he neither knows god nor himself.

watch Sep 04, 2013 06:05pm

Bulleh Shah means one who has forgotten everything he is one with the beloved.

Rao Sep 05, 2013 05:18am

Bulleh Shah is still alive in the hearts of all secular people of the sub continent...See this popular song on what he wrote

junaid Sep 05, 2013 02:05pm

beautiful and true said..

Nimra Sep 06, 2013 02:04am

A relishing piece indeed. Splendid job !