A few months ago, I had assigned a task to my students to bring in any poetic verse or prose in Punjabi, or just introduce themselves to the class in that language. The idea was simply to get them interested in a regional language, but it soon turned into a project where we worked on developing our own interpretations of Bulleh Shah's poetry.
It was heartening to see how the teenagers in my class found the verses of a 500-year-old saint relatable with their 21st century life.
Coincidentally, my friend who is the founder of Saraab, an organisation formed to document the hidden variants of Pakistan, invited me on a trip to Kasur where she planned to film a documentary about cultural epicentres. I took this as the perfect opportunity for a field trip and asked my students to accompany us.
As the October day became sunnier, we grew increasingly impatient to begin our journey. As we parked at the corner of a busy street, we contemplated what we wanted to do next. Try the region’s fish which is famous across the province, or attend the hourly sessions of kafis (poems) being sung by mureeds (disciples) at Bulleh Shah's shrine?
The kafis won, and we made our way through the traffic to the tomb of Hazrat Baba Bulleh Shah, arguably the greatest Punjabi poet and mystic this region has birthed to date.
Our journey began with a stopover at Baba Kamal Chishty’s shrine, where, according to the local folklore, if you could run up the steep stairs on the small hill while holding your breath, whatever wish you made at the top would come true.
After several failed attempts, we wandered through the shrine that was beautifully decorated with white and green tilework. As we weaved our way under the shade of old trees adorned with colourful strips of visitor's wishes, we could hear the qawwals in the distance singing verses of devotion.
After another stopover at the small, but neatly maintained Kasur museum, it was time to pay a long overdue visit to the master of the poetic craft.
Bulleh Shah lived in the era of the great Sindhi poets Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai and Sachal Sarmast. Mir Taqi Mir, too, lived only a few days journey to the east. The subcontinent spanned over a thousand miles, and Bulleh Shah’s voice was one of many that rose from the small towns of the Orient. Those voices still echo, from air-conditioned rooms in concrete jungles to radio sets held together by scotch tape under banyan trees.
A murshid (spiritual teacher) himself, Bulleh Shah is said to have studied in the famous mohallas of Lahore, with Kasur being his final resting place. The hunt for his tomb involved a drive through bazaars, followed by a short walk while navigating the great Kasuri markets, the scent of fried fish and rubber tyres in the air.
Explore: How to read Bulleh Shah
The tomb is a short five-minute walk from the parking lot. The enclosure holds a praying area — a white and green edifice reflective of Islamic architecture — in the courtyard of the shrine where I saw jewellery sellers and Islamic prayer books.
A short walk away is the entrance where local men, who were selling kasuri methi, made sure that we took our shoes off out of respect before going into the shrine. They had large stacks of pre-packed kasuri methi set at the entryway in case visitors wanted to buy them.
Two graves herald your entrance into the tiled courtyard, said to be the final resting place of Bulleh Shah’s greatest mureeds.
Across the graves in the middle of the large courtyard, for the hopeful, a tree sits next to the immediate sanctuary of Bulleh Shah, where strings and colourful strips of cloth are lifted by the afternoon breeze.
As we walked towards the domed structure, we couldn't help but feel an otherworldly sense of peace. Peeking through the latticed stone, a hint of green and red stares back. It is the double coverlets on Bulleh Shah’s grave, green signifying his ceaseless attachment to Islam, and red a sign of undying strength.
Roses adorn the headstone, and on every side of the great murshid stand people with their hands raised in prayer, silently murmuring hesitant words on their lips. For a minute, it was easy to imagine Bulleh Shah, surrounded by equally devoted listeners, writing the kafis that are still sung.
There is visible life in the enclosure and an inherent sense of peace - not even the scorching sunlight could dull the energy which surrounded his resting place.
Eventually, we settled quietly in the courtyard, eager to hear the kafis of Bulleh Shah being sung by the famous group of qawwals at the shrine. As the men sat up and a crowd began to gather, we watched them transform into passionate devotees.
The men slowly built up a crescendo, the aged and the young alike, and their voices rose with the harmonium. It was only when Tere Ishq Nachaya broke my stupor, I realised how time had flown.
I felt my limbs move, reverently placing a small baqshish - my show of gratitude - where others had placed theirs already. We sat there for a long while, listening to their perfectly stylised rendition of Bulleh Shah's kalams. It was as though we were in a reverie as the voices of the qawwals drifted across the courtyard.
Further reading: Bulleh Shah: Neither am I virtuous nor a sinner
Bulleh Shah was believed to possess healing powers, and people travelled far and wide to come to him for their ailments. Fighting against the prevalent issues of caste, creed, and familial honour in 18th century Punjab, he devoted his life to art, despite initial misgivings from close family members.
More of a nomadic observer than a fighter, he still managed to shake the status quo, spinning out poetic verses to rival several of his famous contemporaries.
As one of his famous verses says:
Oh Bulleh Shah, let's go there
Where everyone is blind
Where no one recognises our caste
And where no one believes in us.
As we silently walked out of the courtyard, I couldn't help but think of Bulleh Shah's undying message and compassion that is still revered today.
All photos by the author.
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