Three classic sufi poets from Pakistan

Introduced and translated by Christopher Shackle

© Photo by Nick Wilson.

The rich literary heritage of the major indigenous languages of Pakistan has at its heart the wonderful poetry created by many great Sufis of the pre-modern period, dating from mediaeval times down to the late nineteenth century. Their verses were designed to convey the essential belief of mystical Islam in the overriding importance of love as the supreme force of creation and as the unique medium through which God’s creatures may truly come to know Him. God created the world through love, and it is through love that man may come to understand the mystery of the divine presence in all things.

These core insights into the nature of the mystical process, which for the Sufis is the essence of true religious practice, are continually explored in the love-poetry which they created both to express their own passionate attachment to the Divine Beloved and to transmit this vital passion to a popular audience unfamiliar with the learned languages of the court. Instead of Persian, therefore, they composed in the various local languages of the Indus plains which form a quite closely related group ranging from Sindhi in the south to Punjabi in the north, with Siraiki, spoken across northern Sindh and south-east Punjab, forming an intermediate link between them.

It would be a mistake to think of these Sufi writers as simple folk-poets, since they were all trained in the learned traditions of Islam and in their poetry they drew upon their education as well as upon the folk-culture of their region, and any truly representative anthology needs to do justice to both these aspects of their creation. Since it is hardly possible to convey this complexity in a very brief selection, the poems presented here focus upon just one of the most important and attractive features of the Sufi lyrics.

This is their continual reference to the romantic legends which form a core part of local imaginary of love. Although these stories originate in different parts of the region, they have come to form a shared part of its collective poetic heritage, so that references to these romances have long struck an immediate chord across any boundaries of language. Many narrative poems in the different languages tell the whole story of the various pairs of lovers, but the Sufi poets focus their lyrical references upon key episodes only. In keeping with the long tradition of Indic poetry, the poets adopt the female persona of the heroine. Their description of her single-minded passion for her male beloved is intended to evoke the mystical longing of the Sufi which is focused upon the figure of the Divine Beloved which is manifested throughout creation, and yet which is also so painfully felt to be unattainably distant from those who seek Him.

All the poets make frequent reference to all these legends, but to keep things as simple as possible, the brief selections from each of the three greatest Pakistani Sufi poets presented here have been chosen so as to illustrate only one legend at a time. More about the legends is separately explained in the brief notes which introduce the individual poets below.

One of the most attractive characteristics of the poetry is the way in which it avoids the rhetorical complexities of the learned tradition of classical Persian and Urdu poetry in favour of a simple directness. These are not elaborate poems to be picked apart and savoured by connoisseurs but lyrics designed to be sung and to be felt through the medium of their music. As with all good poetry, though, this simplicity hardly makes these Sufi lyrics any easier to translate into a very different language like English. Although their rhythms are not dissimilar to familiar English patterns, the strong rhymes which are so frequent and prominent a feature of the originals are hardly to be reproduced in English without serious distortions of the sense, and so they are omitted altogether here. 

Shah Abdul Latif (d. 1752) and the story of Suhni

Shah Abdul Latif of Bhit in District Hyderabad in southern Sindh is universally acknowledged to be the supreme poet of Sindhi literature. He was one of those Sufis called Uvaisi, because he was not formally affiliated to any of the great Sufi orders, and is said to have composed extempore.

His remarkably varied lyrics were transcribed and gathered by his followers to form the large collection called Shah jo Risalo or ‘The Message of Shah’.The Risalo is arranged by the musical modes in which they are sung. The selections here are taken from the magnificent mode which describes the heroine Suhni who swims across the Indus to meet her beloved Mehar.

As usual, the lyrics focus on the climactic episode in her story, when Suhni who has been married against her will to Dam, starts out as usual to swim across the river Indus to visit her beloved Mehar (also called Sahar or ‘Beloved’) with the aid of an earthenware pot. This time she discovers too late that one of her husband’s relatives has substituted an unfired pot for her usual vessel, but she bravely sets off anyway in the certain knowledge that she will drown when the pot dissolves.

Like most of those in the Risalo, these poems are written in the short Sindhi verse form called bai. This is structured not only by the usual rhymes but also by alliteration, and something of the latter feature is suggested here.

Fresh streams flow before me here
Ahead the mighty river flows
You sit at home in comfort, friends
Safe in your husband’s care
But if you once caught sight
Of Sahar’s lovely face
You would not try to hold me back
You too would plunge in with your pots

Crows sit crouched up in the trees
The day draws to its close
She hears the evening call to prayer
And goes to seek the spots
Where her dear Sahar dwells

She takes the pot and plunges in
She puts her trust in God
The alligator grasps her leg
The cayman has her head
Her bracelets mingle with the mud
The current grabs her hair
Countless creatures touch her tight
River monsters maul her limbs
Whole schools of fish surround her
Suhni is severed limb from limb

I’m glad my pitcher fell apart
Glad too my bracelets broke
True are they who trust in God,
The only raft for all who drown
My husband Dam is false and foul
In my heart I hold Mehar

Once her pot fell into pieces
She perished helplessly
But then it was that Suhni heard
The calls of her Mehar

Set off without your self
And cast all aids aside
Love will take you through the torrent
Your passage will be safe
Let yourself be propped by longing
And reach the other side

They seek so hard to find Mehar
Mehar it is who seeks for them
For all who feel the force of love
A raft is but a handicap

Sahar is the same as Suhni
And Sahar is the sea
This mystery is magical
This puzzle is profound

Bullhe Shah (d. 1758) and the story of Hir

Most of Bullhe Shah’s life was spent in the town of Kasur, situated to the south of Lahore. He was a disciple of Shah Inayat of Lahore who was affiliated to both the Qadiri and Shattari Sufi orders, and frequent references in his poetry testify to the depth of his passionate devotion to his spiritual master.

Bullhe Shah is the greatest Punjabi Sufi poet, whose work is particularly notable for its extraordinarily outspoken proclamation of the essential unity of all being and the consequent irrelevance of formal religious practices and affiliations.

This has helped assure it a huge and continuing popularity amongst all communities of Punjabis in both Pakistan and India. Most of his poems are in the form of the kafi, the premier genre of the Sufi poetry, in which the repetition after each verse of an opening refrain (here printed in italics) makes for compelling impact when the poems are recited to music. A complete translation by Christopher Shackle with facing Punjabi text is to be published by Harvard University Press in the new Murty Classical Library of India which will be inaugurated in 2014.

Bullhe Shah makes particular frequent reference to the story of Hir and Ranjha, the greatest romantic legend of Punjab which is narrated in full in the classic poem by his younger contemporary Varis Shah. In outline, this tells how Hir, the daughter of the Sial chieftain of Jhang, was wooed by Dhido, a Ranjha tribesman from Takht Hazara, how they fell in love only for Hir to be married to another, and how the lovers’ continuing efforts to be united led eventually to their deaths. For Bullhe Shah, the special appeal of the story lies in the two episodes in which Ranjha transforms his outward appearance for the sake of his love.

The first of these is when Ranjha abandons his status as a chieftain’s son to become the humble herdsman of Hir’s father’s buffaloes, the second occurs after Hir’s marriage when he moves outside normal society altogether and takes initiation as a yogi. Casting himself as Hir, Bullhe Shah is led to reflect on the ways in which these radical transformations of her beloved mirror the multiple guises in which the divine is manifested in the world. The first two poems here describe Ranjha disguised as a herdsman, while the third example is taken from the opening of a long poem listing the manifold appearances of God throughout sacred history, starting with the manifestation of Ranjha as a yogi.

Who has come dressed up? Ask him straight, my dear

He holds a crook and wears a blanket, but light dwells in his eyes
He is no herdsman but someone wise. Sit next to him and ask, my dear

Don’t call him just a serving herdsman, for he bears a secret purpose
Though made separate from the start, he has come in search, my dear

He serves none as their herdsman, and takes no pleasure in his herd
Without desire for milk or yoghurt, he feels no appetite, my dear

The lord sits hidden in concealment, Bullha, and speaks not of his secret
My father would give me to another man, my true groom’s by my side

Repeating  ‘Ranjha, Ranjha’ , I am Ranjha now
Call me Dhido Ranjha, do not call me Hir

Ranjha is inside me. I’m in him ‒ this is all I know
There is no me, but only him, he’s gentle to himself

Whoever dwells within us determines who we are
I have now become exactly like the one I love

Dressed in herdsman’s clothes I drive the beasts before me
I’ll go to Takht Hazara, the Sials give me no home

With the yogi I will go, my forehead bears the yogi’s mark.
I’ll go, I’ll go and not be stopped. Who will turn me back?
People taunt me for my love, but now I’ll not give up

He is no yogi, but the one I love. How did this happen?
Once I gained a sight of him, all my control was lost

What was it that he did to me? He hooked my heart with love
He caught me in love’s net with the sweetness of his talk

I recognized the yogi well, though people thought me mad
You looted Jhang, the Sials’ town, with earrings in your ears.

He’s not the herdsman who I love, but a light divine
The magic tunes played on his flute have ruined Hir Sial.

Though millions come and go, his mystery remains . . .

Khwaja Ghulam Farid (d. 1901) and the story of Sassi

Khwaja Ghulam Farid or ‘Slave of Farid’ was named after the great mediaeval saint Baba Farid Shakarganj (d. 1265), the first Punjabi Sufi poet. He was born into an important lineage of Sufi saints belonging to the long-established Chishti order, who numbered the ruling Nawabs of the large princely state of Bahawalpur among their disciples. The royal patronage which supported Khwaja Farid consequently allowed his world to remain largely insulated from the impact of modernity which was being increasingly felt in the directly ruled territories of British India.

Khwaja Farid was one of the last major Sufi poets of the Indus region. He is revered as the greatest poet in Siraiki, the language in which most of his lyrics are composed. Like those of Bullhe Shah, they are written in the kafi form, with an opening refrain repeated after each verse. Display a remarkable stylistic range, their sophisticated style bears the mark of the elite background and education enjoyed by Khwaja Farid, who carefully assembled them in alphabetic order in his collected works or Divan.

Khwaja Farid writes with great poignancy of pains of love, especially as exemplified in the sufferings of his favourite romantic heroine, Sassi the princess of Bhambhore in Sindh who fell in love with Punnun, the son of the Baloch tribal chief of Kech. Their chance of happiness was destroyed by the arrival of Punnun’s brothers who abducted him while Sassi slept and rode off to Kech on their camels. Sassi’s subsequent sufferings as she pursued their trail through the heat of the desert and across barren mountains had been a major theme of Shah Abdul Latif’s Risalo, and they now also inspired many of Khwaja Farid’s most notable poems. Three examples are given here.

I’m not allowed to be at peace, since I fell in love with Punnun

From the very start of time
The call of love sounds in my ears

Since birth I have been made to suffer
I’m bitten by the snake of love

My heart’s an enemy which hurts me
The spear of love has pierced my breast

My dear Baloch has left for Kech
Who then should I stay here for now?

The deadly desert’s broad and wide
Farid, he’s left no tracks for me

My life has all  been spent with him
Now Punnun’s  packed and gone away.

There is no news of my beloved
Nor have I any way to find him
There is no bank or camp to guide me

The tracks across the deadly desert
The peaks and awkward passes
All bar my cries from reaching him

The distances are terrible
Wild bears and awful creatures roar
I find no aid and no support

There are apes and demons in the passes
Crevasses, bogs and broken ground
And ditches at my every step

Pain tortures me, Farid
And grills me on its fire
It breaks my bones and flesh

To whom should I reveal this heart’s sad state?
I cannot find a sympathetic ear

The dust of shame lies on my face
My reputation is destroyed
No one comes to ask me how I am
Instead the world just laughs at me

This load of love is overwhelming
I suffer ill-repute and shame
My life has all been spent in tears
No sign directs me where to go

My heart cries sadly for my friend
It gives me neither peace nor joy
But only grief and suffering
Such is my heart-broken state

Doctors offer remedies
Dispensing pills for me to take
Not one can grasp my secret pain
No cure of theirs is any good
Dear Punnun never said goodbye
He left me here and went to Kech
His purpose was to cause me pain
I just pretended that I slept

I long to reach the town of love
The journey there is hard to trace
There are no tracks or passages
It is a fraught and fearful route

Christopher Shackle retired in 2007 from the academic staff of SOAS, University of London,  where he is now Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages of South Asia. He was awarded the Sitara-i-Imtiaz by the Government of Pakistan in 2005 for his work on Pakistani languages and literatures, particularly Punjabi and Urdu. His interests in translation are reflected in The Season of Love, Bitter Almonds and Delayed Rains (2006), a selection in English of the Urdu short stories of the Pakistani writer Mazhar ul Islam, and extensive selections of Urdu poetry and prose in the anthology Nationalism in the Vernacular: Hindi, Urdu, and the Literature of Indian Freedom (ed. Shobna Nijhawan, 2010). He has long-standing interests in Sikhism and in Sufism in South Asia, and his most recent books include Teachings of the Sikh Gurus (with Arvind Mandair, 2005) and Attar and the Persian Sufi Tradition (with Leonard Lewisohn, 2006). He is currently working on a long-planned monograph on nineteenth-century Punjabi Sufi poetry, along with further translations of the great Pakistani Sufi poets, beginning with  the complete Sufi Lyrics by Bullhe Shah, to be published in 2014.

© Christopher Shackle (Translated by Christopher Shackle)  
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