Four women poets have helped shape Kashmir’s literary imagination. In my mind, each has a distinct image, rooted in the stories I heard as a child.

Lalded I see as all thought, walking through towns and villages, a naked, shapeless body, the folds of her lower abdomen drooping over her thighs.

Habba Khatun appears crowned and her headdress plumed, sometimes as queen, sometimes as courtesan, in majestic robes, strolling over hill and dale.

Rupa Bhawani is a radiant face, framed by hair loosely rolled into matted strands, a tapasvani meditating in caves and at lonely heights.

And then there is Arinimal, draped modestly, but in a vivid peacock-feather hued shot-silk or cherry red-velvet pheran, standing forlorn against the background of a mud-brick house set in a green valley or against the backdrop of the Mar canal in the Rainawari suburb of Srinagar.

These shared images help us to understand the life and work of these four women poets. The lack of concern with adornments of the mystic Lalded contrasts with the pride in her physical beauty and exquisite robes of the romantic Habba Khatun. Rupa Bhavani, or Alakeshwari – the goddess with locks of hair – is absorbed in the quest for self-realisation while Arinimal is invested with the romance of loneliness, a brooding reproach in her eyes for the forever absent lover.

As poets these women inhabit not just the collective memory of Kashmiris but are part of their living oral tradition. Folk singers begin their performance with Lalded’s vaakhs (quatrains). Arnimal’s pain of unrequited love and Habba Khatun’s complaints about her in-laws are ironic wedding vatsans or songs.

Rupa Bhavani’s sites of meditation are now shrines where her vaakhs are chanted in annual celebrations. The linguistic felicity of Kashmiris, their talent for the apt word, potent proverb and rhyming analogy, is a legacy of these poets.

The origins of the two main streams of Kashmiri poetry are the mystical compositions of Lalded (14th century) and the romantic, secular lyrics of Habba Khatun (16th century).

Lalded was followed by Rupa Bhavani (17th century) in the mystic tradition, while Arnimal (in the 18th century) was heir to the romantic love lyrics of Habba Khatun. Each of these women charted her particular course in life and art, refusing in her own way, to submit to the roles assigned by contemporary society. Two walked out of their marriages and the culture of silence to express their spiritual yearnings in verses of solemn beauty. The other two, separated from their lovers, openly spoke about their physical longing in the poetry of unforgettable songs. It helped that Kashmiris give mystics the liberty to break social taboos, the broken- hearted space to lament, and to treasure both.

These poets belonged to very different times, yet there is a similarity of concerns and expressions to be found in their works as well as a unique, individual note. At first glance, a common spiritual quest informs the utterances of Lalded and Rupa Bhavani, both of whom have the stature of saints in Kashmir. But the linguistic and stylistic tools each used, and the tone of their voices, is significantly different.

Lalded’s language is easy to understand in spite of the esoteric thought that lies within it. Perhaps her vaakhs, having travelled down the centuries in an oral tradition owned also by the unlettered, have had their vocabulary simplified in recitation. Rupa Bhavani’s poetry, in contrast, was written down and preserved in its original, Sanskritised form, and therefore remained the possession of the Kashmiri Pandit intellectual elite.

While Habba Khatun and Arnimal might both appear to sing of nothing but lyrics of lovelorn souls, their perceptions, attitudes, representational methods and allusions are not the same, but products of different socio-cultural traditions and milieus. One was a Muslim in the 16th century Moghul Kashmir, the other a Kashmiri Pandit in 18th century Kashmir ruled by the Pathans. Habba Khatun’s poetry alludes to the Quran while Arnimal appeals to Krishna. Habba Khatun celebrates her own beauty and nature while Arinmal is more modest and self-absorbed.

Each of these women would be considered a significant voice by any standard of literary judgement, but their lives and work remain largely unknown outside Kashmir. Some western and Kashmiri scholars have done valuable work on Lalded but the other three have been largely ignored. Not all their poems have been translated into English, and they are the subject of undeservedly brief references in books on Kashmiri literature in English. This book seeks to undo this injustice.

Three verses by Lalded

My teacher gave me a word of wisdom
From outside bade me turn within
That word for me is the final word
Lal dances now in naked abandon.

Their abuse and spit I wore like a crown
Slander dogged my every step
But I am Lal, I stayed unmoved
Full I am, where’s room for more?

Your idol’s stone, your temple’s stone
All’s stone tied from top to toe
Dense Brahmin, what is it you worship?
Bind breath to mind instead. 

A poem by Habba Khatun

Every pore of my body aches
He fills me with desire!

He looked at me from over the wall
I would have wrapped him in the finest shawl
Why was he so offended?
He fills me with desire!

He looked at me from the doorway –
Who showed him to my home?
For me, there’s only anguish!
He fills me with desire!

He looked at me from the window
Long-necked beauty that I am
He left my heart so empty
He fills me with desire!

He looked at me from the skylight
Spoke to me like a song-bird
Slowly, he vanished from sight.
He fills me with desire!

He looked at me from the attic
Like a trader, he entered my house
Bit by bit he wasted me away
He fills me with desire!

He looked at me from the rooftop
He let me burn like a flaming torch
He left me nothing but regret
He fills me with desire!

He glanced at me as the moon was sinking
Why did he come like a man so mad
Why did he play that part
He fills me with desire!

He looked at me from the river bank
The rose’s bud was lost forever
The fire of love consumed me
He fills me with desire!

Three verses by Rupa Bhavani

Think that the original, all-pervading,
immanent, omnipresent, your friend
Omnipotent, unique, self-created, whose form is
Turn the eye inward, find the secret of Nirvana,
attain the Highest Abode.

With pure determination, rouse the Kundalini
from the muladhara, rounded and white
Through the chakras, purposeful, in all states of
consciousness, find equipoise
Immersed in God-consciousness, beyond all
states of awareness, endless delight!
Turn the eye inward, find the secret of Nirvana,
attain the Highest Abode.

That beautiful, immanent One, bestower of the
highest state, flowing through all creation
Gives wholeness to all, satisfies all hunger
The all-powerful Lord, designer divine of all
Turn the eye inward, find the secret of Nirvana,
attain the Highest Abode.

Two verses by Arnimal

The jewels of my eyes I’ll lay at your feet
Come beloved mine, my childhood friend

You flew like a bird to rivers and shallows
my heart tore in two –
the calls I heard were not yours
Come beloved mine, my childhood friend.

Yellow blossoms festoon the banks
I know you’ll keep your promise today
If you come, I’ll lay my head at your feet
Come beloved mine, my childhood friend.

Garlands of flowers I weave for him
Won’t he revel in the jasmine for me?
Desire fills these goblets with wine
He has a place in this heart of mine
One glimpse of his face will give me my life
Won’t he revel in the jasmine for me?

The Mystic and the Lyric

Excerpted with permission from The Mystic and the Lyric: Four Women Poets from Kashmir, Introduced and Translated by Neerja Mattoo, Zubaan.