The body’s centre is the fiery sun

— Lalded

Here is a splendid book, The Mystic and the Lyric, on four women poets of Kashmir, viz Lalded, Habba Khatoon, Rupa Bhavani and Arnimal, from the noted author and translator Neerja Mattoo, whose contribution to the Kashmiri culture is immense and commendable. The detailed write-ups on these four women poets of Kashmir have emerged from Mattoo’s soul. The book is her tour de force, and reflects her critical sense, incisive judgement and analytical understanding of these four outstanding poets.

The reader is overawed by Mattoo’s in-depth study of literature, especially the poetry poured out by these four Kashmiri poets. The translations of the vaakhs of Lalded and Arnimal and of the lyrics of Habba Khatoon and Arnimal are exquisite, although we shouldn’t forget the Italian dictum: “Translators are traitors” which is a universal phenomenon. Neerja’s verse translations seem original compositions... competent, clear and effectual.

Many scholars and researchers have written on Lalded, and many more have translated her vaakhs into English. But not nearly as much has been written on Rupa Bhavani, Arnimal and Habba Khatoon, who have been largely ignored. But Mattoo in her book has tried to undo this apathy of authors and readers alike by translating their poems alongside those of Lalded into chaste Queen’s English.


Lalded was born in Kashmir in the fourteenth century when Islam went there. The Saiva faith was still practised at the time. The Islamic Sufis, who came to Kashmir, challenged the beliefs and practices of the Brahmins. Lalded made the Saivite faith accessible to the people. The outcome was the birth and growth of Rishism, which proved that spirituality was the same in both Islam and Brahminism. Even Nund Rishi paid a rich tribute to her when she was born.

She held discussions with the Iranian Sufi Mir Syed Ali Hamdani who came to Kashmir to spread Islam, and with her guru Siddha Srikanth. She is believed to have spoken prophetic words of profound philosophical value. Her verses are known as vaakhs, which answer spiritual questions. Mysticism and practical wisdom are fused in them. They belong to the moral and ethical branch of Kashmir Saivism.

Their ultimate aim is to lead man into a state of felicity and give an over-all view of the Saiva gnosis by depicting the ecstasy of those who “break through to the Oneness”. We encounter a consciousness which suggests that many things are so secret and holy that they can’t be communicated in words. Bodies are many but their soul is one. “Truth is one but is spoken by many names.”

The vaakhs voice common yearnings of man. They are a journey through “the dark night of the soul.” They are very popular among the Kashmiri speaking people around the world who often recite them in their day-to-day life. These vaakhs express the longing of the soul for its return to the divine being.

With strands untwisted I tow my boat
I wish he’d hear and pull me over
Water seeps through my unbaked bowls
O how my heart longs to go home!

I feel that Lalded is far ahead of Rabia and Meera Bai, who sang of separation from god and the ultimate union and divinity. Rumi comes close to Lalded. His experience was the realisation of this union and a means of ultimately bringing it to light.

They say that Lalded walked through the streets naked. Actually, as Mattoo says, the life of the spirit rather than that of the flesh became real for Lalded, and that in her “fine madness” she became unaware of her body.

“... And that is why I dance in naked abandon.”

A Greek philosopher, while walking through the streets of Athens with a torch in his hand, is supposed to have said to the citizens of Athens: “I am looking for a man.”

Lalded goes beyond the apparent to the underlying truth of reality...the immanent and the transcendental like in Plato’s shadows in the cave. Hers was a real dance of ecstasy, a celebration of her love for god where there was no shame. Nothing had any substance. It is an allegory which expounds the burning away of dross.

Many stories connected with Lalded had a very powerful hold on popular imagination. She had no patience with meaningless ritual and hypocrisy. She negates and rejects all distinctions: “Niti, niti, niti.” “Not this, not this, not this.” Intense anguish is defeated, and her “mad” self finds clear utterance and expression. She rejected idol worship, believed in the transmigration of the soul and remembered her previous births.

Before Lalded literary works were written in Sanskrit. But Lalded uttered her vaakhs in pure Kashmiri and rendered them accessible in the common language of the people. Her language is rich with a wealth of vocabulary, allusions, proverbs, metaphors and maxims. Lalded honed and fine-tuned the Kashmiri language to serve as her voice. It never lost touch with a poet’s art in her search for the right medium and used it to suit her purpose.

Reading aloud, tongue and palate are blistered
But the art of pleasing you I never learnt
Rosary beads wore tongue and finger out
But duality, my dear, never banished was.

Habba Khatoon

Mattoo writes about the 16th century Kashmiri poet female poet Habba Khatoon delicately. Habba Khatoon in her lyrics voices the feelings, emotions, sufferings and longings of women, and celebrates the world of senses. She laments and complains. Her songs are highly seductive and musical. She sings of the various facets of a lover’s condition and craves for fulfilment in love.

There are different stories about Habba Khatoon’s life, which is shrouded in mystery. Some say that she was from the border district of Gurez, which lay on the trade route to Gilgit, and was married to an illiterate villager who thought that she was a witch and refused to live with her. She was divorced and sent back to her parents’ home. One day, when she was singing in the fields the king of Kashmir, Yousuf Shah Chak saw her and made her his queen. There are many other stories connected with her life, and the truth is hard to locate.

Habba Khatoon revels in the wealth of Kashmir’s natural bounties and celebrates them in most of her poems. Her enjoyment is incomplete without the company of the object of her desire.

The lilacs are all in bloom
Did no word of my plight reach your ears?

She is painfully aware of the social constraints and the restrictions on women:

“The birth of a daughter is a smear on your name...”

Mattoo says that in Habba Khatoon’s songs we find her longing to go “home”. In her later poems she is deeply pessimistic even while trying to be philosophical. Hers are lyrics steeped in romanticism, highly metaphorical and symbolic, that build a charged atmosphere of passionate love. Her images jump from one object to another, and the effect is awesome. Her lyrics are a part of the collective memory of all Kashmiris.

Rupa Bhavani

In the Introduction to the section on Rupa Bhavani (1625-1721), Mattoo says that she was a mystic and poet known as Alakheshwari or simply Saheb. She was born in the scholarly Brahmin family of Madhava Dhar at Safakadal, Srinagar. Married at the age of seven, she renounced the submissive housewife’s way of life and left her husband’s home. She chose penance and went into long periods of meditation in search of spiritual awakening and salvation.

Rupa Bhavani communicated her experience of cosmic consciousness to a few of her devotees through her utterances. Her family accused her of being a witch. She broke free and charted a course of her own life. Her father supported her and was the first to acknowledge her sainthood. A temple and shrines were built in the places where she lived.

The members of the Dhar clan to which she belonged, still make an offering of sweets at her shrine twice a year, and fast on the anniversary of her death. This stanza sets the tone of her mystic journey and self-realisation:

Think that He is Immanent, Omnipresent, your Friend
Omnipotent, Unparallelled, Self-created, All-pervading
Turn the eye inward, find Nirvana unveiled, attain the Highest Abode.

The force and weight of Rupa Bhavani’s thought-provoking poems are presented through the use of the poetic device of “metaphysical conceit”. Moreover, her vaakhs reveal a personality well-versed in the Vedas, the Upanishads, Vedanta, and Saiva philosophical thought. She talks of non-duality, for she has felt the presence of the universal spirit residing within her own self.

Mattoo contends that Rupa Bhavani was a socially concerned human being who called for the cleansing of all evils from Kashmiri society. She rejected ritual and mere form in religion. She got a liberal education, was familiar with Omar Khayyam and Hafiz, and reached the state to which Sufis aspire, and used their terminology.

Apart from the similes from Hindu mythology, she used these from day-to-day activities with a view to convey observations about the transcendental. Her poetry has a sedate and solemn tone; her poet’s ear for music gives some of her verses a ringing and dancing rhythm. There is an intellectuality which characterises her poetry. She was a talented poet and an extraordinary woman of courage.


In the Introduction to the fourth section of the book Neerja Mattoo writes about Arnimal, who was born in Palhalan in 1737 AD when Kashmir was under Afghan rule. She was married to Bhavani Dass Kachru of Rainawari in Srinagar. He was a scholar of Persian whom the Afghan Governor of Kashmir liked and appreciated. He wrote the Behr-i-Taveel in Persian, went to Kabul, became part of the court, and adopted the ways of the elite, while Arnimal suffered the fate of a forsaken and lonely wife.

Arnimal composed lyrics of romantic sensibility and pure passion. In her poems she longs for the earthly lover, viz her husband, whose rejection she doesn’t accept. She expresses the anguish of being a helpless woman. Her rich vocabulary and diction are proof of her mastery of the craft of poetry. Arnimal’s soft words with powerful arraignment are her strength.

Neerja Mattoo’s The Mystic and the Lyric is a solid, substantial and a strongly-written book meant for non-Kashmiri readers who know English, as well as for Kashmiris. The command of the sound effects of the verses of these four women poets is marvellous. We find in them form, intensity, cadence and virtuosity. The diction, word-order and architecture of the English translation are perfect. The linguistic intricacies, nuances, diction, word order and architecture are perfect and flawless.

Mattoo has caught the spirit and magic of the original Kashmiri. The poems have journeyed from one region to the other gracefully and successfully. This translation carries meanings across readers and two languages. The translator has moved towards a bigger arena of language and cultural landscape.

The free and independent transformation of the Kashmiri poems into English is the translator’s aesthetic experience. She has displayed sensitivity to both the languages, viz. Kashmiri and English. Her reconstruction and metamorphic devise and method are superb. By writing this book she has given a large range to the four outstanding Kashmiri poets.

Here the two languages are face-to-face with each other and read each other’s passion and elegance. I was thrilled to read the original Kashmiri and the English translation of the four Kashmiri poets. And the detail from a painting made by Nilima Sheikh on the cover of the book is magnificent.

The Mystic and the Lyric

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

Arvind Gigoo is the author of three books, including, most recently, Gulliver In Kashmir.