Amid the smell of incense and rose petals, Muhammad Amin wipes the dust off his face and refills empty oil lamps that are flickering to their death. A custodian at the shrine of Sufi Saint Hazrat Baba Bulleh Shah, Amin curses visitors who steal kerosene from the oil lamps. In the same light of the oil lamps, an expectant Mukhtara Begum sits in eerie chilly silence. With her only child, a frail daughter, clasped tightly in her lap, she prays for a son. It’s clearly written all over her face. She believes the Saint listens to all. In the distance, another devotee interrupts their silence and utters a kafi from Bulleh Shah’s poetry. With a broken harmonium, he is here along with thousands of devotees at the 252nd Urs of Baba Bulleh Shah.
Bulleh Shah witnesses the activity from under a large green dome, in a shrine built along a mosque and a graveyard. A million wishes are made in the three day Urs, which is a mystical journey into a timeless world, reminiscent of a medieval fair. Devotees from distant lands spend nights at the shrine, eat free food, beat drums and sing poems.
Men and women dressed in saffron robes and cheap jewellery are a visual retreat. I met two fakirs who had travelled from different shrines and claimed to be devotees of Bulleh Shah. Baba Lal Pari Jhooley Lal, an old fakir, defined a dervaish as “someone who owned nothing, not even himself, but in reality, he owned everything, and nothing and no one in this world owned him”. He said that since the inception of Islam, hardliners had always complicated religion, whereas Sufi saints had simplified the link between God and man. Their teachings still continued to break all barriers, and preached not only oneness of God, but also oneness of mankind. It’s true that Sufi saints not only unite people of different sects and religions, but also eliminate gender discrimination.
I saw for the first time in my life, women performing ablution along with men in the same line. But since women are not allowed to enter the grave chamber of the tomb, they swarm and surround the tomb’s square.
Many spurious ‘saints’ had erected little ‘healing’ corners where they were fooling people and accepting rewards in the form of food, money and other gifts. One of them would hold illiterate men and women in his arms, and slap them really hard on their necks and backs to ‘heal’ them. The shrine authorities took notice and got rid of them by dragging them out of the shrine.
Baba Bulleh Shah’s 250 years old shrine is simple yet beautiful. Elaborate tile work with aqua colours and a highly detailed roof are the highlights of the shrine. Different verses from his poetry are calligraphed around the tomb. Ignorant people tend to litter blindly and none bother to dispose their garbage properly. Due to security concerns, all roads leading to the tomb are blocked during the Urs. A typical smell of, rose flowers and human sweat amalgamate, giving an ancient aroma. People swarm to get their hands on free food at the shrine like flies, fighting for every strand of rice and piece of bread. It illustrates a sordid state of affairs. People from all over the country come to give their respect to the saint.
The irony is that Bulleh Shah, now revered by people of all religions and culture, never got the recognition or respect he deserved during his lifetime. It’s not surprising, simply tragic, that when Bulleh Shah passed away, his dead body lay on the road in front of the house for almost a week (other accounts say 10 days). He had been refused by the mullahs to be buried after his death in the community graveyard because of his unorthodox views. Hence he was thrown on the garbage outside the boundary of Kasur. After the occurrence of such an ignorant and inhuman treatment, his friend from a distant place arrived and buried him.
Bulleh Shah’s real name was Abdullah Shah and is commonly believed to have lived from 1680 to 1758. It is said that from among the ancestors of Bulleh Shah, Syed Jallalluddin Bokhari came to Multan from Bokhara three hundred years earlier. Here he got initiated from Hazarat Bahauddin Zakriya of Multan, and settled down. Thus Bulleh Shah’s family, being Syed, was related to Prophet Mohammed on one hand and on the other hand with Sufi thought and mystic traditions for centuries.
Bulleh Shah’s father, Shah Mohammed Dervish, was well-versed Arabic, Persian and Islamic scholar. The tomb of Bulleh Shah’s father still exists in Pandoke Bhatian. Every year an Urs is performed at the tomb and Bulleh Shah’s kafis are sung there. In this way a tribute is paid to both father and son, and it has assumed the form of a tradition to perpetuate their memory.
There is a strong historical evidence to show that Bulleh Shah too was an eminent scholar of Arabic and Persian. From his compositions we can find many references to Islamic thought and mystic literature.
Scholars and dervishes title Bulleh Shah as, ‘The Sheikh of Both the Worlds’. He is regarded as the greatest Punjabi mystic poet and his work is considered to be “the pinnacle of Sufi literature.”
After attaining mystical realisation, his learning acquired a new significance. But he had to pass through difficult tests before he could attain inner knowledge. Only contact with his Murshid or Master Inayat Shah, a well-known Qadiri Sufi of his time, could make this attainment possible. Inayat belonged to the Arain caste and earned his living through agriculture or gardening. Bulleh Shah’s coincidental meeting with Inayat Shah melted his heart and he knew he had found his master.
Bulleh Shah held onto Inayat Shah’s cloak tightly for the rest of his life. A majority of Bulleh Shah’s poetry is a tribute to his Master. His life had become moments of madness and strange ecstasy. In the presence of his Master and with the practice of the path he had just been offered, Bulleh Shah’s spiritual condition and realisation metamorphosed into strong belief.
For a distinguished scholar and descendant of Prophet Mohammed, to accept an ordinary vegetable grower as his Master was a very extraordinary event in the social conditions of Bulleh Shah’s times. Bullah had to suffer the taunts and ridicule not only of men of his religion, clan and caste, but also of all members of his family.
He eventually did succumb once to family pressure. In those days, ‘Syeds’ were the elite Muslim ‘Brahmans’ of the Indian Subcontinent. This discrimination went upto the extent that a non-Syed could never be invited to a Syed’s wedding. Bulleh Shah became the worst victim of this caste discrimination, when on his sister’s wedding; his family pressurized him and convinced him not to invite Inayat Shah, because he wasn’t a Syed. Bulleh Shah’s fate wasn’t with him, as Inayat Shah felt disrespected when he learnt that his disciple hadn’t invited him. The Saint replied, “How dare Bullah behave like this?” And then added, “What have we to get from this useless man? We shall change the direction of the flow of water.” These words brought calamity to Bulleh’s life. His visions vanished, leaving him silent and lost.
Inayat Shah disappeared for a long time, devouring Bulleh’s sanity and peace of mind. Suddenly, a well versed grown up man transformed into a restless wanderer, eyes that wouldn’t shut even while sleeping at night. Day and night, he searched for Inayat Shah, but he couldn’t find him. It is during these days that Bulleh Shah wrote poetry extensively.
As the period of separation became longer, Bulleh’s condition became worse. On one hand there was the pain of separation, on the other, the ridicule of people. Bulleh was full of repentance over his blunder. He was keenly desirous to be forgiven by his Master.
It is said that Bulleh disguised himself as a woman, and with a drummer and a harmonium player went to the tomb of a holy man. Shah Inayat was also one of the attendees. While all other dancers and singers got tired and sat down, Bulleh, in ecstasy, continued to dance. His voice was extremely doleful and heart-rending. Bulleh sang many kafis on the occasion and at last, Inayat Shah’s heart melted. With a voice full of compassion he said, “Are you Bullah?” Bullah ran and fell at his Master’s feet.
Inayat Shah realized that the fire of repentance and separation had cleansed Bulleh and turned him into pure gold; he forgave him and embraced him.
The reason why Inayat Shah put Bulleh Shah to such a hard test was to enable him to receive invaluable wealth of the Word of God. With this spiritual treasure he was not only to become rich himself, but also to make other seekers the recipients of this wealth.
Bulleh Shah faced immense opposition from his family, when he re-inducted himself under the teachings of his spiritual guide.
In response to his family’s concerns, Bullah explained fearlessly that the guidance of a Master was indispensable for spiritual realisation, and the caste of the Master did not matter in this pursuit. Even if he belonged to the lowest caste, his help would still remain crucial. Thus, he proclaimed at the top of his voice that pride in being a Syed would land one in hell, and the one who held the skirt of a Master like Inayat Shah would enjoy the pleasures of heaven.
Bulleh Shah’s ‘disloyalty’ to his family and ‘failure’ to respect the caste barriers made him a social outcast, where everyone distanced himself. It is said that as a result of disgust from people’s attitude, Bulleh Shah purchased a few donkeys so that people should ridicule him. They started calling him “The man with donkeys.”
One day Bulleh, wrapped in ecstasy, danced to bewitching music. News reached Bulleh Shah’s father, an orthodox Muslim, and he was told all that had happened. His son had also started to dance with eunuchs. Greatly distressed and enraged, the saint’s father, with a rosary in one hand and a staff in the other, raced to the place where his son was dancing. “Ah! It is you, father” said Bulleh Shah as he heard his name called. He looked at his father intently and began to sing:
“People have only chaplets but my father has a rosary.
The whole of his life he has toiled hard,
But has not been able to uproot a single hair.
Sorrel is thus hulled in the mortar .
Sorrel is thus hulled, my friend !”
Bulleh Shah, filled with spiritual ardour, gazed at his father, whose inner eye opened and had a divine vision. With a serene and radiant smile on his face, .he joined his son in the ecstatic dancing and singing.
Filled upto the brim with the love of God, Bulleh became the epitome of compassion and forgiveness. He saw God’s manifestation in every being, and distinctions of caste and religion, friend and foe, ceased to have any meaning for him.
His life illustrated how needless and futile sectarian, caste, social, cultural and religious barriers were. In his life, he liberated himself from the bondage of caste, religion and country.
Bulleh Shah emphasises that like the Lord, the soul had no caste or faith. All these distinctions are born out of time and space, but the soul is unborn and timeless. It has neither a start, nor a conclusion, nor is it restricted by the limitations of caste and religion.
Bulleh Shah’s life and work is complete with delicate secrets of the path. They strengthen true lovers and motivate them to withstand the severest hardships for reaching spiritual goals. Bulleh Shah’s immortal work shall continue to enlighten true seekers of divine insight.