Thursday, April 15, 2021





Review of  the book “ The Mystic And The Lyric “

(Four women poets from Kashmir) 

by Neerja Mattoo

Published by Zubaan Publishers Pvt. Ltd.

Price  Rupees 450/=  


 Neerja Mattoo taught English at Government College for Women in Srinagar .She is  Chief Editor of the quarterly journal Miraas published from Delhi. Apart from the book under review , she has also published below mentioned books:-

(1)   Saktyullasah Sharika Devi: A Yogini of Kashmir

(2)   Kath : Stories from Kashmir

(3)    The Stranger Beside Me

(4)     Best of Kashmiri Cooking

(5)   Sal A Feast Of Kashmiri Cuisine

 All these books  have been well received , widely read and  appreciated . She has also written innumerable articles , write ups and participated in  many  seminars , talks and  literary discussion  either in person or online held within or outside the country . She lives in Kashmir .

 Through her present book  ‘The Mystic and the Lyric ‘, Neerja Mattoo presents the life and poetry of four women poets of Kashmir . All the four have been women of extraordinary caliber who continue to  command respect and affection in  the Kashmiri society across the Hindu- Muslim  divide. I mean Lal Ded , Rupa Bhawani, Habba Khatun and Arinmal. First two for the depth of  spiritual experience  and the last two for the elegant and unrivaled lyricism in their poetic work. The translation  of select verses   done by the author is simple , to the point and convincingly appropriate .  The reader is instantly able to catch up  with the essence of  the verses . This  stupendous translation adds to the charm of the accompanying narration . It feels good to know that the author has consulted and sought help from Padamshri Bettina Baumer while translating the verses  of Rupa Bhawani. I have always felt that Rupa Bhawani’s verses are profound  and  full of deep spiritual philosophy based on Upnishads , Yog-Sadhana and highly advanced philosophy of Kashmir’s Shaiva Darshana  as a result of which ,these verses have not been so popular . And the beautiful  translation of  Neeraja Mattoo proves me right . For the first time, through this book,  I have feasted on something that I always wanted to have under one roof. I mean Lal Ded , Rupa Bhawani , Arinmal and Habba Khatun.

The book comes in 223 pages out of which about 75 pages  ( 6 to 81 ) have been devoted to Lal Ded,  about 50   ( 85 to 135) to Habba Khatun, about 59  to  ( 140 to 199 ) to Rupa Bhawani and the remaining to Arinmal’

 Lal Ded is believed to have been born in early  fourteenth century .  Enough is written about her life and verses . I believe her to be the torch bearer of not only  Kashmir’s rich Shaiva Darshana but also a  foremost pillar of the Bhakti Movement of the country. Transcending all dogmatic religion, Lal Ded is the first poet to have propounded the concept of  Shunayata  (Nothingness) in  verses  or Vaakhs  . She also believes that the limitless and transcendent Shiva is the destroyer of darkness leading to emergence of light . For Lal Ded , Shiva is not only the destroyer from the Trinity of Brahma ( Creator ) Vishnu ( Preserver ) and Mahesha ( destroyer ) but the essential supreme ruler of Shunya  or Nothingness.

Once an Individual realizes that the final truth or reality is Emptiness or Nothingness , he carries a different outlook on qualms of mundane existence . This enlightenment also enables him to rise above the painful concerns of routine life . And accordingly , this concept of Nothingness comes up with a positive transformative power.

Though deeply rooted in Kashmir’s Trika Shaivite creed , Lal Ded had risen much above the world of creeds or labels. One can safely call her as a torch light of ‘Medieval Mysticism’ and Bhakti Movement of the country . Ramanand ( 1400-1470 ) Kabir (1440-1518 ) ,Guru Nanak ( 1489-1538 )and Sant Tukaram ( 1577-1650 ) followed her . Like Kabir , she also makes symbolic use of swan ( Raaazhans ), grinding mill ( Gratta ), washerman ( Dhob), weaver ( Vovur ) , lotus flower ( Pamposh ) to put forth her spiritual thought . Her frequent use of Prakaash Dhaam or Prakash Sthaan is synonymous with Kabir’s ‘Anahad Naad’ or “ Baaje Anhad dol “ or the musical chimes that are created when one arrives at the real self transcending all worldly experiences.  About Lal Ded’s philosophy  , Neerja Mattoo  writes this :-


Lal Ded is far above idol worship , yet she is fascinated by forms and shapes and symbolic representations , as all artists are . She thinks of God in abstract terms , naming his attributes as pure sound , pure form – the Naad ( sound ) and the Bindu ( the primal dot ) . But , for the Trikaites as well as the Tantriks , there are symbols of Shiva and Shakti  respectively , so there is no escaping from symbolism:


The unimpaired sound , the sound of the sky

The one with no name nor family nor caste

Just the self-aware sound and the Dot eternal

That God alone will mount this horse .


This verse is beautiful, graphic representations of the written and the spoken word , so important a tool for the poet . The sound in the first line is the mystic symbol OM  , which when written down must carry the shape of the  crescent and the dot to represent Shakti and Shiva on its back.”


   The author dwells on the core philosophy Lal Ded before presenting simple and to the point translation of some verses . I quote two verses appearing in the book  translated into English  by her :-


‘Gratta chhuyi Pheraan Zeri Zeri

Ohukuyi zaani gratuk thsal

Gratta yeli pheri tayi zaevul neri

Goon vaati paanay grata-bal’


(Slow and steady turns the grindstone

The pivot alone knows the secret of its skill.

As it turns it grinds so fine

The grain will find its way to the mill yard .)



“Razahans aasith sapdukh koluy

Kustaam tsoluy kyahtaam heth

Grata guv bandh tay gratan hyot goluy

Grata vol tsoluy phal phol heth.”


(A swan you were but now you are dumb

Someone stole something from you .

The millstone stopped , its channel was choked

And the miller ran away with the grain. )


After Lal Ded , we come across Habba Khatun ( 1554-1609 ) . She is a poet of love lyrics . Neerja Mattoo writes  that in the entire work of Habba Khatun , we come across some intense feelings through the realm of pure lyricism  as she describes her abandonment in love  or torture by her  mother in law . She laments , seduces, invites and complains .She makes no claims to sainthood . Her songs are meant to be sung as these are highly musical in rhyme , rhythm and cadence . The author also says this:-

 “She touches upon various moods of a woman in love , one who is not content to just love and worship from a distance , but demands fulfillment. Though she lived in a historically important time in Kashmir , in her verses we find no reference to the  events like the removal of the last Kashmir King , Yusuf Shah Chak  and the annexation by Mughal  King Akbar __ she is too wrapped up in her own affairs of the heart .”  I quote two verses appearing in the book  translated  into English by Neerja Mattoo :-



“May kari tseyi kiti poshi dasvaanay

Chhav myani daenay posh

Ba chhasay zameen tsu chhukh asmaanay

Seeras tsu chhukh sarposh

Bo chhasay nemath tsu chhukh mezmaano

Chhav myani daenay posh “


( Bouquets of flowers I make for you

O come my love , revel in the blooms

Bouquets of flowers I make for you

Come my love revel in the blooms .

I am the earth , you are the sky

A covering for my secrets are you

I am the banquet , you are the guest

Come my love , revel in the blooms )




“ Dil nith ratitham goshay

Valo myani poshe madano

Vala vesi gathsavay hande

Lanyan nyay kati ande

Lukmati kadnas rande

Valo myani poshe madano”



( You took my heart and hid yourself

Come back, my flower –decked lover  !

Come friend , let us look for dandelion leaves-

Who can erase what fate decrees  !

The mobs , they toss my name about

Come back, my flower –decked lover  !)


After Habba Khatun , we come across  Rupa Bhawani ( 1625-1721) , the mystic poet known as Alakheshwari or simply Saheb. Rupa Bhawani was born in the Dhar family of Safakadal , Srinagar . About her verses, Neeraja Mattoo writes this:-

“ Due to esoteric , subtle nature of her experiences , her poetic work is often enigmatic and inaccessible to the ordinary reader . This is the main reason why her poetry has never been popular .Unlike most Kashmiri poetry, her Vaakhs have never been sung, the form in which poems have been preserved in Kashmir’s oral tradition.        

Her Vaakhs  are the province of the ‘ initiated ‘,the verses generally being recited only at gatherings of her followers at special occasions such as anniversary of her death .”

    From her verses , it is observed that Rupa Bhawani was well versed  in Upnishads , Vedas, Shaivism  and Yogshastra . Apart from Sanskrit ,  she appears to be having good knowledge of  Persian, the official language of her period. Neerja Mattoo makes some  complex Vaakhs very simple and understandable through her apt and to the point translation. I quote two verses appearing in the book  translated  into English by her :-




“Yus mani heye dyaan ta paanastole

Kaanh na geli ta kansi na gele

Zani haras ta laages bele

Paanay paanas saeti suy mele”


( The one who meditates and weighs herself

She neither judges nor is judged

She simply waits for his benediction

She will merge with the supreme self.)



“Mata pita su braata paanay

Prath thaanay kath na naye

Niraakaar roop laegith paanay

Sath paanay ta kati sanaa nay?”


( He is mother , father , brother too

He is everywhere , where is He not?

He assumed a formless form

He is truth , where is He not ?)


The  fourth and the last  poet in the book is Arinmal (1737-1778). Arinmal is a poet of Vatsun  (lyricism ) genre . Born at village Palhalan in Kashmir, Arinmal was married to Bhawani Dass Kachru from Rainawari . Bhawani Dass was  an erudite Persian scholar in the court of Jumma Khan, who was the Afghan Governor of Kashmir from 1788 to 1792 AD . As a common practice in the Afghan days, Arnimal was married in her childhood. Before attaining the bloom of her youth, she was deserted by her poet husband . Like Habba Khatun, she too weaves musical rhymes and images through her poetry.  Her poetry brings forth her pathos , longing and  separation as her husband moved to  Kabul Darbaar  for many years making her to suffer  in abandonment .  About her poetry , Neerja Mattoo writes this :-

“ Her rich vocabulary and diction are proof of her mastery of the craft of poetry .Like Habba Khatun, she weaves charming images and rhymes to great effect. The beauty of fern and flower give her novel metaphors . Her imagination , fed on these sights , blossoms into striking imagery. The sensuous description transcends the emotions of pain . The sounds of the words have a musical quality that turns the poems into songs. This is what makes them easy to memorize and why they live on even though they were never written down .”

I quote two verses appearing in the book  translated into English  by the author of the book under review  :-


( 1)

 “Arini rang gom  Shraavana heeye

Kar yeeye darshun deeye

Shamsondhar  Paaman bo laejis

Aama taavay kotah zaejis

Naama paeghaam tas kus neeye 

Kar yeeye darshun deeye”


( I was a summer jasmine , with an ivory glow

Without luster , wan and pale I wait

When will he come and show me his face ?

Like blue Krishna he left me to shame

I am scorched and scarred by cruel mouths

Can no one carry a whisper , tell him of my plight

When will he come and show me his face ?)



 “Kya vanyo mati kya vanayo

Yi gom paanas ta ti nanayo

Lanyun nyay chhum ta ti vanayo

Baagas myanis baadam phulaya

Aadan raevus ta ti vanayo

Kya vanayo mati kya vanayo….”


( What shall I tell you  O Love , what ?

All that I suffered for love of you  ?

Or the judgment of Fate should I tell ?

What shall I tell you O Love , what ?

A burst of almond blossoms fills my garden

But in my spring  itself I was lost , should I tell ? 

What shall I tell you O Love , what ?

The hardbound book is covered in Jacket that has a beautiful painting by well known artist Neelima Sheikh . The subject  of the painting beautifully blends with the contents  of the book. Priced at Rs450/=,  it is currently available at  discount provided by the  online distributors .  I bought it for Rs333/=. By every standard , the book is worth its price and surely springs a surprise to the reader who finds it something worth reading and possessing .

( Avtar Mota )

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