Lal Vaakhs - Their Journey from Memory to Manuscript
by S.N. Pandita
Lal Ded remains the tallest icon of the Kashmiri society adored for the last
600 years for the high spiritual, moral and philosophical content of her wise
sayings, the vaakhs. And it is on this account that many scholars have
delved deep into the essence of these vaakhs. However, very little
account has been given of the history of their compilation and collation. Before
the vaakhs came to be published, as is the Indian tradition, they were
passed by word of mouth from generation to generation in Kashmir.
Unfortunately, and if I say, regrettably as well, the records made by
cultural historians on this account have been approximation of facts sometimes
even lacking essential details. To cite a few examples, I refer to the following
1. 'Lalleshawari's Contribution to Kashmiri Culture' by Prof. B.N. Parimoo.
2. 'Lalleshwari : An apostle of Human Values' by Prof. K.N. Dhar.
Both these appear in Prof. S. Bhatt's acclaimed edited book 'Kashmiri Pandits
- A Cultural Heritage', at pages 479 and 114 respectively.
Prof. Parimoo writes, "Some anonymous Shaivite scholar recorded these in
manuscript found later with a Kashmiri Brahmin Shri Dharam Das Derwesh of Gucch
village near Sharda. This manuscript was discovered in 1914 by Pt. Mukund Ram
Shasta, Head Assistant, Research Department, Kashmir Government who handed it
over to Sir George Grierson". And Prof. K.N. Dhar writes, "Towards the
close of the 19th century these vaakhs were collected and translated
through the efforts of Sir Aurel Stein and Sir George Grierson and Dr. Barnett
rendered them into English verse".
It is evident that the two accounts are not in agreement and differ in
details. Secondly, as and when, however, the vaakhs were finally
published, it has been always made out that their publication was due the sole
effort of Western scholars. The eminent scholars here attention seminar and the
learned audience may bear me out when I say that it would have been virtually
impossible for the Western scholars to deal with vaakhs without the help
of Kashmiri scholars and yet cultural historians have given no deserving details
of their contribution in the collation and final publication of Lal Ded's vaakhs.
It is on account of these factors that I try to make mends for these errors
and omissions in my paper "Lal VaakhsTheir journey from Memory to
Manuscript". I strongly believe that history is facts and not fancy
particularly when we write our own history.
Lalleshwari of Kashmir, more popularly called by homely and simple name Lal
Ded, was one of those master spirits, who come at periodic intervals into this
world and deliver a message of truth and peace exhorting the humanity to follow
higher ideals of life and shun the frivolities of mortal earthly existence. She
was an apostle of sweetness and light and follower of the Shaiva philosophy. She
is remembered with divine adoration by both Hindus and Muhammadans in Kashmir.
Lal Ded propounded the Yoga philosophy and also high moral values in Kashmiri
verse. These are called Lalvakhs or sayings of Lal Ded, and according to Pandit
Anand Koul, "Apart from being the utterances of a holy woman expressive of
grand and lofty thoughts and spiritual laws-short, apt, sweet, thrilling,
life-giving and pregnant with greatest moral principles, are simply pearl and
diamonds and gems of the purest ray serene of Kashmir literature. They are
current coins of quotations, a volume being packed in a single saying. They
touch the Kashmiri's ear as well as the chord of his heart and are freely quoted
by him as maxims on appropriate occasions in conversation having moulded the
national mind and set up a national ideal". Her sayings illustrate her
religion on its popular side, though they are not a systematic exposition of
Shaivism on the lines laid down by the theologians who preceded her. In fact
what we have in her poems is not mere book religion as evolved in the minds of
great thinkers and idealists, but a picture of actual hopes and fears of the
common folk that normally followed the teachings of the wise men whom they
accepted as guides.
Her sayings give indeed an account often in vivid acid picturesque language
of the actual working out, in practice, of a religion previously worked out in
theory. As such, Lal's work was a unique contribution to the body evidence that
necessarily formed the basis of future history of one of the most important
religions in India. This was thus something worth investigation in her sayings
having such an effect on the minds of the people to whom they were addressed.
There are few countries in the world in which so many wise saws and proverbial
sayings are current as in Kashmir. Hinton Knowles, in his Dictionary of Kashmiri
Proverbs, collected some 1600. None of these proverbs have greater repute than
There is not a Kashmiri who has not some of them ready on the tip of his
tongue and who does not reverence her memory. According to Carnac Temple, there
were countless sayings of Lal Ded but as time went on they were gradually one by
one forgotten and lost.
The ancient Indian system, to quote George Grierson’s words, "by which
literature is recorded not on paper but on the memory and carried down from
generation to generation of teachers and pupils is still in complete survival in
Kashmir. Such fleshy tables of heart are often more trustworthy than birch bark
or paper manuscripts. The reciters even when learned pandits take every care to
deliver the messages word for word as they received them, whether they
understand them or not.”
A typical instance of this occurred in the experience of George Grierson. In
the autumn of 1896, Aurelt Stein took down in writing from the mouth of a
professional story-teller Hatim, a native Kashmiri, a collection of folk tales
which he subsequently made over to George Grierson for editing and translating.
In the course of dictation, the narrator, according to custom conscientiously
reproduced words of which he did not know the sense. They were old words, the
significance of which had been lost and which had been passed down to him
through generations of teachers. That they were no inventions of the moment or
corruptions by the speaker is shown by the fact that not only were they recorded
simultaneously by well-known Kashmiri scholar Pandit Govind Kaul, who was
equally ignorant of their meanings and who also accepted them without hesitation
on the authority of the reciter-Hatim Tilwony-but that long afterwards, at Sir
George Grierson's request, Sir Aurel Stein urged the man to repeat the passages
in which the words occurred. They were repeated by Hatim, verbatim, literatim,
et punctuatim, as they had been recited by him to Aurel
Stein and Govind Kaul fifteen years before. And here it is pertinent to mention
that there were no authentic manuscripts of Lalla's compositions too.
Collections made by private individuals were occasionally put together, but none
of the texts of Lalla's sayings was complete and no two agreed in contents or
text. There was thus a complete dearth of ordinary manuscript of Lallaaaakhs.
But fortunately, on the other hand, there were sources from which an
approximately correct text could be secured.
About 270 years ago, Pt. Bhaskar Razdan, grandfather of Pt. Manas Razdan, a
celebrated hermit of Kashmir, collected sixty sayings of Lal Ded. Another
collection of 107 sayings including the 60 collected by Pt. Bhaskar Razdan was
made by Pt. Lakshman Kak, another saint who lived in about 1865. In 1850,
another learned Pandit named Prakash Kokilu just wrote commentary of Lalla's
four vaakhs. However, the fast scientific collection of Lalla's
verses were recorded under very similar conditions as those of the Hatim's
In the year 1914, Sir George Grierson asked his friend and assistant Pandit
Mukund Ram Shastri to obtain for him a good copy of the Lalla Vakyani, as these
verses were commonly called by the Pandits of Kashmir. After much search, Pundit
Mukund Ram was unable to find a satisfactory manuscript. But finally he came in
to touch with a very old Brahmin named Dharam Das Darvesh of the village of
Gush, about thirty miles from Baramulla and not far from the famous shrine of
Sharada. Just as the professional story teller Hatim mentioned above recited the
folktales so too Dharam Das Darvesh made his business for the benefit of piously
disposed to recite Lalla's songs as he had received by family tradition-the kula
piawmpaw achara kmma. The great preceptor Mahamahopadhyay Mukund Ram Shastri
recorded the text from his dictation and added commentary, partly in Hindi and,
partly in Sanskrit, all of which he forwarded to Sir George Grierson in England.
These materials formed the basis of first authentic edition of Lallvaaakhs. It
cannot claimed to be founded on a collation of various manuscripts, but it can
at least be said that they were an accurate reproduction of one recession of the
sayings current in Kashmir then.
As in case of Hatim's folk tales, this too contained words and passages of
which the reciter did not profess to understand. He had every inducement to make
verses intelligible and any conjectural emendation would at once have been
accepted on his authority. But following the traditions of his calling, he had
the honesty to refrain from this and said simply that this was what he had
received. "Such a record is in some respects more valuable than any written
manuscript", observed Grierson.
Nevertheless, in producing the text, Sir George Griersoin collated some other
manuscripts also, notably two from Stein's collection deposited in the Bodilyan
Library, Oxford and a few Sanskrit translations of the vaakhs. So that
on whole it can be said fairly that he did succeed in getting the actual text
of what Lal Ded left behind her.
The Lalla Vakyani were composed in an old form of Kashmiri which as a
distinct language is much older than her time and it is not probable that we
have them in the exact from in which she uttered them. The fact that they had
been transmitted by word of mouth prohibits such a proposition.
As the language changed insensibly from generation to generation so must the
outward form of the verses have changed in recitation. But nevertheless respect
for the authoress and material form of songs has preserved great many archaic
forms of expression.
It is worthwhile pointing out here that the Vedic hymns were for centuries
handed down by the word of mouth and that Lalla's sayings give a valuable
example of the manner in which Kashmiri language must have changed from
generation to generation before the text was finally established. Passing on
to the metres of Lalla's sayings it may be mentioned that there are two distinct
metric systems in Kashmir. One for formal works such as epic poems and like and
in this Persian meter Bahar-e-Hajaj is employed, the other usual in songs like
Lalla's sayings the meter depends solely on stress accent. This meterical system
is used in songs and is by no means so simple a matter.
Here I quote George Grierson, "I regret that during my own stay in
Kashmir I neglected to study it and when after my return to this country
(England) I endeavoured to ascertain from native sources what rules were
followed in such composition, I failed to obtain any definite information. All
that I could gather was that a poet scanned his verses by ear. A long and minute
examination of scores of songs led me to no certain conclusion beyond the fact
that a stress accent seemed to play an important part. Here and there I came
across traces of well-known meters but nowhere even allowing for the fullest
license did they extend over more than few lines at a time.”
In the year 1917, Sir Aurel Stein had the occasion to visit Kashmir again and
with his ever inexhaustive kindness to Grierson undertook to investigate the
question. He placed the problem before Nityanand Shastri. With the help of a shravka
or professional reciter, Nityanand Shastri ascertained definitely that in
Lalla's songs the meter depends solely on the stress accent. In Lalla's verses
four stresses go to each pada or line.
It was in the year 1920 that the Royal Asiatic Society, London published as
one of its monographs Vol. (XVII) as Lalla Vakyani. They were edited with
translation, notes and vocabulary by Sir George Grierson and Dr. Lionel Barnett.
It was a work of great scholarship, each of the editors taking his share with
consummate mystery of a different subject. Sir George Grierson as to the
linguistic and Dr. Barnett as to the philosophic phase of it.
Truth is the rich legacy left behind by our mystical poets and Kashmiris can
well boast of rich treasure of poetry of Lalla's denomination. It is sublime,
exalted poetry which elevates thoughts, purifies emotions and brings plenitude
of peace to the mind. Apart from being an integral part of our literature the
best part of Lalla vaakhs, without fear of contradiction, is the indelible mark
it has left on the thought and conduct of a normal Kashmiri. And lastly one
cannot omit to acknowledge our debt of gratitude to Bhaskar Razdan, Pandit
Lakshman Kak, Pandit Prakash Kokilu, Sir George Grierson, Dr. Lionel Bamett and
Pandit Mukund Ram Shastri who according to Camac Temple, was a direct descendent
in line of pupils from Vasugupta, the founder of modern Shaivism in Kashmir and
Pandit Nityanand Shastri whom Stein described as the "scholar of
scholars" and "a crest jewel among the scholars of Kashmir" who
took all the pains to dig out the vaakhs of Lal Ded and to purify them of
the dross that had collected around them over the centuries.
1. Life Sketch of Lalla Yogishwari. Pt. Anand Koul Indian Antiquary.
2. Lallavakyani-Sir George Grierson and Dr. Lionel Bamett, Royal Society,
3. Lallavakyani-Bhaskara Lallavakya 1 and Lallavakya 2 - Stein Manuscript
collection, Bodelan Library, India Institute Oxford, 191
4. Sayings of Ialleshwari-Anand Koul Indian - Antiquary, Vol LX 1931 and
Vol LXI 1932, Bombay
5. The Ascent of Self: A Reinterpretation of the Mystical Poets, of Lal
Ded, B.N. Parimoo, Motilal Banarasidass, 1978.
6. The Word of Lalla the Prophetess - Sir Richard Camac Temple. Cambridge
University Press. Vol MCMXXIV, 1923.
7. The Hatim's Tales-In Memoriam to Pandit Govind Koul, Sir Aurel Stein and
Sir George Grierson, Oxford University Press, 1917.
8. Memoir Papers and Letters written by Aurel Stem to Nityananand Shastri,
9. The Linguistic Survey of India Vol XI-1917. George Grierson.
10. The Dictionary of Kashmiri Language compiled from the left over
materials of Ishvar Koul edited by George Grierson and Mukund Ram
Shastri-Asiatic Society of Bengal Vol I, II, III and IV, 1914-1932.
11. Letter written by George Grierson to Nityanand Shastri. 1917.