CHAPTER 8: 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 published papers:

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 Lallavakyani.

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 Tales.

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. Bombay, 1931.

2. Lallavakyani-Sir George Grierson and Dr. Lionel Bamett, Royal Society, London, 1920

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, 1917-1919.

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.

Lal Ded: The Great Kashmiri Saint-Poetess