Bulleh Shah & Shah Inayat — Caste in 17th Century Punjab

Today in Dalit History, we recount the story of the relationship between Bulleh Shah and Shah Inayat Qadiri in 17th Century Punjab.

Strictly speaking, neither of these characters were “Dalit” per se. However, incidents around the lives of Shah Inayat and Bulleh are exciting for many reasons. They betray a range of social expressions of gender and caste. They demonstrate how different practices of Islam materialised unique notions of caste, influenced not just by Brahmanical values, but also the divisions of biradaris (clans) and genealogy.

What’s more, its a story filled with literary genius, written in a language of love and longing that is seamless with spirituality. This is a story we must be told.

Shah Inayat Qadiri was a Shaikh (spiritual teacher) to many in the Punjab region of present-day Pakistan. At that time, Bulleh Shah, an Ashraf Syedi (considered “upper” caste), was looking for a teacher. On hearing about Shah Inayat, he decided to meet him and was completely taken by his charm and intelligence, decided that he would become his disciple.

Shah Inayat came from an Arain (gardeners, vegetable-growers, considered to be a “lower”) caste. When Bulleh Shah’s family had heard that he had chosen an Arain as Shaikh, they became furious and took it upon themselves to convince Bulleh Shah to leave him and find someone “more worthy”.

“How can an Arain be a teacher to a Syed?” , he was asked.

‘Tu Bullah nai tu bhulliyan ann’ (You are not Bulleh, you are lost)

Having walked away from Shah Inayat, Bulleh Shah began to become more and more confused. Shah’s words began repeatedly ringing in his mind. His longing and love for Shah Inayat had grown unbearable. What was caste to him? Why had he thought that it had mattered more than his love for Shah Inayat? He realised what a terrible mistake he had made and went back.

Bulleh pleaded:

Bulleya taira murshad kaamal Shah Inayat Saain!

Tun neewaan jeh sayyad vi ein uchha Saain Arain!

O Bulleh! Your able mentor is great master Shah Inayat!

Though you (Bulleh Shah) are a “Syed” you are still of a lesser stature than your great Master who is an “Arain”!

He had run back to him but Shah Inayat, displeased with his rapidly shifting states of mind, disappointed with his values, sent him away once and for all.

Desperate, Bulleh remembered his Shaikh’s fondness for dances. He knew he had to rectify what he had done with an immense gesture. For 12 years, he is said to have gone to a community of street-dancers, the Kanjars. He attempted to “become” one of them — a “lowest” caste person. He lived among them and learned their dances, in what to him was, something of a penance — A Syed who was living like a Kanjar.

Eventually, he wore the Kanjar women’s clothes and began his final transcendent dance for Shah Inayat. His dancing was accompanied by his song — Tere Ishq Nachaya (Your Love has Made me Dance). In the song, Bulleh Shah pines for Shah Inayat and is willing to give anything up to see just a glimpse more of him. Sensing devotion and repentance, Shah Inayat is said to have forgiven him.

This song that Bulleh Shah wrote for his “low” caste teacher is a cultural staple across large sections of India and Pakistan. It’s sung in villages, in cities, at weddings, at functions, all across faiths. There are qawaalis, folk versions, hip hop, rock versions, even Bollywood songs like Chayya Chayya are renditions. Abida Parveen singing Tere Ishq Nachaya, still evokes intense sentiment.

But there are still many questions that remain. Shah Inayat was himself, in fact, a celebrated poet and saint, but he doesn’t occupy a position of eminence equal to that of Bulleh Shah in modernity. One reason is that most of what Shah Inayat wrote, he wrote in Persian, not Punjabi. Bulleh Shah’s work in Punjabi was much more easily picked up and passed on. Could there have been more?

And what of the Kanjar community in the story — I wonder what they thought of Bulleh Shah doing “penance” among the lives they were living?

This post was written for Dalit History Month by Maari Z. Maitreyi. You can write to her at maaarizma@gmail.com or follow @maaarizma on Twitter.

Redefining the History of the Subcontinent through a Dalit lens. Participatory Community History Project