Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Madhu Lal Hussain

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On the onset of spring, the canal traversing through Lahore is decorated with multi-coloured boats, fitted with models of architectural wonders of Mughal era. The tradition of celebrating spring in Lahore is centuries old and usually begins with the kite flying festival (this practice has been discarded for past some years because of official ban) and culminates with Mela Chiraghan — festival of lights — that is held in the last week of March to celebrate the Urs of Punjabi sufi poet and saint Shah Hussain, popularly known as Madhu Lal Hussain, at his shrine in Baghanpura.

As basant draws menfolk of Lahore on roof tops and fills the blue skies with colourful kites and still chilly mornings with cries of bu kata; so, Mela Chiraghan has been attracting multitudes from Lahore as well as the interior of Punjab to relive the myth of Madhu Lal Hussain at his shrine.

Shah Hussain was born in Lahore in 1538 and began studying theology, Sufi philosophy and practices of fa’na under Bahlul Shah Daryai at the age of ten; his teacher later directed him to practice chillas (40 day penance) at the tomb of Data Gunj Baksh. He spent an austere life for two decades and then abruptly left theological studies to become a wandering faqir and a singing minstrel, who consumed intoxicants and danced in the streets of Lahore.

His libertine activities attracted the ire of conservative clergy; but actually, Shah Hussain was following a well-trodden Sufi tradition of reaching out to God through music, dance and poetry. Famous Sufi poet Maulana Jalal-ud-Rumi whirled on the banks of a brook, flowing outside Konya, and in a state of ecstatic twirling, verses saturated with love of God, poured out of his lips, that were later written down by his disciple Husam al-Din Chalabi. Shah Hussain was continuing this Sufi tradition of realising God and spreading message of love through poetry and dancing.

Mullahs of the city castigated him not only for his ‘heretical practices’ but also for his love for a Brahmin boy, Madhu Lal, from Shahdra. Pulled by his irresistible love for the boy, he would get up at night and walk around his house at night. Madhu Lal’s parents and neighbours tried to dissuade Shah Hussain from following the boy but no worldly solicitation or rancour could restrain him from loving the boy. Legend has it that one day when Lal Hussain reached the house of Madhu, he found his body lying in the courtyard, and as he touched the handsome face of the boy, it was as cold as marble stone. He left the courtyard, filled with the weeping relatives of Madhu, and began praying loudly. Then, he looked towards the sky and cried: “Rise Madhu, you are not dead, let us leave this place.” As Lal Hussain was repeating these words, Madhu awoke from his deep slumber and left his home with the saint forever.

According to certain historical accounts, Madhu Lal did not convert to Islam and remained Hindu till his death because Shah Hussain forbade him to do so: saint instructed him that reality of God could be attained in various form. Madhu Lal was buried in a grave next to that of Shah Hussain.

The personality and teachings of Shah Hussain had special resonance in the sixteenth century Lahore; it was a melting pot society where Hindus, Iranians, Afghans, Turks, local Muslim converts, Sayyids interacted with each other and lived their life in accordance with different traditions, customs and religious practices. The heterodox people of that era assembled around the Sufi saint in droves because he didn’t make any distinction between a Muslim and a Hindu, between a sinner prostitute and a lady from Akbar’s court and between a a faqir, swathed in red robes, with metal rings around his neck and a mullah in a neat dress.

Further, they sought refuge in the Sufi saint because he allowed them to seek blessings of Allah while keeping intact their religious ways and cultural practices as he plaintively proclaimed that God resided inside a man’s heart.

Even after four hundred centuries, the appeal of Madhu Lal Hussain remains undiminished. During Urs, the legend and life of Madhu Lal Hussain is re-imagined by green choga clad qalanders, by singing minstrels dressed in godri — a shirt made of variegated cloth — and dreadlocked faqirs, carrying begging bowls as well as commonplace people. A huge cauldron of fire is burnt in the courtyard and people sing and dance around it as dancing around fire is considered propitious.

The dance around fire is reminiscent of Lord Shiva’s dance that dances the world into extinction and brings it back to life through dance. Naturally, shrines of Sufi saints carry practices of different faiths and are living examples of religious syncretism.

Another marginalised group — women — attracted by humanism of Shah Hussain, visit his shrine to seek blessings. Thus, the last day of the Urs is reserved for women when they dance and sing, not otherwise favourably looked upon, in a Pakistani conservative society. Legend says that taking part in a dhamal can cure women of psychological ailments. Perhaps, dancing uninhibitedly gives suppressed women an emotional valve to vent their frustrations and so rehabilitates their mental health.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 29 November 2014 at 01:30, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm glad to have been introduced to the life of Shah Hussain. 16th century Lahore with all its diversity sounds delightful.

At 29 November 2014 at 13:09, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Cities like Lahore and others were indeed such a delightful conglomerate of different cultures. Sadly, post-partition Pakistan has stifled that lively tradition.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

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