Man of all seasons

The book carries selections from Baba Fareed Ganjshakar’s poetry presented in Nastaliq, Gurmukhi and Roman script along with translations and line-by-line discourses

Muzaffar A. Ghaffaar

The place and date of birth of Baba Fareed is disputed by historians of all ilk. The following is one assessment. Baba Fareed was born in a village called Kothaevaal, near Multan. The date of his birth is uncertain but scholars seem to converge on 584AH/1188AD. His lineage is said to connect from his father’s side with Hazrat Umar, the second caliph of Islam. Maternally he is reported to be a descendant of Sultan Ibrahim Adham, but this is disputed. Baba Fareed’s mother was the daughter of Mulla Wajihuddin Khajandi, and is recorded as a saintly person who provided the poet’s early education. His father was Jamaaluddin Sulaemaan.

Baba Fareed’s early education was in Mauza Kothaevaal. At 18 he moved to the school of Moulvi Minhaajuddin Tirmzi. He learnt Arabic and Persian, studied the Quran and Sunnah and major books in these languages. In Multan he met Khwaaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiaar Kaaki. He was so taken up by the scholar-saint that he followed him to Delhi and became his disciple and remained in Delhi and Hisaar for a number of years. He studied under Syed Moinuddin Chishti (who was the founder of the Chishtia silsila of Sufism in proto-Pakistan and proto-Bharat), and the spiritual guide of Khwaaja Kaaki.

After the passing of Khwaaja Kaaki, Baba Fareed was assigned his seat. He is reported to have travelled to Baghdaad, Sceistan, Badakhshaan, Kirmaan, Qandahaar and Ghazni; also Kashmir, Maalva and Ajmer. It is said that he married a daughter of Sultaan Ghiasuddin Balban. It is reported that Nizamuddin Auliya was his son-in-law. Such relationships are not confirmed and may have been conferred out of reverence by writers. Later he gave up Delhi and settled in Ajodhan, a river port on the Sutluj, which had a jungle hinterland. This town was known as a centre of the Chishtia silsila and gained more renown after Baba Fareed settled there. The town flourished and was renamed Pakpattan. As a river port Ajodhan was on caravan routes. With Baba Fareed living there it became more important, and scholars and searchers beat a path to Pakpattan. Baba Fareed lived there till he died at the age of 92, in 1280AD. This date is also disputed, but Muharram 5, 679AH is accepted by most scholars. His urs is held on Muharram 5 every year. Muharram is the first month of the Muslim lunar calendar. The lunar year shifts by 10 days every year in a cycle of 36 years. Thus the urs of Baba Fareed comes in every season. This makes him, metaphorically, a man for all seasons.

Baba Fareed’s real name was Masud. His pseudonym was Fareeduddin. He is known as Ganjshakar or Shakarganj. Tradition has it that Baba Fareed Masud Ganjshakar received the name Ganjshakar (treasury of sugar) as his mother would put a lump of sugar under his prayer mat because he was very fond of it and, in lore, certain miracles are linked with this.

His tomb, now a revered shrine, attracts thousands of adherents everyday, and especially on the dates of his urs. At his shrine is a Bahishti Darwaaza (Door to Paradise). Devotees queue for hours, sometimes days, to pass through it, as this is believed to lead to heaven. Baba Fareed is revered more as a saint than as a poet.

Baba Fareed is recognised as the first major Punjabi poet (only fragments of works of previous poets are preserved or are available). Paper came via the Arabs in about 1000AD. No palm or leaf manuscript of older verse has survived. The fact that the work of Baba Fareed is not preceded by any other major preserved work may indicate that no major poet was on the scene for some time previous. One may wish to follow the same rationale and record that no poet of significance appeared for about 150-200 years after Baba Fareed, till we come to Baba Nanak, then Shaah Husayn.

Baba Fareed is an extremely difficult poet to translate. His rhythm is austere in self-discipline, and severely simple. His words are usually large and rich with meanings, which defy translation. Words are placed in ways where multiple meanings sprout. Then a whole poem is encompassed in two lines ...

People of the merit of Baba Fareed made a decision. They were going to write in the language of the people and not in the language of court or academe. The court language was Persian. Arabic and Sanskrit were languages of religion as well as of serious learning. These three were languages of most scholarship. In today’s parlance writing in the vernacular may be seen as a marketing decision, where the consumer and not the elite class of scholars were going to be the addressees. But marketing has become maligned as a word with much baggage of a consumer society. Perhaps we should say that Baba Fareed, and a few others, wished to connect with the people rather than with the court, or the academic trends of the time.

Tradition has it that Baba Fareed Masud Ganjshakar received the name Ganjshakar (treasury of sugar) as his mother would put a lump of sugar under his prayer mat because he was very fond of it and, in lore, certain miracles are linked with this

They did this with a strong grounding in Arabic and Persian (in which they also wrote), and sometimes in Sanskrit also, an elite tongue that never became a lingua franca. Sanskrit was the language of mythology and socio-religious commentaries which were regarded as sacred, indeed as religious texts, by the larger section of society, who later, in the 18th century, were classified as Hindus. A most important aspect of the use of the language of the people was that Baba Fareed also employed fresh metaphors developed from the lives of common folk, and used others which flourished in the oral tradition.

A second, related, and most important happening was the decision of Baba Nanak to collect and collate the works of major poets and holy men who were writing in the native tongues. In an era when anthologies were almost unknown this was an original and creative action which saved some Punjabi verse as it was consecrated in the Granth Saahib, the sacred text of the Sikhs. The fact that a sacred text of a significantly sized religion is in Punjabi has ensured for Punjabi the status of a living language in perpetuity. Scholars say that Guru Granth Sahib contains at least 118 dohras (two line poems) and four asbloks (verse sayings) of Baba Fareed. These verses were personally collected by Baba Nanak from Shaekh Ibrahim (Fareed Saani), a descendent of Baba Fareed and his 11th successor from Pakpattan, over two hundred years after Baba Fareed’s passing.

In 1604, 339 years after Baba Fareed’s passing away, these verses became a part of the Granth Saahib (the number of verses by Baba Fareed in the Granth Saahib, is uncertain, as Baba Nanak, and possibly others, sometimes wrote using the pseudonym Fareed).

Scholars have collated dohras (two line poems) which are classified as the verse of Baba Fareed and which are not included in the Granth Saahib ... Some scholars believe Baba Fareed is the most secular of Sufi poets. They state that the vast underpinning of metaphysics and religious thought is not present in his poetry. Others believe that his language and metaphor is existential, experiential and visionary. They too feel that his expression is not in the religious tradition. They claim that metaphysical, religious echoes are not raised in the mind as one reads the dohras.

Other scholars believe that the metaphysical and religious content is subtle and ever-present. They suggest that it was the deeply spiritual Baba Nanak, the inspiration of the Sikh religion, who inducted the dohras into his preaching and these were consecrated into the Granth Saahib. This induction was for their spiritual and religious metaphor and not merely for their poetry.

It may be an assumption that later poets resorted to greater abstraction perhaps because the kings had become more powerful, and what could be construed as criticism was veiled in abstraction. Thus space was created for poetry where space was wanting. In Baba Fareed the metaphor is more of life than of social condition. He makes his own space. He does not create stereotypes. His message is powerful. Perhaps Baba Fareed left Delhi because he started feeling that he was living with people with facades who had little genuineness. When he went and settled in Pakpattan, he transcended his Delhi experience, sophistication and language. He used his old experience and clued into the current. If the Delhi experience had any residual impact, it may have been on the austerity and heavy discipline of his poetry. The content remained aloof of city and court sophistication. He was fully familiar with city life, with attitudes to worship, spiritual guides, religion — all he had learnt. But at some time Baba Fareed reverted to people who live on banks of rivers, and eke out a living in arid and semiarid areas, who had their own metaphors, consciousness and wisdom. He wrote in their tongue, and creatively expressed their feelings, experiences and metaphors. But this was done with superior poetic craftsmanship, via inspired verse ...

Baba Fareed sits comfortably in the meeting ground of religion and poetry. The fifth guru, Arjan Dev, led Sikhism at a time when its members had swelled to the thousands and the Granth Saahib was compiled and consecrated as the paramount scripture of Sikhism. This had two effects: one, the dohras of Baba Fareed, collected by Baba Nanak, were preserved (in the form they were placed in the Granth Saahib by Guru Arjan’s committee of compilers, which was led by Bhai Gurdaas). Secondly the status of Baba Fareed’s verse was elevated to a religious text of a whole religion. This may even have helped to preserve some of his other couplets in the oral tradition which did not become part of the Granth Saahib ...

We can assume that at a time when paper was very expensive and not easily available, the works of many poets were lost. But in all traditions poets of merit come at intervals. Even today, with a plethora of poetry being published, not much may remain as poetry of significance. But anthologies, a relatively recent phenomenon, may preserve the work of more poets than in the pre-anthology era.

The press came to Punjab in the 1850s, to Ludhiaana, and in the 1860s to Lahore. Hundreds of books were published in Punjabi. This became a trickle in 1947 when Punjab accepted Urdu as the national language. Somehow this was read as a replacement of regional languages, which it was never intended to be.

The Punjab had been a province of Persia, then of Afghan and Turkish Central Asian princes who collected tribute on behalf of the king at Delhi. These people started as conquerors but did not become colonisers as they owned the place and settled here. They did not repatriate any funds or riches, as colonisers do, from the collected tribute. In the time of Baba Fareeduddin Masud Ganjshakar, Punjab was well-settled as a province of the empire. It was sufficiently loyal to be mounting expeditions of its own.

An element of physical anxiety in Baba Fareed’s time has been identified by Irfan Habib in his book on a later era, (Agrarian System in the Mughal Period). There was a big jungle near Pakpattan where rebels lived and from where tax was not collected. This may have influenced the free spirit of Baba Fareed. Poets comment on the human condition and sometimes on the times. The poetry of Baba Fareed is subtle as well as direct. It has a fair content of social comment.

The dohras are definitely worked on by the poet. This must mostly have been done in the mind as paper was scarce. Each word is selected with austerity and panache. So is each thought and then a whole poem is encapsulated in a musically metered two liner.

Excerpted with permission from
Masterworks of Punjaabi Sufi Poetry: Baaba Fareed Ganjshakar Within Reach
By Muzaffar A. Ghaffaar
Ferozsons, 60 Shahrah-i-Quaid-i-Azam, Lahore
Tel: (042) 630 1196-8;
UAN 111-62-62-62
ISBN 969-0-02025-0
345pp. Rs995

Muzaffar A. Ghaffaar, a teacher, poet, author and translator, is president of the Lahore Arts Forum. His other books include Unity in Diversity, How Governments Work and books in the series on Sufi poets