JS Grewal





Bullhe Shah’s personal belongings at his Mazār. Qasur.


Photo by Akram Varraich. September 2007.


Born in 1680, Bullhe Shah lived mostly in the town of Qasur where he had received traditional education before he became affiliated to Shah Ināyat Qadiri of Lahore as his murshid. Bullhe Shah’s mazār in Qasur became a place of pilgrimage after his death. However, he is better known as a poet, perhaps the best Sufi poet of the Punjab . He wrote in several popular forms of Punjabi poetry, notably the kāfi. A number of his kāfis are sung even today by qawwāls. His works reflect his learning, his mystical experience, and something of the life around him. Apart from the uprising of the Khalsa under the leadership of Banda Bahadur in the reign of Bahadur Shah and the political activity of the Khalsa during the governorship of Zakariya Khan and Muin ul-Mulk, Afghan rule was established over the Punjab in the 1750s. The Durrani commanders were ousted from the region by the Marathas, with the much too willing support of the Sikhs, in 1758, the year of Bullhe Shah’s death. Living thus in a period of political turmoil, he appears to allude to an unsettled state of things in his works.

            Bullhe Shah uses the phrase prem nagar (the city of love) at several places in his works, and at one place he uses the phrase sulh-i kul. An ideal city of universal peace, suggested by these phrases, can be appreciated in the context of his entire corpus. In the sections which follow, we take up first how Bullhe Shah has been viewed recently by two eminent scholars. Then we turn to his works other than the kāfis. The dominant ideas, moods and attitudes of Bullhe Shah’s kāfis are taken up in a separate section before turning to his social comment in another. In the last section we refer to Bullhe Shah’s popular kāfis. All these sections are meant to contribute to our appreciation of his ‘ideal city of universal peace’ in relation to his whole thought. 



In his History of Panjabi Literature, Sant Singh Sekhon devotes a short but separate chapter to Bullhe Shah. He refers to Lajwanti Ramkrishna’s observation that Bullhe Shah’s mysticism passed through three stages. The first stage was the time of his discipleship with Shah Ināyat. Dominant in his thought at this stage were the discipline of the shari’at and the ideas of orthodox Islam. Frequent references to hell and heaven and the fear of death align him with Shaikh Farid. At this first stage Bullhe Shah does not accept the doctrine of transmigration. This gives the wrong impression that he came to accept this doctrine at some later stage. Sekhon goes on to comment that the first stage was brief and, therefore, Bullhe Shah’s ideas and attitudes of this phase do not figure much in his works. 1

            Sekhon goes on the second stage in which the influence of the Indian philosophy of Vedanta is in evidence, and Bullhe Shah seems to experience the warmth of the Divine but he does not claim a state of identity with God even at this stage. It is doubtful, however, that Bullhe Shah’s position can be called Vedantic at any stage. According to Rama Krishna, Bullhe Shah’s mysticism was at the height of its beauty in the third stage. He was different now from all the other Sufis. Punjabi or Indian, and equally different from all the Vaishnava bhaktas. Claiming complete identity with God, he declares to have attained to Him in all His mystery. Sekhon notices here a certain degree of similarity with Shah Husain. It does not occur to Sekhon that Rama Krishna chees not adduce any evidence  in support of her idea that the three ‘stages’ were chronological. 

            Sekhon goes on to point to out that Bullhe Shah did not write only kāfis; he used also the forms known as the ‘twelve-month’ (baramaha) and the ‘week’ (athwara). The tone and text of his Athwara is the same as that of his kāfis: a clear condemnation of established religion, both Islam and Hinduism. Nothing is said about the Baramaha.

            Sekhon observes that the theme of Punjabi Sufi poetry is a variation on the theme of Indian bhakti ‘as if it were bhakti in the guise of Islam’. This should not be taken to mean that Indian Sufism was a product of interaction between Indian bhakti and Islam. Nevertheless, the influence of Indian bhakti on the Punjabi Sufi poetry became important later, and it is reflected in Bullhe Shah’s poetry. Bullhe Shah felt anguish at the conflict between the Sikhs and the Mughal government which had produced extremely unsettled conditions in the country. In this connection, Sekhon equates the ‘rug-wearers’ of Bullhe Shah with the Sikh rulers. Bullhe Shah’s Sufism appears to betray ‘defeatist tendencies’ perhaps because of ‘the decline of Muslim Mughal power’. His sympathies were with ‘the losing Muslim side’ and he regarded this situation as a ‘decline of society’. However the Sikhs established their rule in the Punjab after Bullhe Shah’s death. Ahmad Shah Abdali was apparently dominant even in the early 1760s. Therefore, the ‘Muslim side’ had not yet last power.

            Sekhon suggests that the symbol for the beloved in Bullhe Shah’s poetry has three levels. The first is the level of Gurbani in which the symbol of conjugal love is dominant. The second is the level of the romantic worldly love in which the ‘spouse’ is replaced by the ‘friend’. The third is symbolism of Heer and Ranjha, which has been used by Bullhe Shah even more fully than by Shah Husain. We may agree with Sekhon that allusions to the love of Heer and Ranjha are very frequent in Bullhe Shah. This, however, is a difference only of degree. ‘One phenomenon that is found in Bullhe Shah more than in all other Sufis is the substitution of his personal preceptor for Allah or the Prophet’. Sekhon can say this because he has not given much serious attention to Sultan Bahu. For Sekhon, a ‘strange feature’ of Sufi lore is a constant reference to the ordeals that the prophets of the Old Testament had to undergo to find acceptance with God. This feature is only seemingly ‘strange’. These prophets were the prophets of the Qur’an too, and their ordeals integrated well with Bullhe Shah’s conception of God and his relationship with human beings. Sekhon points out that Bullhe Shah used the Hindu symbols of God, especially Krishna , quite frequently. Bullhe Shah is by no means exceptional in this respect.

            Denis Matringe has looked at the poetry of Bullhe Shah to illustrate that transference of themes and symbols from one religious sphere to another was a common phenomenon in South Asia . Accepting W.H. McLeod’s formulation, he cites the example of the Sikh movement in this connection. He states on his own that some of the Sufis were inclined to adjust Islam to its Indian environment. They developed a tradition of Punjabi poetry with deeply rooted in local culture. This culture included a number of Hindu traditions. Borrowings from this source are exemplified in the poetry of Bullhe Shah in the form of Krishnaite and Nath elements in his poetry. Matringe is aware of the opposing views taken of this issue. Some scholars think that Bullhe Shah was more of an advaita Vedantist than a Sufi, while others have given a strict orthodox Muslim interpretation of his works. Therefore, it was relevant for Matringe to examine how these elements contribute to the formulation of Bullhe Shah’s mystical message. 3                                                              

            According to Matringe, some verses of Bullhe Shah advocate devotion to Krishna as opposed to Vedic ritualism, indicating the superiority of inner faith. However, the line quoted refers to Hari, an epithet for God, and Matringe tends to assume that this is a reference to Krishna . In another verse, however, there is an explicit reference to ‘the flute of Kahn’. It certainly refers to Krishna . However, the flute-player is also the Chak Ranjha. This would equate Krishna with Ranjha and suggest that both these are epithets for Bullhe Shah’s God. Matringe translates ‘chak’ as ‘cowherd’, which is misleading. The other verses quoted by Matringe do not refer explicitly to Krishna . Nevertheless, Matringe sees parallels between the gopis and the Punjabi girls who are fetching water in full adornment, whose scandal is spreading, and who do not care and continue to dance. However, the dance in abandon was emphasized by Shah Husain, and there is absolutely no doubt that Bullhe Shah was familiar with the kāfis of Shah Husain. Bullhe Shah’s God is ‘mischievous’: he hides himself in the way Krishna did after dancing with the gopis to be found again. God is a hidden thief. However, the Sufi idea of veils over the Reality and of God as the ‘hidden treasure’ are equally relevant here. Matringe takes ‘māhi’ literally to be the ‘cowherd’, but it comments the beloved Bullhe Shah’s depiction of the pangs of separation appear to be the pangs of the gopis ‘in Persianized style’. In another verse in the female voice ‘I shall write letters to Sham’ is perceived by Matringe as symbolic of the letter which Radha thinks of writing to Krishna . 4 Though plausible, the use of all these verses by Matringe does not make a convincing case for the concept of transference.

            Significantly, the seeker in despair takes the garb of a jogan (female ascetic). This, according to Matringe, opens the way to recurrent instance of Nath symbols in Bullhe Shah’s poetry. God is the supreme jogi for whom the jogan is longing, and she renounces the world in quest of God: ‘I shall go with the yogi, having put a tilak on my forehead’. The manifestations of love are described in terms related to the Persian images of the ‘fire of love’. In such descriptions, Matringe perceives the terrible powers of the jogis. A similar imagery is used in this poem for the drastic austerity of the jogan. Then there are symbols expressing the extreme hardship of the path which leads the mystic to God. Suffering is the prerequisite of spiritual bliss through divine grace: ‘Ranjha has come, having made himself a yogi’. Actually, this verse carries the import that God has come in the form of Ranjha and Heer has vowed as a jogan to serve him. Matringe himself says that there is a fundamental difference between the Punjabi Sufi kāfi and the shabads of Gorakhnath. The loving devotion is present only in Bullhe Shah’s poetry.  All that concerns the jogi of Bullhe Shah is linked with a relationship of love that is alien to Nath Shaivism. Matringe himself notices that the jogi of Bullhe Shah is a manifestation of God: ‘O, this is not a yogi, but a manifestation of Lord. The garb of a yogi fits him well’. 5 There is hardly any doubt that the Nath elements in Bullhe Shah’s poetry are mediated largely through the popular tradition of Ranjha as a jogi.

            Matringe goes on to state that, being transcendent and immanent at the same time, God can be found everywhere and in everybody. He can be Krishna and the jogi, the thief and the banker, the mosque and the temple, the Muslim and the Hindu, the lover and the beloved, and so on. This conception of God leads Bullhe Shah to reject the diversity of the constituted religions: ‘I am neither a Hindu nor a Muslim’. The difference between a ‘Ramdas’ and a ‘Fateh Muhammad’ vanishes when the same God is seen within both. The realization of identification of human beings with God annihilates the individual self and merges it with Him. Matringe thinks that Bullhe Shah’s position here is similar to that of the Sants, who attached great importance to loving devotion and renunciation. Matringe goes on to add that the Krishna and Nath traditions provided Bullhe Shah with an imagery from which he derived symbols to express the various states and emotions of the mystical experience. No Punjabi Sufi poet before him had integrated Hindu elements in his poetry to the same extent. Indeed, the synthesis of Krishnaite and Nath elements his case operated chiefly through his use of the legend of Heer and Ranjha, which was by far the main source of his allusions. In the first part of the legend, Ranjha remains a Krishnaite figure for Matringe. In the second part, he is a wandering Nath jogi. It is in this sense that, in the story of Heer and Ranjha, the Krishnaite and Nath elements in Bullhe Shah’s poetry reflect ‘the composite and often syncretic nature of the Panjabi popular culture’. He paid attention to the cultural universe of the common people of the Punjab whom he addressed through his kāfis. His great originality lies in his ability to combine these symbols with others taken from Arabic and Persian culture ‘in order to express his approach to that sublime point where all religion meet’.6 As we noticed earlier, the Nath elements were mediated through the legend of Heer and Ranjha which was brought to the centre of the stage by Shah Husain. The Krishnaite elements could partly be a reflection of the increasing popularity of Krishna in the Punjab since the time of Shah Husain. In any case, the elements perceived by Matringe as Krishnaite and Nath can be better appreciated in the context of a comprehensive interpretation of the poetry of Bullhe Shah.



Apart from the kāfi, the athwara and the baramaha, Bullhe Shah used the popular forms of gandhan, siharfi and dohra. The Athwara of Bullhe Shah starts with Saturday and ends with Friday, depicting basically what may be called a spiritual journey from the state of separation to the state of union. In the pangs of separation from the dear one (piara) begins the quest on Saturday. On Sunday, prayer is made to Shah Ināyat for instructions to end the time of separation. On Monday comes the realization that the friend (yar) himself is ‘killer of the dead’: he inflicts suffering on those who are prepared to die for love. On Tuesday comes the hope that he might respond to console the lover in her plight. On Wednesday, the acceptance of suffering becomes the basis of meeting with the friend. On Thursday, she finds the cup that intoxicates and makes her oblivious of the difference between the essence and attributes. On Friday, she becomes a sohagan. She adorns herself to meet the beloved (piya). Friday, thus, is different. The sight of the beloved shows the futility of the knowledge of the law, and the tradition, and the obligatory practices of Islam, and logic. Heer longs for Ranjha, crying ‘māhi, māhi’. Friday, the day of the large congregational prayer in the mosque for the faithful, is the day of union is the lover of God. 7

            Bullhe Shah’s Baramaha starts with the month of Assu and ends with the month of Bhadon. The starting point is the state of separation, marked by suffering and the beginning of quest for the dear one in ‘the city of love’. In Kattak, the forlorn woman prays for union. She has cultivated love for long and it is hard to live without the spouse. In Maghar, the demon of love is still eating her bones. She would be a slave to anyone who brings home the beloved (lal). If anyone brings the friend (yar) she would get relief from anguish, like the sati who is asked to get down from the pyre. In Poh, she is still ‘dead in life’ and waiting for the spouse (shauh). In Phaggan, tears flow from her eyes due to the wounds of love; her suffering was preordained and this is how she is celebrating the holi. In Chet, she has lost her self and yet she is nowhere nearer the friend.  Hard is the day of Baisakhi if the friend is not with her. They whose spouses are with them are exhilarated but she is downcast without her spouse. Hot winds blow in Jeth but the spouse is not there. The fire of love is ablaze in Har, and the messengers have carried letters to Sham; her dark hair have turned grey now, and it is hard to pass time without the spouse. The love-bird cries in Sāwan, the young men play and the young girls sing; God has fulfilled her hopes and she has found Shah Ināyat. Bhādon is pleasant if one spends each moment with the spouse. To her good fortune, the master has come. Shah Ināyat has shown to her that God is in everyone. She is drenched in love and God’s will has come to prevail. 8

            Love, the pangs of separation, and the bliss of union are the themes on which Bullhe Shah dwells in his Athwara and Baramaha. In the genre called gandhan, he takes up the theme of wedding. The term gandhān was used in Bullhe Shah’s time for invitations sent to relatives for the occasion. In Bullhe Shah’s composition, the bride herself sends forty invitations, expressing her feeling or state of mind in each. In the first gandh she thinks of preparing the dowry but she has no cash. In the second gandh she says that she cannot spin. In the third, she regrets that she has no merit. In the fourth, she is afraid that her father would send her away. Bullhe Shah goes on to say in the gandhs following that the young girl is afraid of the first night because little time is left for preparing the dowry. The guests have come and she is in tears. She wants to know in despair if any friend would accompany her. She is like the fish out of water. She feels that it would have been better if her mother had poisoned her at her birth. She is frightened for her life now. Her friends have gone and it is her turn to go to the marital home from which no one returns.  The kins have left before her but no one tells her where they have gone.  She has to go the city of the silent. Human life is like the begging round of a jogi; ultimately one has to lie in the saline earth. The drums of departure are being sounded. Tears flow from her eyes like rain from the clouds of Sāwan. She has to go far with a heavy load on her head. With one hank in her hand she is thinking of weaving the cloth for dowry. Only the fortunate ones dye the cloth they have prepared.

            At last she thinks of love. The spouse comes closer. Love now has made her mad. She would feel relieved if the beloved enters her lane; she has to charm him. She has adorned herself and made herself soft to the touch. He might embrace her. Auspicious in the moment when he turns towards her. On meeting him she sings in ecstasy. The thirtyninth gandh is opened by all her female friends; Shah Ināyat shall now come to the bridal bed; her whole frame is dyed in love. The fortieth gandh reveals that the essence of love is to lose one’s own self. She likes the spouse coming with the marriage party so that she may become one with him. Say ‘God willing’ now, and pray for me. She is no more there: only the Beloved is there. 9 The wedding stands for death and union. Good deeds are not adequate as dowry. What is required for union is the dowry of love, dedication and sacrifice. Bullhe Shah’s preference for the path of love is loud and clear in his Gandhan.

            In a Siharfi, using letters of the Perso-Arabic alphabet as the device for expressing his feelings and moods, Bullhe Shah talks of the refuge at the feet of the Prophet, the only effective intercessor on the day of judgement. He also refers to the Prophet’s ascension when he saw God face to face. He is the seal of the prophets. His pure form is brighter than the sun and the moon. To associate oneself with him is to follow the right path: ‘there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His messenger’. Bullhe Shah refers to the Quranic myth about Adam and Hawwa and the Satan, and the role of the Prophet Muhammad in redeeming humankind and interceding on the last day. His grace relieves his followers from the suffering of the grave and helps them in crossing the narrow bridge (pul-i sirāt) to have the sight of God in Paradise . Bullhe Shah tells people to appropriate the Prophet’s door. However, even in this Siharfi, Bullhe Shah dwells on the immanence of God who is the only Lord everywhere; He alone is the refuge, and the murshid shows the way to Him. This murshid is Shah Ināyat.10

            In another Siharfi, Bullhe Shah tells human beings to recognize their essence: ‘understand yourself first’. All the four Vedas declare that you are ‘sukh rup, akhand, chetann’. In order to know this one has to restrain desires and shun pleasures of the senses. The outside world is like a dream, an illusion. Turn inwards to see that you are the support of the whole world. Take care of your self, you are immortal. You are the light of the world and remain the same in essence. See who is within you: the elephant cannot be concealed by the grass. The colourful bubble bursts and water mingles with water. They who are dedicated to the beloved themselves become the beloved. You are yourself the beloved; whom are you seeking? The world is a palace of smoke; ‘the water of life’ is within you. ‘Not this, not this’ declare the Vedas; there is no other; when you reflect deeply you realize ‘I am that’. If you discard khudi, you yourself become the Master. He is the seed from which sprout the multifarious forms. He meets himself as man and woman. The eternal ruler watches the dance of creation. He is dear in every form. He was in the beginning and He shall be in the end. By right orientation you become the beginning and the end. The friend is gained by losing oneself. Congradulate Bullhe Shah ten thousand times now that he has been embraced by the Beloved. 11 This Siharfi is clearly monistic and pantheistic, but it is punctuated by monotheism. Bullhe Shah’s personal God never becomes an impersonal Reality.

            In yet another Siharfi, Bullhe Shah sings of love, separation and union. The woman has the fire of love in her heart and suffers the pangs of separation. Deaf and dumb to everything else, she responds only to the call of the friend. Whether or not she is liked by him, she longs for him and is prepared to sacrifice everyone dear to her. She is totally consumed by love. Without knowing the appropriate mantar, she tries to the catch the black cobras. She is weaving the thread of ‘I am the Truth’ for the sake of the beloved. She sings the praises of the friend like a hymn. Without him, she is restless like an addict without bhang. She can live only if she finds the beloved. She has become Mansur (al-Hallaj) but she does not reveal the secret. 12 This Siharfi can be placed squarely within the Sufi thought.

            Bulhe Shah’s dohrey give trenchant expression to several of his characteristic ideas and attitudes. Institutionalized religion has no attraction for him. Plunderers live in dharmsalas and thuggs in thakurdwaras; in mosques live the practitioners of falsehood; the lovers of God stay away from all. ‘God cannot be found in the mosque, not even in the ka‘bah; He is not in the Qur’an or the other scriptures. ‘I have travelled far and wide and found God at no place of pilgrimage’. All such trammels snap when you meet the murshid. The mulla is like a torch-bearer: he shows light to others while he himself remains in darkness. Bullha has thrown namāz into the oven and rozāh into the mud; he has smudged the kalma with black ink. The people do not know that God is found within. If the inner dirt does not depart there is no use of outward cleanliness; all worship is in vain without the perfect guide (murshid). The people advise Bullha to sit in the mosque, but there is no use of prayer if it is not performed from the heart. The qāzi is happy with bribery and the mulla over deaths; the lover is happy with singing the praises of God in complete trust. All but the talk of Allah is small talk; the learned merely create noise, and the books have created confusion. 13

            God is within all human beings and in every thing. God’s face is the light and His creation is the veil; He conceals Himself behind this veil. He has revealed himself in his creation but the creation conceals him. He shows his face to those who love him, and he meets only those who are his friends. In multifarious forms, he is close and yet unknown. They who do not know their physical frame cannot know their friend; human frames are merely earth, fire, water and air; the Master is also within, unseen, like salt mixed with flour. God has created billions of human frames and sits within them; he is the young girl and the young boy, and he is the father and the mother; he himself is born, he himself dies, and he himself observes mourning. Only he knows his qudrat.

            The goldsmith crafts ornaments of different kinds; what is common to their multifarious forms is silver. He who has the Qur’an in his hand and the sacred thread over his neck is your Supreme Friend. The shape of ‘ain and ghain is the same, with the difference only of the dot. This small difference has misled the world. The perfect guide (murshid kāmil) leads to the realization of unity (wahdat). The visible forms are the ladder that leads toward the reality (haqiqat). He who becomes aware of the reality needs no more the salutation of peace. 14

            The doha form is not meant to give elaborate expression to any theme; each doha presents an idea, a mood or a feeling, regarded as important by the author. There are only 48 dohas of Bullhe Shah, and we have already taken into account over a score. They indicate the importance attached by Bullhe Shah to the immanence of God and the futility of institutionalized religion. Both are relevant for the attitude of tolerance. Bullhe Shah gives explicit expression to this attitude. The day before yesterday I was an infidel; yesterday I worshipped idols; now I have come home and I am silent. Bullha has become a lover of God and people say that he has become an infidel; all he can say is ‘say whatever you like’. What matters to Bullhe Shah is love and dedication. If the woman-discipline of a Musalman is dedicated to a Hindu, welcome them both and leave the rest to God (Bhagwān). If you wish to become a ghazi, put on the sword and kill the notional Muslim (rangharh) first and only then the infidel. The Brahman who bears the pangs of separation in love becomes a shaikh. Let us go to the place where the intoxication of love is not forbidden.15

            At the centre of life for Bullhe Shah is love. Therefore he talks of love and things related to love. Burn your pride and throw your false honour into the well; lose all sense of your body and mind so that you may meet God. Bullhe Shah regrets that much of the life has passed and he has not turned to God (Har) in love. The guide (hadi) speaks within me now and all the sins have been washed away; millet has grown on mountains and the farvan tree is bearing the mulberry fruit. Bullha regrets that he came to the world for reciting the name of God but he has been lured by earthly things like gold, wealth and women. He tells himself to go to the kitchen of the friend to sacrifice himself, like a goat. Hijrat in Islam has a special significance; therefore, Bullha dies every day and comes to life, moving every day from one stage to another. He has found the reality through search as a lover. 16

            Some statements in the dohras of Bullhe Shah are not interesting for their general import. The spring comes and sparrows descend for feed; some are eaten by the hawks and others are caught in the net; some still hope to return and others are roasted for food; they are all helpless; their fate is determined by someone else. At the gates of the rich there are watchmen; one can appropriate the door of God; sorrows end there. In this world there are adepts in talk; they give a needle in charity and keep the whole block of iron; they return a lost cowrie but appropriate a whole bag. Let us go to the place where all are blind who can see no social status, or authority.17



Bullhe Shah gives the best expression to his ideas, feelings, moods and attitudes in his kāfis. One is clearly didactic, with the refrain of ‘wake up from slumber’. You have to leave the world one day and go to the grave where worms eat your flesh. Therefore, never forget death. The day of wedding (death) is coming close; prepare the dowry (of good conduct). The wedding would be followed shortly by muklava. The woman would leave the world for ever, no more young or beautiful. The way is long and passes through a wilderness. She should prepare for the voyage now for nothing can be borrowed on the way. Individuals of much greater importance have departed: Alexander the Great and other rulers of the world, Sultans, mirs and maliks, prophets and pirs, Yusuf and Zulekha, and Sulaiman whose throne was flower by fairies in the air. No flower remains in bloom when the autumn wind blows. You will cry like a lonely crane. Walk carefully for you will not come here for the second time. Without the kalma, there is no escape. 18

            There is nothing in this kāfi that may be regarded as unorthodox. Elsewhere too, Bullhe Shah alludes to the darkness of the grave, echoing Shah Husain. The whole world goes at last to ‘the city of the silent’; the angel of death (malik al-maut) takes away boatfuls of the dead. The shari‘at is our wet nurse, tariqat our mother, and through haqiqat we gain some knowledge of the divine. By following the shar‘iat one would get support from the Prophet Muhammad. Not having prepared adequately for the hereafter, Bullhe Shah prays for mercy rather than justice. He advises the young girl to acquire merit: her parents have sent invitations (gandhān) for her wedding and when she leaves her home (this world) she will never come back. In another kāfi too, Bullhe Shah underlines the importance of good deeds, asking the young girl to turn to spinning. However, there is no explicit insistence on namāz, rozah, hajj or zakāt. Indeed ‘Pak Rasul Muhammad Sahib ‘is the special means of love. His name leads to Allah and teaches how to die for him or in him (fana fi-Allah). Talking of the light (nur) of Muhammad, Bullhe Shah is talking of the Prophet of the Sufi Islam.19

            Bullhe Shah gives Sufi signification of some of the ayats and phrases of the Qur’an. The words ‘kunn’ and ‘fiya kunn’ in Punjabi come from the Qur’an with reference to the creation of the universe and humankind. Bullhe Shah refers to the ‘face of Allah’, the ‘hidden treasure’, ‘am I not your Lord?’, ‘it is for your good’, ‘come near to us’, and ‘fight against your lower self’. The ‘hidden treasure’ became many through kunn-fiyakunn. Allah is closer to you than your jugular vein.20 All these ayats and phrases were familiar to the Sufis and were given mystical interpretation in justification of the concept of immanence and the idea of love.

            Through his kāfis, Bullhe Shah has given the most powerful expression in Punjabi literature to the unity of existence (wahdat al-wajud). Like Shaikh Farid and Shah Husain, he uses multiplicity of epithets for God who is the only one reality. The letter alif, the first letter of Allah, is the symbol of One. Bullhe Shah’s heart is dyed in Allah and he does not know the second letter be (anything other than Allah). Having tasted alif, he fails to understand the meaning of be. The letters ‘ain (He) and ghain (other than He) did not clarify the issue but the letter alif has brought perfect understanding. All that one needs is an understanding of alif, and not cartload of books. From one became two, three and four, and then thousands upon thousands. The single seed became a huge tree; when the tree would be no more, there would still the seed. By learning the alif comes liberation. The letter ghain has the same shape as the letter ‘ain with a dot; if the dot is removed from the heart what is left is ‘ain. Our home is now in unity (wahdat) and wonder (hairat) is our companion; oblivious of the self, we are no longer concerned with birth or death. 21

            The unity of God becomes the unity of existence through His immanence. The beloved has come in human form. He himself is the deer and the leopard, the master and the slave; He is the renunciant and the house holder; He the bāzigar who makes us dance like puppets. He is the shepherd, the goatherd, the cowherd and the keeper of buffaloes. He who is beyond space (la-makān) is present in every form. He himself is the speaker and the listener, the singer and the musical instrument. He is the thief within. The cotton assumes numerous forms, each known by its name; the silver assumes the shape of rings and bangles. The Musalmans are afraid of being cremated and the Hindus of being buried; this remains the source of contention between them; one is ‘Ramdas’ and the other ‘Fateh Muhammad’; their contention ends when they see the same beloved in both. The One changes forms, reading books as a mulla at one place and offering worship as a Hindu at another; here a friend and there an enemy; here the guide (guru) and there the disciple; here Majnun and there Laila; he is within every one. The namāzi is he and the qazi is he; the bairagi is he and the shaikh is he. ‘I have discovered now that only you have changed your form’. 22

            For Bullhe Shah, the whole issue of life is resolved by one point: devotion and dedication to God. Keep no accounts and close the book of infidelity. Get rid of the misery of the grave and the fear of hell. Purify your heart of all evil thoughts. The matter ends within you: that is the whole point. In vain you rub your forehead on the ground and recite the kalma if there is no understanding within. Some have returned from pilgrimage as hajis wearing blue cloaks; they sell their merit for money; God does not like this. Some go into the wilderness and do not eat even a single grain. They tire their bodies in vain and fail to reach the goal. They waste their life in austerities. Take guidance of the murshid and devote yourself to God. Discard desires and cares, and purify your heart. When the beloved comes, forgotten are rozah, hajj and namāz. There is no room for Logic and Poetics. There is no need of the shari‘at. ‘He has come home and I have forgotten rozah, hajj and namāz.  I have now seen the difference between the shari‘at and love. On drinking the goblet of love all talk is forgotten; the same Master is seen in every home and within everyone’. Forgotten are Logic, Tafsir and Fiqh. He who has drunk the intoxicating cup has nothing to do with namaz and rozah. The Pandit and the Mulla have failed to know the secret despite their learning. 23

            Bullhe Shah sings mostly of love, separation and union. The Mulla and the Qazi try to show us the way but lead to illusion. They are great thuggs who cast the net all around. They tell us that religion (dharm) consists of the injunctions of the shari‘at to put chains on our feet. Love knows no caste or mazhab; it is the enemy of shara‘. Love demands sacrifice. Apart from the examples of Zakariya and Yahiya, Bullhe Shah refers to Mansur al-Hallaj who kissed the cross to have the sight (darshan) of the beloved. On his account he drank the cup of love in perfection. The spark of love obliterates the difference between the Hindu and the Turk; love wins over God (Har). But the path of love is hard. The beloved may not care in his be-parwahi. Yusuf was thrown into the well, and sold as a slave in the market for a hank; you may be sold for a cowrie. Some were skinned alive and others were sawn; some were crucified; your head would also be cut off. The wine makers (kalāls) are your neighbours; you would be tempted to taste the intoxicating stuff, and you will be dubbed as ‘inebriate’. If you utter ‘I am the truth’ (ana al-haqq), you would be crucified. They whose bones are suffused with love die in life. He who is suffused with perfect love dances even without song and music; when the cup of divine love is drunk, there is no question and no answer; he sees the beloved in all his beauty. A single particle of love is weightier than a mountain; for a single glance of the beloved one discards the whole world. Love brings ever new springs. ‘When I read the lesson of love, I became afraid of the mosque and entered the abode of Thakur where thousands of horns are blown. Wherever I look I see the beloved’. Burn the prayer mat and smash the water pot, throw away the rosary and the staff; sijda is forgotten in love. The relationship of love is eternal; it was there at the beginning and it will be there at the end.24

            Separation was involved in creation itself. Its awareness is the source of pain. Waiting for the friend, the woman is crying like a koil, and wandering like a jogan. Love has given the ‘call to prayer’ (bāng) and her forehead is towards the mihrab. But the friend does not come. The pangs of separation do not decrease with the passage of time; only he knows who suffers. This suffering comes from love. She can neither live nor die. There is no peace during the day or the night; the fire of separation is burning her alive. May someone relieve her of this pain. It cannot be relieved without the sight (darshan) of the beloved. Without the beloved she is neither here nor there. The fire of separation is ablaze and she does not know what to do. In the absence of Sham, the courtyard is frightening and she cannot pass the night. Her heart is yearning for the beloved friend. She washed and adorned herself but the friend did not respond. Let all shingār be burnt. She longs for the friend. Due to separation from the friend, she has neither a natal nor a marital home. Friendship with the heartless is a source of suffering; he has left her, piercing her heart with the spear of separation; he has forgotten all promises of return; in this transaction, she has drunk the cup of poison: the bundle of sorrows has become heavy.25

            Bullhe Shah sings of union with abandon. Let the time stop now that the beloved has come home. The bell reminds of the passage of time; it should be thrown out. The unstruck music has filled the air; the singer is adept and the tune is superb. Forgotten are namaz and rozah. Praise be to the cup-bearer who gives the wine to drink. The pain of the heart has vanished on seeing the friend’s face. There is no awareness of self in the union. Through perfect grace the beloved has come home. ‘May I live with him for thousands upon thousands of years’. Bullhe Shah has been redeemed by the Redeemer. Let the time stop now that my beloved has come home. 26

            Union with the beloved leads to complete identification with him. Bullhe Shah does not who he is. He is not a momin in the mosque; he does not follow the practices of infidelity. He is neither pure nor polluted. He is not Musa, nor is he Far‘aun. He is not in the Veda or the books. He is not in the intoxicants; he is not inebriated. He is neither awake nor asleep. He is neither happy nor sad. He is neither of water nor of earth, neither of fire nor of air. He is not an Arab, nor a Hindu; he is not of Lahour nor of Nagaur. He is neither a Hindu nor a Turk of Peshawar. He does not reside in Nadaun. He has not found the secret of religion; he is not born of Adam and Hawwa. He has given no name to himself. He is not sitting at one place, nor is he roaming around. He regards himself as the beginning and the end; he does not recognize anyone else. No one is wiser than he. Who else is there then? There is one Reality.27 This kāfi is seen superficially as a crisis of identity. It is in fact an expression of complete identity between the creator and the creation.

            More even than Shah Husain, Bullhe Shah uses the symbol of Ranjha for the divine beloved and of Heer for the devout human being as the female lover. Since Bullhe Shah adopts the voice of Heer, her name does not figure everywhere. The terms associated with these symbols are Takht Hazāra, the river Chenab , the Kherhas, buffaloes, the bridal litter, jogi and jogan, and the chāk (Ranjha). The flute (murli) is associated with Ranjha either directly or through Kahn. The symbol of the flute is not associated unambiguously with Krishna . In one of the kāfis, Heer indicates that her love is eternal. She regrets that Ranjha goes with the buffaloes but leaves her behind. There is none like Ranjha for her; she implores him to come back. She needs him.28 In another kāfi, Heer invites her friends to congratulate her on finding her beloved spouse. He has entered her courtyard and the day has become auspicious. He has come in the form of Ranjha.29 Heer scolds Ranjha but prays for him in her heart. The outward appearance is meant for the people; otherwise, Heer and Ranjha are one. 30

            In yet another kāfi, Ranjha comes as a jogi. This role suits the Great Player. His eyes are intoxicating and all sorrows vanish on seeing his face. With rings in his ears and a cord around his neck, he looks like Yusuf. Ranjha is the jogi and Heer is a jogiani, she would serve him for ever.31 The Kherhās figure in another kāfi. They have forced Heer into the bridal litter to take her away and she implores Ranjha to come. She tells her mother that if she is fond of the Kherhas she can send someone else with them.32 Ranjha, the chāk, has come in search of Heer. He is not a servant, nor is he fond of buffaloes; he feels no hunger or thirst. Who has come in this garb? 33 By meeting him all sorrows vanish. ‘In the eyes of the people he is a chak, but for me he is the Merciful Lord’.34 ‘Why should I go to Ka‘bah when my heart longs for Takht Hazara?’ Our friend to us is like Ka‘bah to the people. There is none like him in the whole world. 35 In a longish kāfi, Heer declares that she would put a tilak on her forehead and go with the jogi. No one can stop her. The jogi is the friend of her heart; she has lost all sense on seeing him. With sweet talk he has caught her in the snare of love. If he comes home, all her affairs would be set right; she will embrace him after a thousand forms of welcome. There is a jogi at the gate, asking for Heer Sial. This is perfect grace. He is the divine light; his flute produces heavenly music.36 There is complete identification between Heer and Ranjha. ‘Uttering Ranjha, Ranjha I have myself become Ranjha. Call me Dhido Ranjha. None should call me Heer. I am in Ranjha and Ranjha is in me; there is no difference’.37

            Bullhe Shah talks of the city of love (prem nagar). The ways of the city of love are strange. The murderous eyes become the source of happiness. God allows himself to be caught in the net. Lost in the city of love, Bullhe Shah is trying to correct himself. By losing himself he discovers his self and everything is right. He sees God in both the worlds; there is no other. Strange are the ways of the city of love. He dies due to the excess of happiness, allowing himself to be caught in the net and killed. His body and mind are at stake for love. ‘Let us settle in the city of love where there is our spouse’. In the city of love, ‘you and I’ are one, there is no other. There is no Hindu and no Musalman, no Sunni and no Shia. The Hindu and the Turk have lost their duality in unity. Our minds set on God  (Har), we are no longer concerned with sin or merit. ‘We have adopted the path of peace with all (sulh-i kul)’. Bullhe Shah’s ideal city of love is the city of universal peace. 38

            For Bullhe Shah, Hindu and Turk are symbolic of cultural pluralism in the Indian subcontinent. At one level, even Islam in all its forms is not commendable; at another, even non-Islamic traditions of India are appreciable as the manifestation of God. The symbols of the flute and the dance are of special interest in this connection. The wonderful flute of the Kahn is meant for all and fascinates those who hear the divine voice in it; its tune is within all.39 ‘Ever since the Kahn has blown his flute I run towards him in madness; its sound reveals the falsehood of the world; I have forgotten every thing’.40 Love makes Bullhe Shah dance; he has drunk the cup of poison; he calls for the divine tabib to save his life; the beloved friend is his ka‘bah and qiblah; Bullha dances to the beat of love. 41 The importance given to dance in this kāfi is not merely a reminder of the practice of dance among the Sufis. The refrain with ‘thaiya, thaiya’ in particular refers to the Indian dance, if not exactly of rāslila.

            Bullhe Shah makes a reference to the festival of holi. ‘There is no god but Allah’ plays the flute of ‘I am near you’, and gives the cry of ‘know your nafs’. ‘You will see the light of God in the court of the Messenger of Allah’. Gather, therefore, the light of Muhammad. Make the hori of ‘remembrance’ and please the beloved by acknowledging his grace. Fill the syringe with ‘the light of Allah’ and make the praise of Allah its target. See the light of Muhammad as the light of Allah: ‘There is no god but Allah’. Bullhe Shah would play the holi in the name of Allah.42 The use of the Quranic phrases with mystical implications make the metaphor attractive. How holi should be played presupposes the contextual acceptance of the practice.

            The use of the symbols of the flute, the dance and holi is similar to the use of Indian epithets for God. Apart from Allah, Maula, Rabb, Khuda, Sattar and Ghaffar, there are Har, Hari, Sham, Kahn, Kanhiya and Sham-Sundar in the kāfis of Bullhe Shah. A large number of epithets come from popular lore, love and conjugality, like Ranjha, dholan, mahi, piya, dilbar, yar, sohna, sjjan, mittar, jani and shauh or banna. More significantly, Bullhe Shah uses the epithet Sachcha Sahib which was used in the Sikh tradition too in the early eighteenth century. He, he uses the term Guru for Allah.

Bullhe Shah’s preoccupation with things indigenous is quite remarkable. Apart from what has been noticed already, he refers to Lanka, Kumbh Karan, Dehsir, Lachhman, gian and dhian, ulti gang, sadhs, Gur ka sewak, amrit mandal, Satgur, anhad shabad, pad, nam, Pando, Ram, Harnakash, Rāvan, Sita, Hanuman, Kans, Dhanna, Bidr, Kairon, avagaun, nam dhiao, goil, anhad, bhana, Jajman, pittar, Brahman, Chandi Mata, Tulsi Mata, salag- ram, ghar mein ganga, sants, amrit phal, vadbhagi, Gorakh, jatādhāri and munni. These phrases relate mostly to the religious culture of India . It becomes highly significant, therefore, that Bullhe Shah does not see any difference between momin and kāfir from the viewpoint of wahdat: ‘in the state of the realization of unity, I see neither the believer nor the infidel’.43 Even more significant is Bullhe Shah’s reference to Guru Tegh Bahadur. He is called ghazi. If the term ghazi refers to his martyrdom, which is most likely, it amounts to positive appreciation of a non-Islamic tradition.44


Bullhe Shah’s works are not devoid of social comment. The city of Qasur has a defect built into its very name: the true are punished here and the false play in ease. There is no commendable custom in Qasur: there is no charity, no pious deeds, and no reward for services rendered. The times are topsy tervy: crows are killing the hawks and sparrows are killing the falcons; the ‘Iraqi horses are wipped and saddles are put on donkeys. This, however, is a result of the divine order over which there is no human control. The comment here is general and moral, arising out of a sense of unfair dispensation. There is comment on the heritage of self-aggrandisement. The secret of the greatness of the son is that his mother and father were thieves, fighting for earthly goods. The food is eaten by Khaira but Jumma is caught and punished. The tigers are beaten and killed, and the wolves are in bad shape; the mice are cutting the ears of the cat. There is a contention between indifferent and good sweets.  There is conflict everywhere and no one stops. The day of judgement has come.45

            A kāfi dwells on those who had suffered in the past: Adam, Isa, Nuh, Moses, Ismail, Yusuf and Zulekha, Yunas, Sulaiman, Ibrahim, Sabar, Husain, Mansur, Zakariya, Shah Sharf, Laila and Majnun, Heer and Ranjha, Sahiban and Mirza, Sassi, Sohni, Roda, Kauravs and Pandavs, Namrud, Karun, Far‘aun, Ravan, Harnakash, and Kans. Towards the end of this kāfi, Bullhe Shah refers to the Imam who was made to fight against Yazid and whose head was exhibited on the point of a spear. After this comes the statement that the Mughals drank the cup of poison and the ‘rug-bearers’ were made rulers; the ashraf are silent. In spite of this explicit reference to the Mughals, the comment is not exactly political. In any case, Bullhe Shah does not identify himself with ‘the Muslim’, or any other rulers.46



Bullhe Shah’s kāfis are sung by qawwāls who are popular among the Punjabi-knowing peoples of the world irrespective of their religious affiliation. It may be of interest to know the contents of the most popular kāfis.  We have already referred to some of them: the one that begins with ‘ik nukte vich gall mukdi ae’, and ‘Bullha ki janan mein kaun’, the one about the dance to the beat of thaiya, thaiya, Ranjha coming in the garb of a jogi, Heer’s complete identification with Ranjha, the blossoming of ever new springs, the throwing out of the telling bell on meeting the beloved, the thief within, and eloping with the jogi. There are several other kāfis which are equally popular. One of these refers to the limitless secrets revealed by the beloved. He conceals himself behind mim. That is, if you remove the letter mim from Ahmad, you are left with ahd’ which carries the implication that God has revealed himself through the Prophet Muhammad. Similarly, God revealed the secret of ana al-haqq (I am the truth) to Mansur to crucify himself. The one who crucifies, the one who is crucified and one who looks on and laughs are the same.47 The pilgrims go to Mecca but Heer’s Mecca is her beloved Ranjha. She is betrothed to Ranjha but her father is unjust (to think of another spouse for her). She would go to Takht Hazara. Her ka‘bah is where the beloved is. This is what all the scriptures say. 48

            The theme of dedication is treated in a forceful manner in one of the kāfis. Bullhe Shah tells the devotee that he remains awake all night in devotion to God. But even dogs do that. They bark all the night and then sleep on the dung-heap. They do not leave the door of their master even if they are beaten; they score over the devotee. Bullhe Shah tells the devotee (or himself) to perform better; otherwise the dogs would win the game. 49 The awareness of alif (Allah) is far preferable to knowledge (‘ilm). There is no end to learning. With the Qur’an and the books all around, one remains in darkness amidst light. By learning books one becomes a shaikh, fills his belly and sleeps to be drowned mid stream. Another reads books and gives a loud call for prayers and declaims from the mimbar; goaded and humiliated by greed. One reads books to become a mulla or a qazi, saying one thing but doing another; outwardly true, he is false within. They who have eyes do not see; they catch the sadh instead of the thief. The learned Mian wields the knife for half a paisa, and the butchers are dear to him.

            To learn the lesson of love, one enters the river of unity (wahdat). Bullha is neither Rafizi nor Sunni; he is not a learned man; his only acquisition is the knowledge of God (‘ilm ladunni).  One needs only two letters: alif and mim (Allah and Muhammad).50 Bullhe Shah gives playful expression to love in one of his popular kāfis. ‘See what he does? Someone may ask the beloved what he does. Living in the same house he keeps the veil’. He performs namaz in the mosque and enters the idol-house for worship. Wherever you look there he is, associating with everyone. He creates Musa and Far‘aun, and becomes two to fight. He is present everywhere; who can be thrown into the hell? Love, the wolf, eats Bullhe Shah’s flesh and drinks his blood. ‘Someone may ask the beloved what he does’.51

            ‘Lift the veil O’Friend, why do you feel so shy now?’ In this kāfi, Bullhe Shah refers to the beauty of the beloved and the pangs of separation, using the similes of cobra for the tresses, arrows for the eyes, and dagger for separation. ‘You have possessed my heart through love but never shown your face. I have drunk the cup of poison, I was devoid of sense. Lift the veil O’ Friend, why do you feel so shy now?’.52

            In another popular kāfi Bullhe Shah talks of remaining silent after the experience of love. He who discovers the secret of the qalandar by searching (for the beloved) within himself, attains to the temple of peace where there is no high or low state. In everyone is the presence of God; it remains concealed in some but revealed in others. People seek him outside but he is within. His glimpse acts like a spark of fire in gun powder. When his light shines, the mountains are reduced to dust. When one utters the truth, one is crucified like Mansur. ‘If I reveal the secret, all debate would cease. And then they would kill Bullha. It is appropriate, therefore, to keep the secret concealed’.53 The experience of God changes his perception of God. ‘My Ranjha is now someone else’, says Bullhe Shah. The call given in the Luminous Heaven is heard at the throne of Lahore . They who are ‘killed’ by love wander like cattle in the wilderness. Ranjha, the master of Takht Hazāra, becomes the thief. Bullhe Shah would never die: he who lies in the grave is someone else. ‘My Ranjha is now someone else’. 54

            The popular kāfis of Bullhe Shah dwell on love, separation and union. The mystical dimension may be somewhat shallow in one and rather deep in another. Preferable over learning, love leads to the awareness of unity in which differences of all kinds are obliterated or minimized. The importance of the Prophet is recognized in a manner that endears to him to all. The dominant impression created by these popular kāfis is that of catholicity and peace with all. Whatever is, is right.

            On the whole, Bullhe Shah emerges as the most catholic poet of Punjabi. Shah Husain is equally liberal, and not even keen to identity himself with Islam. Bullhe Shah’s catholicity is more significant precisely because he seldom forgets his Muslim identity. He remains a Sufi poet. His universal tolerance arises from his faith and metaphysics.




Sant Singh Sekhon, A History of Panjabi Literature, Patiala : Punjabi University , 1996, vol. II, pp. 31-5.

Ibid., pp. 45-9.

Denis Matringe, Krsnaite and Nath elements in the poetry of the eighteenth-century Panjabi Sufi Bullhe ‘Sah’, Devotional Literature in South Asia, ed., R.S. McGregor, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press , 1992,
pp. 190- 1.

Ibid., pp. 191-3.

Ibid., pp. 193-6.

Ibid., pp. 196-8.

Kalām Bullhe Shah, ed., Gurdev Singh, Ludhiana : Lahore Book Shop, 1992 (2nd ed.), pp. 73-76.

Ibid., pp. 86-94.

Ibid., pp. 78-84.

Ibid., pp. 102-07.

Ibid., pp. 107-16.

Ibid., pp. 116-22.

Ibid., pp. 96-7, 97, 98, 99, 100.

Ibid., pp. 96, 97, 98-99, 9, 100.

Ibid., pp. 97, 98, 99, 100.

Ibid., pp. 97, 98.

Ibid., pp. 96, 97-8, 100.

Ibid., pp. 127-30.

Ibid., pp. 145, 146, 148, 156, 163-5, 178, 184, 187, 192-4, 249.

Ibid., pp. 146, 181, 201, 203, 205.

Ibid., pp. 124, 131-2, 157, 230.

Ibid., pp. 168, 177, 195, 196, 219.

Ibid., pp. 132-3, 171, 236.

Ibid., pp. 134, 135, 148-50, 158, 159, 183, 235.

Ibid., pp. 124, 125, 126, 130, 145, 167, 177, 201.

Ibid., pp. 207-8.

Ibid., p. 139.

Ibid., p. 131.

Ibid., p. 135.

Ibid., p. 139.

Ibid., pp. 169-70.

Ibid., p. 170.

Ibid., p. 175.

Ibid., pp. 194-5.

Ibid., p. 208.

Ibid., p. 223.

Ibid., pp. 231-3.

Ibid., pp. 125, 127, 138, 145, 163-4, 213, 245.

Ibid., p. 140.

Ibid., pp. 211-12.

Ibid., pp. 140-1.

Ibid., pp. 249-50.

Ibid., p. 209.

Ibid., p. 226.

Ibid., pp. 96, 133, 134, 188-9.

Ibid., p. 173.

Ibid., p. 144.

Ibid., p. 163.

Ibid., pp. 170-1.

Ibid., pp. 185-6.

Ibid., pp. 197-8.

Ibid., p. 206.

Ibid., pp. 213-14.

Ibid., p. 220.




Link to Baba Bullhe Shah’s kāfi sung by Rabbi Shergill: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=pTxZy32Fv_0



Jagtār Singh Grewāl.
University of California at Santa Barbara . Goleta . 2001.

Photo by Amarjit Chandan


[About the author: Historian JS Grewal was Vice Chancellor of Guru Nanak Dev University, and Director and Chairman of Indian Institute of Advanced Study Shimla . Now he heads the Institute of Punjab Studies , and is the Director of the World Punjabi Centre at Punjabi University .

This essay on Bullhe Shah is taken from his forthcoming book Historical Studies in Punjabi Literature to be published in 2009 by Punjabi University ]