Madho Lal Hussain of Lahore: Beyond Hindu and Muslim. By Yoginder Sikand


`Shah Hussain! Shahadat Paye O Jo Maran Mitran De Age (Shah Hussain! He [alone] attains martyrdom who dies at the feet of his beloved)

Sufism has had a long and rich history in the Indian sub-continent. It is perhaps in Punjab, more than in any other part of this vast land, that Sufism has struck the deepest roots, producing many great exponents and exercising a pervasive influence on the minds of the ommon people. To this very day, the innumerable Sufis of this region are held in the highest esteem by millions of Muslims, Sikhs, Dalits and Hindus of the province and beyond.

Shah Hussain is one such mystic who is still fondly remembered by millions of ordinary Punjabis four centuries after his death1. He was born in Lahore in 1539 A.D. into a family of the Dhatha Rajput tribe.2 This tribe had recently converted to Islam, hence the epithet "Shah" attached to his name.3 Even as a child Hussain showed a marked preference for red clothes, which explains why he was also called Lal (Persian for "red") Hussain.4 Hussain`s strong mystical inclinations were apparent very early in his life. In childhood itself he managed to memorize the entire Qur`an under the guidance of his teacher, Shaikh Abu Bakr. Then, at the
age of ten he was initiated into the Oadiriyah Sufi order by the renowned saint Bahlul Shah Daryai of Chiniot.5 For the next twenty-six years he lived under the strict supervision of his Pir (spiritual master), faithfully following all the rites and practices of orthodox Islam, and leading a life of great austerity.

At the age of thirty-six an incident occurred that was to completely change Hussain`s life. One day while at a madrasa studying a tafsir (commentary) on the Our`an under the tutelage of Shaikh Sadullah of Lahore, he came across the Qur`anic verse: "The life of this world is nothing but a game and a sport." He asked the Shaikh to explain the verse and was told that it meant that the world should be shunned. Hussain refused to accept this interpretation and asserted, instead, that the words of the verse must be taken literally. He told his teacher that, in accordance with his understanding of this verse, he would spend the rest of his life in enjoyment.6 It was during this period of his life that Hussain met Madho, a Brahmin lad. The two men became so closely associated that in the popular mind the saint is most commonly known as Madho Lal Hussain, as if the two had been fused into one. The intensely close relationship that blossomed between them has been the subject of much speculation and controversy, starting in their very lifetime. John Subhan, an expert on Indian Sufism, writes that their contemporaries saw this intimate connection between a Hindu boy and a Muslim faqir of "questionable character" as "a disgrace", though he himself sees this "irresistible attraction" between the two men in terms of "fervent love".8 Like wise, the Punjabi historian
Shafi Aquil speaks of the relationship between Madho and Hussayn as one of "boundless love" and for this employs language generally used to describe male-female relationships. Thus, he writes, "Shah Hussayn was in love with Madho and Madho himself, too, desired him" (Madho se Shah Hussayn ko pyar tho aur khud Madho bhi unko chahte the). He goes on to add that, "Under no condition could Shah Hussayn bear to be separated from Madho".9

Nur Ahmad Chishti, author of the Sufi chronicle Tahqiqat-i-Chishti, suggests that some among the couple`s contemporaries saw their relationship as `improper`. He writes that Madho`s relatives, "seeing him sleeping in the same bed with Lal Hussain, came to murder them both."10 However, as luck would have it, he adds,that "the power of Hussain made them blind and, as they could not find the door, they returned". Lajwanti Ramkrishna, a recognized authority on the Punjabi Sufis, relates that many people "had become suspicious of the un-natural [sic] relationship" between the two. 11 Whatever the case might be, the story of the two lovers is a fascinating one that is unparalleled in the annals of Punjabi Sufism.

The historical records give varying accounts of Hussain`s first encounter with Madho. The author of the Tahqiqat-i-Chishti writes that Hussain first saw Madho riding through the main market of Lahore on a "majestic horse in a fashionable manner."12 So wonderstruck was he at Madho`s beauty that "he then tried in vain to possess the lad for sixteen years, at the end of which he succeeded." Rizvi, an acclaimed authority on Indian Sufism, also writes that Hussain first saw Madho riding in the market and says that upon seeing him he felt instantly "under the
intoxication of a mystical trance." Thereafter, he adds, Hussain shifted to Shahdara, the suburb of Lahore where Madho lived and "began following him like a household slave."13 Ramakrishna says that some believe that Hussain`s first meeting with Madho took place during a liquor-drinking bout at a wine shop but he prefers to believe that it was Madho`s regular attendance at his Sufi preaching sessions that attracted Hussayn to "the handsome youth."14

"The love of Hussain for Madho", writes one biographer, "was unique and he did all that lay in his power to please the boy."15 It is said that not for a single day did the two fail to meet each other. So overpowering was Hussain`s fascination for Madho that he would often rise in the middle of the night, cross the river Ravi and walk for several miles to Madho`s house. Madho`s parents, however, did not approve of their son`s relationship with Hussain. Once they plotted to take Madho away with them to the Hindu holy town of Haridwar for a pilgrimage, hoping that separation from Hussain might cause Madho to forget him. Hussain, however, could not bear the thought of being kept apart from his dear one. Accordingly, he refused to let Madho`s parents take him along with them but promised them that he would send him to Haridwar later. When Madho`s parents reached Haridwar, so the story goes, Hussain made Madho shut his eyes and then, after striking his foot upon the ground, made him open them again. Madho did as he was told and found himself miraculously transported all at once to Haridwar. His parents were amazed at his sudden arrival all the way from Lahore.16 Thereafter, it is said, Madho left his parents` house and began living with Hussayn.17

It is possible and, indeed, very likely that Hussain`s relationship with Madho had a deep impact on his thinking, his mystical poetry and, most of all, on his religious life. In his passionate love for Madho he bravely defied the norms of his own society, expressing a stern
indictment of the orthodox theologians, for whom religion had been reduced to a set of soulless rituals, rigid rules and strict restrictions, drained of love, joy, compassion and emotion.18

Hussain`s relationship with the Hindu Madho also appears to have made him profoundly tolerant in his attitude towards other religions. To please Madho he celebrated with great enthusiasm, Basant, the Punjabi spring festival, as well as the Hindu festival of Holi. During Holi, for example, Madho and Hussain would follow the Hindu custom of throwing coloured powder on each other.20 According to the medieval Persian text Hasanat-ul-Arifin, Hussain is said to have asserted that he was "neither a Muslim nor a pagan"21, thus suggesting an eclecticism and breath of vision which few in his generation possessed or appreciated. Ramakrishna also notes that Hussain had close spiritual links with the Hindu mystic Chhaju Bhagat and Guru Arjan of the Sikhs.22

Hussain`s undying love for Madho is also clearly reflected in his poems or Kafis which are still considered as some of the most precious gems of Punjabi literature today. True spiritual realization, he believed, could only be attained through infinite love, for, as he wrote:

This youth will not come back again So laugh and play while you can with your lover.

Love, believed Hussain, can so intimately unite two souls (or a human being with God) that they lose their individualities and separateness and merge completely into each other. In much the same way, Madho and Hussain became so inseparable that they became known by one single name-Madho Lal Hussain.

Perhaps it was referring to this that Shah Hussayn wrote: Ranjhe Ranjha Menu Sab Koi Akho Heer Na Akho Koi

Let everyone now call me Ranjha, not Heer [for no longer am I Heer since I have become one with Ranjha.) 23

Hussain breathed his last in 1599 and was buried in Lahore on the banks of the Ravi. Madho survived him by forty-eight years, and he was put to rest in a tomb next to Hussain`s. The shrine, containing the graves of the two inseparable lovers-united in death as they had been in life-continues to attract large numbers of faithful pilgrims to this very day.

1. Hussain is best known for his poetry. He was the first to write kafis set to classical Hindustani ragas and raginis.
2. Ramakrishna, however, adds that according to the Tazkira Aulia-i-Hind, he belonged to a family of converted Kayasths, the caste of professional scribes. For more on Hussain`s ancestry, see Lajwanti Ramakrishna, "Punjabi Sufi Saints" (New Delhi: Ashajanak Publications, 1973), p.32.
3. A title often adopted by new converts to Islam.
4. This is despite the fact that orthodox Islamic theologians frowned upon the wearing of red garments by Muslim men.
5. For greater details see "Shah Hussain-Kalam" (Islamabad: Lok Virsa Publications, 1987).
6. Ramakrishna writes that such intimate love between Sufi males was not at all unusual. In fact, it can be said to have been perfectly normal for many Persian Sufis and for Indian mystics influenced by them. She notes that the orthodox opponents of the Sufis, however, charged that they kept handsome youths only "to satisfy [their] animal nature" (p. 40).
7. John A. Subhan, "Sufism: Its Saints and Shrines" (Lucknow: The Lucknow Publishing House, 1960, p. 279.
8. Shafi Aquil, "Punjabi Ke Qadim Shayar" (Karachi: Anjuman Taraqqi-i Urdu), p. 114.
9. Quoted in Ramakrishna, op. cit., p. 35.
10. Ramakrishna, op. cit., pp. 35-36.
11. Ramakrishna, op.cit., p. 34.
12. Saiyed Atthar Abbas Rizvi, "A History or Sufism in India" (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1992), vol. 2, p. 65.
13. Ramakrishna, op. cit., p. 34.
14. Ramakrishna, op.cit., p. 36.
15. Subhan, op. cit., p. 279.
16. Subhan (op.cit., p. 80) writes that upon witnessing the miracle, Madho`s parents and Madho converted to Islam. Ramakrishna (op. clt., p. 36), however, believes that this was not the case.
17. Aquil (op. cit., p. 100), writes that one day a certain Maulvi Abdul Hakim of Sialkot approached Hussain in order to become his disciple. At this Hussain is said to have burst into a fit of laughter saying,
"You are from among those who strictly follow the Shariah (Islamic law). So then, why do you wish to give me a bad name [by seeking to become my disciple]?" 18. Rizvi, op. cit., p. 65. Indeed, till as late as the end of the last century, the use of coloured powder on the occasion of Holi was the main feature of the annual celebrations at the twin tombs of Hussain and Madho. Today, however, under pressure from the puritans, this practice has reportedly stopped.
19. Quoted in Ramakrishna, op. cit., p. 36.
20. Ramakrishna, op. cit., p. 39.
21. Here, Hussain is also probably referring to himself in his intimate
relationship with God.

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