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Oral Traditions of Mystic Poetry

One Palace, a Thousand Doorways: Songs Through Bhakti, Sufi and Baul Oral Traditions is the result of Vipul Rikhi and Shabnam Virmani’s extensive research and travel across the subcontinent over two decades.
Mystic Poetry

A carefully curated selection of 140 timeless songs — by Bhakti, Sufi and Baul mystic poets of northern India — in lucid translation and transliteration, accompanied with insightful commentary, One Palace, a Thousand Doorways: Songs Through Bhakti, Sufi and Baul Oral Traditions is the result of Vipul Rikhi and Shabnam Virmani’s extensive research and travel across the subcontinent over two decades.

Kabir, Nanak Das, Gorakhnath, Mira Bai, Khwaja Ghulam Farid, Bulleshah, Lalon Fakir and Parvathy Baul among others illuminate the human condition with an enduring wisdom that resonates today as it did in centuries past. Variously acerbic or sensual, irreverent or devotional — and always incandescent and intimate — these songs go beyond narrow religiosity and open doorways to a unity of the self with the universe.

The following are excerpts from the introduction to the book along with poems from chapters "A Savage Mockery" and "The Beloved's Country".

For several centuries,in many parts of what are now India,Pakistan and Bangladesh, have thrived the oral traditions of several mystic poets.Who are the ‘mystic poets’ and what are these ‘oral traditions’? ‘Mystic poet’ is a term we employ for a range of poets from the Bhakti, Sufi and Baul traditions. The term more commonly used in Hindi and other Indian languages for Bhakti poets is ‘saint-poets’.Or, in a parallel tradition,the term ‘Sufi poet’is used.Such an epithet would be used for a practicing Sufi, or a ‘Sufi saint’. In the Baul tradition, people refer to ‘Baul seekers’ or ‘Baul masters’, who were primarily practitioners and additionally poets. So, in a sense, we can see that the term ‘mystic poet’refers to an umbrella of poets who are more than poets in a literary sense. It is not only that they speak about esoteric or mystical ideas. It is also that in popular understanding they are held to be ‘practitioners’ or ‘saints’ or ‘masters’, who wrote poetry to express an experienced truth. In other words, their being is commensurate with the truths they seek to express through poetry. It is not speculative knowledge of mysticism being put into verse. It is a poetic expression of a lived truth, or truths.

Many of these poets only spoke or sang. They did not, in the proper sense, write. Kabir himself was unlettered; in typical, confrontational fashion, he celebrated that station. It was not a matter of embarrassment for him.

Never touched ink or paper
Never held a pen in hand
The wisdom of all four ages
Kabir spoke with his tongue

We use the term ‘oral traditions’ to refer to methods and ways in which the poetry of Kabir and several other poets has survived, and indeed grown, through centuries, in a non-textual form.To put it simply, the poems have survived as songs or sayings / quotations, purely by force of being sung or repeated. They were possibly songs to begin with. Just as the term ‘mystic poet’ is not used to refer to a poet who merely writes about mysticism, but rather to a mystic who writes, so the songs of the mystics are not primarily written and read, but are sung, heard, repeated, and embodied.The tradition thrives and survives on the basis of oral transmission from one body to another.

In many parts of north and central India, a tradition of singing Kabir and other Bhakti poets such as Gorakhnath, Dharamdas, Meera and others, thrives in the village setting. In the western parts,such as Rajasthan,Punjab and Gujarat (as also in Sindh),this intermixes with the songs of Sufi poets such as Bulleshah, Baba Farid, Shah Latif and others. And on the eastern side, in Bengal (and also in Bangladesh), there is a parallel tradition of singing mystic poets, the most prominent of whom is Lalon Fakir. This tradition is made up of ‘Bauls’ (the crazy ones), itinerant beggars, singers, dancers and practitioners, who practice a secret, esoteric spiritual tradition, held within the guru-shishya (teacher-disciple) relationship.There are similar oral traditions in other parts of the country, such as in the Varkari tradition in Maharashtra or the Vachana tradition in Karnataka.

The three traditions have points of similarity as well as difference. All of them stress on the importance of a realized teacher (guru, murshid) and of a direct, unmediated learning experience in the body / self. In all of them, poetry and song become an intense medium of expression, communication and communion.

The tradition perpetuates itself in the form of a gathering: a ‘satsang’ (literally, gathering in and for truth), a ‘jaagran’ (all-night vigil), a Sufi ‘sama’ (musical gathering) or ‘majlis’ (assembly), or a Baul ‘mela’ (festival). People come together to sing and to listen, often at night, in the cool of the dark, free of other distractions, and also free of labour, as many of the people who participate work during the day at their trades, whether as artisans, farmers, cleaners, vendors or whatever else. The gathering may happen in the village square. It may happen in the courtyard of a temple or dargah. It may take place in a small room in someone’s house. Or it may be just one itinerant fakir who starts to sing somewhere, whom people gather around to listen to.

There is singing—but not just songs. The singers are singing nothing less than truth itself. The listeners have a sense of participating in something important, which is not ‘entertainment’. Several saint-poets rub shoulders with each other, as one song follows another. It is understood that ‘all these people belong to the same tribe’ (a phrase I have heard from several folk singers and lovers of poetry during my travels in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Gujarat).There is joy in speaking the same truth in the voice of a Kabir followed by the voice of a Meera or a Bulleshah.The sense of self expands as you participate in song and the spirit of truth, transcending for those moments all social limitations, restrictions and oppressions.


O Mullah, What Would You Know?

O mullah, what would you know
Of Muhammad’s glory?
If you want to know
Go ask Hussain or Uwais
Or Bilal or Ali of Karbala
Enough of your cheap tricks
Your wanton ways
What use are your endless prayers
If your heart doesn’t bow
In reverence?


They do the namaaz
Who are weak of heart
They keep the ritual fast
Who are stingy with bread
They bellow the azaan loudest
Whose hearts are the most corrupt
They make the journey for Haj
Whose crimes overflow at home
Says Bulleshah, do you want to meet god?
Then simply unlock
The chamber of your heart!


Reading book after book
You’ve become a great scholar
But you never learnt to read yourself
You go rushing
Into temples and mosques
But never enter your own heart
Every day you fight the devil
But never wrestle
With your own ego
You chase after those in the sky
But never look for
The one sitting at home

—Bulleshah; Rajasthan (set of couplets)


You Didn’t Sing Govind’s Name

You didn’t sing Govind’s name
What did you earn, O foolish one?
What did you really gain?
You steal a slab of iron
And give a needle in charity
Then you climb the roof to see
Why isn’t applause coming to me?
You didn’t sing Govind’s name…

A ‘Hindu’, yet you cut the peepal tree
Live on your daughter’s pay
A ‘Muslim’, yet you demand interest
Your capital is frittered away
You didn’t sing Govind’s name…

You take dips in Ganga and Gomti
And climb the holy Girnar
Like the weary bullock of a gypsy
Waste your life wandering around
You didn’t sing Govind’s name…

Sitting in a boat made of stone
You set sail on the river
Says Kabir, listen friends
You’re sure to drown midway
You didn’t sing Govind’s name…

—Kabir; Rajasthan


City of Mirrors

A city of mirrors jostles my house
My neighbour lives there
I keep feeling: I’ve seen him, I’ve seen him
But he’s not to be seen
My neighbour lives there

Fathomless water encircles the village
On this bank, neither boat nor boatman
How will you get across?
I see fear in you
My neighbour lives there

What description do I give of this neighbour?
Neither hands nor feet, neither head nor torso
Sometimes dwelling in the void
Sometimes floating on the water
My neighbour lives there

If that neighbour would touch me once
The torments of hell would disappear
That’s how Siraj and Lalon are together
At a distance of a thousand miles
My neighbour lives there

—Lalon Fakir; Bengal


Shabnam Virmani initiated the Kabir Project journeys in 2002 and has since been exploring the philosophy of Kabir and other mystics through a deep engagement with their oral folk traditions. Her inspiration and joy in this poetry and its wisdom has taken the shape of documentary films and a digital archive, singing and performing, translations and curations, urban festivals and rural yatras, and more recently, infecting students with the challenge and wonder of mystic poetry. She has also worked on gender issues through journalism, video and radio work in the community.

Vipul Rikhi is a poet, fiction writer, translator and singer who has been immersed in the oral traditions of Kabir and other Bhakti and Sufi poets for over a decade. He is the author of a novel, 2012 Nights, a collection of poems, Bleed, and co-author of I Saw Myself: Journeys with Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai with Shabnam Virmani. His work with the Kabir Project involves writing, translations, research, curations and the creation of a vast digital archive called "Ajab Shahar".

These are excerpts from One Palace, a Thousand Doorways: Songs Through Bhakti, Sufi and Baul Oral Traditions, written by Vipul Rikhi and Shabnam Virmani and published by Speaking Tiger. Republished here with permission from the publisher.

Original published date:

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