Just as I’m about to enter Shah Hussain’s 16th-century shrine in Baghbanpura, Lahore, I scan for a lone tomb to offer a prayer, only to find a pair next to each other — one of Shah Hussain and one of Madhu Laal — and both marked with a single emblem reading, "Sakhi Sarkar Madhu Laal Hussain."
Baffled at the sight, I had to halt and contemplate over this rather odd finding, reminiscing about Shah Hussain’s own words on the trials of love and separation:
Man atkeya beparwah de nal
Us deen duni de shah de nal
My soul is entangled with the indifferent one
Lord of all things visible and invisible
For many, these words denote one’s infatuation with God, but on a second thought, I think about how these verses might have been a double entendre, encapsulating the love of two human beings, Madhu Laal and Shah Hussain.
The two conflicting personalities, both socially and economically, later combined into one singular being, defying all social statures and norms — Madhu Laal Hussain.
In another instance, I hear some familiar verses being sung from a distance:
Maye ni main kinnu aakhan
Dard vichoray da haal ni
Dukhan di roti, soolan da saalan
Aahein da baalan baal ni
Jungle belay phirann dhoondandi
Ajjey na payonn laal ni
Oh my Mother, whom shall I tell my torments of separation?
Bread of despair, with a curry of thorns
Kindles a fire of cries in me
I have wandered forests and deserts
But not found that ruby stone (the Beloved)
Lamenting his mother's early demise and the separation in meticulously chosen words is not a task undertaken by some ordinary man.
These are the heart-wrenching texts of Shah Hussain, who neither belonged to a direct lineage of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) nor a wealthy merchant household, but to a low caste Muslim weaver family.
He was endowed with two highly proclaimed names in Islam, Shah and Hussain — Shah referring to a ruler, and Hussain, to the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, but these "given" names had little significance for the poet himself. He preferred to be called a fakir — shunning all worldly possessions.
Kahe Hussain faqeer numanha, theewan khaak daware di
Says Hussain the worthless fakir, I am the dust on your doorstep
After spending years learning the teachings of the Holy Quran and what his sheikh would refer to as the "true path" towards salvation, Shah Hussain was quick to realise that mere rituals do not reveal the true essence of God.
Attaining a state of ecstasy was a lifelong pursuit of the Divine truth and could not be salvaged through a mullah’s orthodoxy. In his own words, he once said:
Qazi mullah matti dainde, kharay siyyane rah dasende, ishq kee lagay rah de nal
Judges and clerics are full of advice, the righteous and wise show you the path, but love itself needs no guidance
Shah Hussain’s life took a turn when he came across a Brahmin Hindu boy, Madhu Laal, riding a horse from Shahdara, across the river Ravi. Shah Hussain followed the boy back to his town, overwhelmed by the feeling of love and enchantment. The locals started to refer them both as one entity.
The bond between the two went so deep that Shah Hussain put his name after his beloved's, becoming Madhu Laal Hussain. Beyond the personal bonding of the two, Shah Hussain's union with Madhu was a metaphor for the people's unity in South Asia — negating all religious and social institutions through their mode of life.
Shah Hussain spent the second half of his life under Akbar’s rule, during which, the Mughal capital was moved to Lahore (1584-1599). According to historical accounts, Prince Saleem, who later ruled under the name of Jahangir, ordered one of his officials to write a diary of whatever Shah Hussain did or said every day.
Some argue this was done due to reverence while others claim that it was to keep an eye on him because of Hussain’s large following and outright denial of religious orthodoxy.
Today, the death anniversary (urs) of Hazrat Madhu Laal Hussain is celebrated with full fervour at his shrine, adjacent to the Shalimar Gardens.
The urs and the mela (festival) were two separate events, one carried out at the shrine and the other in the Shalimar Gardens, until they were both combined into one, Mela Chiraghan (Festival of Lamps), by Ranjit Singh.
The spring mela, revered by the Hindus, and the urs, celebrated by the Muslims, signified union and harmony among the two faiths when combined into one celebration — remembering the bond of Shah Hussain and Madhu Laal.
The shrine is marked by a massive "fire well" which is lit throughout the urs by the devotees using wax, oil, wood and cotton. Visitors mark their presence by adding to the already lit fire or by igniting cotton lamps decorated all over the shrine complex.
The massive fire from the well keeps most of the devotees at a distance except for the few devout dervishes that perform dhamaal next to it. The dervishes refer to the fire of devotion ignited in their hearts by the sufi saint that shields their inner self from the exterior distractions, the literal fire.
The festival, much like the fire, has been a continuous affair for centuries. During Ranjit Singh’s rule in 18th century, the emperor would lead a procession from his palace to the shrine barefoot, accompanied by thousands of Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus.
Held on March 24 this year, Mela Chiraghan is still regarded as the biggest festival of Punjab, both east and west, and has been a symbol of love, devotion, harmony and defiance of social customs.
Even though the Mela holds immense significance for Lahoris, the teachings of Madhu Laal Hussain continue to spread throughout South Asia, especially over the last four decades through the saint’s kafi form of Punjabi poetry, featuring four to five stanzas.
These kafis have been popularised by a diverse set of musicians, including Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Abida Parveen, Hamid Ali Bela, Noor Jehan and Junoon.
Recalling the story of these two lovers at their shrine, I start to realise the immense significance of this revered sufi. His poetry on love and devotion speaks to millions, but what about the relationship between Shah Hussain and Madhu Laal?
Since Partition, the religious plurality of the two has become a far-fetched idea in Pakistan today, something deemed too elusive at a time when Islam in Pakistan is not only at crossroads within itself, but in conflict with monotheism in South Asia as well.
Apart from learning devotion and losing of "self" to attain a path towards God, Madhu Laal Hussain, shows us that, perhaps, Muslims and Hindus can live — and thrive — in complete harmony, as they have for many centuries.