d. 1872


Below I present a translation from Punjabi[2] of eighteen stanzas of an autobiographical narrative in verse of Piro (d.1872) which she wrote (or dictated to an amanuensis) most likely in the second quarter of the nineteenth century in Punjab.[3] Large swathes of Punjab at this time were under the rule of Ranjit Singh (d.1839) with his capital in Lahore, though the British were already present in the south-eastern parts of Punjab. After two Anglo-Sikh wars, the British took over the whole of Punjab in 1849, and Piro lived the latter part of her life when the British held sway.

We have little information on Piro other than what she tells us in this surprising autobiographical narrative – though some contemporaries and later compilers of histories of her sect and related sects do mention her and provide small details on her life.[4] Before I explain the context of this text’s composition and what she wished to relate here, a few words are in order on the literary form of “kafi” to which she apparently subscribed. Kafi (pl. Kafian) refers to rhyming verse that used simple meters and was the literary form most associated with Sufi poets of Punjab. Non-narrative in structure, every new verse, much like ghazals, could be unrelated to the previous one. Of course a broader theme, mostly an aspect of the Sufi mystic’s relationship with God, was carried through. These songs often had a refrain (rahao), showing the musicality of the genre – songs meant to be sung – but also underlining a close association with orality, though the oeuvre of significant Sufis came to be eventually written and compiled.

Piro was a clever innovator of this literary form, playing with the possibility offered by verse that required simple rhymes. Not only did she narrate a story in her Kafis, but she also did away with rahao (not required in her particular usage). In her own complex and layered telling of her story Piro speaks of her joining the (Sikh) sect of the Gulabdasis under the guru Gulab Das, seen as virtually a “defection” from Islam by her people, prompting the charge of her becoming a kafir or an unbeliever. The Gulabdasis can be described as “Sufistic” on many counts, including their association with the followers of the popular eighteenth century Sufi of Punjab Bulleh Shah.[5] However, they also had close links with certain Sikh sects, and imbibed some of the prevailing religious and emotional ways of perceiving and relating to Reality. The Gulabdasis were close to the ascetic and literary sects like the Udasis and Nirmalas among the Sikhs, they adhered to advaita non-dualism philosophically, and were emotionally soaked in the bhakti devotional ethos. The Gulabdasis were thus representative of, and partook in, the multiple cultural cross-currents that made Punjab home to the three religious traditions of Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism, each with their own pluralities. It is in this wider cultural sense that we can underscore the broad inheritance of the Gulabdasis, which makes Piro’s choice of calling her poetic innovation “kafis” particularly apposite. Piro’s guru – satguru (true guru), sahab, malak, murshid (master) – among the many names that she addressed him with, was in this sense a faqir, and Piro could call herself a dervesan (a female dervish) or a jogan (a female jogi – all in a broad sense referring to religious mendicants).[6] Piro and her guru also wrote “siharfis” another literary form of simple rhymes, where every consecutive verse followed the sequence of the Perso-Arabic alphabet. Only in their case they followed this alphabet, but wrote poetry in Punjabi in the Gurmukhi script. Of course Punjabi Sufis’ songs are also in Punjabi, a language that could be and was written in the three scripts – Nastaliq, Gurmukhi and Devanagari.

Piro’s penning of her narrative Ik Sau Sath Kafian I call “surprising” on especially two counts. Though not absent, self-referential narratives were not common in South Asia, particularly in pre-modern times, and though Piro lived at the onset of modernity in north India, her own cosmos remained steeped in her devotional cultural ethos. While we do at times come across men’s autobiographical signature in their diaries and memoirs,[7] it was rarer to find women’s, and more so of a woman from an ordinary background like Piro, before the modern period.[8] Women’s stories were more likely to be available in coded narratives, for instance folk tales, as scholars have pointed out. [9] Also while Piro’s Gulabdasi sect was literary, no other member of the sect wrote any autobiographic verse or prose. Piro’s text is surprising on another count – as noted above – her sect was legatee to an eclectic religious and cultural world, to which Piro too adhered. Yet Piro came to speak of that legacy only after a bitter circumlocution through religious dissension and conflict. The verses translated below refer to Muslim-Hindu (the latter inclusive of Sikhs) contentious relations and her own confrontation with her co-religionists and Islamic authorities after she became a follower of Gulab Das.

Piro introduces herself as a low caste prostitute (sudar vesva) [K. 9][10] and as a low caste woman (sudar nari) [K.11] early in her narrative. The statement of Piro being a prostitute/dancing girl comes to us from other sources as well.[11] What this does is add another layer of complexity to the verbal exchange translated here, albeit as imagined by Piro. Specifically in these verses Piro refers to her clan (kutumb) claiming her back from the guru, as their “daughter/sister”. In the high caste Hindu society a daughter is “gifted” in marriage, for which her natal family accrues merit. Here the guru (a putative father) is asked to “gift” the daughter to the clan to which she belongs, her rightful owners. A daughter in a clan such as hers must be seen to be a source of income and advancement. The accusation of her having “taken off” her fine clothes and jewels [below K. 15] is a reference to both her attempt to shrug-off her professional accoutrements in order to reject her profession, and to plausibly adopt simpler, plainer garments of an ascetic.

However, the larger charge her clan makes against her is of Piro becoming an unbeliever, a kafir, hinting at her possible “conversion” from Islam to a novitiate of her Gulabdasi/Hindu/Sikh sect. The reference to eating pig (unlawful for Muslims) [below K. 26], or the insistence of the upholders of faith (mullahs, mulanas) or of the keeper of Islamic jurisprudence (qazi) that she read the kalma (creedal formula of Islam) in order to purify (pak) herself point to that [K. 26]. It is in this dispute that Piro reveals her mettle – she presents herself as a woman with a voice and an opinion of her own – and as one not hesitant to show it, indeed she flaunts it. It is in this sense that the autobiographic moment becomes one in which the voiceless find a voice, the powerless a force of words and speech.[12] Not only does she defend her guru as the perfect Gnostic, a master of both Hindus and Muslims, but she also ridicules the externals of the Islamic creed – circumcision, a style of facial hair [below K. 17] – haranguing that these rites exclude women, who therefore cannot be Muslim. She then rejects both the Hindu faith and Islam, preferring the bhakti insistence on repeating the Name of God as the true path, moreover, one open to women.[13] Later in the text Piro lays out the scheme and scene of her abduction by her co-religionists, who in her telling take her against her will to the city of Wazirabad, north of Lahore. Her rescue and return to the guru, and her expounding on her sect’s theological beliefs follows.

In the translation below I have tried to closely follow Piro’s Kafis in content and meaning. What is lost in the process is its rhyming structure. Occasionally I have attempted to rhyme a couple of lines to give a feel of the original where this did not depart from the import of the kafi in any drastic manner, but on the whole I have concentrated on retaining the spirit and tone of Piro’s language. I have also in places added punctuation – a comma or a question mark and spaced words. The original hand-written manuscript has punctuation only at the end of a sentence and a kafi, and no word breaks.

[1] I have consulted ms. 888 available in the Bhai Gurdas Library, Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, India. The first eight kafis in this hand-written manuscript are missing. These missing kafis are now available in a transliterated – Gurmukhi to Devnagari – collection of Piro’s writing, along with exegesis, brought out by Sant Vijendra Das of a contemporary branch of the Gulabdasis in Hansi, Haryana, India. Sant Kavyitri Ma Piro, (Panchkula: Satluj Prakashan), 2011, pp.141- 200. One discrepancy this has resulted in is that my earlier assumption that the place of action in the initial part of Piro’s  kafis was Chathianwala, near Lahore, where her sect of the Gulabdasis had their establishment, is not entirely correct. Now it is clear that Piro first heard the Guru’s discourse in Lahore. However, the place of action in the early part of her text could still be Chathianwala, though it may well be Lahore, where certainly her confrontation with the mullahs (in the translated section) takes place.

[2] Piro wrote in Punjabi, one of the literary languages of North India at this time. Piro’s Punjabi can be said to be comprehensible to those familiar with languages in which bhakti literature of north India circulated.

[3] The conflict that Piro mentions in her text occurred sometime in the 1830s in my estimation. For a detailed discussion of this text see Anshu Malhotra, “Telling her Tale? Unravelling a Life in Conflict in Peero’s Ik Sau Sath Kafian (one hundred and sixty kafis),” The Indian Economic and Social History Review, Vol. XLVI, No.4, 2009, pp. 541-578.

[4] For details see Malhotra, Telling her Tale?

[5] See forthcoming Anshu  Malhotra “Panths and Piety in the Nineteenth Century: The Gulabdasis of Punjab,” in Anshu Malhotra and Farina Mir (eds.), Reconsidering Punjab: History, Culture and Practice (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2012.

[6] Piro refers to herself as a dervesan and jogan in kafi 11, of another set of her kafis/siharfi that I call “Kafian” in ms. 888 mentioned above.

[7] Babur-Nama and Tuzuk-i-Jahangiri are examples of two of the Mughal Emperors’ memoirs.

[8] Afshan Bokhari is writing on the autobiographical imprint of the Mughal princess Jahan Ara in her Sufi treatises and her building projects.

[9] Stuart Blackburn, “Life Histories as Narrative Strategy: Prophecy, Song, and Truth-Telling in Tamil Tales and Legends,” in David Arnold and Stuart Blackburn (eds), Telling Lives in India: Biography, Autobiography, and Life History (Delhi: Permanent Black, 2004), pp. 203-226.

[10] These refer to kafi or verse numbers in her text.

[11] For details see Malhotra, Telling her Tale?

[12] See the Introduction “Writing the Self” in Patricia Hart and Karen Weathermon with Susan H. Armitage, Women Writing Women: The Frontier Reader (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press), 2006, p. 3.

[13] On bhakti religion being inclusive and open to women and low castes see A.K. Ramanujan,

“On Women Saints, J.S. Hawley & D.M. Wulff, (eds.), The Divine Consort: Radha and the Goddesses of India (Berkeley: Graduate Theological Union), 1982, pp. 316-24.

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160 Kafis

Punjab (Original Language: Panjabi)

  KAFIS 14-31 Turaks[1] (I)[2] left have come wheedling, they who stay aggrieved[3] Scared they don’t come near (you), they roam about in discord Piro (says) in guru’s court power of none will matter What shall (I) say of others, even kings stutter Petrified they (Turaks) come and cry before the guru Wearing their scarves …