The winding lanes of the town of Merta, nestled in the western half of the desert state of Rajasthan, still teem with memories of the mystical poetess Meera Bai, even though five centuries have passed since she lived. The town of Merta, 200 km from Jaipur, is the birthplace of Meera Bai, a 16th century mystical poet and devotee of Lord Krishna.
“Paayoji maine Ram Ratan dhan paayo (I have been given wealth from the blessing of the name of the Lord”, a famous Meera bhajan echoes inside a giant bookstore as one strolls past small tea trees, stalls and vendors selling flowers in the alley leading to the Meera Bai temple. During the 500-meter walk, we meet happy strangers eager to tell legends associated with the mystical. Most stores nearby have miniature wooden figures and artwork of Meera Bai in her famous prayer position – holding an ektara (a one-stringed musical instrument), with a dazed look on her face in the dark. devotion to Lord Krishna, whom she affectionately called Giridhar.
At the end of the lane is a giant Meera temple also known as Charbhuja temple and next to the temple – is a gate built in red sandstone leading to Meera Bai Smarak or Meera Bai Memorial built of which it has portraits life-size, poetry and paintings illustrating his life.
Inside the temple is the main idol of Meera Bai holding the Ektaara and Lord Krishna is seen playing the flute behind it. In the corner of the temple decorated with mirrors, a group of local women recite a Meera bhajan, “mohan aao in sari, madhav ra mandir mein, meera bai ekli khadi, girdhar aao in sari”.
“In this temple, instead of the traditional hymns, we recite the songs of love and longing of Krishna of Meera. We come here every day, sit and recite his songs. Even at home doing chores, I keep humming these songs, as do my daughter and granddaughter,” Durga Bai Rathore, a resident of Merta town who regularly visits the temple, told Outlook.
“It is a temple of love that reminds us of the life and sacrifice of Meera Bai, poet, singer, dancer and devotee of Lord Krishna. Her life is a struggle against a patriarchal society that opposed her love and to her devotion to Krishna. She was also a poet and a rebel. Her story empowers us,” Durga added.
Meera’s songs are not only popular in Merta, her hometown, but all over the country. His songs have been recorded by Indian classical singers and several popular Bollywood singers and musicians. They are sung everywhere: in temples, music festivals and in movies. She is one of the prominent voices of the Bhakti movement: a religious reform movement, her life has been transformed into feature films, dance, dramas and plays.
Rajasthan-based author Madhav Hada, who has written books on Meera’s life and poetry, believes that even after five centuries, Meera’s story and her compositions are revered and not outdated. “Meera’s story influenced many of her followers, as did her songs. Many devotional songs composed today are inspired by original lyrics and songs written by Meera,” said Hada, a former Hindi professor at Mohanlal Sukhadia University in Udaipur.
In her book, Hada establishes her as a self-reliant princess and balanced human being, as opposed to just a saint immersed in devotion. “Meera is a rebel, a devotee and a poetess. She led an eventful life. meera believed ‘Soney Kaat na lagey’. (Gold never rusts)”, Hada, the author of the book Meera Vs Meera, told Outlook.
Calling his poetry as an equalizer for communities. Hada, who also compiled anthologies of Meera Bai’s poetry titled Meera Rachana Sanchayan in 2017, added, “Meera was a Rajput princess but her songs are also popular in marginalized communities, especially among the Meghwal community.”
Talking about Meera’s early life, noted historian of Rajasthan, Rima Hooja says that she was born into the royal family of Marwar, Rajasthan and when she was five years old her mother died and she was raised by her grandfather. In her teens, she married against her will to Bhoj Raj, a prince of Mewar, a royal Rajput. But she found married life oppressive and instead wanted to dedicate her life to Lord Krishna, whom she believed to be her true husband. She composed songs in his praise and sang them in temples dancing in ecstasy and rapture. In her compositions, she used metaphors such as Girdhar, Dark-skinned, Hari and Govinda when referring to Krishna. Krishna is approached by devotees in different guises, but Meera refers to him romantically as a worshiper – her beloved – whom she may scold but she belongs to him. She writes ‘ mujhe darshan nahi de rahe ho, by mei aapki hoon’ (You do not reveal me, but I belong to you”, explains Rima Hooja, author of the book A history of Rajasthan.
According to John Stratton Hawley, professor of religion at Barnard College, Columbia University, the nature of Meera’s poetry is one of complete surrender as it speaks of a personal relationship with Krishna as lover and God.
“After making me fall in love with you so hard, where are you going?
Until the day I see you, there is no rest: my life, like a fish stranded on the shore, struggles in agony.
For you, I will make myself a yogini, I will throw myself to death on Kashi’s saw.
Mira’s Lord is the smart Mountain Lifter, and I am his, a slave to his lotus feet”, – A composition by Mira translated by John Stratton Hawley
In India, contemporary women mystics of Meera who wrote poems of love and devotion are Akka Mahadevi, the saint from Karnataka who lived in the 12th century, Lal Ded (Lalla Yogeswari) from Kashmir who lived in the 14th century, Karaikkal Ammaiyar, the Tamil saint who lived in the 5th century and Andal, the Tamil saint, who lived in the 7th century.
As Meera’s love songs for Krishna blossomed in the desert, before her birth in the 14th century, in the valley of Kashmir, a mystical Lalla Ded – Lalleshwari or Lalla Yogini for Hindus and Lalla Arifa for Muslims – was born at Pandrethan, 10 kilometers from Srinagar.
Even after seven centuries, Lalla Ded is arguably Kashmir’s best-known spiritual and literary figure who is instrumental in the body of vernacular mysticism in the region, and a harmonizing influence and crucial link between traditional mysticism, Shaivism and Sufism. Lalla a Kashmiri Shaivite mystic was a devotee of Lord Shiva, her poems known as vakhs are among the earliest known manifestations of Kashmiri literature. There are a total of 258 Vakh “sentences” written in Kashmir attributed to Lalla.
Author Ranjit Hoskote in his book I Lalla (the translation of Lal Ded’s poem) writes that Lalla’s poems sparkle with their author’s experience as a yogini trained in the devotional practices of Kashmiri Saivite mysticism. Hoskote writes, “Lall’s poetry is fortified by a palpable first-hand experience of enlightenment. In some poems, she transmits the teachings that are the fruit of her experience. She stages the theater of her devotion in different registers. , she laments and may be irritable with the divine and yet throw herself at his mercy and sing with shameless passion”. Citing as an example one of his vakhs, – translated into English by Hoskote,
“Wrapped in yourself, you hid yourself from me,
All day I’ve been looking for you
And when I found you hiding inside me,
I went wild, playing now me, now you”
An author of the book ‘The Mystic and the Lyric’ Neerja Mattoo believes that Lalla Ded’s poetry continues to be relevant because she had a Catholic vision and love for human beings and a desire to uplift them. “We talk about her vakhs in the present day, even though we now have a different race of people. Lalla Ded continues to be tolerant, accommodating and yet she is a bold voice speaking on behalf of marginalized communities and celebrating the work of artisans, potters in its composition. It gave voice to a woman and her words still carry,” Neerja Mattoo, an English teacher at Government College for Women in Srinagar, told Outlook.
“Another contribution of Lal Ded is to make the philosophy of Shaivism open to all by bringing it out of the closets of Brahmanism. When she talks about the yogi practice of breath control, she mentions how the supreme lord lives that she will not let go. The metaphors she uses denote her resilience, abandonment, longing and aspiration. As poets and scholars from all countries continue to translate and write about Lalla Ded in Kashmir, her city native, her poems are sacred and synonymous with resilience,” Mattoo added.