Piro Preman, the Punjabi Sufi poet who pushed the boundaries of sexuality with her verses


The shrine of Piro Preman and Ghulab Das before it fell.

Sold to a brothel, she joined the Ghulab Dasi sect, rejected the tenets of religion and society, and lived by her own rules.

There are conflicting accounts of her life. Some suggest she lost her mother at a young age and accompanied her fakir father to various shrines. The seed of spirituality must have been sown in her as a child on these pilgrimages. But perhaps her experience at these shrines was not all pleasant. It was during one of these pilgrimages that she was handed over to a Muslim man from Lahore, who upon returning to the city with his new bride sold her to a brothel in Hira Mandi. She eventually joined a sect and became critical of pilgrimages.

Born a Muslim, Piro Preman is believed to have repudiated her religion after she became a member of the Ghulab Dasi sect. We cannot say for sure if this was an actual act of apostasy and conversion, or rather an accusation hurled by religious puritans offended by her provocative poetry, her devotion to Ghulab Das, the enigmatic head of the sect, and her unrestrained sexuality. Either way, she refused to correct them and embraced the accusations much like Bulleh Shah, an iconic Punjabi poet who lived a few decades before her but whose poetry she must have heard in the Sufi shrines of Punjab. “They call you kafir, you say yes indeed,” Bulleh Shah said.

In many ways, Piro Preman can be seen as part of the same Sufi poetic tradition that connects Baba Farid with Guru Nanak, Shah Hussain with Bulleh Shah. These similarities have been identified by Anshu Malhotra, author of the book Piro and the Gulabdasis. While Bulleh Shah said, “Calling out to Ranjha I became him”, Piro Preman wrote, “Piro herself is piya, not separate from him”.

Divine will

But she was also unique, distinct, the founder of her own tradition. Baba Farid laid the foundations of Punjabi Sufi poetry in the 12th century, but it took Punjab more than six centuries to churn out its first female Sufi poet in the form of Piro Preman. Classical Punjabi Sufi poetry already challenged several conventions of sexuality: far from being seen as taboo, sexual union was celebrated in these verses as a symbol of the union of the devotee with the divine. The devotee, expressing his emotions in poetry, traditionally began referring to himself as female, Heer, while the divine was represented as a male, Ranjha. There were also references to homoeroticism, representing the bond a devotee shared with his murshad, as can be seen in Bulleh Shah’s reference to Shah Inayat. But it took a person of the stature of Piro Preman to break through the final ceiling.

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