ucanews.com reporters, DhakaUpdated: October 31, 2016 11:19 AM GMT
A female Baul performs a song on stage during during the Lalon festival at Chheuria in Kushtia district on Oct.17-19. (Photo by ucanews.com)
For two-thirds of his life, Ismail Shah was a family man. He and his wife raised four sons and a daughter, relying on agriculture to support their family.
Born to a Muslim family in a village in Mirpur, Kushtia district in western Bangladesh, Shah, now 66, married off his sons and daughter and, like most Bangladeshi villagers, looked forward to retirement.
But everything changed 22 years ago when he answered a spiritual calling.
Shah renounced all worldly possessions and left his home with his wife, Shahela, to become a Baul — a mystic singer who follows the philosophy of Lalon Shah, a popular 19th century Bengali musician, philosopher and social reformer.
He and Shahela started wandering from village to village, singing Lalon's moving songs of humanism and tolerance playing an ektara, a one-stringed musical instrument.
"Lalon's songs inspired me to become a Baul, as they preach humanism and promote peace and harmony," Shah told ucanews.com.
"I found a spiritual solace in his songs and ideology that I couldn't find in Islam. So, my wife and I have dedicated our lives to preaching Lalon's songs and ideology," said Shah, who is now the leader of 10-member Baul group.
Ismail Shah, 66, has been a Baul over 22 years, living an ascetic life, wandering through villages and towns on foot, singing and begging alms. (Photo by ucanews.com)
Shah's life as a Baul is one full of adversity but he said that it helps him to "purify my body and soul."
"We move from one place to another and live on alms and donations. We have adversities but we face them with a smile," he said.
Shah and his group attended the three-day annual Lalon festival Oct. 17-19, commemorating the 126th death anniversary of Lalon at Chheuria in Kushtia, where the legendary musician set up an ashram for his followers.
The largest gathering of its kind, the celebrations attracted some 5,000 Bauls and visitors this year.
Sufia Pagli, 70, is so attached to Lalon's ideology that she introduces herself as "Lalon's mother."
"After 18 years of family life, I left home to find the true meaning of life. I worked as an Islamic preacher but I slowly developed a strong interest in Lalon. Now, I am devout follower of Lalon and I have found truth in his way of life and teachings," Pagli told ucanews.com.
"If we can become humanists, we can serve humanity best. To do this, we don't need to belong to any particular religion or caste. Lalon's philosophy is the best philosophy and we are called to spread it around the world," she added.
Centuries-old tradition still going strong
Baul philosophy is considered both a religious sect and tradition — a fusion of Sufi Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Islamic hardliners regard them as heretics.
Lalon never had a formal education but composed hundreds of songs about religious tolerance that inspired contemporary poets and thinkers.
Most Bauls are ascetics. They travel on foot from town to town singing and begging alms, staying at ashrams, and have no fixed address. Some choose to remain in their homes but live a quiet, secluded life of music and worship.
Bauls are easily identified by their long hair, ektara and distinctive white, red and orange robes. Anyone can join if they adhere to their belief system.
In 2005, the Baul tradition was included in the list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
Bauls are growing in popularity as people are attracted to their teachings on humanism, inclusion and rejection of consumerism, said Abdel Mannan, a Baul researcher and founder of the Lalon Bishwa Sangha, an organization promoting the music and philosophy of Lalon.
"The world is full of evils today, people are overburdened with problems and they want to find peace. Lalon has taught us how to gain spiritual atonement and peace. This is why more and more people are interested in Bauls and eager to learn life lessons from them," Mannan told ucanews.com.
"People realize today that organized religions can't help us reach the Creator as they were promoted by imperialists. They also no longer believe the misconception that Lalon was an atheist," he added.
A Christian Baul
Subash Rozario, 36, was born to a Catholic family northern Natore district and has been involved with the Baul tradition since 2004.
"The idea of discovering God through one's self attracted me to Lalon and Baul philosophy," Rozario told ucanews.com.
He originally wanted to enter the Society of Jesus congregation, but a Jesuit priest who specialized in folklore inspired him: "Your mind is like the Bauls, so I think it will great if you become a mystic."
"People used to consider Bauls as addicts and hippies. But this mindset has changed and people have discovered the great ideas of Lalon's philosophy," the mystic singer said.
Rozario's decision met with mixed reactions from his community.
"People, even priests and religious leaders, used to say Lalon was born a Hindu and raised by a Muslim preacher; so his philosophy has nothing to do with Christianity. But others found that you could mingle the Christian experience with his ideology," he said.
"Today, I feel proud that I don't follow religion in the traditional, organized way because I believe it can't help people find true happiness and peace. Christianity has confined God within boundaries, but He is limitless. I don't think God would be displeased if someone like me leads a good life following Lalon's ideology," he said.
A Baul performs a song during the 17-19 Oct. Lalon festival at Chheuria in Kushtia district. (Photo by Stephan Uttom)
'Persecution can't stop us'
Although Bauls are pacifists, who preach humanity and religious tolerance, Islamic radicals have attacked them.
In 2014, fundamentalists attacked a group of the wandering mystics, shaving their long hair and beards and forcing them to recite Islamic prayers.
A professor of sociology who taught Baul philosophy was hacked to death, allegedly by Islamic militants the same year.
In 2015, a group of Islamic hardliners burned down the new Lalon International Yoga Center in northeastern Sherpur district.
This year, another group of hardliners stormed into a Baul akhra ("residing place") and beat three sleeping singers in southwestern Jhenaidah district.
The latest attack came during a surge in Islamic militancy in the country, which included a chain of murders targeting atheist bloggers, liberal activists, foreigners and religious minorities.
Reza Pagol, 60, the leader of the Baul group that suffered the latest attack, said he has faced persecution many times.
"I have been an ardent Lalon follower since school. I left my wife, son and daughter to preach Lalon's teachings to people. I was put into jail five times and many times radicals beat me with iron chains, but I didn't give up," Reza told ucanews.com, while attending the Lalon festival.
"Lalon has taught us non-violence, humanity and tolerance. We might face persecution from misinformed people, but it can't stop us. Rather, we try to change their mind through our message of humanism and love for all," he added.
Watch this ucanew.com video of Baul devotees performing at a recent festival in Bangladesh.