There have been many stories that have captured my imagination over the years. In the Punjab region of Pakistan and India, there are four major tragic love stories, Mirza Sahiba, Heer Ranjha, Sohni Mahiwal and Sassi Punnun. Of course, Laila Majnu is also another famous love story well renowned in the region but that is however, a Persian story.
The images that have been associated with these stories are some that have adorned the houses of many Punjabis across the world. The dark, moody and mysterious imagery of tragic and tormented lovers always gripped me and transported me into another place. The images below are a testimony to keeping ancient folk tales popular. Sobha Singh, drew inspiration from many of these stories and used it as the subject matter for many of his paintings, Sohni Mahiwal, being the most popular amongst Punjabi households.
Sohni is the daughter of a potter. She would draw designs on his pottery, and they would sell the works in their shop. Mahiwal, also called Mehar, comes to the shop on business, sees Sohni and is taken aback by her beauty. He wanders around their shop all the time, and buys pottery from them. Instead of leaving with the rest of his business group when it was time to go, he opts to become a servant in Sohni’s family’s house, despite the fact that he is noble-born. But when people find out that Sohni and Mahiwal love each other, they oppose it, because Sohni’s not supposed to marry someone outside the community. Sohni’s parents quickly get her married another man and Mahiwal despairs and lives in a hut. However, every night, Sohni floats across a river on a piece of pottery to see Mahiwal, and every night he catches her a fish to eat.
“It is said that once, when due to high tide he could not catch a fish, Mahiwal cut a piece of his thigh and roasted it. Sohni didn’t realise this first but then she said izzat that this fish tastes different and keep her hand on his thigh then she realised it was a piece of his thigh and cried.”
One night, Sohni’s sister-in-law sees her going across the river, and the next night she replaces the piece of pottery that Sohni uses with unbaked clay. And when Sohni gets on it to float across, she drowns. Mahiwal sees her drowning, jumps into the river, and drowns as well. Legend has it that their bodies were actually recovered from the Indus River, and that Sohni’s grave is in Hyderabad, Pakistan.
When Sassi is born, astrologers predict that she will bring about the demise of her royal family. So her family has her put in a box and sent down the Sindhu River. Eventually, a washerman finds her and adopts her as his own, seeing her as a gift from God. When she became older, a prince named Punnun hears of her beauty and wants to meet her. He hires Sassi’s adopted father to wash his clothes, and when he catches a glimpse of Sassi, the two of them fall in love. Sassi’s father, however, had wanted Sassi to marry a fellow washerman. When he finds out about Punnun’s desire to marry her, he sets him the task of washing some clothes as a test. Never having done something like this before, Punnun fails at the task and somehow manages to rip the clothes up. However, Punnun is able to win over Sassi’s dad by slipping some gold coins into the pockets of all of the clothing. Sassi and Punnun began happily planning their wedding.
Punnun’s brothers hear about this, and they’re upset that their brother plans on marrying a washerman’s daughter. They travel to where the two are and they try to threaten Punnun into calling off the marriage. Punnun doesn’t listen, and so his brothers act like they’ve given up. The next day, they take part in the pre-wedding festivities as though no animosity took place the night before. But at night, they get Punnun drunk, put him on a camel, and send him back to their own town. In the morning, Sassi hears what had happened and starts running through this desert to get to Punnun’s hometown. She runs and runs and calls his name, to the point where she starts getting thirsty. A shepherd coming out of his hut sees Sassi and offers her water. However, he then attempts to rape her. Sassi starts praying to God to save her, and apparently God listens, as the ground opens up and Sassi falls into the Valley of Mountains. Meanwhile, Punnun wakes up where he is and, like Sassi, starts running across the desert to get back to Sassi. He comes across the same shepherd, who tells him what happened. Punnun recites the same prayer as Sassi, and he too falls into the earth. Legend has it that the two of them are still buried in this valley.
Fun Fact: Not only is this story one of Punjab’s four tragic romances, but it’s also one of the seven most popular love stories in Sindhi culture as well. Sindh is one of the provinces of Pakistan.
Ranjha is his father’s favorite son, and he gets to play the flute all day while his brothers work. After getting into an argument with his brothers, Ranjha leaves and eventually winds up in Heer’s village. He works for Heer’s father, and him and Heer fall in love. He’s plays the flute extremely well, and Heer enjoyed to hear him play it. For a long time the two of them meet in secret, only for Heer’s uncle to find out and tell her parents, who then force her to marry another man named Saida Khera. Ranjha is devastated and joins the Jogis, which is a Hindu community, and renounces the material world. He wanders Punjab, and one day he finds Heer’s village. The two of them decide to get married, her parents approve, the wedding bells are ringing, but then Heer’s uncle poisons her with with a ladoo, Indian sweet. When Ranjha finds out he eats the same ladoo and dies.
Quote from the story: “First of all let us acknowledge God, who has made love the worth of the world, Sir, It was God Himself that first loved, and the prophet (Muhammad) is His beloved, Sir ”
Mirza and Sahiba fall in love upon seeing each other for the first time. However, Sahiba’s parents have plans for her to get her married to someone else. Sahiba sends an urgent message to Mirza telling him this, and Mirza goes off on his horse to go and save her from the marriage. His family had begged him not to go, because they knew that Sahiba’s brothers were violent. Also because it was on the day of his own sister’s wedding. Mirza gets to Sahiba and the two of them ride off into the sunset away from Sahiba’s almost-wedding. Sahiba’s brothers however, are following them. Instead of riding to safety though, Mirza and Sahiba decide to stop for a while and they take a nap. Sahiba wakes up before Mirza and sees her brothers coming. She knows that Mirza is an excellent archer, and so she breaks all of his arrows before he wakes up, because she doesn’t want him to kill her brothers. She thinks that she will be able to convince them that she and Mirza should be together. Her brothers arrive and kill Mirza and then Sahiba kills herself.
Quote from the story: “You must come and decorate Sahiba’s hand with the marriage henna.” This is the note the Sahiba sends to Mirza.
Fun Fact: For some reason, Mirza Sahiba is the only one of the four tragic romances that has the man’s name before the woman’s name in the title.
Majnu was actually a man named Qays. He falls in love with Laila and starts composing poems for her. He never gives a thought to how his poems are received by others, and so people begin to call him Majnu, meaning madman. It was this that caused Laila’s father to deny his marriage proposal to Laila, because he did not want her to be married to someone who was thought of as mentally unstable. He gets Laila married to someone else. After this, Majnu flees his tribe and wanders the desert. His family eventually gives up looking for him, but they still leave food out for him, should he need it. It is said that Laila moved far away, and Majnu kept wandering, writing poems in the sand with a stick. Laila eventually dies, whether due to illness or heartbreak, it is unknown. Majnu dies eventually too, and his body was found near an unknown woman’s grave, near a rock into which he carved his last three verses of poetry.
Fun Fact: Eric Clapton’s album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs was inspired by the story of Laila Majnu. One of the songs on the album, I Am Yours, is actually a quote taken directly from Laila Majnu.
My lover asks me:
“What is the difference between me and the sky?”
The difference, my love,
Is that when you laugh,
I forget about the sky.