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Editor's Note







Folk tales are among the richest cultural heritage of a people. Folk tales reflect and project a country's cultural traditions. The following folk tales have been told and retold with such consummate artistic skill that they have become almost synonymous with Pakistani culture.

Hir Ranjha (Punjab)

The story of Hir Ranjha is one of the most famous folk tales of the Punjab. The most popular version is the Punjabi verse classic by Waris Shah. In the story as narrated by Waris Shah, the elements of drama, tragedy, love and spiritualism have been interwoven with consummate skill.

Ranjha's family lived in Takht Hazara, an important town of Punjab. The family had eight sons, and Ranjha was the youngest. He was very handsome and undoubtedly his father's favourite. He was permitted to lead a life of ease, playing the flute while his older brothers looked after the land. When Ranjha's father died, things changed. His elder brothers' wives engineered quarrels with Ranjha, and many unforgivable words were uttered. His sister-in-law taunted him. She challenged him to go and find himself a wife such as Hir, a girl famed for her beauty.

The paternal property was divided among the eight brothers. The qazi, who was bribed, awarded the best possible land to the other brothers, while the barren and inhospitable land fell to Ranjha's share, who had never worked during the lifetime of his father, now had to work for his subsistence. Frustrated, tired and sad, he gave up everything and went wandering in the jungle, where he was sustained by the five pirs (holy men). He finally came to the bank of the River Chenab. He looked for a boat to continue his journey and finally, a ferry-man, enchanted by Ranjha's flute playing, agreed to take him across the river. Once aboard, Ranjha found that there was a bed on the boat. Feeling exhausted, he asked if he could lie down. The boatman said that the bed belonged to Hir, and that although she allowed him to ferry people across the river, she would not tolerate people using her bed. Eventually, though, he gave his permission. Ranjha stretched out on the soft, cool bed and went to sleep.

When Hir came and boarded the boat, she was enraged to find a stranger lying in her bed. She roundly berated Ranjha, who opened his eyes. On seeing her heavenly beauty, he replied only, "Oh, Beloved." Hir was soon enchanted by the flute player. Her anger vanished. It was love at first sight. Hir wanted Ranjha to stay near her, and so she arranged for him to work as a herdsman, caring for her father's buffaloes. Every afternoon, Ranjha would take the buffaloes down beside the river to wallow and graze. Hir would slip away and bring him good food. They would talk of love, and he would play his flute.

Hir had an uncle named Kaido, a twisted, evil man. A cripple, he was nasty to Hir. He spied on the lovers and carried tales to Hir's parents. As a punishment, Hir was shut up in the house. Her parents decided to marry her off to Saeda, a man she had been betrothed to as a child. Hir did not consent, but despite her refusal the marriage took place. She was forcibly sent away with her husband. Ranjha was so distraught that he went to jogi Tilla and decided to become a jogi.

Meanwhile, the five pirs pledged to reunite the lovers, and Saeda's sister, Sehti, decided to help the couple. When Hir pretended that she had been bitten by a snake, Sehti announced that she knew of a young jogi who could cure snakebite, and she brought Ranjha. Then the three of them laid their plans.

One night Sehti and Hir crept out of the house. Sehti ran away with her own lover. Hir and Ranjha also fled, but were soon caught. Hir's marriage to Saeda was declared invalid, for she had not freely consented to it. It was agreed that she could marry Ranjha, who was told to go and prepare his wedding procession. But meanwhile, Hir's wicked uncle Kaido poisoned Hir. She fell dead. A message was sent to Ranjha, who hurried to find out what had happened. He was taken to Hir's tomb. Unable to bear his grief, he fell dead upon her grave.

Mirza Sahiban (Punjab)

The story of Mirza Sahiban is one of the best known folk tales of the Punjab. Mirza was the son of Vanjal, a Kharal chief of Danabad, on the banks of the Ravi. Sahiban was the daughter of the chief of Khiwa, a small town in Jhang district on the road from Chiniot. Mirza's mother was a sister of the chief of Khiwa. Mirza and Sahiban were thus cousins.

When young Mirza was sent to Khiwa to be educated, he found himself studying in the same school as Sahiban. As children, they studied and played together. As they grew up, their fond attachment blossomed into love. The awakening of love brought about a crisis in the lives of Mirza and Sahiban. Sahiban stopped coming to the school, and Mirza returned to Danabad. They promised to remain faithful to each other and to wait for the day they could be married.

The forced separation of Mirza and Sahiban failed to cool their love. As the years passed, Sahiban grew into a beautiful young woman, and Mirza became a handsome young man. In the words of Pilu, a Punjabi poet, Sahiban was so beautiful that when she went to the market to buy oil, the shopkeeper was so confused by her beauty that he could not hold the weights or adjust the scales, and instead of oil, he gave her honey. Wherever she went she attracted attention for her flaming beauty.

Mirza pined for Sahiban, so his mother went to Khiwa to ask the chief for the hand of Sahiban for her son. The chief's sister supported Mirza's proposal, but the chief bore a grudge against the Kharals. He refused. The crisis deepened when Sahiban was betrothed to Tahir Khan, a young man of the Chandar tribe.

Sahiban fumed and fretted at her forced betrothal. Restrictions were placed on her movements, and she was told to banish all thought of Mirza from her mind. Her father hastened to set the date of her wedding. Distraught, Sahiban wrote a letter to Mirza and commissioned a young man, Karmu, to carry the letter to Danabad. In the letter, Sahiban told Mirza that her wedding was imminent and implored him to come to Khiwa and take her away in time.

When Mirza received the letter, he told his parents he was going to Khiwa to fetch Sahiban. Mirza's sister, who was to be married on the following day, insisted that Mirza stay back until after the wedding, but Mirza was afraid of losing Sahiban. After getting his father's blessing, he left to keep the promise he had made.

Spurring his horse onward, Mirza rode in haste to Khiwa. No one noticed when he arrived after sunset. He went to the house of his aunt, Bibo, and took her into confidence. Bibo brought Sahiban to her house, where the lovers were reunited and made plans for their escape. That night the henna ceremony was performed. Sahiban's hands were dyed with henna, and the wedding was to take place the following day. Sahiban did not resist, having already made her secret plans. In the dead of night, Sahiban sneaked out of the house to meet her lover.

There was no time to be lost. Mirza mounted his horse and seated Sahiban in front of him. Soon they were galloping toward Danabad. After a couple of hours, they grew tired and decided to stop for a while. Mirza rested under an acacia tree and soon went to sleep, but Sahiban's fear was too great to allow her to rest. She awakened Mirza, warning him that if her brothers caught up with them, they would kill them both. Mirza boasted that his quiver was full of arrows and bragged that as long as he could shoot, anyone who came near him would court death. Then he promptly went back to sleep.

Sahiban wondered what to do. Fearing they would be killed with Mirza's own arrows, she took the quiver and hung it high in the acacia trees. Then she lied down next to Mirza and fell asleep. She was rudely awakened by the sound of galloping horses. Seeing her brother, she roused Mirza. He saw that their pursuers were within striking distance. He reached for his quiver, but it was hung high in the tree. Turning to Sahiban, Mirza said angrily, "You have played foul with me." Sahiban retorted, "Fate has played foul with you. It overwhelmed you in the form of sleep, and thus precious time was lost."

A rain of arrows fell from other side, and Mirza was struck dead. Sahiban fell upon his body, heaping curses upon his murderers. In a fit of fury, her brother caught Sahiban by the throat and strangled her.

By the evening, news of the tragedy had reached Danabad. The Kharals were now on the warpath. They killed Sahiban's father and brothers, then returned to Danabad carrying the bodies of Mirza and Sahiban, who had honoured their pledge to remain together.

Sassi and Punnu (Sindh)

Near Gharo, 37 miles north of Karachi, are the ruins of the ancient city of Bhambore, the tenth century capital of a chief known as Bhambo Raja. The ancient city came to a sudden end following a violent earthquake around 1250 AD, but it still lives in the world of romance. Bhambore is associated with the story of Sassi and Punnu, immortalized in beautiful Sindhi verse by Shah Latif, the poet-saint of Sindh.

It is related that a beautiful girl was born to a Brahmin family of Bhambore. When her horoscope was prepared, it was predicted that she would come to grief because of her love for a stranger of a different faith. This was too ominous a possibility for the conservative Brahmins. Her parents decided to get rid of the girl. She was put into a wooden box and cast into the river.

The wooden box was picked by a Muslim washer-man, Muhammad. Although he had been married for many years, he had never been blessed with a child. When he opened the box and found a beautiful baby girl, he felt that God had finally heard his prayers and sent him this mysterious gift. Overwhelmed with happiness, Muhammad and his wife named the child Sassi, which means "moon-faced."At the age of fifteen, Sassi was known far and wide as the Moon of Bhambore. She was a model of Sindhi beauty.

Across the desert, hundreds of miles away, was the principality of Kech Mekran. The chief had four sons, of whom Punnu was the most handsome. He was a typical Baloch, tall and well built. When Punnu heard about Sassi, the most beautiful girl of Sindh, he decided to go and meet her. He joined a caravan to Bhambore. When he arrived, he set himself up at an inn as a dealer in musk. The fame of his musk soon spread throughout the city of Bhambore, and many women came to him to buy some. One day Sassi and a companion, Rakhi, came to the inn to buy Punnu's wares. It was love at first sight. Then and there, Sassi and Punnu resolved to live and die for each other.

Sassi's father was dismayed to learn that his daughter wanted to marry a stranger, but Sassi was adamant. Muhammad agreed on one condition: that Punnu should become a washer-man. Punnu was willing to do anything for the sake of love. Although he knew nothing about being a washer-man, he agreed to learn. He sold all his musk and became a washer-man, helped by Sassi and her friend. He adopted their style of living and started wearing Sindhi dress. When Punnu had mastered the washer-man's craft, he was declared a distant nephew of Muhammad and given permission to marry Sassi.

On an auspicious day, Sassi and Punnu were married. Punnu proved to be an ideal husband. Meanwhile, the caravan which returned to Kech Mekran from Bhambore carried tales of the intense love shared by Sassi and Punnu. When the chief of Kech Mekran learned that his son had abandoned the Baloch way of life and was married to a Sindhi girl, he immediately ordered his other sons to go to Bhambore and bring Punnu back.

When Punnu's brothers arrived in Bambhore, they went to his house to congratulate him on his marriage, bringing gifts for both Sassi and Punnu. Then they told Punnu that they had come to take him back. Punnu refused to leave without Sassi, so his brothers decided to trick him into going with them. When Punnu hosted a feast to celebrate his reunion with his brothers, his brothers arranged for his drink to be drugged. Punnu fell unconscious, and when Sassi went to sleep, Punnu's brothers picked him up, carried him off and sped towards Kech Mekran.

When Sassi awoke at daybreak, she was shocked to find that Punnu's bed was empty. All the guests were gone. Sassi soon realized that her Punnu had been snatched away from her by a trick. In tears, she rushed to the edge of the city, where she discovered the footprints left by the camels on the sand path leading to Kech Mekran. Instinctively, she began walking, although Kech Mekran was a long way from Bhambore.

Alone, she continued her journey until her feet were blistered and her lips were parched from crying "Punnu, Punnu!" When she was nearly exhausted, she saw a hut in the distance. A shepherd came out and gave her some water to drink. Astonished by her beauty and seeing her all alone, he tried to force himself upon her. She ran as fast as she could, and ultimately fell down. When the shepherd reached her, she was dead. The shepherd was greatly moved. He buried her and kept watch beside her grave.

The next day he heard someone in the distance shouting, "Sassi, Sassi!" The shepherd called out a reply. It was Punnu, who had jumped off his camel and begun running back to Bhambore when he awakened from his sleep. In a moment, Punnu stood beside the grave of his beloved. When the shepherd told him that Sassi had died in search of him, Punnu hugged her grave and raved like a madman until he fell dead. The shepherd dug another grave for Punnu and buried him by Sassi's side. When Punnu's brothers caught up with him, they wept bitter tears of remorse and offered prayers at the graves of the lovers.

Two graves are still shown to travellers at a site known as Sassi Waro Chodo, about 40 miles from Karachi on the road to Kech Mekran. A small monument has been erected here to commemorate the two lovers.

Sohni Mahinwal (Punjab)

The city of Gujrat is the scene of the love story of Sohni and Mahinwal. The Chenab now flows at a considerable distance from the city, but during the Mughal period a branch of the Chenab used to flow near Gujrat. Chenab means "River of the Moon." The moon is traditionally associated with love, and thus one of the most famous love stories of the Punjab is associated with Chenab.

In the reign of Emperor Shah Jehan, a caravan of merchants from Bukhara, while returning from a trip to Delhi, halted in Gujrat. Among the merchants of the caravan was a young man named Izzat Beg. He came from a wealthy and respectable family and was a lover of nature and beauty. In fact, the merchants' journey to India had been prompted by Izzat Beg's urge to discover beauty. When the caravan alighted in Gujrat, the place seemed familiar to Izzat Beg. He went to the bazaar to see the city. Then, as now, Gujrat was a centre for pottery. Izzat Beg, attracted by pottery, walked into the shop of Tullah, the foremost master craftsman of Gujrat. While he was admiring the beauty, art and workmanship of Tullah's earthenware, he looked up and was struck by the sight of someone even more beautiful: Sohni, Tullah's beautiful daughter. Izzat Beg felt as if the heavenly beauty of Paradise had come down to the earth. He bought a huge quantity of pots and promised to come back the next day.

That night, Izzat Beg could not sleep, disturbed by the image of Sohni. The next day, when the caravan set off for Bukhara, Izzat Beg refused to join and said he would return later. When the caravan left, Izzat Beg called on Tullah and told him he had decided to settle down in Gujrat. Tullah welcomed him. He helped Izzat Beg set up a pottery shop and rented a house adjoining his own. But Izzat Beg was a poor businessman. He paid too much for his pots and sold them for too little, because his heart was not in his business,he was always thinking of Sohni. Soon he was penniless, and he was forced to close his shop.

Sohni spoke words of comfort and asked her father to give Izzat Beg a job. He was employed as a herdsman and told to look after the cattle. He agreed, only to be near his beloved. As a herdsman, Izzat Beg came to be called "Mahinwal." The love of Sohni and Mahinwal did not remain a secret for long. When Tullah saw them together one day, he dragged Sohni home and locked her up in a room. Mahinwal was forthwith dismissed from his job.

Once a prince of Bukhara, Izzat Beg was now the beggar. He was forced to leave the city. He built a hut for himself on the opposite bank of the river. Meanwhile, Sohni was betrothed to Dam, a potter in another part of the city. Against her will, Sohni was married to Dam. In protest, she refused to acknowledge Dam as her husband.

One day Mahinwal appeared at the house of Dam asking for alms. Sohni came to the door and at once recognized her Mahinwal. She promised to meet him. On that very night, she sneaked out of the house to meet Mahinwal. The lovers began meeting every night. Sohni would slip away from the house and swim across the river, using a baked earthen pot as a float. After spending a few hours with her lover, she would recross the river and hide the pot in the bushes, returning to her bed before dawn.

One night her sister-in-law grew suspicious. She followed Sohni and discovered her secret. The next day, to teach Sohni a lesson, she substituted an unbaked pot for the baked one which Sohni used to cross the river.

That night the weather was rough, and a strong wind was blowing. Sohni was undecided: Should she go to her lover or not? ultimately, love triumphed, and she decided to go out to meet Mahinwal. The night was pitch dark, and the river was full and swift. Sohni had a terrible time finding her way to the bushes where her pot was hidden. She took it from its hiding place and plunged headlong into the river. Suddenly, the pot began to dissolve, and Sohni understood that she had been betrayed. As the waters began to close over her head, she cried out to Mahinwal for help. Hearing her cries, Mahinwal leapt into the river and swam until he was exhausted. The lovers drowned, and when the flood receded their bodies were found side by side on the banks of the Chenab.

Umer Marvi (Sindh)

The district of Tharparkar in Sindh is associated with the story of Umer and Marvi. The story has been immortalized in verses by Shah Latif, the great mystic poet of Sindh. In the mystic language of Shah Latif, Marvi symbolizes the soul.

Marvi was the daughter of a poor goatherd who lived in the small village of Malir. Marvi was a rustic girl reared amid poverty, but nothing could sully her striking beauty. Marvi and her family led a simple life. Marvi loved the people around her, and she especially loved the desert.

Phog, an orphan boy, lived with Marvi's family. As children, Marvi and Phog played together. Attracted by Marvi's beauty, he wanted to marry her, but Marvi had always treated him like a brother. She told him not to expect anything beyond that. Rebuffed, Phog sulked and withdrew. Marvi found her ideal in Khet, a cousin who lived in a neighbouring village. He was handsome and brave, and he was deeply in love with Marvi.

In those days Sindh was ruled by Umer Sumru, whose capital was Umerkot. Umer Sumru was very popular. He was known for his justice. He had only one weakness--he loved beautiful women. His palace was full of beautiful damsels from all parts of Sindh. Phog left Malir and went to Umerkot to seek his fortune. He managed to secure employment under Umer Sumru. He soon won Umer's confidence and was put to work managing matters relating to women. One day he told Umer about the most beautiful woman in Sindh. Curious, the Umer asked, "Who is she?" Phog replied, "Her name is Marvi."

Umer decided to go to Malir to see Marvi for himself. He and Phog disguised themselves and set off for Malir. They found Marvi at the village well. Surrounded by other girls, she was vividly beautiful. Umer was impressed, but as Marvi was already betrothed to Khet, he could not approach her parents for her hand. So he and Phog hatched a plan to kidnap Marvi.

When Umer had Marvi in his clutches, he declared his love and offered to make Marvi his queen. Marvi haughtily refused. Umer decided to give her some time to think the matter over. She was lodged in the palace, and instructions were issued that she should be looked after. But Marvi remained in a state of mourning. Umer was impressed with Marvi's steadfast character. He told her that while he loved her, he did not wish to force his love upon her. He said that if her feelings did not change after a little while, she would be free to leave. He felt confident that in due course, Marvi would come round to loving him.

When Khet learned that Marvi had been kidnapped, he was disconsolate. He asked his parents to lodge a complaint with the king, but they were afraid. So Khet disguised himself as a dervish (saint) and went to Umerkot. There he stayed at a shrine outside the city. His reputation as a miracle worker spread quickly. One day Umer called Khet to the palace and asked him to say a prayer that would win him his beloved. Khet told Umer, "The woman you love is in the palace. Within a year you will wed her, and you will be happy." Umer was impressed. He took Khet to the women's quarters, where Khet pointed out Marvi and said, "This lady will be your Queen." Marvi soon realized that the dervish was none other than Khet.

After this visit, Marvi's attitude changed. This made Umer very happy. He attributed this change to the blessings of the saint. One day, Marvi expressed a desire to go and see the dervish at the shrine. Umer gave her permission and sent a maidservant along with her. At the shrine, the dervish received them respectfully. He offered them a drink. After taking a sip of her drink, the maidservant fell senseless. A camel was waiting outside the shrine. Khet and Marvi mounted the camel and fled Umerkot. Not until late at night did Umer hear the maidservant's tale of how Marvi had run away with the dervish. He sent his forces to scour the countryside, but they could find no trace of Khet or Marvi. According to legend, the couple settled in Kutch and lived a happy life as husband and wife.

  1. Masud-ul-Hasan, Famous Folk tales of Pakistan (1979).  

  2. Syed Abdul Quddus, Punjab, the land of beauty, love and mysticism (1992).

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