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Folk Tales of Pakistan: Sohni Mahiwal

Mast Qalandar

September 30th, 2008

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Every culture has its folklore. So has Pakistan. I chose the story of Sohni and Mahiwal for this post because I find it so touching, so tragic, so real - and so Punjabi, if you will.

Going back in history, the Arab Bedouins had Layla and Majnun and the Persians Shirin and Farhad; the French had Abelard and Heloise and the Italians Romeo and Juliet. We in Pakistan have more than our share of love tales: Heer-Ranjha, Sohni-Mahiwal and Mirza-Sahiban in Punjab, Sassi-Punnu and Umar-Marvi in Sindh (and partly Balochistan), and Adam Khan and Durkhanai in Swat, NWFP.Folklore is a mixture of beliefs, facts and fiction. Over time, the different elements get so interwoven with each other that often it becomes difficult to separate one from the other. The stories are told and retold by successive generations, embellished by poets, sung and celebrated by common folks and enacted and filmed by entertainment industry.

It is always a poet, though, who immortalizes a love story. But it is also true that a poet chooses to sing a particular story, and not the other, because of its inherent beauty and poignancy. While the Persian poet, Nizami, introduced Layla-Majnun to the world, Shakespeare immortalized Romeo and Juliet. Waris Shah cried a river over Heer and made her a household name in Punjab and Sohni and Mahiwal first captured the imagination of Fazal Shah and, through his poetry, got embedded in popular imagination in the region that is now Pakistan and beyond.Even though Sohni and Mahiwal lived, loved and died, relatively recently there is no one consistent account of their story. There are numerous versions. However, there is common thread that runs through all the different versions.

Sifting through different accounts and glossing over the ones that sounded too mythical, here is, briefly, what I could gather of this beautiful and enduring story:

Sometime during the late Mughal period there lived in a town on the banks of River Chenab, or one of its branches, a potter (kumhar) named Tulla. The town has been identified either as present day Gujrat or one of the nearby towns. Tulla was a master craftsman and his earthenware were bought and sold throughout Northern India and even exported to Central Asia. To the potter and his wife was born a daughter. She was such a beautiful child that they named her Sohni (meaning beautiful in Punjabi).

Sohni spent her childhood playing and observing things in her father’s workshop. She watched pots being made from clay and shaped on the wheel, dried in the sun and then fired and baked in the furnace. Sohni grew up to be not only a beautiful young woman but also an accomplished artist who made floral designs on the pots and pitchers that came off her father’s wheel.

Sohni’s town was located on the trading route between Delhi and Central Asia and trading caravans passed through it. One such caravan that made a stopover included a young handsome trader from Bukhara, named Izzat Baig. While checking out the merchandize in the town Izzat Baig came upon Tulla’s workshop where he spotted Sohni sitting in a corner of the workshop painting floral designs on the earthenware.

Izzat Baig was immediately taken by Sohni’s rustic beauty and charm and couldn’t take his eyes off her. In order to linger at the workshop he started purchasing random pieces of pottery as if he were buying them for trading. He returned the next day and made some more purchases at Tulla’s shop. His purchases were a pretext to be around Sohni for as long as he could. This became Izzat Baig’s routine until he had squandered most of his money.

When the time came for his caravan to leave, Izzat Baig found it impossible to leave Sohni’s town. He told his companions to leave without him and that he would follow later. He took up permanent residence in the town and would visit Sohni at her father’s shop on one pretext or the other. Sohni also began to feel the heat of Izzat Baig’s love and gradually began to melt, so to speak. The two started meeting secretly.

Izzat Baig soon ran out of money and started taking up odd jobs with different people including Sohni’s father. One such job was that of grazing people’s cattle - buffaloes. Because of his newfound occupation people started calling him Mahiwal: a short variation of MajhaNwala or the buffalo-man. That name stayed with him for the rest of his life and even after.

Sohni and Mahiwal’s clandestine meetings soon became the talk of the town. When Sohni’s father came to know about the affair he hurriedly arranged Sohni’s marriage with one of her cousins, also a potter, and, against Sohni’s protests and entreaties, bundled her off to her new home in a village somewhere on the other side of the river.

When Mahiwal came to know of Sohni’s marriage he was devastated. He left town and became a wanderer searching for Sohni’s whereabouts. Eventually he found her house and managed to meet her in the guise of a beggar and gave her his new address - a hut across the river. Sohni’s husband, meanwhile, had discovered that he could not win Sohni’s heart no matter what he did to please her and started spending more time away from home on business trips. Taking advantage of her husband’s absence Sohni started meeting Mahiwal regularly.

She would swim across the river at night with the help of a large water pitcher (gharra), a common swimming aid in the villages even today. They would spend most of the night together in Mahiwal’s hut and before the crack of dawn Sohni would swim back home. She would hide the pitcher in a bush for her next trip the following night. One day, Sohni’s sister-in-law (her husband’s sister) came visiting. Suspecting something unusual about Sohni’s nocturnal movements, she started spying on her. She followed Sohni one night and saw her take out the pitcher from the bush, wade into the river and then swim across. She reported the matter to her mother (Sohni’s mother-in-law) and both of them, rather than informing Sohni’s husband, decided to get rid of Sohni. This, they believed, was the best way to save the family from infamy.

The sister-in-law secretly took out the pitcher from the bush and replaced it with one that was not baked but only sun-dried. As usual, Sohni got out at night for her meeting with Mahiwal, picked the pitcher from the bush, as she always did, and entered the river. It was a stormy night and the river was in flood. Sohni was soon engulfed in water and discovered, to her horror, that her pitcher was an un-baked one that would soon dissolve and disintegrate.

What shall she do now? Abandon the trip and go back or continue trying to swim without the pitcher and drown? Her inner struggle at this point - her fear of not being able to make the trip and thus not living up to the test of true love, her hope of making it, somehow, with the help of the pitcher - are best expressed in the song made memorable by Pathana Khan in his inimitable voice: Sohni gharray nu aakhdi aj mainu yaar mila gharrya.

Roughly translated and paraphrased the song runs as follows:

Sohni, addressing the pitcher:
It’s dark and the river is in flood
There is water all around.
How am I going to meet my Mahiwal?
If I keep going I will surely drown
And if I turn back
I wouldn’t be living up to my promise to Mahiwal
I beg you, with folded hands,
Help me cross the river and meet my Mahiwal.
You always did it. Please do it tonight, too.

The pitcher replies:
I wish I were baked in the fire of love like you are
But I am not. Sorry, I am helpless.

Hearing Sohni’s cries for help, Mahiwal also jumped into the river to save her. As the story goes, their bodies were washed ashore and found next day lying next to each other.

With their death Sohni and Mahiwal moved into the world of legends and lore. In their death the sinners became saints.

Mast Qalandar dabbles in everything - history, culture, education, poetry, armchair politics and, when sufficiently provoked, religion. He has lived mostly in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad and Peshawar and also in several nooks and crannies of Pakistan. Currently he divides his time between Islamabad and New York.

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Visitors Comments

Name:Singh Deep
Date:24th June

Comment: Real Love never die....


Visitors Comments

Name:roshan lal
Date:15th April

Comment: its really true story and i liked it allvery ipresive when i heard about Sonhi mahiwal so i was so exited to listen there story and when i read if so i was happy and we should appricate then and now we dont have that kind of love its true .well i really apricate them


Visitors Comments

Name:GURBINDER
Date:24th September

Comment: VERY NICE


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