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Waris Shah (1722-1798) This wanting world

October 7th, 2011

4.5 / 5 (11 Votes)



Waris Shah's birthdate is not known specifically, but experts have claimed it to range from 1710 to 1738 AD. However, the year he completed his great work, Heer, is surely 1766 because he gave the date in his book's concluding stanza. Therefore, we know that he was a few decades younger than Bulleh Shah and Shah Abdul Latif Bhatai and was a contemporary of Sachal Sarmast, Mir Taqi Mir and Khawaja Mir Dard.

Waris Shah was born in Jandiala Sher Khan, Sheikhupura, a small town about 40 kilometers from Lahore

Waris Shah was born in Jandiala Sher Khan, Sheikhupura, a small town about 40 kilometers from Lahore. The town was dominated by Afghan Pathans who were the major landowners. It seems from circumstantial evidence that Waris Shah's father, Gulshar Shah, must have been living a modest life as the town's religious teacher or "paish imam". The absence of any family monastery and the poor condition of Waris Shah's grave till the 1960s shows that his family was not rich. Further, his documented wandering in the Sahiwal-Pakpattan area and his choice of Malka Hans's mosque also shows that his family was unable to support an unemployed poet.

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Shrine of Waris Shah

Shrine of Waris Shah

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During Waris Shah's lifetime not only was the Delhi thrown rotated among many incompetent rulers, but Ahmad Shah Abdali and Marhattas were constantly ruling Punjab and North India. On top of that, the Sikh guerilla movement led by sections of poor Jatts was establishing misals (territories comprised of a few districts or smaller units) in the entire region. On a practical level, the Mughal empire's hold in Punjab had come to an end, the local Sikh misal chiefs were providing security to villages and towns for a small fee in comparison to the Mughal rulers' taking of half or one-third of the crop. Consequently, the farmers and peasantry were much more prosperous and the urban elites' living in the Mughal revenue system, for the latter were mostly impoverished. Waris Shah said:

The Jatts became rulers of the land and every place has its own governance. The aristocracy is ruined, the working class is refreshed [better off] and the land owners are blooming [with prosperity].

The absence of any family monastery and the poor condition of Waris Shah's grave till the 1960s shows that his family was not rich

Being in proximity of Lahore, the power center for Punjab, his own hometown, Jandiala Sher Khan was overrun many times by different warring sections. That may have been one of the reasons that he chooses Malka Hans, far away from center of continuous wars, to write his treatise. Waris Shah has not written much about his hometown's suffering but he lamented the plundering of Kasur which was then highest seat of learning and he was educated there himself.

From the entire country of Punjab I am extremely saddened about Kasur

Waris Shah's goal was to clearly show the links between the guardians of Sharia, the ruling elites, and other sections of the society

The disintegration of the society, from economy to ideology, was creating a space for the thinkers to reformulate the intellectual discourse. As Bulleh Shah had aptly observed, "The times have gone upside down, and that is how secrets [of the system] are becoming clear." The greatest literature of Punjabi, Sindhi, and Urdu of the 18th century was created against this backdrop. Waris Shah took up that intellectual discourse where Bulleh Shah had left off.

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Upon the death of their father, Ranjha's brothers become jealous of him and conspire to rob him of his due share in the property

Most literary critics place Waris Shah in the category of epic writers and do not include him in Punjabi's poetic-philosophical tradition that stretches from Baba Farid to Bulleh Shah. This approach is simplistic; Waris has taken the philosophical discourse of what is confusedly called the Sufi tradition to new heights. Since his predecessors wrote in Doha, Bait and Kafi formats, simplistic writers only valued these forms of philosophical discourse. Conversly, Waris Shah wanted to unfold many dimensions of this intellectual discourse and present a debate between opposing worldviews, i.e. those of the guardians of Sharia and their opponents. For that, he chose an epic story where each character represented the essence and shades of the debate.

Waris Shah was quite aware about the Heers written by Demodar Das, Hafiz Shah Jahan Muqbil and Ahmad Gujjar. In fact Demodar Das had written Heer in an extremely eloquent way and in depiction and dramatic scripting, it is equally good if not in some ways better than Waris Shah's. Therefore, Waris Shah declared at the outset that he was writing a new version of Heer.

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  Present day Jhang countryside
Present day Jhang countryside
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He describes how meticulously he has constructed each line and how he has been revising and editing his verses. But Waris Shah's purpose for writing Heer was not simply narrating a story; it was to use it as a medium of philosophical debate. Therefore, he does not dwell much on details of incidents and happenings and quickly jumps to where he sees the core conflict in society. For example when Ranjha's father dies he mentions it in less than a line: "Taqdeer seeti Mooju Haq hoia" (Destiny had it that Mooju died)and then quickly moves to "Bhai Ranjhe de nal khaheeRe de nain" (Brothers go on collision with Ranjha) in the second half of the line. His main interest is in the ideological and conceptual world, his superb skill of storytelling notwithstanding.

Waris Shah shows that getting justice from a feudal state is nothing less than a miracle

Waris Shah described his verses as interpretations of the real meaning of the Quran (" These verses of Waris Shah are meanings of Quran"). Waris Shah never used the word Sufi and defined the opposing worldviews as Ahl-e-Treeqat and followers of Sharia in a verse:

"Waris Shah Mian qazi Sharia de noon nal Ahal TreeqataN [people of the path] rah nahin"

(Waris Shah: The Qazi of Sharia has nothing to do with People of the path)

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One of the reasons Waris Shah chose the epic story of Heer Ranjha was that Shah Hussain and Bulleh Shah had established and popularized these symbols to express anti-establishment principles, mainly the philosophy of unity, commonly known as Wahdat-ul-Wujood or Advaita Vedanta. However, Waris Shah's goal was to clearly show the links between the guardians of Sharia, the ruling elites, and other sections of the society, implicit in his predecessors' writings. Furthermore, he wanted to explicitly describe how the caste and class-based society had evolved in such a way that authentic living is a tedious struggle. Waris Shah brought Shah Hussain and Bulleh Shah's Heer Ranjha into the functioning society to show how different classes of people interface with the rebellious couple. On a philosophical level, Waris Shah pioneered the identification of fundamental institutions and their inter-dependence and relationship: he starts with the institution of family and property and goes on to organized religion, trading systems, judiciary, the feudal class, and ultimately the state.

This is another important dimension to Warish Shah's take on society: women and people of the lower classes everywhere are likely to show solidarity with Ranjha

Najam Hossain Syed has pointed out in his 'Recurrent Patterns of Punjabi Poetry' that Waris Shah employs a technique to show the society from a distance and then from within. From the outside, things appear to be splendid but from within they are rotten. For example, he portrays Ranjha's tribe in Takhat Hazara from outside as close-knit, extremely well-dressed and joyous:

"Let us talk about Takhat Hazara where Ranjhas are living colorfully"

However, when he takes the reader inside Takhat Hazara, he shows how greed, bribery and corruption are prevalent and how Dheedo, Ranjha's brother, bribes and manipulates the Qazi and jury of village elders. Similarly, he portrays the mosque, where Ranjha intends to spend the night during his journey to Heer's country, Jhang, as a sister of the most revered and prestigious Aqsa mosque. He then takes the reader inside and shows him a narrow-minded Mullah occupying it.

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  Heer Ranjha by Chughtai
Heer Ranjha by Chughtai
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Waris Shah's major goal is to expose different institutions of the society through simple rural settings. His transition from the highest level of a revered and powerful institution to the simple village locale is so smooth that readers hardly notice it. By starting with the highest level and coming down to village scenarios, Waris Shah suggests that at the upper levels, many issues can be wrapped in enchanting cliches and high-sounding vocabulary, but their practical manifestations are crude and cruel.

Waris Shah's language is also multi-dimensional: on the one hand he freely uses Persian and Arabic words-much more than his predecessors-but then he mixes them with an indigenous vast vocabulary that readers of all kinds can enjoy. Ghalib and Waris Shah both used Persian vocabulary without any hesitation, which should have marginalized them, but the power of their ideas was so overwhelming that they have been the most popular poet-thinkers of their respective languages. Probably one of the reasons for their use of Persian terminology (more than their predecessors) was due to their deep interest in conceptual frameworks rather than in the mere manipulation of daily social routines, which is what most Urdu poets have done.

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Girls run away with stolen mangoes at Waris Shah Mela in Sheikhupura

Girls run away with stolen mangoes at Waris Shah Mela in Sheikhupura

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Waris Shah's conceptual framework is to identify the fundamental institutions and critique them. He undertakes this philosophical discussion in making Ranjha interface with the institutions during his life's journey. The following is a brief summary of Waris Shah's treatment of various institutions:

Family, private property and the state

Upon the death of their father, Ranjha's brothers become jealous of him because he was most loved by his father, and conspire to rob him of his due share in the property. They and their wives are resentful of his artistic pursuit, which naturally enchants the women in the village. To get even with him, they bribe and manipulate the local land revenue officer and jury.

After having cheated him, they have him ridiculed by the community and Ranjha's sisters-in-law pierce his heart with sharp words and taunt him to marry Heer if he thinks himself so great. When Ranjha leaves the village, bound for Heer's country, his brothers pretend to stop him and through Ranjha's experience Waris Shah concludes the relations in a class society:

" Waris Shah eeh gharaz he buhat piari hoor sak na sain na ang de nain..."

(Waris Shah: greed and self interest are dear, blood or far-off relations are meaningless)

Organized religion

After leaving the village, Ranjha travels all day through jungles and end up exausted in a village mosque and starts playing his flute, his main vehicle to relate to people and nature. The entire village gathers around the mosque; everyone is mesmerized. Here, Waris Shah shows that the mosque was and should have been a community center and not merely a place for rituals. Baba Farid, whom Waris Shah considered the highest spiritual guide, was his inspiration here, as Baba Farid was also accused by the Qazi and ruler of Pakpattan of listening to music and dancing in the mosque.

While the whole village is enjoying Ranjha's flute, Waris Shah introduces the Mullah in these words:

" Waris Shah Mian pand jhagRian di pichoon Mullah maseet da awnda ey ..."

(Waris Shah: then the Mullah, with a bundle of disputes, enters...)

The mullah lambasts Ranjha for his long hair, big moustaches and his dress. Ranjha argues that Mullahs only care about outer appearances and rituals. He accuses the Mullah of hypocrisy, using the Quran to deceive innocent people, and of sodomizing little boys.

The commercial class:

After leaving the mosque Ranjha goes to the River Chenab to cross over to go to Jhang. This is Heer's area. He begs the Mallah (ship or boat-owner) that "in God's name take me across the river." Waris Shah portrays Luddan Mallah as a quintessential representative of the business community who frankly admits to plying his trade only for money.

Luddan's two wives fall for Ranjha's charm and stop him from jumping in the the river. And this is another important dimension to Warish Shah's take on society: women and people of the lower classes everywhere are likely to show solidarity with Ranjha. Luddan is scared of losing his wives to Ranjha (again pursuing his self-interest) and he quickly takes him to the other corner.

The feudal:

After crossing the river, going through some dramatic interactions with Heer, Ranjha takes up a buffalo-herder's job with Heer's father, who is the chief of the Sial tribe. Waris Shah depicts the exploitation of the working people by the hypocritical and greedy feudalist. After Heer Ranjha's love affair becomes the talk of the town, Heer's lame uncle Kaido dismisses him from the job. However, when his huge herd cannot be managed by anyone else, he tells his wife:

" Chuchak akhia ja mna osnooN char din taN majhin chra liay

Jadoon Heer doli pa tor diayee rus pway jwab taN cha daiyee

Sadi dhee da kujh na lah lainda, sbha tahal takoo kra liay."

("Chuchak said that go and bring him back. We have to make him herd for some time. When we send Heer in her doli, if he gets angry, we will dismiss him. He cannot take away anything of our daughter [by loving her], we have to have his best service.")

Waris Shah shows that the feudalist, apparently too strict for saving his honor, is always vulnerable to greed: he can always sacrifice his honor for the economic interest. Contrary to common perception created by films and plays, Waris Shah via Ranjha does not accuse Kaido for causing Heer's loss. He blames the ruling Jatts and depicts their negative characteristics in vivid detail.


Waris Shah also wanted to evaluate and critique the institution of Jog, which teaches its followers to abandon worldly affairs and live a secluded spiritual life with minimum contact with society. By naming the Jogi as Balnath-the major and known theoretician of this school of thought-Waris Shah establishes that he is debating the highest intellectual level of this school of thought, and not a random Jogi.

The Jogi performs the rituals to make Ranjah a Jogi (piercing the ear with wooden rings and smearing ash all over the body) and gives him the certificate of his order and tells him to go begging. Balnath instructs him to consider every young woman as his sister and every older woman his mother. Ranjha rebels and rebuffs him by saying that he adopted Jog for a woman - how can he follow this rule? In Waris Shah's words:

If you prohibit the follower from [contacting] the females, do we have to milk the Gurus?

The State:

After a lengthy debate with Heer's sister-in-law, Sehti - about one-third of the book in which Waris Shah critiques and analyzes all the prevalent social theories - Ranjha successfully takes Heer away with Sehti's help. When caught by Khaira's people and brought to the King's court the Qazi, once again, decides against Ranjha. It is only after Ranjha's miracle, putting the whole city on fire through his curse, that Adli Raja (Justice king) lets Ranjha go. Waris Shah shows that getting justice from a feudal state is nothing less than a miracle.

The Tragic End:

Heer-Ranjha's ultimate success is shortlived because the Sials (or the system) again deceive them, as Heer is killed by poisoning and Ranjha dies when he hears the news of her death. Waris Shah was the first Heer writer who ended the story as a tragedy because he knew that such authentic couples cannot be tolerated by the society. Previous Heer writers had them living happily ever after.

Dr. Manzur Ejaz is a Washington based writer, literary critic and well-known Pakistani columnist


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