A Punjabi and Sindhi folk tale

By Mahlia Lone

One of the four timeless tragic Punjabi romances is the story of Sohni Mahiwal set in Gujarat in the 18th century (late Mughal period). The love affair to melt the hearts of countless generations grew between Sohni, potter Tulla’s beautiful and artistic daughter belonging to the Kumhar caste (generational potters) and her Uzbek migrant trader turned buffalo herder, Izzat Baig, nicknamed Mahiwal. Strategically positioned on the River Chenab, Gujarat a the time was an important caravanserai on the trade route between Central Asia and India.

A Sindhi version of the story Sohni Mehar is attributed to the Sindhi Sufi poet Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai and was immortalized in his poetic compendium or collection called Shah Jo Risalo, written in pure Sindhi replete with Sufi symbolism. It’s one of the seven Sindhi tragic romances known as Seven Heroines. In this version, Sohni belonged to the Jat tribe living on the western bank of the Indus River, while Dam, Sohni’s husband lived in Samtia on the river’s eastern bank. During the marriage procession over the river, Mehar gave Sohni a drink of milk and the two fell in the love at first sight.

Let’s return to the Punjabi story popularized in films. Tulla created the most beautiful and sturdy of earthenware pottery painted with lovely designs. As his lovely daughter grew up, she took to painting the pots while her father crafted and baked them. One day, a merchant caravan coming from Bukhara and heading to Delhi stopped en route in Gujarat. A young and rich trader came to inspect Tulla’s famous pottery. There he spotted Sohni with her head bent over a small pot for sweets, using a fine hair brush to paint the patterns meticulously with tiny strokes. Izzat Baig fell in love with her at first sight and desired to buy the pot she was cradling.

Tulla replied that that pot needed to be baked to make it resilient before it could be purchased.  The young man returned the next day for it and kept returning every day after that.  He was so smitten that when the caravan set off for Delhi, he decided to stay behind. Soon his money ran out, and Tulla hired him as a water buffalo herder.  Izzat Baig began to be known as Mahiwal, the buffalo herder.

Deluged with positive attention from the lovesick youth, Sohni too had fallen in love. Whenever he was late, she got depressed but as soon as she would see him coming up the road, she felt elated.  Pining in each other’s even momentary absence, the two lovers began to meet in secret.

As we know, at the time it was strictly forbidden for girls to marry out of their caste. When rumours about Sohni Mahiwal spread in the village, her family hastily arranged her wedding to a well to do pottery merchant who travelled long distances to sell the Gujarati potters’ wares.

On the day of the barat (wedding night), Sohni was piled into a doli (palanquin) and carried off forcibly to her husband’s neighbouring house.

Grief-stricken, Mahiwal wanted to be as close to his lady love as possible and started living in a small mud hut across the river from Sohni’s house. Now that she was married, he still didn’t want to leave for his land and his previous life, believing that the earth under Sohni’s feet was his dargah (shrine). He renounced all worldly life and started to live the ascetic life of a fakir (hermit) just as Sufi fakirs do in their love for Allah.

At night, Sohni would sit by a window  and look at her lover sitting outside his hut across the river.  When her husband left for a long trip to sell pottery, one night she stole out of a house and decided to cross the river. Because she didn’t know how to swim, she turned one of her father’s sturdy garrha (water vessel) upside down to aid her to stay afloat as she crossed the river. Without the pot to keep her afloat as she kicked her feet, she would have gotten swept away by the gushing river.  Seeing her risk her life just to meet him, Mahiwal swam and brought her to his side of the river.

Tomb Of Sohni In Shahdadpur, Sindh

Now swimming makes you hungry. Mahiwal caught a fish and roasted it on an open fire to feed his famished girl. Feeding the soul and the body, their bliss was complete.

Sohni Mahiwal continued to meet like this for many nights. Their love madness was growing exponentially. One night Mahiwal hadn’t been able to catch a fish. In a gruesome act of self-mutilation, he carved out a piece of his thigh, roasted it and fed it to his Sohni. When she consumed his flesh, she could taste that she wasn’t eating fish and spying Mahiwal’s black blood soaked dhoti (he had a wrapped a black one so she wouldn’t see the blood) was struck by how crazy in love with her he was.

That night Sohni’s sister in law who lived in the same house discovered her nocturnal secret. Shocked, she went and told Sohni’s mother and mother in law. Sohni’s mother felt ashamed at her daughter’s scandalous behavior. For a Muslim girl to run out of her husband’s house every night to meet her lover at his house was unthinkable. But the girl had become too headstrong and rebellious to heed her mother’s warning.

Sohni’s sister in law decided to take matters in her own hands. She felt she owed it to her brother to save his honour. She devised a plot to make it impossible for Sohni to cross the river and replaced her garrha with one that hadn’t been baked as yet, figuring that it would crumble as soon as it touched the water. Sohni would not dare to cross the river without the aid of a float.

Unaware of the fate that lay before her, the next night, Sohni took the unbaked garrha and began to wade across the swift river.  When she was a quarter of the way across, the garrha began to disintegrate in the water. She called out to Mahiwal for help. Mahiwal jumped in and swam towards her, but his leg started bleeding. At the halfway point in the river, he reached Sohni whose head was bobbling up and down as she thrashed in the water, her arms and legs flailing desperately. Weakened by the loss of blood, his body wasn’t strong enough to swim with her against the current. While holding on to each other, they both drowned in the Chenab River.

Mere mortals could not tear apart the lovers joined by God who reunited them in death, forever to lie in each other’s arms.

Legend has it that 75 km. from Hyderabad, Sohni Mahiwal’s graves lie in a tomb located at Shahpur Chakar Road, Shahdadpur. The shrine is visited by lovers who pray for their loves to be restored to them.

For a Muslim girl to run out of her husband’s house every night to meet her lover at his house was unthinkable


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