The women from this part of the world have, since time immemorial, been strong, out spoken and courageous; they have defied social norms and restrictions to become heroic figures in their own right whose tales have been retold by each generation. Amongst these tragic heroines is the story of Sahiban who openly and intrepidly defied convention and her family in her love for Mirza

By Mahlia Lone

The Bigger Picture

The romance of Mirza Sahiban was first written by the Punjabi Sufi Jat poet Hafiz Barkhudar Ranjha from Tahat Hazara, Sargodha in the latter half of the seventeenth century. Becoming a student in the household of a Hakeem family, he moved to Chitti Sheikhan, Sialkot where his shrine is now located. A few decades after him, the Sindhi poet Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai included the romance in his tragic Seven Queens of Sindh. Hence, the story is shared by Punjabis and Sindhis equally.                  It’s interesting to note that none of these love stories portray the heroine passively pining or quietly accepting her fate while secretly clutching her forbidden love to her bosom as would be accepted culturally of Muslim women. The heroines play a central dynamic role within the story. Their mortal love gained the stature of worship of God as per Sufi tradition. They didn’t die meekly at the altar of love, but rebelled against the conventional norms of society, and sacrificed not only their body but also their soul for love.

The Punjabi Sufi poet Waris Shah wrote:

“Be thankful to God

For making love the root of the world

First he himself loved

Then he made the prophets

His beloved ones.”

Waris Shah, like other Sufi poets, started his poems with an invocation to Allah. Social and moral conventions seem trivial when viewed from the larger perspective of God and creation. The heroines rebelled against society’s double standards and may have been condemned by their friends and families but in the larger context, they were revered in folklore and by Sufi fakirs alike for taking a stand for what they believed in and for holding out for their right given to them by Islam to marry of their own choice.

The Story

Mirza Khan was the son of Chaudhry Wanjhal Khan, the leader of the Kharral tribe in Dhanbad, a village of Jaranwala, near Faisalabad. They belonged to the Jat community, the land owning but non-elitist farmers that originally hailed from the lower Indus valley of Sindh during Mohammed Bin Qasim’s conquest of Sindh in the 8th century and gradually migrated to the Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, etc.

“As Sahiban stepped out with a lungi tied

around her waist,

The nine angels died on

seeing her beauty

And God started counting

his last breath”

—Translated from

Shayer Pillo

Sahiban was the daughter of Sardar Mahni of Khewa, a village in Sial, near Jhang. As it happened, in the village of Khewa, Mahni’s mother had died at the time of his birth. A sympathetic and kindly neighbouring woman, who had recently given birth to a girl, took it upon herself to care for the motherless baby boy and breastfed him along with her daughter. The two children thus grew up as “milk” siblings, as was the custom of the day to call this special relationship.

In time, the girl, named Fateh Bibi, got married to Sardar Wanjal Kharral and moved a day’s journey on horseback away to the village of Dhanbad. The couple had a strong, healthy boy that they named Mirza. Fateh Bibi’s milk brother, Mahni Khan, Sardar of the Sial Jats, also got married and had a lovely daughter named Sahiban.

Mirza was sent as a boy to Khewa to study at his “milk uncle” Mahni’s house who made his daughter and her “cousin” study the Quran together. At first, Mirza didn’t notice how lovely Sahiban was since he was just a regular boy not into girls. But once puberty hit, the two teenagers began to feel attracted to each other.

One day, Mirza took a different path home walking back from school through a bazaar to while away the time.  Sahiban was at the vegetable seller’s stall buying squash. Mirza saw the vegetable seller absent mindedly weigh out extra squash transfixed by the teenage girl’s beauty. Mirza saw his playmate with new eyes and too was struck by her blossoming good looks.

Shayer Pillo described Sahiban’s beauty as such:

“As Sahiban stepped out with a lungi tied around her waist,

The nine angels died on seeing her beauty

And God started counting his last breath…”

Meanwhile, Mirza too was growing up to become a strong and athletic young man, an excellent horseman and highly skilled archer who never missed his target. He rode about the countryside on a powerful steed named Bakki, hunting deer and other animals with his bow and arrow. Sahiban, growing more beautiful each day, became aware of the dashing young man’s physical prime. Love sowed its seeds, which began to sprout and blossom. The two became inseparable, lost in their own world.

Sahiban was no meek miss but had a strong personality and knew how to stand up for herself. Once, upon mispronouncing Arabic, the maulvi (religious cleric) beat her with a chimmak (thin branch used for thrashing that stings). Instead of crying, the young girl admonished the maulvi for his unduly severe chastisement.

The youngsters idyllic days of blissful love were sadly not to last. When Sahiban’s parents found out about the love affair, they promptly sent Mirza back home to his parents, confined their willful, errant daughter to her room and arranged her marriage to Tahir Khan Chadhar who belonged to the same village.

The resourceful heroine sent a taunting message to her lover through Kammu, a Brahmin fakir who was travelling to Dhanbad: “You must come and decorate Sahiban’s hand with the marriage henna. This is the time you have to protect your self-respect and love, keep your promises, and sacrifice your life for truth.”

Her sarcastic words bit and worked their power on the hot blooded youth. Mirza’s sister pleaded with him not to leave for Khewa, as it was her marriage day and she wanted her brother to be present. His entire family beseeched him that the Sial brothers were very violent and he shouldn’t interfere where their family honour was concerned. But Mirza heeded no one. He was determined to rescue Sahiban from the forced marriage.

Before he left, his father told him that if he went, then he must be sure to return with Sahiban or else family “ki naak kat jai gee” (he would bring great dishonor to their family).  It had become a do or die mission. Left with no choice in the matter, Chaudhery Wanjhal grudgingly gave his beloved son his blessings to pursue his love.

“Chal, my Bakki,” (Let’s go) Mirza clicked his trusty steed and thundered towards his lady love in Khewa. He reached her house just as the mehndi ceremony was in full swing and, knowing the lay of the land, managed to steal her away. Pulling her on his horse beside himself, the two lovers galloped off.

When they had left her village far behind, and seeing no one in hot pursuit, Mirza stopped to rest, water and feed his spent horse. Having been riding for over a day now, he too lay down under the shade of a tree to rest for a few moments with his head in Sahiban’s lap and promptly fell asleep in exhaustion with Sahiban watching over him.

Sahiban just knew that her brothers would follow them.  Not wanting her hands to be dyed red with blood instead of henna, she desperately wanted to avoid a bloodbath. Knowing how skillful her lover was with his bow and arrow, she decided that she would be able to convince her brothers not to attack a defenseless Mirza. Thinking she would appeal to their love for her, she hastily broke Mirza’s arrow heads as he slept.

Back at the wedding party, Sahiban’s family couldn’t find her anywhere on the wedding day. Realizing she must have eloped with Mirza, her furious brothers and male cousins, accompanied by her jilted bridegroom, rode off on horseback brandishing swords in their hands. When they finally reached the lovers resting under the tree, they disregarded Sahiban who hadn’t given a jot for their izzat (honour).

Mirza awoke to an arrow whizzing past his throat shot by one of her brothers; he reached for his bow, but then spied all the broken arrows strewn about. Looking up at her in perplexity for an answer to what had transpired, he narrowly ducked as an arrow grazed his chest.

Sahiban threw herself on top of him, protectively covering his body with hers. Pushing her aside, her brothers reached them and ganged up on Mirza.

Though he valiantly tried his best to defend himself and Sahiban, Mirza was easily outnumbered. A blow from a sword on the back of his head ended his fragile life. Seeing her lover drop down dead, Sahiban in anguish picked up the same sword and pierced her body, ending her own life.

“When the sheet tears,

It can be mended with a patch

How can you darn the torn sky?

If the husband dies,

Another one can be found,

But how can one live if one’s lover dies?”

—From a folk song

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