A Rajasthani/Sindhi folktale replete with beautiful princesses, enchanted castle, a brave and ingenious hero, passionate romance, ordeals of separation and edifying tragedy
By Mahlia Lone
The famed Rajasthani folktale is set in Lodhrawa in Jaisalmer district Rajasthan, India, around the mid-14th century. Lodhrawa stood on an ancient trade route through the Thar Desert, which was vulnerable to frequent attacks.
In the Sindhi story, Momal Ji Maari (Momalâ€™s mansion), the heroineâ€™s house was located in Ghotki district, near Sukkur. The story occurred in the times of Hamir Soomro, the King of Amarkot (now Umerkot district in south-east Sindh). The city was named after its Hindu founder Maharaja Amar Singh, belonging to the Sodha clan of Hindu Rajputs, who built the Amarkot Fort to wade off Muslim invadors. During the Mughal Empire, Emperor Akbar was born in Amarkot 1542, his father Humayun having fled from his capital in Delhi after his military defeat at the hands of Sher Shah Suri and the Rajput ruler Rana Prasad giving him refuge.
The story in classical Sindhi literature
The first time the story was written down was by 17th-century classical Sindhi Sufi poet from Nasarpur, Shah Inat Rizvi (circa 1613â€“ 1701). Combining the folklore lyrical poetry of travelling minstrels (singers) with the cultivated spiritual thinking of the Sufi saints, Inat brought in a new style of Sindhi poetry. He combined popular songs commemorating the valour of heroes in wars and wise rule of kings during peace that included elements of fantasy, magic, legend and quasi historical romance with the Sufisâ€™ spiritual ideas. Fond of music since childhood, Inat would raptly listen to professional musicians and itinerant minstrels in village gatherings. Belonging by birth to an orthodox Syed family, he was educated in Muslim spiritual poetry.
The story in 20th century Sindhi literature
Shaikh Ayaz (1923 â€” 1997) translated Abdul Latifâ€™s magnum opus Shah Jo Risalo to Urdu, establishing him as an authority on the subject. He received the Sitara-i-Imtiaz for his efforts and was regarded as a â€œrevolutionary and romantic poetâ€ in his own right.
Inat, hence, forged a new genre of Sindhi literature with his groundbreaking work as a â€œsaint-poet of the people singing about their heroes in war and peace and their traditional tales and romances as well as about the traders, weavers, and monsoon rains on which the prosperity of the people depended. He also dealt with the spiritual themes of love and hope, and composed verses in praise of the saints and selfless devotees in the search of God,â€ commented an expert of classical Sindhi literature. In addition, Inat experimented with idioms and imagery to make his poems more descriptive, further enrichening Sindhi literature.
Inatâ€™s contribution to classical Sindhi poetry was built on by Shah Abdul Latif (c. 1689 â€“ 1752), a young man in his twenties when the older poet died. According to oral tradition, Abdul Latif met the elderly Inat and they would recite their parallel verses on common themes. Regardless of the veracity of this occurrence, Inatâ€™s form, technique and subject matter greatly influenced Abdul.Â The latter used some of the same idioms and expressions more skillfully and with greater insight, to produce his Shah Jo Risalo, the poetry book on the Seven Heroines of Sindh, one of which was the story of Momal Rano.
The Sindhi version of the folktale
Beautiful Princess Momal of Ghotki lived in a luxurious and magical palace named Kak Mahal or Mirpur Mathelo, near Lodhrawa, north-east of Amarkot (now known as Umerkot). Momal oiled, perfumed and draped in exquisite silken ensembles was a beauty beyond compare. She lived with her seven equally indulged sisters and attendants in the seclusion of her grand mahal. Two of her most famous sisters were named Somal, known for her intelligence, and Natir, infamous as a schemer.
Over the vast grounds of the palace, a magnetic field was spread that gave the appearance of a gushing river. Just as in the fairytale of Sleeping Beauty, a thickly wooded forest had sprung up around the castle protecting it. The jungle housed many wild animals, including ferocious man-eating lions and tigers.
Similarities with tales in World mythology
Apart from the more obvious comparisons with the classical fairytale Sleeping Beauty, the story of Momal Rano shares similarities with the Greek mythological enchantresses the Sirens who lived on the island of Anthemoessa and lured sailors with their enchanting songs and made them crash their ships on their islandâ€™s rocky shore. Very few heroes were sharp enought to outwit these deadly mermaids. The mythological hero Ulysses stuffed wax in his sailorsâ€™ ears so they couldnâ€™t hear the sirensâ€™ singing and had himself tied to the shipâ€™s mast. This story has parallels with Homerâ€™s epic poem The Odyssey when Odysseus does the same. Similarly, in the mythological story of Jason and the Argonauts Orpheus, the legendary musician, plays his lyre, his lilting music drowning out the siren call.
The condition on becoming Princess Momalâ€™s consort was set on a man being brave enough to enter the magical magnetic field and cross the jungle to enter the mahal and being clever enough to solve the puzzles devised by her wily sisters. Many princes hearing about the unmatchable princess tried but failed; they were robbed by the sisters and attendants and lost their way forever in an unsolvable maze of laybrinths and mirages much like in a House of Mirrors attraction at an amusement park. The princes were never heard from or found again. The more unattainable the princess and the more impregnable the castle, the more legendary and enticing became the prize.
Now men by nature love a challenge, want what they cannot have and are egotistical by nature, and kings are great men
The ruler of Amarkot, Hamir Soomro and his three ministers Seenharro Dhamachanni, Daunro Bhatyanni and the youngest Rano Mahendro, all Rajput Sodhas by caste, used to go horseback hunting in far flung areas of the kingdom. Adventurous and intrepid by nature, they would even cross the boundaries of the small state to neighbouring areas. One day, on a hunting trip, the four men encountered a bedraggled looking man to whom they did not disclose their identity. Grateful for their help and for sharing their food and water, the young man told them what had befallen him. He was a Kashmiri prince who, having heard the legend of Momalâ€™s beauty and charm, got so inspired that he travelled all that distance to try his luck. Having finally fought through to the enchanted castle, the prince was so overcome by Momalâ€™s beauty that her seven sisters and attendants successfully played all types of tricks on him, confused him with multiple puzzles and stripped him of his wealth. Finally, he ran for his life.
Now men by nature love a challenge, want what they cannot have and are egotistical by nature, and kings are great men. Hamir badly wanted to succeed where so many men before him had failed. Having extracted the whereabouts of Kak Mahal, he decided to conquer the castle and win the princessâ€™s hand but failed to do so. Then, in turn, his ministers tried as well, and also failed.
The youngest, Rano was an extremely intelligent, courageous and persistent young man; when it was his turn at last to try his luck, he succeeded in cracking the code of the illusion and reaching the palace. Impressed with hi, Momal accepted him as her consort and that night they consummated their marriage. The next morning, Rano left Kak Mahal and returned to Amarkot to continue his day job of working for Hamir Soomro.
Rano kept visiting Momal every night and their feelings for each other kept growing. Though it was quite a distance between the two palaces, his journey was shortened as if by magic. King Hamir felt envious that his young minister had succeeded where he couldnâ€™tâ€”it was a matter of pride for him. So he forbade Rano from meeting Momal and had his guards keep a check on his nocturnal movements.
Being Hamirâ€™s subject, Rano had no choice but to obey his ruler. But try as he would, his passion would not let him rest.Â Stealthily, he would slip out at dusk on his camel and return before dawn. He hardly got any sleep, feverishly burning the candle at both ends, gripped by his passion.
Finally, one day the guards caught Rano sneaking off and Hamir had him thrown in the dungeon. After some time, thinking he had learnt his lesson and feeling guilty imprisoning such a loyal and trusty minister, Hamir released him on the condition that he would not meet Momal again. Not being able to resist her pull, Rano snuck off to meet Momal again.
Momal too had started pining for Rano. One night when he was late, thinking he had stood her up, the princess asked her sister Somal to disguise herself in menâ€™s clothing and lie beside her in bed. She wanted to test Ranoâ€™s love for her by making him jealous. As was expected, when Rano saw the two sleeping together, he mistook Somal for Momalâ€™s lover. Furious, he left Kak Mahal for Amarkot, leaving behind his cane. Momal woke up, saw the cane and realized what happened. Fearing that he had left her for good under the misapprehension that she had cheated on him, she lit a candle in her window to message to him to return. At last, when there was no sign of Rano, Momal was left with no choice but to set off to Amarkot in search of him. Disguised as a man, she set up residence in Amarkot and Rano recognized his princess.
When the two parted lovers met, Momal pleaded Rano for forgiveness for playing a thoughtless trick on him. But he remained obstinate in his resolve to punish and not forgive her. Out of desperation, Momal jumped in a raging fire to prove her love to him. Rano jumped in after her and both got consumed by the fire, the flames of their mutual passion purifying their bodies and souls.
Moral of the story
The love of Momal and Rano is an allegorical metaphor for the love of the soul and divine. The separation and longing between two lovers parallels the separation of the Divine and the human soul, the longing for the two to merge and dissolve into each other much like Momal and Rano were unified in the burning fire. The human soul longs for Allah, and the beloved renders himself up, caring nothing for the material world in his/her quest to seek union with divinity in the crazed love experienced by Sufis.