• Patan dhoka, Lalitpur, Nepal


    Haroon Khalid

    “Iqbal sahib do you know that Anam here is a Siyal as well. Anam do you know what is said about Siyalwomen in Mirza-Sahiban,” I asked. We were on our way to Jhang, the city where the legendary lovers, Heer and Ranjha are buried in a single grave. Their shrine has now become a religious pilgrimage and I was particularly intrigued by such veneration of love. Accompanying me were my mentor, a scholar of Punjabi history and culture, Iqbal Qasier and my fiancé, Anam Zakaria.

    The pretext of tradition and culture is often used to curb individual freedoms like the right to marry out of choice, the right to practice any religion etc. I grew up with a “modern” understanding of tradition which argued for the unshackling of a society from the fetters of traditionalism to make way for progress. However what exploring traditional and cultural history did for me was to clarify this misconception. This derogatory manner of looking at tradition is a colonial legacy that thrived on undermining the indigenous culture and exalting the British manner of living. Heer-Ranjha, one of the most iconic love legends from Punjab, and celebrated all over the Subcontinent is an example from the repository of “tradition” that not only celebrates love between two individuals (a pre-modern example of honoring individuality) but raises it to metaphysical dimensions comparing the love between Heer and Ranjha to that between a believer and God.

    An integral part of the oral tradition of Southasia, Heer-Ranjha has been sung by bards and dramatized by folk artistes for centuries. It was first written by a poet from Jhang called Damodar Das Arora during the tenure of the third Mughal Emperor Akbar. However, similar to how Balmiki’s Ramayana became Tulsidas’ after he rewrote the epic, this legend also became Waris Shah’s when he rewrote it in the eighteenth century. Today it is also referred to as Waris Shah’s Heer. According to the Damodar version which was reiterated by Waris Shah, Heer Ranjha is based on an actual story that Damodar saw unfold in front of his eyes. At the end both of them were buried in one grave, to celebrate their eternal love. Their shrine in Jhang, which according to the legend is the hometown of Heer, is today a popular destination where people from all over the country come to ask for blessings, especially in the matter of love. When Damodar wrote the story it was meant to be a secular love epic. Around the same time that he lived there was a wandering Malamati Sufi in Lahore known by the name of Shah Hussain, a spectacular poet of Punjabi himself. His verses and poems are now sung all over Subcontinent, the most famous one being “Maye ni mein kinnu akhan” (http://folkpunjab.com/shazia-manzoor/mai-ni-main-kinoo-akhan/. Shah Hussain for the first time transformed the story of Heer-Ranjha from a secular epic to a spiritual legend. He compared the love of Heer for Ranjha to that of a believer, a theme that was subsequently picked up by Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah. Through his poetry he introduced the concept of Wahadut-ul-Wajud into the story, or monism, which remains an essential part of Hindu philosophy and Islamic spirituality.

    Mahi mahi kook di mein ape Ranjhan hoyi 
    Ranjhan Ranjhan sab koi akho, Heer na akhon koi

    Calling the name of my beloved I myself became Ranjhan
    Call me Ranjhan from onwards as I am no longer Heer

    “Do you know what Peelu, the writer of Mirza-Sahiban (another famous folk love legend of Punjab) says about Siyal women, Anam?” Iqbal Qaiser asked. She did not.

    “Evil are the dealings of the Siyals; evil the way to the Siyals;
    Evil the women of the Siyals; be not bewitched by them.
    They will take out thy liver and eat it; lay not this trouble upon me.”

    “But why does everyone hate Siyal women?” she asked. “This is Mirza’s mother warning Mirza to not chase the love of Sahiban. At this part of the story Sahiban is about to marry her cousin and Mirza having heard the news is planning to get to her and elope. Giving the example of Heer, Mirza’s mother is trying to dissuade her,” Iqbal Qaiser clarified. “So then this is the view of Sahiban’s mother-in-law,” Anam said glancing at me through the rear view mirror. “Yes,” said Iqbal Qaiser.

    We exited from junction of Pindi Bhattiyan on the Motorway and headed towards Chiniot which was en-route to Jhang. A board on the highway reading Chiniot suggested that we were in the right direction. “Naukar Sahaba da (I am the servant of the companions)” read graffiti on it. It heralded our arrival at the hotbed of sectarian conflict in the Punjab – Jhang. The militant organization, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, blamed for the recent massacre of the Shiias originated from Jhang, which still serves as the movement’s capital. One of the bones of contention between the Shiia and the Sunni sects is the status of the companions of the Prophet, especially the first three – Abu Bakar, Umar and Usman. The Shiias maintain that they were usurpers of power which should have actually been given to the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet. The Sunnis on the other hand maintain that a democratic process was followed after the demise of the Prophet and Abu Bakar, who became the next leader of the Muslim community, followed by Umar and Usman were rightly guided pious Caliphs. “I am the servant of the companions,” was a political statement by Sunni extremists. Behind the board, black flags with alms, a pole with a hand on the top, symbol of the Shiia community emerged on the top of the shops and houses. This was contested territory.

    “Let’s stop here for a little while,” suggested Iqbal Qaiser looking at a board that read Tiba Shah Behlol. “Just a little distance from here is the shrine of Behlol under grove of Banyan trees, who was the spiritual master of Shah Hussain.” It was a fantastic sight; about five to six ancient Banyan trees, with their drooping boughs in quick succession. I could imagine Hindu jogis wearing a saffron color cloth, intermingling with the ash covered sadhus, sitting next to Sufi malamatis under them. Here they must have exchanged ideas about religion, philosophy, rites and god that now transcend the nationalistic boundaries that have been created after the creation of India-Pakistan. Somewhere in these trees, in this land and in the air, those conversations are still preserved and can be heard in the silence of civilization, in the rattling of the leaves, in the howling of the breeze. They would remain here for eternity.

    In a small building behind the trees, I met a few women who had come here from the city of Chiniot. “We have come to perform Nauratre. This is for a special wish,” the oldest one out of them told me.

    “Can you tell me what the wish is?” An uncomfortable silence followed. The woman stared at me judging me; judging me because I did not know the decorum of special wishes. One is never supposed to tell one’s wish.

    “What do you for Nauratre?”
    “We stay up for nine nights praying to the saint to grant our wishes.”

    This is akin to the Hindu festival Navratri during which devotees stay up nine consecutive night praying to the goddess Durga, the goddess replaced by a saint here.
    “Are you Shiia?” I asked her.
    “What your name?”

    She once again stared back at me emptily. She was judging me again; judging me because I did not know that asking for Shiias to identify themselves at a time like this and at a place like was rather naive on my part.


    An intimidating convoy of jeeps rushed past us almost throwing us off the single lane road. Their windows were blackened, legally not allowed, and black uniformed guards sat at the rear touting their machine guns. We assumed them to be either members of the Sipah-e-Sahaba, now known as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat or Laskhar-e-Jhangvi, both Sunni hard-line organizations that fuel the sectarian conflicts in the country. After Sipah-e-Sahaba was banned by the former military dictator, it re-emerged with a new name and continued playing an active role in the politics of the country. Since elections were only a few months away, billboards with the pictures of their leaders decorated the length and breadth of the city. Their leader, Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, was ubiquitous, endorsing party members, behind autos, on billboards and on posters. Ever since the rise in target killings of prominent Shiias in the major cities of the country, human rights activists, opposition party leaders and sections of the media have alleged that the Punjab Government, dominated by the right-wing Pakistan Muslim League Noon, have been supporting these extremists based in Jhang.

    Children of Partition, I thought, as I pondered over the name of Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi. Ludhianvi as a suffix testifies that his origin is from the Indian city of Ludhiana and his family must have migrated at the time of Partition. The trauma of being uprooted from his ancestral city must have stayed with the child Muhammad Ahmed, if not as a personal memory than at least as a collective one. The fact that he continues to use Ludhianvi with his name highlights the association he has with that city, no longer his. I wondered how much of a role the riots of partition and displacement from his home played on the psyche of Muhammad Ahmed. Was this turn to religious extremism a venting of that frustration? Was there a connection between the haphazard Partition of India and the sectarian conflict in Pakistan? Would Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi still have been an extremist politician had the Partition of India not occurred?

    “The shrine of Mai Heer,” noted a board on the road. “Who is Mai?” I asked Iqbal Qaiser. “It is used out of respect. For males one uses the term Baba and Mai for females.”

    The shrine was located on the top of an ancient mound, surrounded by a plethora of graves. A small market had burst into life here induced by the activities of the shrine. Ignoring the calls of vendors selling threads, bangles and lockets we climbed the stairs towards the shrine. On the courtyard, sitting under a Waan tree a lone musician sang Shah Hussain on his harmonium. “O Mother, to whom should I now narrate these tales of my pain?”

    Walking into the main shrine I wondered if Heer was a Shiia or a Sunni. Did it even matter then?

    Amanullah, the caretaker of the shrine greeted the devotees telling them about the miracles of this place. “Girls looking to get married tie bangles here. Young couples who want to get married but cannot for some problems tie threads here and their pain is alleviated. Barren women present that cradle here and with the blessings of Mai Heer she is gifted a child.” The cradle offerings had uncanny similarities to the cult of Krishna.

    “Do people also sing Heer here?” I asked.

    “Let them try doing that and they will not be able to recognize themselves after a few minutes,” he retorted in repressed anger. “We don’t allow that here. These poets and bards do not understand the spiritual essence of the legend of Heer-Ranjha. This was not a love between two individuals but a spiritual love. It was pure. The poets and singers present it as a worldly story. The Siyals of the city have strictly forbidden anyone from singing or reciting Heer here.” Iqbal Qaiser confirms, “In many villages, the recitation of Waris Shah’s Heer is not allowed. People believe that if the sound of the verses falls on the ears of young girls they too would elope like Heer.”

    “Is the shrine under the control of the Siyals?” I asked.

    “Yes it is. When the Pakistani movie Heer-Ranjha was released in the seventies it was played in all the cinemas of the country except in Jhang. When one of the cinemas tried playing it, it was burned to the ground.”

    This was a strangely comical situation. On the one hand the Siyals, who were still in control of the shrine were reaping benefits from the tradition of Heer-Ranjha. On the other hand there was an attempt to downplay the cultural traditions that have developed around Heer. Several centuries later, the “honor” of “their” daughter was still haunting the Siyal community here. Heer cannot be sung or played here because it presented their “daughter” as a rebellious girl who eloped with Ranjha even after her marriage, therefore bringing disrepute to the Siyal family, something that the Siyals are not willing to forget even today.  Ironically, while they objected to the romanticizing of the folk love legend because of honor issues, they were also cashing on the same love legend by keeping all the monetary offerings presented to the shrine. When it came to extracting benefit from their “daughter”, the Siyyals here had no qualms.

    Amanullah was also a Siyal, a proud one. I wondered if he knew that the poem of Shah Hussain being sung outside also has a reference to the love legend.

    “I roamed all around searching for my Ranjhan

    Little did I know my Ranjhan was always with me”

    Tiles on the exterior were filled with love messages written by pen. “You may never be mine but I wish that wherever you live you may spend a happy life. Murad. Xox.” “Zainab and Imran forever.” “Salute to the love legend Mai Heer and Baba Ranjha.”. Here, in the hotbed of religious violence were these eternal messages of love, in honor of Heer and Ranjha.

    Haroon Khalid is a researcher with the Hri Institute based in Lahore

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