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  • The Truth of a Legend


    Haroon Khalid

    Images by Sohail Abid

    A little outside the village of Kheiwa in Jang district of Punjab, lies an old graveyard; a small bare mound dotted with a few gnarled Waan trees. Scattered all over the graveyard are broken pieces of charcoal grey brunt bricks. The only building here that has survived the tide of time is an ancient mosque, a small yet elaborately designed structure, whose sanctity has been maintained over all these years. The bricks and wooden doors and windows have not been pillaged, but the mosque is now abandoned by devotees who instead visit newly constructed structures in their new village. This historical mosque that dates back to the Mughal era of Akbar or Jahangir, according to the folk legend, was once also a madrassa, where the legendary lovers Mirza and Sahiban studied and fell in love. Given religious and social propriety it is rather appropriate that the mosque stands abandoned, cut-off from the past that the people of this village would rather forget.

    When the village of Kheiwa was burned down around the 17th century by Mirza’s brothers to avenge his death, miraculously, only this mosque survived seemingly by divine intervention in honour of Mirza and Sahiban’s love. The rest of the village was decimated and when a new village was established here soon after, the ruins of the older one became a graveyard, and the scattered bricks – a remnant of the past.

    About 50 km from here, next to the bank of the Ravi is the historical village of Danabad, the home of Mirza. Here, lying outside of the village in shambles, protected by an arbitrarily constructed wall without any roof, are the graves of Mirza, Sahiban and his iconic horse Bakki. This physical evidence of the love story between Mirza – Sahiban is considered to be an inauspicious place. The locals here do not encourage the womenfolk to pay their tribute to these lovers as they believe that in doing so, their womenfolk become susceptible to elopement. Despite the ban, several women from their village have indeed followed in the footsteps of the head-strong Sahiban.

    Mirza-Sahiban, considered to be the last in the series of folk love legends of Punjab — primarily then, and even now, an agricultural patriarchal society– is the most infamous one. It was viewed as a blemish on the metaphysical concept of love that existed between Heer and Ranjha, considered to be an example of pure love, indeed a manifestation of the divine, taking on a religious dimension in Sufi literature. Heer-Ranjha’s shrine today in Jhang is a sacred space visited by devotees and lovers alike, while the shrine of Mirza-Sahiban is taboo, as their love is considered impure. It became impure when they succumbed to their carnal desires, bringing disrepute to the spiritual experience of love. For the orthodox guardians of morals, their act of lust permanently brought an end to the era of lovers in the Punjab. There was to be no more Heer-Ranjha or Sohni-Mahiwal after how Mirza and Sahiban expressed their love. A folk verse in Punjabi captures the essence of hatred these two lovers invited:
    Sahiban kaach zamane di (Sahiban belongs to an era of moral decline) Te Mirza suur da lun (whereas Mirza is the penis of a swine)

    Changing complexities of love legends

    This is a particularly interesting reading of the story, especially when none of the two classicist poets Peelu and Hafiz Barkhudar, who narrated the story of Mirza-Sahiban hint at any physical relationship between the two. In fact in Hafiz Barkhudar’s version, when Sahiban is being taken away by her brothers after the murder of Mirza she categorically denies having any physical relationship with Mirza. On the other hand Waris Shah in his version of Heer-Ranjha alludes to the sexual relationship between Heer and Ranjha. This aspect of sexuality was later injected into the story of Mirza-Sahiban by folklorists and not by the two classicist poets. Mushtaq Soofi in his 2010 book Aashiq, akhri k nawe mentions that different attitudes towards these two legends need to be studied in the changing socio-economic conditions of their respective eras. Heer-Ranjha was noted for the first time sometime around Akbar’s (1542-1604) tenure, while Mirza-Sahiban is believed to have been noted sometime after. Mushtaq Soofi argues that the society had changed by that time, as greater trading routes had been established in Punjab and the society had become more market oriented in a pre-industrial world. This also changed the relations between people. He argues that whereas the audience of Heer-Ranjha was naïve, and interpreted the complexities of life in black-white, the audience of Mirza-Sahiban, now with exposure to a larger world were aware of the complexities of relationship. Love – a phenomenon perceived pure earlier, wasunderstood not only in terms of its spirituality but also physicality and hence impurity. When Hafiz Barkhudar called Mirza the ‘last lover’, he meant the last lover of an innocent world that was changing; a change that the poet had foreseen, argues Soofi.

    Mushtaq Soofi also understands the ‘betrayal’ of Sahiban in the context of these nuances that were emerging in a pre-industrial world. However in the folk imagination Sahiban has become a symbol of a weak lover, even unfaithful, when compared to the larger than life Heer. Mirza -Sahiban eloped so that Sahiban could escape marrying her cousin to whom she was betrothed a child. Her brothers then pursued the fleeing couple on elopement. Mirza having reached the outskirts of his village insisted that they rest; while Sahiban, caught between the loyalty towards her beloved and her brothers on the other, insisted that they head on but in vain. When Mirza slept she placed his bow and arrows on the top of a Jand tree, so that when her brothers approached them he would not be able to harm them, which he would have inevitably given his extraordinary skills with the bow and arrow. Mirza died in the belief that he was betrayed. Heer was not bothered by such complexities of emotions, argues Soofi. For her it was either Ranjha or her family. However, like a modern young woman, Sahiban wanted both.

    This Jand tree, which has been the subject of numerous folk love poems and verses, stands a few kilometers from Danabad. Slightly bent as if by old age and the guilt of Mirza’s death,the tree reluctantly lingers on. Its particularly important role in the folk history of Punjab has made it a site of a unique pilgrimage of keen folklorists. This spot, where Mirza and Sahiban are buried, is where their love story ended and the legend began.

    Legend or Fact? 

    Despite the presence of mosques, shrines and the tree, where the story unfolded no one can be certain if this folk love legend is actually true. This is also the case with Heer-Ranjha, where the shrines and villages exist but there is no historical evidence that the couple actually existed. However for Mirza-Sahiban a few additional evidence points in the direction of there actually having been a Mirza and a Sahiban and that their doomed love story was true.

    The first and particularly important evidence is the ruin of the historical village of Kheiwa, burned down by the brothers of Mirza to avenge his death. The fact that there is a mound outside of the village with secrets buried inside, leaves one wondering if the burning of the village was actually an act of Mirza’s brothers from the Kharral clan. The second tradition that gives credence to the historicity of this folk story is the practice among the Siyyals (Sahiban’s family) of female infanticide that began around this period, which was said to be when Sahiban was murdered soon after Mirza’s death. They started doing so to avoid the birth of another Sahiban. This practice was stopped by the British government as is noted in the book, Punjab Chief written by Lepel H. Griffin and published in the year 1865. The book implies that there is truth in the origins of this practice. Female infanticide unfortunately is still practiced in Pakistan. In a report by CNN it was stated that 1200 female infants were killed and dumped in the year of 2010. This is not taking into account all those murders that are never reported. Female honour and the view that she is a burden on the family are major reasons behind these brutal practices.

    However, one is left wondering about how Sahiban’s body reached Danabad after her murder at Kheiwa by her brothers. In this case one could argue that Sahiban might not be actually buried there. As such, this narration cannot be stated as a fact, given the manner in which this folk story has been handed down through the generations. But given the ruins at Kheiwa and the practice of female infanticide among the Siyyals one cannot easily dismiss this story as fiction. Indeed, the element of an unpleasant truth that it contains might have contributed to the lack of popularity of this legend in Punjab today.

    Kheiwa, the village of SahibaN
    The SahibaN Mosque, Kheiwa. This is where Mirza and SahinaN used to study together
    The old graveyard, Kheiwa
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