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Folk Tales of Pakistan: Sohni Mahiwal

Posted on January 8, 2007
Filed Under >Mast Qalandar, Culture & Heritage, Poetry
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Mast Qalandar
Pakistan, like every other culture, has its share of folklore. In fact, a very generous share — particularly of the love tales

Folklore is a mixture of beliefs, facts and fiction. The stories are told and retold by successive generations, embellished by poets, sung and celebrated by common folks and enacted and filmed by entertainment industry. Over time, the facts and fiction get so interwoven that often it becomes difficult to separate one from the other.

It is always a poet, though, that immortalizes a love story. But a poet chooses to sing a particular story, and not the other, because of its inherent beauty and poignancy. While the Persian poet, Nizami, introduced Layla-Majnun to the world, Shakespeare immortalized Romeo and Juliet. Waris Shah cried a river over Heer and made her a household name in Pakistan and Northern India, and Sohni and Mahiwal first captured the imagination of Fazal Shah and, through his poetry, got embedded into popular imagination.



I chose the story of Sohni and Mahiwal for this post because I find it so touching, so tragic, and so real. Even though Sohni and Mahiwal lived, loved and died, relatively recently there is no one consistent account of their story. However, there is an unmistakable common thread that runs through the different versions.

Sifting through different accounts and glossing over some, here is, briefly, what I could gather of this beautiful and enduring story:

Sometime during the late Mughal period, there lived in a town on the banks of the Chenab, or one of its branches, a potter (kumhar) named Tulla. (The town is identified either as present day Gujrat or one of the nearby towns.) Tulla was a master craftsman and his earthenware was bought and sold throughout Northern India and even exported to Central Asia. To the potter and his wife was born a daughter. She was such a beautiful child that they named her Sohni, meaning beautiful in Punjabi.

Sohni spent her childhood playing and observing things in her father’s workshop. She watched clay kneaded and molded on the wheel into different shaped pots and pitchers, dried in the sun, and then fired and baked. Sohni grew up not only into a beautiful, young woman but also an accomplished artist who made floral designs on the pots and pitchers that came off her father’s wheel.

Sohni’s town was located on the trading route between Delhi and Central Asia, and trading caravans often made a stopover here. One such caravan that stopped here included a young, handsome trader from Bukhara, named Izzat Baig. While checking out the merchandise in town, Izzat Baig came upon Tulla’s workshop where he spotted Sohni sitting in a corner of the workshop painting floral designs on the pots. Izzat Baig was taken by Sohni’s rustic beauty and charm and couldn’t take his eyes off her. In order to linger at the workshop, he started purchasing random pieces of pottery. He returned the next day and made some more purchases at Tulla’s shop. His purchases were a pretext to be around Sohni for as long as he could. This became Izzat Baig’s routine until he had squandered most of his money.

When the time came for his caravan to leave, Izzat Baig found it impossible to leave Sohni’s town. He told his companions to leave, and that he would follow later. He took up permanent residence in the town and would visit Sohni at her father’s shop on one pretext or the other. Sohni also began to feel the heat of Izzat Baig’s love and gradually began to melt. The two started meeting secretly.

Izzat Baig soon ran out of money and started taking up odd jobs with different people, including Sohni’s father. One such job was that of grazing people’s cattle — mainly buffaloes. Because of his newfound occupation people started calling him Mahiwal, a short variation of Majhan-wala or the buffalo-man. That name stayed with him for the rest of his life — and thereafter.

Sohni and Mahiwal’s clandestine meetings soon became the talk of the town. When Sohni’s father came to know about the affair he hurriedly arranged Sohni’s marriage with one of her cousins, also a potter, and, ignoring Sohni’s protests and entreaties, bundled her off to her new home in a village somewhere on the other side of the river.

Mahiwal was devastated. He left town and became a wanderer, searching for Sohni’s whereabouts. Eventually, he found her house and managed to meet her in the guise of a beggar and gave her his new address — a hut across the river. Sohni’s husband, meanwhile, discovering that he could not win Sohni’s heart no matter what he did to please her, started spending more time away from home on business trips. Taking advantage of her husband’s absence, Sohni started meeting Mahiwal regularly. She would swim across the river at night with the help of a large water pitcher (gharra), a common swimming aid in the villages even today. They would spend most of the night together in Mahiwal’s hut and Sohni would swim back home before the crack of dawn. On reaching her side of the river, she would hide the pitcher in a bush to be used for her next trip the following night.

One day, Sohni’s sister-in-law (her husband’s sister) came visiting. Suspecting something unusual about Sohni’s nocturnal movements, she started spying on her. She followed Sohn,i one night, and saw her take out the pitcher from the bush, wade into the river and swim across. She reported the matter to her mother (Sohni’s mother-in-law). Both of them, rather than informing Sohni’s husband, decided to get rid of Sohni. This, they believed, was the only way to save their family’s honor. The sister-in-law quietly took out Sohni’s pitcher from the bush and replaced it with sun-dried, unbaked pitcher.

As usual, Sohni set out at night for her meeting with Mahiwal, picked the pitcher from the bush, as she always did, and entered the river. It was a stormy night. The river was in high flood. Sohni was soon engulfed in water. She discovered, to her horror, that the pitcher had begun to dissolve and disintegrate.

What shall she do now? Different thoughts rushed through Sohni’s mind. Abandon the trip? Or continue trying to swim without the help of a pitcher — and drown? Her inner struggle at this point is best expressed in a saraiki song made memorable by Pathanay Khan in his inimitable voice: Sohni gharray nu aakhdi aj mainu yaar mila gharrya

Roughly translated and paraphrased the song runs as follows:

Sohni (addressing the pitcher):

It’s dark and the river is in flood
There is water all around me
How am I going to meet Mahiwal?

If I keep going, I will surely drown
And if I turn back
I would be going back on my promise
And letting Mahiwal down

I beg you (O pitcher!), with folded hands,
Help me meet my Mahiwal
You always did it, please do it tonight, too

(The pitcher replies):

I wish I, too, were baked in the fire of love, like you are
But I am not. I apologize; I cannot help

Hearing Sohni’s cries, Mahiwal, from the other side, jumped into the river to save her. He barely managed to reach her. As the story goes, their bodies were washed ashore, and were found the next day, lying next to each other.

With their death, Sohni and Mahiwal entered into the world of legends and lore. And, in their death the sinners became saints.

43 Comments on “Folk Tales of Pakistan: Sohni Mahiwal”

  1. Farhan says:
    January 8th, 2007 12:39 pm

    Great story. Had alwasy heard about Sohni Mahiwal but never knew the full story. The woman had guts!

  2. ahmed says:
    January 8th, 2007 1:13 pm

    What a moving story, made even more so in the narration by MQ. And in the rendition in English of Pattanay Khan’s lyrics.
    ‘Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought’.

  3. SOSAN says:
    January 8th, 2007 1:21 pm

    wah!!!!!!! Mast Qalandar ”maza aa gaya” as Farhan said heard too much about sohni Mahiwal’s story but didn’t know that much information about Sohni and Mahiwal .Now i know the whole story and pathanay khan’s song ”sohni garray nu aakhdi ” made it a perfect Love story .I heard that song somewhere,i wish anyone could add the song on ”Youtube”or on this post ,so we all can listen and enjoy this post much more .

  4. Adnan Ahmad says:
    January 8th, 2007 1:32 pm

    I was going to have an other cup of caffeine to keep up with a Monday afternoon before I read this post. Now I don’t need one. I heard Pathanay Khan sing this song many times but with this full story in the background the effect is amazing. I am thinking of poets’ poet, the Great Mir Taqi Mir:

    Sakht Kaafir thaa jin nay pehle Mir
    Mazhab-e-Ishq ikhtiar kia!!

  5. Akif Nizam says:
    January 8th, 2007 3:03 pm

    The ATP contributors make me feel so culturally inept that I’m beginning to hate checking back every ten minutes.

    Wonderful story and narrated equally as well !

  6. muawiya says:
    January 8th, 2007 3:19 pm

    You know what i wish, i wish i could have these folklores up on New York Broadway in all their splendour and glory.That would be so awesome. I believe our culture is so much more richer and colourful that it would show up really well…Hmm…but this is just another castle in the air for me…

  7. Giggling says:
    January 8th, 2007 3:34 pm

    FINALLY, we get some sexy and raunchy pictures on my favorite website :-) Just joking.

    Just to repeat what others said. A great post. Lets get more on our folk tales please.

  8. The Pakistanian says:
    January 8th, 2007 4:04 pm

    Great story indeed. For those of you who want to pay their respects to Sohni can visit her tomb in the city of Shahdadpur in Sindh, where hers and Mahiwal’s bodies were found.
    Heer Ranjha, Sohni Mahiwal, Mirza Sahiba are amongst the famous love stories, there was a lesser known loving duo of Sehti and Murad, is there anyway Mast Qalander sahab can throw some light on their tragic tale or perhaps on that of Noori and Jam Tamachi from Baluchistan. I have always heard these names but never heard their stories. Thanks

  9. Pervaiz Munir Alvi says:
    January 8th, 2007 5:36 pm

    Are the first two paintings by the renowned Pakistani painter Ustad Allah Buksh.

  10. Sobaan says:
    January 8th, 2007 8:05 pm

    Lovely :)

  11. shirazi says:
    January 8th, 2007 11:22 pm

    Mast Qalandar: Thanks for this nicely narrated story.

  12. Ahsan says:
    January 9th, 2007 5:06 am

    Dear Mast Qalandar,

    You are a great story-teller. You make it vivid and real. Instead of dabbling in every thing just keep on telling us more of the same type. Encore, encore, encore…

    Ahsan

  13. MQ says:
    January 9th, 2007 11:56 pm

    Pervaiz M Alvi,
    The pictures in the post were picked up by Adil Najam from the Internet, I guess. The painting at the top right is by one Sohba Singh. I don’t know about the one on the left. It does look Allah-Bakhshesque, though.

    Sosan,
    I don’t think the song is available on the Youtube. I have it on a CD and I could mail it to anyone who wants to listen to it. It’s a very touching song. In fact, it was this song that prompted me to write the post.

    Pakistanian,
    I am aware of Noori Jam Tamachi’s legend but I do not have enough details about the story. I believe it is a Sindhi legend, not from Balochistan.

    Ahsan,
    Thanks for the compliment and the advice. I’ll think about it once I settle down in my “new” surroundings. I am pleasantly surprised though to see you take out time from your engaging discussion with Yasser Latif Hamdani on democracy to read something like Sohni Mahiwal.

  14. sosan says:
    January 10th, 2007 12:25 am

    MQ,
    Thank you so much for your great concern about pathanay khan’s Cd but i will try to find it on some other web site.Yes you are right it’s a very touching song ,one can feel height of Love ,emotions and pain in this song as it does in your post about ”Sohni Mahiwal’most people who never heard that song can easily imagine the real pain,Love and emotions from this post .
    Thanks
    SOSAN.

  15. ahsan says:
    January 10th, 2007 10:01 am

    Dear MQ.
    Love is more important than the politics or the state affairs.
    Ahsan

  16. SOSAN says:
    January 10th, 2007 12:11 pm

    Wah Ahsan sahib kiya solan aanay suchhi baat kahi hai aap nay.I agree.

  17. MQ says:
    January 10th, 2007 12:31 pm

    [quote ]
    “Love is more important than politics or state affairs.”
    [/quote]

    Ahsan,
    I remember you mentioning once on a different thread that you were a French citizen and had a deeper connection with France than just citizenship. Therefore I can fully appreciate your statement. Who else but a French could express such a sentiment?

  18. January 10th, 2007 12:40 pm

    MQ, no disrespect meant to Ahsan Sahib or the French, but that feeling is a more universal one…..

    Mandir dha thay, masjid dha thay….
    par kissi da dill na dhaaween….

  19. MQ says:
    January 10th, 2007 1:26 pm

    You are right, Adil. How could I ignore the “qalandri” dimensions of love?

  20. Sohaib says:
    January 10th, 2007 1:59 pm

    Akif sa’ab tussi sai kehnday o…assi te waqaye anparh jahal sabit hoye nay.

  21. ahmed says:
    January 11th, 2007 12:55 pm

    Sohni-Mahiwal were at last united in the timeless embrace of death. Their names are writ on water.
    I have often wondered why all such legends, which evolve into the stuff of folk-lore, are invariably tragedies. Is it because they provide a catharsis for the most elemental of human emotions? Ghalib, as always, has his own explanation:–

    Qaid e hayat au band e gham asl mein dono aik hain
    Maut say pehlay aadmi gham say nijaat paiyai kyon

  22. Adnan Ahmad says:
    January 11th, 2007 2:24 pm

    Ahmed, I think you have nailed it. I remember teh terrific line from the movie Cleopatra where after inserting the dagger in his chest Antony says these last words: “nothing changes except life into death!” And as you quoted above I have never seen anyone go as far as Ghalib did in his observations (and questions) about the limitations of human existance.

    hawas ko hai nishaat-e-kaar kia kia
    na ho marna to jeenay ka maza kia hay

    hay kahan tamanna ka doosra qadam yaRab..

    jab ke tujh bin nahee koee mojood.. (this verse is far deeper than most people realize..)

  23. MQ says:
    January 11th, 2007 9:41 pm

    [quote ]
    “I have often wondered why all such legends … are invariably tragedies.” [/quote]

    Ahmed,
    You are right, tragic stories touch us more deeply and cast a more enduring spell than the stories with a happy ending. I am sure social scientists will have answer to this, but in the meanwhile the exchange between you and Adnan Ahmad has inspired me to look for my old copy of Deewan-e-Ghalib.

  24. ahmed says:
    January 11th, 2007 11:01 pm

    MQ:
    Good luck with the Dewan e Ghalib. Whenever I open it I am plunged into another world. Right now, two verses are reverberating in my ears:

    Daikhnan taqrir (read here tehrir)ki lazzat kay jo usnay kaha
    Maynain yeh janaa keh goya yeh bhi meri dil mein hai

    and…

    Yeh mas’ail e tassawuf yeh tera bayan ghalib
    Tujhay hum wali samajhtay jo na baada khwaar hota!

  25. MQ says:
    January 12th, 2007 12:47 am

    Ahmed,
    Even though we are distracting from the post (or are we?) I must say I like your choice of Ghalib.

    One of the delightful things about Urdu poetry, not seen in any European language, is that when you hear a good couplet it prompts you to recite something in return and soon it sets off a chain reaction. Baya’t Baazi is what it is called. So, keeping up the tradition of Baya’t Baazi let me quote one of my favorite couplets of Ghalib:

    Naa-kardah gunaahoN ki bhi hasrat ki milay daad
    Ya Rab, agar un kardah gunaahoN ki saza hai

    [O Lord, if you are going to punish me for the sins I have committed then also reward me for the the sins I wished to but did not commit]

    How does this measure on your yardstick of “… keh goya yeh bhi meray dil maiN thee”?

  26. ahmed says:
    January 12th, 2007 12:37 pm

    MQ
    You are very right in what you say. And now that you have opened for me the magic casement of memory here is another verse from Ghalib to complement the one you have quoted:

    Aata hai dagh-e-hasrat-dil ka hisaab yaad
    Mujh say meray gunaah ka hisaab ay Khuda na maang

    And this from Noshi Gilani I find irresistible:

    Joh harf loh-e-wafa paay likhay huway hain unko bhi dekh lainaan
    Joh raigaan hogayin– woh sari ibadatain bhi shumaar karna

    Perhaps we have moved somewhat away from the title of this post, but not I think from its subject matter which is the tragedy of Love. In any case

    Gham-e-ishq agar na hota, gham -e-rozgar hota.

    I do apologize to others for imposing on them this digression. This will be positively my last entry here.

    Thank you once again, MQ; and I am truly sorry I do not find myself competent to render a translation into English of the above verses.

  27. ahmed says:
    January 12th, 2007 12:43 pm

    Sorry made a mistake;
    In the place of the first “hisaab” of Ghalib’s verse , please read “shumaar” .

  28. khalid m janjua says:
    February 22nd, 2007 1:43 am

    Well it ws a sad story but one thing that her sister-in-law ws very intelligent & Davel mind so she used a technology to rid her off!!

  29. MQ says:
    February 22nd, 2007 2:41 am

    Khalid Janjua,

    Well, technologies may have changed but the “devil-mindedness” against the ‘bhabees’ and ‘bahoos’ is pretty widespread even today.

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