An ill-fated romance from Punjabi heartlands which continues to live in our hearts.
Artwork credits: Abeer Kasiri
Once upon a time, hundreds of years ago, a beautiful baby boy was born to a couple from the Ranjha clan in Takht Hazara. He had seven older brothers and was his father’s favourite. Whilst his older brothers went about their daily chores, Dheedho spent his time learning to play the flute.
As Deedho Ranjha grew up into a handsome young man, he was unmatched in his skill of creating heartwarming tunes on his flute and for growing his hair far more than what was socially acceptable for men at the time, earning him the reputation of something of a rebel.
When Dheedho’s father passed away, family disputes over inheritance followed. His brother’s kept the best of the land for themselves. Out of spite for him being spoilt, they gave him his due share, only that it was barren! Deedho knew his land would bear no crops all year round. He tried to plead his case but to no avail. His brothers refused to budge. After a heated exchange of words, he left his home in protest.
He wandered aimlessly along the banks of the Darya-e-Chenab, southwards until he reached the territory of the Sayyal tribe (modern-day Jhang, Pakistan).
Just before dusk, Dheedho came across a village and pondered. He knew it would be unwise to travel at night, so he decided to take refuge in the quarters of the village mosque. Under the dark skies, facing dark days ahead, Dheedo turned to the one thing which always seemed to ease him when he was distressed - his beloved flute.
The soul-stirring song ripples across the silence of the village, and the village folks gather around the mosque. The Imam of the mosque also turned up and was outraged at a musical instrument being played in the mosque. Deedho’s locks enraged Imam Sahab further, and he told Dheedho to pack his things and leave immediately.
Unintimated, Ranjha retorted with a rather audacious reply.
“You and the likes of you with your bears, under the guise of sainthood, climb the mimbar only to preach to others whilst you fail to follow what you preach inside or outside the mosque.”
The argument between the Imam and Dheedho continued. The village folk seemed to agree with Dheedho silently: God is everywhere, then why the outrage? A sin is still a sin, in and outside a mosque. They also sympathised with Deedho when they found out he is a traveller with nowhere to go in unknown territory. “Where would the poor lad go at this hour?” they thought.
Anyhow, Dheedho was allowed to stay in the mosque overnight, provided he left as soon as daylight sets in, and so he did. A few days later, he found himself in Jhang. Deedho decided to stay in the city to find work. He often played his flute by the roadside to earn a few extra coins.
A few days later, he wandered around the city streets after nightfall, turning his pain into music on his flute. As fate would have it, the sound of soulful music drifted to Heer’s window, daughter of Chuchak Sial, the Chief of Jhang. The princess wondered who it could be - perhaps the boy from the Ranjhas. The city kept no secrets. Just the fame of her extraordinary beauty, intelligence, and soft-heartedness had found its way to every house in the city, the news of a handsome young man, a Ranjha, with long locks, new to the city, skilled at his flute had also reached her ears.
The following day, Heer set out to look for Ranjha, to confirm her suspicions. She only let the closest of her friends in on her secret. The girls found the Ranjha they were hoping to find at his usual spot close to the market. When Heer saw him, her heart was instantly taken by his looks, and even more so when she heard the soulful music from his flute.
She knew for sure it was indeed the same boy, this Ranjha, whom she had heard last night!
Heer discussed the matter with her parents and persuaded her father to hire Ranjha to herd their cattle. Her father agreed. The flames of love which had leapt at Heer’s heart had also enveloped Ranjha’s heart. The young couple yearned to see more and more of one another, and often met in the pastures beside the Bela river, where Ranjha took the family’s cattle flock for grazing.
Many days and months passed in what seemed to be eternal bliss for the young lovers. Eventually, Heer’s paternal uncle, Kaido, became suspicious of the young Ranjha lad. He put in place arrangements to spy on her. Once he had seen and heard enough, he reported the matter to his brother and sister-in-law, Heer’s parents.
Heer was reprimanded for her behaviour. She, however, remained steadfast in her love and pleaded with her parents to give her their blessing and allow her to marry Ranjha. Her parents then turn towards the village Qazi and request him to come and resolve the matter by counselling Heer and explaining to her how her conduct is improper for a young Muslim woman.
The Qazi politely but firmly reminded Heer that she was a Punjaban, and Punjabi was to uphold the honour of their families above all else. He also explained to her that Muslim women must keep themselves from the desires Shaytaan puts into their hearts. As a woman, she must be married to a fellow clansman, and if not that, as the chief’s daughter, she was to become the wife of a man of stature, to help further her father’s influence, as was her duty, and that it was not for her to interact so freely with house help.
Heer, however, was unconvinced. “You cannot wean away the addict from the drug. I cannot walk away from Ranjha. It is with Allah’s will that I found him. If it is our destiny to be together, then who, other than Allah, can change it?” she questioned the Qazi.
“True love is like a mark that a hot iron burns onto the skin or like a spot on a ripened mango. It can never go away,” she added.
Outraged at Heer’s audacity, the Qazi threatened to sentence her to death. She refused to give in. The Qazi could not possibly sentence the chief’s daughter to death without permission. Her father, angry as he was, could not bear the thought of commanding the Qazi to issue a fatwa sentencing her to the gallows, so he arranged for her to marry her to a man named Saida Khairra, from Rangpur.
During the Nikkah, Saida accepts her as his wife, but Heer refuses to accept him as her husband. The Qazi pressurised her to answer in the affirmative to which he answered,
“I am already married. Nikkah is sacred, and it is decided in the heavens, by Allah’s will, who is to marry whom. Like it has been since Hazrat Adam and Hazrat Hawwa, it is maktub that I am Ranjha’s, Heer is Ranjha’s. My Nikkah was witnessed by none other than Hazrat Jibrail, Mikail, Israel and Israfeel. No man has the power to finish what Allah has willed. I am married by His will, and so, you can not marry me to a stranger, it is Haram.”
Dumbfounded and angry, the Qazi warned Heer to stay silent unless she be subjected to a lashing for mocking Shariah. He solemnised the marriage, and Heer was sent to Rangpur with her husband. Amid celebrations, tears rolled down her cheeks as she wept uncontrollably for Ranjha.
Alone and heartbroken, Ranjha takes the disguise of a jogi. With fellow yogis, his heart pining for Heer, he went from village to village in Rangpur, desperate to find Heer’s whereabouts. Heer too on the other hand, yearned for him, and languished in her new home, which felt like prison to her.
As fate would have it, Ranjha eventually ended in Heer’s village. The news of a handsome jogi made her heart leap with excitement. It was Ranjha, it had to be Ranjha, it could be no one but him. Luckily, Heer had found female companionship loyal to her in Rangpur. Her friends, as well as her sister-in-law, felt that she had been wronged. They put in plans to confirm if the jogi was truly Ranjha. Upon learning this, they arranged for her to meet him. Sehti, her sister-in-law, aided her as she eloped one night with Ranjha.
The Khairra clansmen followed Heer and Ranjha, and captured the couple in what used to be the territory of Maharaja Adli. The Raja was a Hindu, so he asked the Qazi at court to judge the case under Shariah law. The Qazi, without much ado, declared that Heer belonged rightfully to Saida Khairra, her husband.
Devastated but helpless, Ranjha watched as Heer was taken back to Rangpur by the Khairra’s. Still dressed as a jogi, Ranjha raised his hands towards the sky and a desperate prayer escaped his lips, “Ya Allah, you are Qahar and Jabbar. Destroy this town and these cruel people so that justice may be done.”
Soon after, a fire soon erupted in the town. Superstitions ran deep into the minds of prayers, and soon, everyone, including the Maharaja were afraid that it was because of the jogi’s baddua. Frightened by the fire enveloping the whole town, Maharaja Adli immediately proceeded to reverse the Qazi’s hearing. He commanded the Khairra’s to bring back Heer to his court at once. Listening to the case anew, he sided with Heer and Ranjha and allowed Ranjha to take Heer with him.
Heer’s family, however, requested Ranjha to go back home, and come back with a baraat, to take Heer home properly as was customary He happily agreed and headed back to Takht Hazara. Back home, his brothers are ashamed of their actions and welcome their little brother home back with open arms. He also told them of Heer, and they began to prepare for the wedding ceremony. Overjoyed to be united at last, whilst Ranjha prepared to become the bridegroom of his beloved and Heer dreamt of becoming Ranjha’s bride, the Sial clansmen plotted to deal with the blow Heer had dealt to the honour of the clan.
Back at the Sial chief household, Heer was fatally poisoned by her family. A messenger was dispatched by the Chief to Takht Hazara to deliver the news to Ranjha. Upon hearing of his beloved’s death, Deedho Ranjha collapsed. Whilst their lives ended, their love lives on.
Commentary: Heer's tomb is still frequented by visitors, in modern-day Jhang, Pakistan. Takht Hazara continues to be mentioned in music, often as the "Kabah" for lovers - symbolising that Takht Hazara is to lovers what Makkah is to pilgrims. First written by Damodar, and one of the latest retellings being by Ustad Daaman, no one has come close to how beautifully the Punjabi Sufi poet Waris Shah penned Heer. She is Shah sahab's Heer. Waris Shah was a contemporary of Baba Bulleh Shah, and they are believed to have studied at the same Madrassah, under the tutorship of the same teacher.