At the shrine of Heer-Ranjha in the outskirts of Jhang, the modesty of daughter of this Pakistani city is a contested topic even today. The Sial tribe to which Heer belonged, which once ruled this city and remains a dominant political force here, controls the shrine that sees over hundreds visitors every day.

A simple single-storey structure located atop an ancient mound and surrounded by a vast graveyard, the shrine contains a single grave with two bodies. This is the ultimate expression of Heer and Ranjha’s love, a union that evaded them in their lifetime.

Nothing represents Punjabi identity like Waris Shah’s rendition of the legend of the star-crossed lovers. It cross cuts religious boundaries and draws the Punjabi out of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims, otherwise divided by their religious identities.

Udham Singh, the Indian revolutionary who assassinated Michael O’Dwyer – the former Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab, under whose watch the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of April 1919 took place – during his trial, swore upon not Guru Granth Sahib or any other religious book, but rather Waris Shah’s Heer.

But though Heer is a quintessential symbol for them, Punjabis have a complicated relationship with the love story. In many villages, when Heer is recited, it is ensured that no womenfolk are around to hear its verses, lest they get ideas.

Heer, from a wealthy Sial family, was madly in love with Ranjha, who worked for her father. To preserve her family’s honour, Heer was married off into a reputable family. But even after her marriage she insisted her heart was wedded only to her Ranjha, her true husband. Challenging the institution of marriage, she embraced Ranjha once again when he appeared at her threshold dressed as a Jogi.

Heer and Ranjha's tomb near Jhang. Credit: Khalid Mahmood [Licensed under CC BY SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Boundless love

Heer’s societal bond to her husband held no significance when compared to her relationship with her lover. Heer, therefore, becomes the ultimate symbol of a lover, but not a role model for a daughter or a sister who preserves the purported honour of the entire family. The story tells us that for a true lover, even the sacred bond of marriage can be broken – advise not considered suitable for daughters and sisters.

In Sufi poetry, Heer’s love for Ranjha was appropriated as an expression of a devotee’s love for his or her beloved. The symbol of Heer as the ultimate devotee and Ranjha as divinity links an array of Sufi poetry, starting with the works of 16th-century poet Shah Hussain all the way till the 19th-century Ghulam Fareed, considered to be the last of the classic Punjabi Sufi poets.

For instance, a couplet from a composition by Shah Hussain goes as follows:

Wander looking for Ranjhan Ranjhan,
But Ranjhan is with me

And Bulleh Shah wrote:

The pilgrims go to Mecca,
My Mecca is my lover Ranjha
I am crazy indeed

From Ghulam Fareed’s poetry:

Ranjha is mine, I am for him,
Such is written in the sacred book of fate

At the shrine of Heer-Ranjha, the Sial caretakers insist the story was a metaphorical expression of divine love. It needs to be understood in that context and not in its worldly incarnations with the implicit undertones of sexuality.

While Waris Shah did use the symbol of Heer and Ranjha to express divine love, he also talks about the sexual nature of the relationship. Perhaps due to this transgression, even today, the caretakers of the shrine have forbidden the recitation of Waris Shah’s Heer at the shrine.

In 1970, when Punjabi blockbuster Heer-Ranjha was playing in every major city in Pakistan’s Punjab province, a cinema in Jhang was burned down for daring to screen the film, which, according to the caretakers, was a gross misrepresentation of the relationship between Heer-Ranjha.

Parallels to Radha and Krishna

In more than one way this, tragic love story seems to be a Sufi interpretation of the story of Radha and Krishna. Radha too was married, who rejected this worldly institute of marriage for her true lover, her Krishna. Much before Sufi poets appropriated the symbol of Heer and Ranjha, the Bhakti movement used the symbol of Radha and Krishna in a similar manner. Like Sufism, as is represented by Shah Hussain, Bulleh Shah and Ghulam Fareed, the Bhakti movement too focused on self-spirituality, with the individual as the focus. Instead of rites and rituals, the focus was on divine love.

The sexual nature of the relationship between Radha and Krishna, an anathema to the world due to Radha’s marriage, in the Bhakti tradition gets translated into a spiritual union. Radha’s submission to Krishna becomes a devotee’s submission to the divine. Common moral standards cannot be applied here, much like they cannot be used to understand the relationship between Heer and Ranjha.

Meera Bai, a 16th century mystic poet and one of the most prominent Bhakti saints, writes:

Meera’s Lord is Hari (Krishna), the Indestructible
She is dissolved in the Shyam (Krishna)
Body and mind.

The merger of the devotee into the divine is also a central feature of Sufi thought. This is what Shah Hussain said:

Calling upon the name of my beloved (Ranjhan)
I myself became Ranjha
Call me Ranjhan for I am no longer Heer 

The commonalities don’t end here. The character of Ranjha in the legendary story has uncanny similarities with Krishna. To woo his love, Ranjha becomes a cowherd – in his childhood, Krishna is depicted as a cowherd, Gopala. And just as Krishna’s flute has an irresistible impact upon maidens, Ranjha too is adept at playing the flute and this is what draws Heer to him. No one else captures better this overlap than Bulleh Shah:

Krishna plays the magical flute
O Ranjha with the flute –
O cowherd Ranjha!
You are in tune with all of us!
You make your delights
Chime with your consciousness        
Krishna plays the magic flute 

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books – Walking with Nanak, In Search of Shiva and A White Trail