Sohni hangs on to her matka (earthen pot) as the voracious waves of the Chenab crash against her, waiting to devour her. The matka is her last refuge. That is the irony of the situation. Having found out about her daily rendezvous with her beloved, Mahiwal, across the Chenab, her sister-in-law changed her regular matka to a half-baked one that would dissolve in water. Sohni would use the matka to swim across the river. Midway, she realised the matka was slowly melting away. Sohni knew there was no escape now from the Chenab, the river of love.

In Islamic spirituality, the matka, Sohni’s death and Mahiwal waiting for her across the river have acquired unique symbolism. The half-baked matka that led to Sohni’s death has come to represent the lack of preparation before embarking on a spiritual journey. It is believed that a person unprepared for the ultimate task would not be able to survive the rough waves of spirituality. The matka has also come to symbolise a false guru that, instead of seeing a devotee through a tumultuous spiritual journey, brings disaster to the seeker. Only a true guru, a fully prepared matka, is capable of guiding one across the river.

Sitting across the river, Mahiwal can see his beloved drown but there is nothing he can do. In Sufi poetry, Mahiwal represents divinity. Sohni stuck in the river, catching a last glimpse of her beloved, represents the extreme yearning a devotee feels for union with divine reality. However, death itself acquires a particular significance. It represents the ultimate union of a devotee with his god. Even though Mahiwal waits for Sohni across the river, he also waits for his beloved beyond death.

Gender roles

While first reading through the famous folk legend of Sohni-Mahiwal, it is not these divine symbolisms that captured my imagination but rather the gender roles. It was not Mahiwal, the man, but rather Sohni, the woman, who crossed the Chenab each day to meet him. This is no minor task. During its peak, the river can be as wide as 200 yards. Sohni would swim across the river with an earthen pot every day just to spend some time with her beloved. Meanwhile Mahiwal would spend his entire day across the river waiting for his beloved.

The narrative turns conventional gender roles – as depicted in western children’s stories such as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty – on their head. Here, the female protagonist is not saved by her prince charming. Her appeal is not just in her beauty, which would bedazzle the prince, but in the fact that she exerts her agency. It is not the man but the woman who puts her life in danger every day to swim across this mighty river of Punjab.

The attitude towards the institution of marriage is also distinctly different from how marriage is portrayed in western children’s stories. For Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, marriage represents the end of the story – happily ever after. Marriage in this folk legend is just another event that does not mean much. Sohni is married against her wishes, but Mahiwal remains her true love. Marriage is not held sacred, as it eventually came to be, but rather a pointless institution if not based on love. Every day, Sohni defies this sacred institution as she yearns for a union with her true love, to whom she is not connected with any bond of marriage.

The legends of Heer-Ranjha and Sohni-Mahiwal inspired many films both in India and Pakistan (Credit: YouTube)

The institution of marriage

One finds a similar treatment of the institution of marriage in another story from Punjab – Heer-Ranjha, the primordial love legend that went on to inspire all subsequent love legends, including Sohni-Mahiwal. Heer is married, also against her wishes, and sent off with her husband and his family. Dejected, Ranjha becomes a jogi and starts traveling from village to village, household to household. It is through a strange turn of events that he finds himself at Heer’s doorstep. They start meeting again secretly, as Heer flouts the institution of marriage, giving much more importance to her true bond of love with Ranjha. In the story, it is once again the female protagonist who is depicted as proactive, spirited, strong-headed, willing to challenge conventions, while the male protagonist is portrayed as much more passive.

Ranjha does not fight the enemies and snatch his true love from her family when she is betrothed and later married. He accepts his fate and goes on to abandon the world by becoming a jogi. Similarly, Mahiwal does not jump into the water to rescue his beloved, but only looks on helplessly. Ranch, particularly, is depicted as soft-natured, in contrast to the headstrong Heer. He is a flute player, a lover, not the masculine archetype that was to later dominate love legends.

Centuries after they were first narrated, these love legends acquired new life with the spread of cinematic outreach in the cities of India and Pakistan. The symbols, Heer, Ranjha, Sohni, Mahiwal, were appropriated and presented in a contemporary setting. Heer and Ranjha, particularly, remained potent symbols in Indian and Pakistani movies.

In today’s times

However, times changed and so did the sensibilities of the audience. Perhaps some of the messages needed to be repackaged. The institution of marriage had become sacred, the ultimate bond that could never be challenged. Similarly, the male protagonist was now a symbol of masculine virility who changed the course of fate instead of submitting to it. The female protagonist, on the other hand, had to recede to her conventional gender role. Her agency was no longer cherished but, rather, seen as a threat to the social order.

The latest example of this gross misappropriation is a recently released Pakistani movie, Main Punjab Nahin Jaongi. The movie appropriates the symbol of Heer and Ranjha, but the characters that personify them represent nothing of what the original stories depict. The male lead, Ranjha, is a hyper masculine man who if need be even uses physical force with his beloved to convince her. Heer, on the other hand, while showing some signs of agency, is eventually constrained by his overarching masculinity. The central theme of the movie is the sacredness of marriage, a bond that once made can never be broken, contradicting the very essence of the love legends of Heer-Ranjha or Sohni-Mahiwal. In the context of the movie, the references to Heer and Ranjha ring hollow, devoid of the social rebellion they once depicted.

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