The ghara or earthen pot acquires particular significance in the love story of Sohni and Mahiwal. In the climax of this Punjabi folk story, as Sohni crosses the Chenab river to meet Mahiwal, who is waiting for her on the other side, her ghara begins to melt in her hands. Sohni had been using the ghara to cross the mighty river every day to meet her beloved. But today, unknown to her, her sister-in-law had replaced her regular pot with one that was incomplete and half-baked.

The ghara, Sohni and Mahiwal are all powerful symbols in popular Sufi poetry. While Mahiwal represents the ultimate beloved, or the divine, Sohni is the passionate devotee who overcomes the odds – the Chenab in this case – to reach her destiny. However, this arduous journey by a committed devotee cannot be completed alone. There are popular narratives of how a devotee, in attempting to access the absolute truth, loses his or her sanity without proper guidance. Thus, every devotee needs a teacher, a mentor, a murshid. Only by hanging on to a spiritual master can he or she reach the final goal. In Punjabi Sufi poetry, the ghara takes on this role, making it possible for Sohni to see her Mahiwal every evening.

As Sohni is caught in the waves, her ghara slowly slipping away, a new symbol emerges – that of an inept murshid who, despite encouraging the devotee to undertake this perilous journey, is himself not fully trained for it. Thus, both the devotee and the murshid lose themselves on this dangerous path.

By the river

The same callous river that swallowed Sohni also gave birth to Sahiban – who, like Sohni, is yet another Heer. A short distance from the river lies the small village of Kheiwa. Outside it, in the middle of agricultural fields, is believed to be the historical mosque where Mirza and Sahiban studied together as children. While their childhood love blossomed into adulthood, Sahiban’s parents had other ideas. She was to be married to her cousin.

The legendary couple decided to elope. Before Mirza left his home, his mother warned him that Sahiban was from the Sial tribe and that Sial women were evil. She cited the example of Heer Sial, the protagonist of the most famous Punjabi love story, one also with a tragic end. The masculine Mirza was not to be dissuaded. Unlike Ranjha, he had his weapon, his bow and arrows, and a mighty horse. But as fate would have it, the love story of Mirza and Sahiban ended in tragedy too. The lovers were killed by Sahiban’s brothers, who were defending their “honour”.

The story of Mirza-Sahiban marks the end of the era of legendary lovers in Punjabi folklore. Some say their love was not pure, that their bond was not spiritual but lustful. It is said that they brought shame to Punjab’s long tradition of love legends, one that began with Heer-Ranjha.

In the outskirts of the historical city of Jhang, not far from the banks of the Chenab, is the shrine of Mai Heer, visited by hundreds of devotees every day. Young lovers write their names on the external walls of the shrine, seeking the blessings of the legendary lovers. Here, in the middle of the shrine, in a final embrace, Heer and Ranjha are interred in a single grave. This ultimate union has become a perennial symbol in Sufi poetry.

In the city of Jhang, the shrine of Mai Heer lies not far from the Chenab river. (Credit: Umar Jamshaid / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 4.0)

River as a symbol

While Radha and Krishna represent the relationship between a devotee and the divine in the Bhakti tradition, in Punjabi Sufi poetry, the most powerful symbol of such a bond is Heer-Ranjha. Heer’s devotion to Ranjha is a perfect model for all devotees to follow. So immersed is she in her devotion to her beloved that she loses her own identity to become one with Ranjha. In the hands of Shah Hussain, the 16th-century Sufi poet from Lahore, their love legend acquired its metaphysical symbolism.

Thus, Heer came to symbolise the perfect devotee, and her love legend provided the framework for every subsequent love legend. There was a Heer in Sohni and Sahiban, while one may search for traces of Ranjha in Mahiwal and Mirza. When these stories are seen in unison, another symbol emerges – the symbol of a river, the Chenab, that connects them all, flowing seamlessly from one story to another. Through these love legends, the Chenab emerges as the river of love.

Haroon Khalid is the author of four books. His latest book, Imagining Lahore: the city that is, the city that was, was published by Penguin Random House.