By Haroon Khalid
17 February 2016
Painter Ustab Allah Bakhsh's depiction
of Heer Ranjha
"Oh my God, Haroon. If you were at the
session you would have killed her," my sister told me at the end of the
three-hour long Dars.
"She said that the youth of our
country have strayed away from our culture. They mimic the West or India by
celebrating Valentine's Day or Basant. These festivals have nothing to do with
our culture and also that women should not work because their incomes bring
ill-fate to a household."
"You don't know how I controlled
myself," Anam told me.
"I thought the session was nice,"
said Uzma, my sister's friend. She has done her Master's in Journalism from a
leading women's college of the country and is now a housewife.
"Some of the things she said were informative."
"How can she even say it is un-Islamic
for women to work?" I asked.
"What about Hazrat Khadijah, the first
wife of the Prophet? Wasn't she a businesswoman? She can only impress people
who don't know history or culture. What "our" culture is she talking
"Isn't Heer Ranjha part of Punjabi
culture? It is the most celebrated folk story here. For centuries it has been
sung and dramatised. It is essentially a celebration of love. How is it any
different from the celebration of Valentine's Day?
In fact, the celebration of Heer Ranjha's
love is much more profound than Valentine's Day. In our culture it has taken
metaphysical dimensions, by becoming part of the folk religion.
"We worship love, not only celebrate
We were on our way to Jhang, the city where
the legendary lovers, Heer and Ranjha, are buried in a single grave. Their
shrine has now become a religious pilgrimage site, and I was particularly
intrigued by such treatment of love.
Using the pretext of traditions and culture
on several occasions, the right to marry out of choice, the right to practise
religion, etc., are curbed.
I grew up with a "modern"
understanding of tradition, which argued for the unshackling of society from
the fetters of traditionalism to make way for progress.
However, what exploring traditional and
cultural history did for me was to clarify this misconception.
This derogatory manner of looking at
tradition is a colonial legacy that thrived on undermining the indigenous
culture and exalting the British manner of living.
The legend of Heer Ranjha is an example
from the repository of "tradition" that not only celebrates the love
between two individuals (a pre-modern example of honouring individuality) but
also raises it to metaphysical dimensions comparing the love between Heer and
Ranjha to that between a believer and God.
Part of the oral tradition of South Asia,
the story of Heer Ranjha has been sung by bards and dramatised by folk artists
The story was first written by a poet from
Jhang called Damodar Das Arora during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Akbar.
However, just the way Valmiki's Ramayana
became Tulsidas's after he rewrote the epic, this legend also became Waris
Shah's when he rewrote it in the 18th century.
Today, it is also referred to as Waris
According to Damodar's version, which was
then supported by Waris Shah, Heer Ranjha is based on an actual story that
Damodar saw unfold in front of his eyes.
In the end, both Heer and Ranjha were
buried in one grave, to celebrate their eternal love.
Their shrine in Jhang, which, according to
legend, is the hometown of Heer, is today a popular destination where people
from all over the country come to ask for blessings, especially in the matter
True to its pagan roots, folk religion in
Pakistan has specialised shrines for particular needs — Aban Shah for
fertility, the shrine of crows for people with speech impediments and Heer
Ranjha for well, love.
When Damodar wrote the poem, it was meant
to be a secular love epic.
Around the same time that he lived, there
was a wandering Malamati Sufi in Lahore known by the name of Shah
Hussain, a spectacular Punjabi poet.
He, for the first time, transformed the
story of Heer Ranjha from a secular epic to a spiritual legend.
He compared the love of Heer for Ranjha to
that of a believer for his God, a theme that was subsequently picked up by
Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah.
Through his poetry, he introduced the
concept of Wahdat-ul-Wajud, or monism, into the story which remains an
essential part of Hindu philosophy and Islamic spirituality.
Mahi Mahi Kook Di Mein Ape
Ranjhan Hoyi Ranjhan Ranjhan Sab Koi
Heer Na Akhon Koi
Calling out the name of my beloved I myself
have become Ranjha
Call me Ranjha now as I am no longer Heer.
"The shrine of Mai Heer," noted a
board on the road.
"What is Mai?" I asked Iqbal
"It is used out of respect. Baba is
for males and Mai for females," he explained.
The shrine was located at the top of an
ancient mound, surrounded by a plethora of graves.
A small market had burst into life here.
Ignoring the calls of vendors selling threads, bangles and lockets, we climbed
the stairs towards the shrine.
In the courtyard, sitting under a waan
tree, a lone musician sang Shah Hussain (Punjabi verses) on his harmonium.
"O Mother, to whom should I now
narrate these tales of my pains?" he sang.
Walking into the main shrine, I wondered if
Heer was a Shia or a Sunni. Did it even matter?
Amanullah, the caretaker of the shrine,
greeted the devotees telling them about the miracles of this place.
"Girls looking to get married, tie
bangles here. Young couples who want to get married but cannot for some reason,
tie threads here and their problem is alleviated. Barren women present cradles
here and with the blessings of Mai Heer they are gifted a child."
The cradle offering has uncanny
similarities to the cult of Lord Krishna.
The walls of the shrine are filled with
love messages written by pen:
"You may never be mine but I wish that
wherever you live you may spend a happy life. Murad. Xox."
"Zainab and Imran forever."
"Salute to the love legend Mai Heer
and Baba Ranjha."
In a hotbed of religious violence, these
were fascinating messages of love in honour of Heer and Ranjha.
"Do you know in a lot of villages, the
recitation of Waris Shah's Heer is not allowed. People believe that if the
sounds of the verses fall on the ears of young girls, they too will elope like
Heer," Iqbal Qaisar told us.
The above is an excerpt from In Search
of Shiva: A study of folk religious practices in Pakistan (Rupa Publication
2015) by Haroon Khalid.
Haroon Khalid has an academic background in Anthropology from LUMS. He
has been travelling extensively around Pakistan, documenting historical and
cultural heritage. He is the author of A White Trail: A journey into the heart
of Pakistan’s religious minorities and In Search of Shiva: A study of folk
religious practices in Pakistan.