Heer Ranjha: Reverberations of Past…Relevant Even Today!

by Saloni Poddar

Ki mukk jana si Waris Shah da,
likhi Ranjhe naam je Heer hundi.
Vakh rooh naalo rooh vi ho sakdi,
Nai dil cho vaakh tasveer hundi.
Nasha akh da ik vaari chadh jave,
Poori ishq di phir taseer hundi.
Jhoota rab nu tussi kehen waleyo,
Nigah meri naal je dekh lavo.
Jhoot akh kade ni keh sakdi,
Nigah yaar di nigahe-e-peer hundi.
Teri akh to ohle manu hunda na,
Maadi enni je na taqdeer hundi.

Very few love stories leave a mark like this one. Heer Ranjha is the tragic saga of the love and loss of young lives, wasted needlessly to vanity and ego of family members.

We all are familiar with ‘Heer-Ranjha’ immortalized by Waris Shah around the year 1766. What most of us are unaware about is that the earliest ‘Qissa’ of Heer-Ranjha was penned down by a Sikh writer, Damodar Gulati, in 1605 during Akbar’s reign. Damodar’s Heer-Ranjha was written as a secular love epic where he created characters embodying the classical human predicament: individual versus society. His protagonist was a woman, Heer, beautiful and brave, yet doomed as she dared to defy social norms.

Interestingly, the first character Damodar introduced was himself, as an eye-witness to the story which he insisted unfolded right in front of his eyes. Among other notable versions of the saga were by Ahmad Gujjar in 1680 and Shahjahan Muqbil in the second quarter of the 18th century. Poets like Waris Shah and Charag Awan built their works based on Damodar’s narrative, tweaking the plot and adding their own creative touches here and there. What remained constant, however, was the emergence of class and cultural norms which were deemed to be larger than the life of the innocent lovers, forcibly offered at the altar of cruel traditions, yet essential to sustain the socio-political structure.

The profile of Heer, as sketched by Damodar, is that of a defiant young woman who emerges as a metaphor for love and emancipation, very much like the women of today. Heer transcends the bonds of the patriarchal society and lives on as a fierce, focused woman, a ‘Jatni’ who creates her own place in this world, who lives and breathes on her terms, who loves with all her might and is ready to fight all hurdles thrown her way, her final destination being her beloved Ranjha!

While the original poem was written as a love story, Shah Hussain, a wandering mystic, modified it into a spiritual legend by comparing Heer’s love for Ranjha with a devotee’s love for God, who is the creator of love. Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah also added up this angle in their versions of the tale and took it forward.

Heer Ranjha is not just a story of a man-woman relationship, it is a sad depiction of our society, then, and even now, where women are exploited and subjugated. Through Heer, we also comprehend Waris Shah as a social reformer. Yet his rendition also reflects the yearning and pathos of love which is more spiritual, than physical.

The tale of Heer-Ranjha needs no retelling; we know the story by heart – Heer also called Izzat Bibi, was the feisty and beautiful daughter of Chuchak Siyal, a high caste land-owner from Jhang. Ranjha or Mian Umar was the youngest child of seven siblings in Takht Hazara, a nearby village. He left home and family due to disagreements over parental inheritance and wandered from village to village with his flute. He was well aware of Heer’s beauty as it was a popular legend and when he landed in her town, the two met and cupid struck. Though for Ranjha it was love at first sight, Heer fell in love with the musician in him. It is said she was captivated by his words when he said, “Life is a dream, and pride of youth and beauty must be abandoned to get ready to leave the world.”

The two young lovers were deeply in love. So much so that Heer cajoled her father into employing Ranjha on their cattle farm. As it has always been, their love was not taken well by her extended family because of caste differences. Heer’s uncle caught them romancing and poisoned the minds of villagers against them. Subsequently, Heer was forced to marry another man, Saeda Kherra, against her wishes, whereas Ranjha left town to resume his wanderings and found shelter and solace with a mystic saint. However, Heer refused to accept her new husband and breaking familial bonds, wrote to Ranjha to come back to her. And Ranjha came back to Jhang, only to elope with Heer.

The lovers were beckoned back to Jhang by Heer’s parents, promising to unite them in matrimony. Things were too good to be true, as fate would have it, on the very day of their marriage, Heer’s wicked uncle fed her a poisoned ‘ladoo’ and buried her even before Ranjha could bid her adieu. There are a few different versions about the end though. Some say Ranjha ate the remaining ‘ladoo’ and died too, others believe that as he lamented beside Heer’s grave, the grave opened up magically and he was united with his beloved in death, and yet some other versions talk of Ranjha becoming a nomad, eventually dying of a broken heart.

In another account, Heer’s villagers catch hold of the couple as they come back to Jhang after eloping and beat Ranjha mercifully. He was then presented in the court of Raja Adali and is demanded to be put to death by Kaidu (Heer’s uncle) and others but Chuchak testified that he had betrothed Heer to Ranjha. However, Adali saw Heer’s allure and was mesmerized. He wanted to take her to bed forcefully and in trying to do so, he burst into flames. Although he managed to douse and save himself, his city burnt. Raja’s advisors requested him to marry the lovers to save the city. In this version of the saga, Raja Adali himself gave away Heer to Ranjha and the entire city celebrated the wedding. Then, like a fairytale, the two lovers rode away into the sunrise and lived happily ever after.

There is also another version which is extremely fanciful with references to Ranjha’s ‘magic flute’ and the couple being carried away by ‘djinns’ to Arabia!

Nevertheless, Waris Shah’s tragic end of the story is most widely accepted. It is said that the wasteful and appalling death saddened everyone from Takht Hazara to Jhang Siyal. It was then, as the ‘Qissa’ goes on, that River Chenab distanced itself from Jhang, disowning the town, as if in retribution. People believe that its waves still repeat the tale of Heer-Ranjha’s love, and cry. The waves dance to the tunes of Ranjha’s flute saying,

“We belong to Heers palang;
we belong to Ranjha’s flute;
we belong to their love;
not to Jhang, not to Kherras.”

The legend of Heer-Ranjha has been immortalized over the passage of time. Even today, people visit their mausoleum where the lovers lay buried side by side in the same grave united, at least, in death. They offer prayers by tying threads at the ‘dargah’ and young girls offer colorful bangles at the tomb of ‘Mai Heer’, as a celebration of her union with Ranjha and also to seek her blessings for their future.

So, in spite of deceit and oppression, and opposition, love still lives and thrives in the shrine of Heer-Ranjha. It survives in the verses of Waris Shah, it is heard in the fields of Jhang where men argue over their history as if they are eyewitnesses to their fate, it is lyrical in the songs about her beauty and his love. Most importantly, their memory persists. It has become synonymous with love and loss and regret but it cannot be ignored or forgotten. And that is their victory. That is the union of Heer-Ranjha. Eternal. True. Forever.

Saloni Poddar

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