Sassi Punnu: The Tragic Folk Tale of Eternal Love

by Saloni Poddar

Punjab is the land of love… and war. As soon as we hear the mention of ‘Punjab’, the mind conjures pictures of tall, broad-chested warriors dressed to kill and die for their motherland. Simultaneously, the ears hear melodies…sad, yet hauntingly beautiful, reeking of love and loss and wasted lives. As rich as Punjabi literature is; full of stories of valour and sacrifice by rulers and fighters, so is the folklore; dripping with love and longing.

Such is the lyrical folklore of Sassi Punnu (also called Sassui Punhun) which is not merely the tragic tale of two lovers but also talks about the lilting romance on the shores of the river Indus, the dry, unrelenting sand of Thar desert, and the resounding echoes of the Baluch mountains. As with most folk tales, this one also has many versions.

The legend of this love was retold by Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai (1689-1752), the famous Sindhi Sufi poet, and has been translated into many languages over the years. The dying oral tradition of folklores, also called “baataan” is the original form of these stories and has travelled across centuries. There have been contradictions and conflicts about dates, order of events, finer details like names and professions of characters, etc. but the essence of the lores remains unchanged.

As the legend goes, Sassi was the daughter of the king of Bhambore in Sind. When she was born, after many years, to the childless couple, the astrologers predicted that she would taint the name of royalty. Thus, the newborn was put in a wooden casket filled with precious jewels and set afloat on the river Sindhu. The box was found by a washerman in the kingdom who adopted and raised the child as his own.

Sassi’s beauty was sublime. She grew up to be as beautiful as an “apsara” from the heavens. People just couldn’t stop talking about the ‘depth of her eyes, the brightness of her complexion, the sweetness of her voice’. Soon the legend of her charm reached Punnu, the Prince of and son of Mir Hoth Khan, the king of the renowned tribe of Baluchistan. Punnu decided to pose as a perfume trader to entice the lady and catch a glimpse of her unearthly allure. As the caravan of musk sellers entered Bhambore, the city was drenched in exotic fragrance. Sassi also came to visit the site with a group of friends and Cupid struck on both sides! While Punnu was mesmerized by her beauty, for Sassi too it was love at first sight. They felt a tug so strong that they saw each other everywhere; in the flowers that bloomed, in birds that chirped, in other people’s faces, in air, water, everywhere. However, since Sassi’s father thought that Punnu was merely a nomad trader who also claimed to be from a family of washermen, he decided to test his mettle and bid him to wash a sackful of clothes. Obviously, Punnu failed miserably, tearing all the clothes, but his lady love came to his rescue and filled the pockets of the clothes with gold coins so that the townsmen would be placated and not complain to her father about the condition of their clothes. The people took the prince’s side and a wedding was fixed in Bhambore, on the condition that Punnu would stay in the town and not take his only daughter away from the washerman.

On the other hand, when the news reached, Kech Makran (Punnu’s hometown), his family was dismayed to learn that their prince had agreed to give up his luxurious life to live like a ‘dhobi’. They would not have this happen! Messengers were sent across to get Punnu back but he was beguiled and enchanted and sent back messages that his home was with his beloved so his brothers and father should forget him. His brothers accepted the wedding invitation and visited Bhambore. During the lavish celebrations, the brothers got Punnu intoxicated, flung him on a camel, and took him back without informing the sleeping household.

Sassi was devasted the next morning when she discovered her husband’s absence and realized the vicious plans of his brothers. She was blinded by pain and ran bare feet towards the merciless desert, wailing his name. She ran madly across the scorching sand and barren land, not noticing the cuts and bruises on her body.

All are enemies; Camels, camel men and brothers-in-law,
Fourth enemy is the wind that removed the footprints of Punnu,
Fifth enemy is the sun that delayed its settings,
Sixth enemy is the sky which did not make travel easy,
Seventh enemy is the moon which did not shine longer

Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, as translated by Muhammad Sheeraz Dasti

As she ran looking for her beloved, she came across a shepherd whom she requested to quench her thirst. The man relented and gave her milk from his goats but also tried to take advantage of her. Sassi was enraged and beseeched the Gods to help her retain her honour for her lover. Her prayers were heard and the ground beneath her split open, taking her into its bosom, leaving only an end of her ‘dupatta’ as a trace of her, above the ground. The shepherd was astounded and became the caretaker of her grave to atone for his sins and started living in a hut beside her grave.

Punnu, in turn, was equally lovelorn by the separation and somehow cajoled his family to send him back to his beloved. On the way to meet her, he constantly called out her name and when he reached the spot of her grave and saw her ‘dupatta’, he had an ominous feeling which was confirmed by the shepherd. He fell down on his knees and implored Allah to unite him with Sassi. God always recognizes true love, as He did Punnu’s. Once again, the desert split open and drowned Punnu, taking him to his Sassi, to a place no one could ever separate them, ever.

The evidence of this eternal and divine love, in the form of their combined grave, is located near Lasbela. Around 1980, a simple mausoleum was built there by Haji Muhammad, an affluent resident of the area.

Punjabi folk love stories are drenched in sorrow as most of the lovers were separated, to be united only in death. Various songs and poems have been written about these unsuccessful relationships. In a song by singer, Surjit Bindrakhia, Sassi’s mother is trying to dissuade her from falling in love because according to her, love only brings misery.

Sassi di maa tarle paave, beh ke Sassi nu samjhave
Uthan wale pyar kade na tor nibhaunde ne
Ishq de patte Sassiye murh ke tad nu aunde na

(Sassi’s mother is pleading, she tries to sit her down and explain that those with camels, nomads from deserts, are unreliable and don’t keep their promises so Sassi should not fall in love with Punnu because those in love never come back on track. They are doomed forever).

Bhul ja Punnu da tu cheta, ho jayegi reta reta
Laagi wale neend kade na sukh de saunde ne
Ishq de patte Sassiye murk ke tad nu aunde na

(She further goes on to warn her daughter that she should forget about Punnu as love will destroy her, reduce her to mere dust and that people in love never sleep peacefully. Lovers are like leaves which are plucked from trees and can never return home).

Saloni Poddar

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