Love in real life is hard enough. The one in folklore either reflects that or draws some inspiration from that. Love and strife, love rendered with trials and tribulations, love – an infinity – and all the rest that stands in the way and complicates the bliss for the hearts involved. Love – pure – and all the rest that tries to blur and blot it out, and how the lovers, each, try to make things work. The folk love stories from Pakistan are no different. Lovers striving, lovers reunited, only to be rendered apart again. Heer Ranjha, a tragic love story, is one of the most famous among this folklore. It is a story set in the region of Punjab, which is one of the provinces in present day Pakistan.
Ranjha leaves his home village, Takht Hazara
Ranjha was the youngest, and much loved, son born to a wealthy landowner in the village of Takht Hazara. His name really was Dheedo and Ranjha was the name of the tribe he belonged to. As the youngest son, he was a tad spoiled, and enjoyed whiling away his days relaxing in the fields and playing the flute. Upon his father’s death, the land was divided amongst the brothers. The older brothers had never given too much thought to Ranjha, and now with their father gone, it became easy for them to divide up the best parts of the land amongst themselves, leaving Ranjha the most infertile, desiccated piece of land to plough and grow food on. Ranjha kept at it a while but when nothing seemed to grow on that dry barren piece of land, he left Takht Hazara. He took his flute with him – music sang in his blood, and had always given him life.
Ranjha’s life became hard. He had to beg for scraps and find shelter wherever any kind soul would let him. He would play music to the people around him always, and they would instantaneouly be hypnotized by the blissful melodies he would play them. Upon reaching the River Chenab at sunset, finally, Ranjha asked a ferryman called Ludan, to take him across the river to the city of Jhang. Ludan refused, since it was almost dark by now and he feared Ranjha to be a thief. Ranjha, resigned, settled by the bank to spend the night and played his flute to while away his time. The tune was so beautiful and melancholic that the people around requested Ludan on Ranjha’s behalf. The tune had melted Ludan’s heart already, and he agreed to take Ranjha across the river.
Heer meets Ranjha
In the ferry, Ranjha made himself comfortable on a couch which Ludan knew belonged to the daughter of the head of the Sial clan, Heer. Ludan tried to get him to move but seeing how tired Ranjha was, and how beautiful his tunes felt to his heart, Ludan let it pass. The next morning though, when Heer and her friends arrived on the ferry, Heer did not like it one bit and castigated Ludan. But only until Ranjha opened up his beautiful melancholic eyes and something in Heer shifted. Ranjha too fell in love with Heer right then and there.
Soon, Heer took Ranjha to meet her father, Mihr Chuchak, and told him she had found someone to herd the buffaloes. This was Heer’s way of trying to keep Ranjha close to her. Heer knew her father would not approve of Ranjha as a suitor or her lover, so she could not be up front about it with him. Mir Chuchak found it a bit suspicious but he allowed it regardless. Heer started to bring Ranjha bread and milk everyday, in the forest where he worked. She would spend her entire day with him. But gossip soon started to build up and travel, like a fire in the forest.
Heer and Ranjha not to be
It was Kaidu, Heer’s uncle, who made it his mission to find out what was going on. He disguised himself as a beggar and went about looking for Ranjha in the forest. Ranjha could empathize with the “beggar” and his hunger, from his own days when he had to beg for scraps of food. And so Ranjha gave Kaidu half a pastry that Heer had brought him earlier. Kaidu took it to the villagers and Mir Chuchak as proof of Heer’s “wanton” behavior, and that if carried on, Ranjha would steal away Heer and this would bring shame to the name of the Sials. As the pressure built up, Chuchak called Ranjha one night when he had returned from herding buffaloes, and in front of his men, dismissed him. Ranjha, who had just been dismissed without being paid for twelve years worth of hard work, grew infuriated and left. The villagers disapproved of Chuchak not paying Ranjha a single rupee. Heer was beside herself; her grief knew no bounds. Chuchak came around to his senses, recalled Ranjha, gave him his work back which would come with pay, and more importantly, married Heer to her beloved Ranjha!
However, be as it may, their marriage was not to be. Chucak’s kinsmen, and his wife and Kaidu, were opposed to this marriage – for Ranjha was a low-born buffalo herder only. Heer’s marriage was arranged to Saida of the Hera clan despite her protests and proclamations of love for Ranjha. Saida took Heer away to his village of Rangpur. Ranjha returned to Takhat Hazara, heart broken. The grief would not go away, so Ranjha joined the temple of Gorakh Nath, and became a jogi – a beggar monk who gives up all worldly possessions and desires to enter into a “pure” state. When Ranjha and his guru Gorakh Nath realized that Ranjha could not do it – he loved Heer too much to give her up, Gorakh Nath sent out a crow of his to search for Heer high and low.
Ranjha finds his Heer
On finding Heer in Rangpur, the crow gave her the glad tidings that Ranjha was still faithful to her. The crow then flew back to Ranjha and told him about her whereabouts. Ranjha disguised himself as a beggar and made his way to Rangpur. Heer’s sister-in-law, Sehti, agreed to help them escape in return for being helped to elope with her own lover, Murad, a camel driver. Ranjha blows on the conch shell that he was given as a jogi at the temple. Murad, miles away, hears the conch in his sleep. He also somehow knows in his sleep that it is Sehti calling out to him, and he knows what to do. The next morning, he leaves for Rangpur too. Meanwhile, the three – Heer, Ranjha, and Sehti – escape.
The Kheras find out what has happened and set out their men to find the escapees. By the time the Khera men catch up with Sehti and Murad, the two are already back in Khera’s home town, where Khera’s kinsfolk protect the two. However, when it comes to Heer and Ranjha, the Khera men are able to catch up with them in Qabula, where King Adali rules. Upon catching the two, the Khera take Heer and Ranjha to the King for a verdict. Kaidu comes all the way to Qabula for the hearing, and testifies against Ranjha. Mihr Chuchak, Heer’s father though, testifies in Ranjha’s favor and recounts how he had blessed the two in matrimony long ago. King Adali almost agrees, but when he looks at Heer as she enters the court, he finds her extremely beautiful and claims her for himself. However, the night he tries to visit Heer, Heer prays to part ways with him, and the celestial powers set the king ablaze momentarily. This brings king Adali back to his senses. He agrees to Heer and Ranjha getting married, and they live happily after!
The not “happily ever after” ending to the story
However, the more common version of this folk story ends differently. It does not have a “happily ever after”. After King Adali allows for Heer and Ranjha to be married to one another, their families begin preparations. Ranjha goes back to his village to prepare and bring his family along to rejoice at the wedding ceremony that is about to take place. Heer’s family takes her back to their village to apparently prepare for the wedding. However, some of her kinsfolk, including her uncle Kaidu, are still angry at the idea of her marrying a low-born buffalo herder. Kaidu somehow feels personally humiliated at how his plans, and his testimony at the court, have failed miserably. He ends up poisoning Heer by lacing the food she is to consume with poison. Heer eats the poisoned meal and dies right then and there. Ranjha learns about this upon his arrival in her village. His grief knows no bounds, and he eats food from the same plate as Heer did. That is the only way for him to find some form of bliss, and they say that they are finally reunited in death!
The Story and Beyond
Heer Ranjha has been written at various times by various authors. The most famous of its versions is from the year 1761, written as a poem by the Punjabi Sufi poet Waris Shah. Some believe that Heer and Ranjha were an actual couple who lived not so long ago, and that they are both buried side by side in the city of Jhang in Pakistan. Jhang is also the same city to which Ranjha was trying to get to by crossing the River Chenab, after having left his village Takht Hazara for the first time since his father’s death.
The story of Heer Ranjha bears resemblance with a lot of other folk love stories from Pakistan, such as Sohni Mahiwal, Mirza Sahiban, and Sassi Punnu, where the lovers strive to be reunited but death is the only realm where they finally are able to. You may have noticed already, though, but this folk love story seems to share themes and some archtype characters with love stories in other parts and cultures of the world too – such as Romeo and Juliet. It is not a question of which came before which one: for all we know, Heer Ranjha is as old – narrated verbally and written down multiple times – if not older, than Romeo and Juliet. The interesting thing to figure is what causes these similarities to exist?
Romeo and Juliet is a tragic love story – written in play form – about two star-crossed lovers, written by William Shakespeare in 1597. The play is set in the city of Verona in Italy. Romeo belongs to the Montague family, and Juliet belongs to the Capulet family. The two families have been not only one another’s rivals but sworn enemies, since a time long forgotten. Romeo and Juliet meet at a ball and fall in love with one another. They continue to meet, express their love for one another, and decide to get married. A Friar Laurence secretly weds them, in hopes of reconciling the longstanding bitterness between the Montagues and the Capulets. However, one thing leads to another, and Romeo is banished by the Prince from Verona. Juliet’s father tries to get her to marry Count Paris and threatens her if she will not, he will disown her. She refuses, and requests her mother’s help, who outrightly refuses to help her. A night before the scheduled wedding with Count Paris, Juliet drinks a magic potion that will put her in a coma-like, death-like sleep for sometime. The Capulets bury Juliet in the crypt. Meanwhile, Romeo learns that Juliet is “dead” and drinks the poison next to her body in the crypt. When Juliet wakes up, she realizes Romeo is dead, and stabs herself to be reunited in death with her beloved Romeo.
The Similarities between Heer Ranjha and Romeo and Juliet
In both these stories – and probably in quite a few other folk stories too – there is a sense of obligation or duty towards the family that can be seen. Heer from the Sial clan, like Juliet from the Capulet family, was expected to marry “the right person”: in the case of Heer, it could not be the low-born buffalo herder, Ranjha, and in the case of Juliet, it could not be the son of a long-sworn enemy, the Montagues. The locus of responsibility and righteousness is embedded within our female protagonist. When she disagrees, she is forcefully married to another.
There also seems to be a character in both the stories – somewhat old, somewhat wise, somewhat kind – who tries to help the lovers: for Heer Ranjha, it was the jogi guru, Gorakh Nath, at the temple, who helps Ranjha find his beloved Heer by supporting Ranjha and sending out his crow to search fro Heer. For Romeo and Juliet, it is Friar Laurence, who tries to unite them and secretly marries them in what he sees as the solution to their problem.
The element of being banished from the city in which the beloved resides and how much agony that causes is recurring in both the stories. It signifies a separation after a communion, a wrenching apart of what feels like yours – what feels like a part of you. This is preceded by a rapture: Romeo and Juliet are secretly married by Friar Laurence, and Heer and Ranjha are given blessings by Heer’s father, who agrees they will be married. The separation in both stories is caused by one – or some family members – not agreeing to the communion.
Heer Ranjha is a tragic folk love story from Punjab, which bears similarities with the play Romeo and Juliet written by Shakespeare. Not only this, but Heer Ranjha shares similarities with some other folk love stories from the region too. Where do these similarities come from? Could these similarities be pointing towards the underlying cultural thinking that is perhaps shared across cultures? Tying a woman to a sense of responsibility and righteousness that the family or her kinsfolk purport to have, the cruel punishment that comes if she disagrees, the contra-positioning of love and marriage, and the focus on how the world will see a communion between two hearts. Finally, it leaves you to wonder if the folk stories are a reflection of atleast some part of our real life love stories, to what extent do they feed back into how we culturally conceptualize love?