The shrine of defiant love

Published March 24, 2015
A WOMAN sweeps the floor of the 400-year-old mausoleum of Sohni in Shahdadpur, Sindh.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
A WOMAN sweeps the floor of the 400-year-old mausoleum of Sohni in Shahdadpur, Sindh.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

SHE lies alone in stoic white granite, covered in red and orange traditional bandhinis, bequests of lovers who come to dress her as Mahiwal’s bride once their love conquers all. Even as graves, Sohni and Mahiwal are apart — some say it is for reasons of social sanction whereby they cannot lie in the same room; the more benevolent believe that they were buried where their bodies washed up.

Less revered than his beloved and unsung Mahiwal is far from her — a lonely tiled grave, in a small room, he is surrounded by the congested Sunaar Bazaar of Shahdadpur.

The route to Sohni is beatific and ironic — we travel on a thin sliver of a path that cuts through placid silver sheets of water where even geese seldom flap and dip. And then, through a warren of pitted, narrow tracks edged with carts, stalls and shops, is an old graveyard surveyed by the lofty but reticent mausoleum of Sindh’s Mai Sutthi, and the world’s Sohni.

In the gentle evening sun, an old pipal tree casts a cool interplay of shadows on the unpolished marble platforms before the prime door sill. The almost 400-year-old memorial wears a mantle of calm and grace, set between lore and truth.

Veiled young women sweep the floors; enclosed in a low rock fence, the first 13-metre wide terrace has a well, an old hermit with a stick and two graves in a far corner. A step up, in a rough space, are five graves of faqirs and faqirnis who had forsaken the world to live here — two are covered with red chunris, another two are decrepit in ancient yellow stone and the last is a mound of congealed mud.

Opposite these is an open hermitage; its rock ceiling held up by pillars of small, unchiselled stones. The only headstone here, a gift from the Persian artisan who fashioned the six-by-four-foot tomb, belongs to Sohni; her epitaph is a Persian prayer for water and prosperity for the region.

Commissioned as a rite of gratitude by deputy collector Hamid Ali, as his wish list of love and marriage came true, Sohni’s grave is charmingly imprinted with a verse from Bhitai’s ‘Sur Sohni’ in neat black Sindhi.

Her large room has a floor of intricately patterned ceramic tiles in ochre, pale green and sienna; walls painted emerald, with a low, aquamarine door beneath a vast, hollow inside of the dome in red and green. There are seven niches for oil lamps — a young woman kisses the doorstep with her hand on her heart, then touches Sohni’s feet and lights an incense stick in the corroded brass holder on round stones by the gravestone.

The tomb’s most curious feature is the entrance with a scalloped archway and some 12 spindly minarets of different sizes with a palanquin-like structure above the kalima and the title of Mai Sutthi jo mazaar.

“Bhitai used to come here often and sang nights away. Even today his dua starts from here. This is a temple of love. So many come to her to pray for the success of their romance,” says the steadfast loner in the courtyard.

Another devotee is the aged Sheikha Sultana. “She wouldn’t listen to anyone when the water called. Her sister-in-law replaced the original pitcher with an unbaked one and Sohni jumped into a raging river with it to keep her promise to Mahiwal. She wanted to ask him about the visit of Chaar Yaar,” she says. Clearly, social mores impose censure even on the dead.

“We know she commands the waters that took her life; she makes the river swell and subside,” says Sultana.

Considered to be the most tragic of love stories owned by Punjab and Sindh, Bukhara’s Izzat Beg and Sohni’s devotion has a lesser known version. Some writers maintain that Mahiwal was an old man with four wives and when his fourth wife learnt of his ardour for Sohni, she bowed out of their marriage. But as his paramour was the wife of another man, they were condemned to separation.

In all these centuries, Sohni’s abode has seen many reincarnations. However, today it is at its most colourful and relevant — she’s immortalised by her defiance and represents resistance in times of the Hudood Ordinances and karo kari.

Sohni is an everlasting attack on narratives of regular definitions and social orders; having quashed every convention, she survives in purity, without a trace of a stigma.

Published in Dawn March 24th , 2015

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