09 Jun 2019


The lake in the north of Pakistan where Prince Saiful Malook waited to meet the fairy Badrul Jamal
The lake in the north of Pakistan where Prince Saiful Malook waited to meet the fairy Badrul Jamal

In Pakistani storytelling traditions, it is common for classic romances and folk tales to detail references to nature and the indigenous community as one aspect of everyday life, and it is valuable to note that Pakistani folk tales actively incorporate water — more so than any of the other natural elements. The story of Heer Ranjha is one such tale that tells of a lasting love between lovers on either side of the River Chenab, in which the river plays a most important role; it is a character unto itself that — as described in the story — is said to be ‘happy’ in uniting the smitten couple.

Ranjha is ferried across the Chenab to meet Heer in Jhang. As Charles F. Usborne writes in The Adventures of Hir [sic] and Ranjha, “Jhang is the father of love and Chenab is its mother.” The folk tale, in Usborne’s translation, informs that, sad at heart, Ranjha bathes in the river and prays before the Five Pirs: “For God’s sake, help me, or my love will be ruined ... Admit me to your holy order; make me a Malang and give me Hir as my Malangan and Mate.” It is on the banks of the Chenab that the Pirs say, “We will be your helpers. Hir is yours.”

So, the love of Heer and Ranjha flourishes on the banks of the river and the “Chenab laughed and shook with their merrymaking. Ranjha played on the flute and Hir and her girlfriends sang the merry songs of the Chenab.”

Mountains, forests, the earth and waters in Pakistan’s enchanting folk tales are characters in their own right

The same river plays a critical and valuable part in the legend of Sohni Mahiwal as well. Every night, Sohni uses an earthen pot to float across the waters to meet Mahiwal on the opposite bank. The relationship is a secret, with only the river knowing anything of it. The river is a friend and ally; it calms its current whenever transporting the beloved to her love. It is also the ultimate sanctuary on the night that Sohni’s sister-in-law replaces the baked earthen pitcher with an unbaked one that dissolves in the water, causing Sohni to drown. Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai in his Shah Jo Risalo describes this moment as the river opening its arms to welcome Sohni in its refuge, ultimately transporting her love for eternity.

In a comparable vein, the story of Sassi and Punnu — as told in Shah Jo Risalo — also takes place on the banks of a river. This time it is the mighty Indus coursing through the port city of Bhambore. An infant Sassi is entrusted to the river in a box by her parents, who hope for her to find a new home in Bhambore. Some years later Punnu arrives in the city, selling fragrances. He meets Sassi and wins her heart, but Sassi is refused her right to love Punnu. At this, the Indus remonstrates and shifts away from Bhambore, meaning the city no longer benefits from its waters. At the present times, Bhambore lies in ruins to the east of Karachi.

Stemming from the Kaghan valley in the north of Pakistan is the story of the prince Saiful Malook and the fairy Badrul Jamal. As Mana A. Khan writes on Windswept Words in ‘Saif-ul-Malook: The Complete Tale’, the prince dreams of “a lake he had never seen before, surrounded by mountains that seemed to touch the sky and water that shimmered emerald-green in the moonlight.” He falls in love with Badrul Jamal who frequents his dreams. Thomas Bailey, in A History of Urdu Literature, describes her as “a water creature, all silvery and slight, dipping in and out of the lake.” A holy man tells the prince that he can find the fairy princess by the lake, but he must endure a difficult challenge if he wishes to marry her, as this is necessary for a union between a human and a fairy.

In the name of love, Saif agrees to undertake the test. He waits by the lake where there is no shelter, no food and no warmth. After praying for 40 consecutive days, he finally sees the fairy princess with her friends under the full moon. Eventually the prince and fairy meet and she agrees to marry him. Enter the white ogre, known as Deo Safaid, to whom the fairy is bound. Angered at the situation, Deo Safaid releases the Spirit of the Lake, which brings forth the first great flood of Kaghan. The prince and fairy flee to a cave while the Deo cries tears so abundant that they accumulate in a meadow to form the Ansoo [Teardrop] Lake as a lasting memorial to his anguish over losing Badrul Jamal. The tale further informs us that the prince and fairy live together in the centre of the original lake which the prince saw in his dreams and on whose shores he prayed, and emerge at every full moon, flying on a winged horse.

The importance of water in these popular folk tales indicates how ancient storytellers acknowledged the connection between people and nature. In this vein, it may be stated that waters celebrate human relationships, can grieve a crisis and show anger towards those who display a disregard for love.

Although the majority of our folk legends centre on water, some are built upon mountains and woods. One such story is of Yousaf Khan and Sherbano. In this Pakhtun folk tale, a young man walks daily from his village to the nearby Kharamar hill above the fertile Yousufzai plains. He walks through the village of Shera Ghund where the lovely Sherbano lives. During one of his excursions, she catches sight of Yousaf and falls in love. Time goes by and one day Yousaf falls down the hill and gets caught in a tree and his faithful dogs run home to alert his family. His secret admirer Sherbano is among the rescue party and there at the tree, according to writer Salman Rashid’s account of the tale, “the first admission of love takes place.” The two are married. On a day out hunting, Yousaf is murdered by his cousins and when Sherbano receives the news, she goes to the hillside where they first met and takes her own life. “They remain together for eternity in a single grave”, shaded by a lone Phulai tree on a land which has become — as a result of this tragedy — completely barren.

Further along the mountains of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa echoes the classic Pashto romance of Adam Khan and Durkhanai. In this story, Adam Khan, son of a warrior tribe’s leader, falls in love with Durkhanai, daughter of the chief of a mountain valley tribe. Adam plays the rabab and his music charms Durkhanai. It is said that in Barikot, a city in the valley of Swat, there is a hujra [room] that houses a yellow flowering shrub. Young musicians visit this hujra to break off a piece of the shrub, as Adam used twigs from it to play his rabab. Unfortunately, the lovers are unable to meet as Durkhanai is betrothed to another man. Adam cries so much for Durkhanai that he becomes nearly blind and dies before reaching his beloved’s gardens. The grieving Durkhanai dies, too, and is buried next to Adam. The soil of the mountains, just like the rivers of the plains, welcomes the lovers and unites them as they lie deep in its embrace. Legend goes that many years later, the graves were dug up and people were shocked to find the two bodies in a lovers’ embrace; the earth had brought them together when above land, they were forced apart. The bodies were separated and the graves were covered again. A century later they were once again found entwined; this time it was decided to leave them undisturbed. The grave is apparently still there; it is “the widest one in the graveyard.”

Such references to nature always fascinate a creative and healthy mind. These ‘once upon a time’ fictional encounters of the human and nonhuman components of the environment depict human dealings with the natural world. The mountains, forests and waters in these tales are characters in their own right. Digging a little deeper and reimagining these stories as nature tales informs us how a modern and contemporary engagement in the form of a nature study of our enchanting local narratives can revive our connection with the environment depicted in creative works.

The writer is a PhD scholar at the Royal Holloway University of London, UK. Her research focuses on literary and ideological works related to women, environment and culture

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 9th, 2019