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Waris Shah's tomb: A place for the lovers

Waris Shah and his tomb are for those who want to be enchanted, not awed.
Updated Jun 17, 2019 04:52pm

Mention the shrines of famous poets in Pakistan, particularly Punjab, and one's thoughts jump to that of Baba Bulleh Shah, master of Punjabi poetry, laid to rest in Kasur. Not far, in the scheme of things, lies Sir Muhammad Allama Iqbal, in Lahore; while to the south west, near Shorkot, is the tomb of Sultan Bahoo.

There are so many more to name, of course, and special mention must be reserved for Waris Shah. However, the moniker of Waris Shah seems easily missed, at least for an outsider like myself. It's not that his writings don't live on; the utterance of a couplet from the epic Heer Ranjha is enough to make even the slightest romantic go weak in the knees.

The greatest love story of Punjabi folklore is a familiar verse to many, from literature students to Bollywood film directors; but when questioned about the life and times of the poet, many go silent.

Fewer still are familiar with where his tomb is; "Pakpattan" is a common reply when asked. While Waris Shah did indeed spend much of his life in the tiny village of Malka Hans, 12 kilometres north of Pakpattan, he was in fact laid to rest in his hometown of Jandiala Sher Khan, 14km from Sheikhupura. It is there, at the end of each hijri year in the month of Zul-Hijjah, that thousands of devotees arrive to attend his urs.

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I had already visited the tomb of Heer and Ranjha when I decided to go to Jandiala Sher Khan. My experience at the squat, checkerboard-tiled tomb in Jhang had been eerily solitary. Apart from a qawwali troupe who struck up a rhythm of mast qalandar as I was leaving, and a gaggle of young women who entered around the same time, I had been almost the only one at the site.

The tomb was silent, ostensibly abandoned, and surrounded by the seeming decay of the city fringe and the encroaching desert. It felt somehow fitting that a place demarcating the grave of a couple who were shunned by their family and society was so empty, yet the humble, colourful grave was also alive with character; by some means reminiscent of their private world in which anything, even something as audacious as love, was possible.

Having visited the tomb of Heer and Ranjha, it was perhaps inevitable that I would visit the tomb of the master poet who penned their story in verse.

We started off our day with a stop at Hiran Minar in Sheikhupura. The construction of Hiran Minar was completed just over a century before the birth of Waris Shah, at a crucial time for the subcontinent: the Mughal Empire was approaching its peak, and what is now considered the golden era of Mughal and Punjabi culture and literature was beginning to flourish.

An hour later, we bumped our way into Jandiala Sher Khan, the rice paddies unceremoniously giving way to mud brick walls, abruptly announcing the start of the village.

Like nearly all towns with something to boast of, Jandiala Sher Khan has a well-established gauntlet of hawkers proffering all sorts of souvenirs at the entrance to its most famous tomb: amulets, the Holy Qur'an in both large and miniature, nuts and dried fruits packaged in shiny plastic bags, stickers to adhere to cars or house windows, the odd toy machine gun housed in its original Chinese paperboard box which had seen better days.

A common item was a kitsch toy in the shape of a love heart with a cartoon-like couple in the centre, posed as if on their wedding thrones; it came in plastic and plush varieties.

Across the muddy car park, a village funfair had drawn in farmers and their families from far and wide, shrieking as their rickety steel pirate ship swung higher and higher.

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It was pure Punjab, the quintessential rural life that so many Lahoris reminisce about even if they are so distantly related to the land. “Naa adataan jaandiyan ne, bhavein katiye poriyan poriyan ji”; Waris Shah says that “a man never abandons his habits, even if he is hacked to pieces.”

It was Eid, mid-summer, and although the air hung thick with humidity, the steady hum of the crowd was hardly dampened. We dodged the hordes and made our way straight towards the tomb, encircled by a red brick wall — not tall like those that encircle many Mughal monuments, and in fact almost suburban in its utility. The wall concealed a grassy, palm tree-dotted courtyard, so expansive it made the far boundary seem distant.

Around the tomb itself, visitors thronged the pathways and spilled into the grassy segments between; this was the place to be on Eid.

The resting place of Waris Shah is another red brick construction, a humble squat prism symbolically punctured by five porticoes on each wall. The porticoes are divided by pillars decorated with blue and white painted tiles. The inner sanctum is an octagonal room containing the grave, topped by a flat white dome.

Although the tomb is subtle and symbolic, I can't help but express my slight disappointment: the structure did not dazzle me like those of many of the other great Sufi poets, nor did it evoke the same lonely ruminations of the Heer Ranjha tomb in Jhang.

Perhaps it's the modernity which failed to impress me; instead of a time-honoured structure intriguing in its difference, this tomb was completed in 1978, in an era where the architecture wasn't that different to my own.

I was eager to take a picture of the interior of the tomb, but I had already seen one intrepid soul get barked at by the surly security guard, so I decided to take a seat on the grass instead.

Also read: Piro Preman, the Punjabi poet who pushed the boundaries of sexuality with her verses

Sitting there on the surprisingly dry, green carpet, my voyeuristic temptations got the best of me; I began people-watching. Couples were filing into the grounds of the tomb, quietly reverent yet visibly joyful as they approached the mausoleum.

Next to me, on the grass, sat another young couple whose lips were moving inaudibly in unison. I could only assume that they were reciting some of the works of the man in whose glow they were basking. A teenage boy, not older than 18, who seemed to be wearing his best Eid clothes, stood alone at the end of the colonnaded front of the mausoleum, declaiming quietly to himself.

And that's when I realised: Waris Shah's poetry, understated and sincere as it is, is not only about seeing. It's about feeling, and it's a feeling that had brought so many visitors to the tomb that day. It's the emotional depth that had drawn the qawwals to Jhang that hot dusty day.

I was surrounded by lovers; lovers of the poetry, lovers of the divine. Suddenly the vast courtyard felt a whole lot closer — it made sense.

Awwal hamad Khuda da vird kariye
Ishq kita su jag da mool mian
Pehlaan aap hi Rabb ne ishq kita
Te mashooq he nabi rasool mian

First of all let us acknowledge God
who has made love the worth of the world, Sir
It was God Himself that first loved
and the Prophet is His beloved, Sir

Anyone who comes to this tomb, or indeed that of Heer Ranjha, expecting to be wowed visually by a spectacular memorial, steeped in history and dripping with grandeur, might leave rather disappointed.

But they're missing the point: Heer Ranjha, after all, is not about perfection or spectacle; it's a tale of devotion, introspection and love, and we all know how it ends. Waris Shah and his tomb are for those who want to be enchanted, not awed. Waris Shah, his poetry and his tomb are for the lovers.

Illustration by Rajaa Moini


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