Come quietly and whisper your wish as the locals do. Don’t make noise. The legendry Sahiba and Mirza wouldn’t like it. It was noise that incessantly accompanied them in their tempestuous relationship and eventually got them murdered cold-bloodedly as young lovers. The noise that arose in response to their act of defiance in a society dominated by patriarchal and tribal values still haunts men and women all across Punjab.
The tale epitomises the no holds barred love of man and woman from the rivers Ravi and Chenab. Mirza, the man from the Ravi, would fight for his rights till his last breath like his forebears who always resisted the foreign invaders including the mighty warrior, Alexander, the Macedonian. But his fight was against his own people’s anachronistic view of man-woman relationship. He was like a restlessly fast moving wave of the Ravi on whose banks he was born.
Poet Hafiz Barkhurdar predicts Mirza’s future life when he was about to be born with blessings of saint Nausha: “With his feet in the stirrups he would encompass the two rivers and shake the earth / He would be slaughtered on the altar of love/ Riding his horse he would always float on air.”
Sahiba, the woman from the river Chenab, as defiant as her predecessor immortal Heer, represented the complex psyche of modern woman defined by her emotional conflicts: family honour versus demands of love relationship. This is what the poet says on Sahiba’s dilemma: “Sahiba alone and two boats! Which one she should put her foot in? / Face-to-face confrontation! Who would face the other down?” She represented the unstoppable waves in the romantic Chenab that could overflow in opposite directions.
Last week the writer and research scholar Iqbal Qaiser and I visited the graves of young lovers which have become now a place of pilgrimage in erstwhile Sandal Bar close to right bank of the Ravi at a distance from Mirza’s hometown Danabad. The motorway (M-3) has made the place quite accessible from Lahore. It will take you a little more than one-and -a-half hours. You leave the motorway at Jaranwala exit. Then you can follow the road on the right or the one on the left. The former is in a better shape. You cross the underpass to the right, then take the left turn on the service road parallel to M-3. After driving some kilometers you hit an asphalt road that crosses the service road and take left turn which will take to you what the locals say ‘Mazaar’ (shrine). The left side road zigzags through the new settlement of Danabad and other villages and hamlets and is not in a good shape. Both the roads are surrounded by wheat crop in green and mustard crop in yellow creating a spectacular landscape typical of Punjab’s fertile lands in this season. Within a month or so the yellow will disappear and green will turn into dust gold. Along the roads and in the fields you see men and women doing their chores. You can see a glimpse of traditional female dress of the Sandal Bar; Majhla, a loose black or blue wrap that women cover their lower half with. You come across lot of milkmen (Dodhi) frequenting the roads. They are the country side’s daily connection with the towns and good guides as they usually know all the places in the area.
You can’t miss the dome of a small structure from a distance as there are no tall buildings close to the place. On the left side of ‘half pukka’ track that branches off the main road, you enter the premises which has the boundary wall. As you enter, an old banyan tree (Borh) stares you in the face with its old mystical beauty. On the left is a small pond with yellowish water where a pair of swans take a dip. They seem to assume a symbolic significance; they hint at what they share with humans; the undying power of love. Behind the banyan stands the bubbly dome whose contours are visible through the branches. To the left of building one can see a grand old Jand tree standing still with its somber shade of grey. Jand can survive in an arid land without water for years. The tree with its dry branches appeared almost dead but we were told that it was very much alive. Next month with arrival of spring it would be all green again. The Jand has been immortalised by poets because under it young Mirza was brutally murdered by the clansmen of his beloved Sahiba. The poet Barkhurdar has described how his body was cut into pieces and burnt to ashes in an uncontrollable fury to the dismay of birds and animals - crows, peacocks, parrots, cravens, dears and fawns - who happened to be the witnesses to such a gory scene. The sight becomes scarier when you recall that young Mirza was their kinsman. Sahiba, grief-stricken under the tree, gave her last message to an old crow who carried it to the poet Pilu in the Dhun plateau. Pilu directed the crow to approach the poet Hafiz Barkhurdar to retell the tale. After Mirza had been done away with, Sahiba’s brothers hanged her by a tree.
As you enter the built area, you see three graves on a single raised platform. The headstones tell you who is who: Sahiba, Mirza and lastly Mirza’s father Ra Vanjhal. Mirza was born in 1587 and Sahiba in 1586. The former was 31 and the latter 32 when both were killed in 1618. So what makes you worth remembering? Long life or the way you live and die? A tragic feeling coupled with the lovers’ lust for unfettered life stuns you into a pregnant silence. It’s not young lovers’ impetuosity but their defiance and daring that marked their struggle against the restrictive tribal and patriarchal norms. At times the fearless young prove wiser than the calculating wise. You come out of this small mausoleum replenished with the wonders of life. At the back of it you see grave like something preserved: it’s the burial place of the Mirza’s mare called Neeli /Bukki symbolising an unbreakable bond between humans and animals on this planet. So the tale has three protagonists; Sahiba, Mirza and their mount. In the words of Barkhurdar, Mirza was a lion who could sustain thousands of cuts, Sahiba was a woman with the waist of a cheetah who could touch the clouds and the mare Neeli was a houri among the angels gifted to the lovers. When you visit the lovers and their mount, don’t make joyless noise. Let the mysterious silence tell you the unusual secrets of love. — firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, February 13th, 2023