Sohni Mahiwal: A Punjabi Folktale

I’ve been quiet of late, for which I apologize. Lots of activity (and deadlines) in the data science side of my life. But I don’t want to abandon the other sides of my life, like Multo or dance. I’ve managed to slip in a little combination of the last two, in a new post I’ve written for the Dholrhythms Dance Company blog.

We have some new choreographies to showcase at our upcoming Non Stop Bhangra performance this Saturday. The theme of the night is Hip-Hop/Bhangra fusion, but surprisingly, the songs we’re debuting are both fairly classic folksongs. One of them, by Surjit Khan, is based on a famous Punjabi love story, Sohni Mahiwal.


Once upon a time, on the banks of the river Chenab, near the city of Gujrat, lived a potter named Tulla. Tulla’a pottery was famous, and in demand all through Punjab, and even in lands beyond. Tulla had a daughter who was so lovely that he and his wife named her Sohni (“Beautiful”).

Since Sohni grew up in her father’s shop, she learned how to decorate the pitchers and pots that came off his wheel with beautiful designs: flowers and elaborate patterns. And so the family flourished.

One day a rich young Uzbeki merchant came into Tulla’s shop to buy some of his pottery. The merchant’s name was Izzat Baig. Sohni was in the back of the workshop at the time, painting her designs on her father’s pots. Of course, she caught Izzat Baig’s eye. And since the merchant was not only rich, but young and handsome, I imagine he caught her eye too. Izzat wandered around the workshop much longer than he had intended, sneaking glances at Sohni, and bought many more pieces of pottery than he had planned to. And he came back the next day, and the day after that….

You know this doesn’t end well.

You can read the rest of the story at the Dholrhythms blog.

You can read the rest of the story at my other blog, Ephemera.

Sohni’s family doesn’t want her involved with a foreigner, and marry her off to another man, but the affair continues. Eventually the affair is discovered by Sohni’s sister-in-law, who doesn’t tell her brother. Here’s a quote from one of the sources I used in my retelling of the story.

She [the sister-in-law] reported the matter to her mother (Sohni’s mother-in-law). Both of them, rather than informing Sohni’s husband, decided to get rid of Sohni. This, they believed, was the only way to save their family’s honor.

Ouch. This reminds me of the ending of another famous Punjabi love tragedy, Mirza Sahiban . In that story, according to R. C. Temple, Sahiban’s brothers strangle her when they discover her illicit affair. That detail is glossed over in modern retellings of the story (including mine). The sister-in-law’s actions are a bit harder to gloss over in Sohni Mahiwal, but her motivation certainly isn’t dwelt upon. My first thought when hearing the story: Maybe she just wanted to scare Sohni into behaving herself? Yeah, right. There’s definitely a grim undercurrent to so many classic old folktales.

As for the song, I’d heard it long before I knew what the story was about; it’s a very cheerful song, when you don’t understand the lyrics (or know what they’re referring to). Here’s the video, for your entertainment. It makes more sense if you’ve read the story first. Delightfully cheesy.


Painting: Sohni Swims to Meet Her Lover Mahinwal, in the style of Faqir Ullah Khan, circa 1780. Sourced from Wikipedia.

2 thoughts on “Sohni Mahiwal: A Punjabi Folktale

  1. Lovely photos on the dance company site. I’m assuming (hoping) there will be enough fish for everyone. And no knives around if there aren’t!

    1. Haha! I hope there will be enough fish (and everything else) for all. I’m excited for the night. I like the choreography that goes with the Sohni Mahiwal song, and the other new one is mine, so I like it, too. It will be a good performance.

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