Being an “unofficial” version of the famous love story.
In the village of Takht Hazara there once lived a young man named Dheedo, of the clan of Ranjha. He was the youngest son of a wealthy landowner, and as the youngest, he was a trifle spoiled. Rather than working or managing the family property, he spent his days lazing in the sun and playing his flute.
Unfortunately, his father eventually died, and the sons divided the land amongst themselves. The older brothers never thought much of the youngest, so when they divided the land they gave Ranjha the worst, most infertile part of the property. Ranjha tried to work his land for a while, to no avail. Disgusted, he took his flute and left Takht Hazara.
The going was hard, because Ranjha was used to the good life on his family’s property, and now he had to beg for scraps to live — not always successfully. But he must have been a good person at heart, because heaven looked after him.
One night Ranjha took shelter in a mosque. To pass the time, he played his flute. His playing attracted the villagers, who all came to listen to the beautiful music. It also attracted the attention of the mullah in charge of the mosque. The mullah tried to stop Ranjha from playing, scolding him for desecrating the mosque with his music. Ranjha turned on him, saying that a little music was nothing compared to the hypocrisy of the so-called holy men.
You and your kind, with your beards, try to pretend to be saints, but your actions are that of the devil. You run around after women in mosques… you are like curses clinging to the house of God.
The mullah was furious, naturally, but there was nothing he could do — the villagers refused to back him up (perhaps they secretly agreed with Ranjha). Finally, the mullah left, and Ranjha spent the night in the mosque, and then traveled on the next day.
Eventually, Ranjha reached the banks of the River Chenab, just as the sun began to set. He asked Ludan, the ferryman, to take him to the city of Jhang on the other side. But Ludan refused, because it was getting dark and he suspected Ranjha of being a thief or highwayman who planned to rob Ludan as they crossed the river. Thinking that he had no choice except to camp out on the side of the river, Ranjha sat down on the river bank, pulled out his flute, and began to play a low, melancholy tune. The sound was so beautiful that everyone who heard it felt moved to pity, and between their intercessions on Ranjha’s behalf, and the lovely sound of the flute itself, Ludan’s heart softened and he agreed to take Ranjha across.
After Ranjha boarded the ferry, he made himself comfortable on a luxurious red and white couch on the ferry. At first Ludan tried to stop him — the couch belonged to Heer, the daughter of Mihr Chuchak, the head of the Siyal clan. But Ranjha continued to play his flute, and Ludan, spellbound, let Ranjha sleep where he would.
The next morning, Heer and her girlfriends arrived at the river, sweeping down on the ferry “as a hailstorm sweeps over a field.” Noticing Ranjha asleep on her couch, Heer castigated Ludan loudly, then threatened to have Ranjha beaten for his insolence.
But when Ranjha opened his beautiful eyes, Heer changed her tune. And Ranjha fell in love with Heer at first sight, too.
She had a face like the full moon, eyes that sparkled like precious gems, teeth so white like the petals of the jasmine flower, lips like red rubies….
They spent the rest of the day together; Ranjha told Heer his life story. By the end of the day, Heer swore to be Ranjha’s forever.
The next day Heer brought Ranjha to her father, Mihr Chuchak, saying “Father, I have found someone to herd the buffaloes.”
Chuchak was skeptical: Ranjha, with his beautiful long oiled hair and smooth skin, looked more like a rich man’s son (which he was) than like a herder or a laborer. But Chuchak loved his daughter and trusted her judgement, so he hired Ranjha.
Every day, Heer brought Ranjha milk and bread, or sweets and rice, and spent the whole day with him in the forest. She neglected her spinning and her household chores, she abandoned all her girl friends. Soon gossip spread throughout the village. Who was this mysterious buffalo herder who insisted that only Mihr Chuchak’s daughter bring him food, and who oiled his long hair every day with almost a quart of ghee?
The gossip reached the ears of Kaidu, Heer’s uncle, who began to lurk in the forest, trying to catch the two together. One day Kaidu found Ranjha alone in the forest, and came up to him, pretending to be a beggar. Ranjha, remembering the days on the road when he, too, had to beg for food and shelter, gave Kaidu half a pastry — a pastry that Heer had made for him.
Kaidu took the pastry and brought it before the village elders as proof of Heer’s disobedience and wanton behavior.
I have seen Heer and Ranjha in the forests, and I tell no lies.
Ranjha will take away Heer, and there will be shame to the Siyals.
The elders went to Chuchak and told him about Kaidu’s accusation. Chuchak was furious. “Kaidan is a talebearer and a liar,” he said. “He chases moths all day.”
But Kaidan went to Heer’s mother, urging her to do something. In the face off all the family pressure, Chuchak called Ranjha to him one night after Ranjha had returned with the buffaloes. In front of all his kinsmen, Chuchak dismissed Ranjha. Ranjha threw down his staff in a rage.
“For twelve years [!!] I have tended your buffalo and now you turn me away without wages!”
And Ranjha turned on his heel and left.
But now all the village folk began to talk, criticizing Chuchak for dismissing Ranjah without even paying his wages; and of course Heer was inconsolable. To calm the situation down, Chuchak relented. He took Ranjha back into his service — and more.
Before 70 Khans and 72 nobles Chuchak betrothed
Heer to Ranjha, saying:
“As long as thou shalt live she is thine, and when thou art dead she will not deny it.
If any one tear Heer from thee I will bear witness against him in the Court of God.”
But Heer’s mother and uncle brought Heer before the qazi, the judge, who reminded Heer of her duty to respect her family and their position in the village. It was beneath her to consort with buffalo herders. Heer refused to give up Ranjha.
As wine-bibbers cannot desert the bottle, as opium-eaters cannot be without their drug, so I cannot live without Ranjha.
After much back-and-forth, the qazi still couldn’t change Heer’s mind. Frustrated, he told the Siyals that Heer was too stubborn, and to avoid further scandal they should marry her off right away. The Siyals called a clan meeting.
Chuchak wanted to marry Heer to Ranjha, but his kinsmen overruled him. Even if the buffalo herder were noble-born, he was only a Ranjha of Takht Hazara — too lowly a family to marry a Siyal. The family decided to marry Heer off to Saida, of the Khera clan.
The Siyals and the Kheras arranged the match, but on the day of the wedding ceremony Heer refused to say “I do,” saying loudly (at the wedding!) that she had been betrothed to Ranjha and that their union had been blessed by Heaven and the saints.
Muhammad formed the marriage procession and Brahma set up the posts of the marriage canopy.
The angels sang songs of rejoicing and fairies brought the henna.
The Panj Pir [Five Saints] performed the ceremony and Khizar [Khidr] was witness.
But it was no use. Heer’s parents signed the marriage papers anyway, and the Kheras took Heer back to Rangpur, to Saida’s house.
In the meantime, a heartbroken Ranjha had returned to Takht Hazara, but he couldn’t forget Heer. Resolving to search for her, Ranjha made his way to Tilla Jogian, the temple where the jogi Gorakh Nath lived. Bowing before Gorakh Nath, Ranjha asked to become a jogi, a beggar monk. At first, Gorakh Nath refused, as he recognized that Ranjha was noble-born; he doubted (correctly) that Ranjha had the humble nature of the true jogi.
So Ranjha stole Gorakh Nath’s conch, the one Gorakh Nath used to call his followers in for their evening meal. He buried the conch, committing it to the care of Mother Earth and Saint Khizar. Without the conch, Gorakh Nath couldn’t summon his jogis. To keep his followers from starving, Gorakh Nath agreed to let Ranjha become a jogi.
Then Ranjha dug up the conch and blew it, once to the east and once to the west, to summon the jogis to their meal (he kept the conch, too). Then Gorakh Nath rubbed Ranjha with ashes, shaved his head, pierced his ears, and gave him a begging bowl. He told Ranjha, “Call the young women ‘sister’ and the married women ‘mother.’ Beg throughout the city and bring no shame on the profession of begging.”
But Ranjha threw away the begging bowl and earrings and rubbed off the ashes. “I was right about you!” exclaimed the guru. But Ranjha only laughed.
We Jatts are cunning — we use all means to get what we want. What can I do with a beggar’s bowl, whose heart is set only on plowing? How can I call her ‘mother’ for whose sake I would become a jogi?
At first, the guru was angry, but then he realized how deeply in love Ranjha was, and how desperate. Moved to pity, Gorkah Nath blessed Ranjha and prayed that he would achieve his desire. At Ranjha’s request, Gorakh Nath sent forth his crow, to search for Heer.
The crow flew from town to town, from house to house, until it arrived in Rangpur and found Heer, wasting away in Saida Khera’s house. After telling Heer of Ranjha’s faithfulness (yes, the bird talked), the crow returned to Tilla, bringing the news back to Ranjha.
Ranjha made his way to Rangpur, disguised as a jogi, begging at each village on the way. When he arrived in Rangpur, all the women noticed this beautiful young jogi and flocked to him. They poured out their troubles: with their in-laws, their husbands, their neighbors. Ranjha listened to it all and counseled the women, while he searched for the Khera household.
When he found the right house, he knocked on the door, pretending to beg for alms. Heer’s sister-in-law Sehti answered. Watching Heer’s and Ranjha’s reactions when they saw each other, Sehti quickly figured out who this handsome jogi really was. She agreed to help them — if they would help her escape to her lover, a Balochi camel driver named Murad.
Heer and Sehti hatched a plan. Heer cut her own foot as the two women walked in the garden, and pretended that she had been bitten by a snake. Sehti told the family that there was a wise jogi staying in the village, and convinced Saida, Heer’s husband, to bring the jogi to the house to cure Heer. Saida agreed. The lovers reunited as Ranjha “cured” Heer of the snakebite.
Afte a few weeks, the couple planned their escape. Sehti asked to go with them, and begged Ranjha to help her find Murad. Ranjha blew on his conch. The sound reached out, far and wide, and Murad heard it as he slept. He dreamt that Sehti called him, asking him to come to her. When he woke, Murad set out at once for Rangpur.
On a Sunday night in June, the three escaped. They met Murad, who put Sehti on his camel. The two of them escaped over the River Chenab, while Heer and Ranjha fled to Qabula, the city where Raja Adali ruled.
The next morning one of Heer’s maids told the family what had happened, and the Khera men set off to find them. They caught up to Murad and Sehti, but the couple had made it safely back to Murad’s people, and the Balochi forces drove back the Khera pursuers. Heer and Ranjha weren’t so lucky. The Kheras captured them and beat Ranjha unmercifully, then brought him before Raja Adali, demanding that Ranjha be put to death. Heer’s uncle Kaidu also came to testify against Ranjha.
But Chuchak testified that he had betrothed Heer to Ranjha.
In the Court said Chuchak: “I tell no lies.
Before 70 Khans and 72 nobles I gave Heer to Ranjha.
Ranjha grazed my buffaloes for 12 years and took no pay at all from me.
My brethren thrust him away, and seizing Heer married her to the Kheras.
If there be a lie in this ask Heer: she is in thy Court.
If there be a lie in this may I be punished in the Court of God.”
So Adali called Heer in to testify. When she walked into the court, unveiled, Adali saw how beautiful she was and lost his head.
Said Adali to Ranjha : “Thou too art a liar: Heer was first of all betrothed to me!”
And he took Heer away to his palace.
Heer prayed to God for protection, and when Adali tried to come to her bed that night, he burst into flames! Luckily, he managed to douse himself with water and save himself. Ranjha also called out to Heaven, playing his flute. Heaven heard.
The sound of the flute reached to Mecca and a company of 70 saints came up.
The sound of the flute reached to Multan and the Five Saints came in majesty.
The sound of the flute brought the Mother, the Goddess Durga, on her lion to Ranhja.
At the sound of the flute came Sakhi Sarwar the Warrior, galloping up on his mare Kakki.
At the sound of the flute came Hanuman, the leader, with his army.
The army cut down the garden of Adali and left not a tree remaining….
All the saints collected took burning logs and set fire to Adali’s city.
Burning went Adali into the reservoirs and water was thrown over the people.
And when the water reached the fire it blazed forth twofold!
The Raja’s advisors told him to restore Heer to Ranjha, to save the city. So Raja Adali sent for Ranjha and agreed to marry him to Heer. Then Ranjha blew on his conch.
When Ranjha sounded his conch, Indra caused rain;
And all the people in Adali’s city lived in happiness.
Ranjha and Heer came together, for God favoured them.
Raja Adali did justice and turned away his face from bribes.
In this version of the story, Raja Adali himself gave Heer away to Ranjha, and the entire city attended the wedding. Then the two lovers rode away into the sunrise, and (like Sehti and Murad) lived happily ever after.
The most famous version of Heer Ranjha — the “official” version, you might say — is the epic 18th century poem by Waris Shah. My version, and one of my source versions, ends with Heer and Ranjha’s marriage; from what I’ve read older folk versions of the story had a happy ending. Waris Shah added a tragic ending to his literary adaptation:
Humiliated at their loss of face, Kaidu and his kinsmen plot to kill Heer. The family talks the couple into having a proper wedding, in Jhang (Heer’s hometown).Ranjha returns to Takht Hazara to fetch his family for the Baraat. The Sayals bring Heer back to Jhang, ostensibly for the wedding. Instead, they quietly poison her. One version says they gave her poison laddu, a sticky sweet dessert often served at weddings. When Ranjha realizes that Heer is dead, he eats the rest of the poison laddu, and dies, too.
This Romeo and Juliet style ending is now used in modern retellings of the story.
My retelling is based on what seems to be a fairly complete prose synopsis of Shah’s poem, in English, by Umer Munir. I combined it with a more folkloric version (it seems to be a transcription of an oral rendition) collected by R.C. Temple, “as related by some Jatts from the Patiala State”, and published in the second volume of Legends of the Punjab in the 1880s. You can find this version here (starting on page 529; marked page 507 in the text), in Punjabi with English translation. I also consulted two shorter retellings (also based on Shah’s version), at Folk Love Stories of Pakistan and All Things Pakistan.
There is also another version that I didn’t find until after I wrote this, from the 1903 Romantic Tales from the Panjab, collected by Charles Swynnerton. I only skimmed this one. It looks extremely fanciful, with references to “Ranjha’s magic flute”, and the lovers carried away by djinns (!!) to Arabia at the end of the story.
Temple’s version is clearly aimed at people who already know the tale: it skips a lot of narrative details, jumps around in time a bit, and embellishes the story with characters from other famous Punjabi folktales. It’s hard to follow if you don’t know the story, so I’d suggest reading Umer Munir’s version first, which includes many details that I skipped over.
Temple’s version also has many fairytale-ish elements that aren’t in the Shah version, like Gorakh Nath’s conch and crow. The bit about Raja Adali trying to steal Heer is also from Temple. I used a lot of these elements, since I liked them. I also liked how the storyteller of Temple’s version freely mixed Islamic and Hindu cultural references together.
Incidentally, the Temple version ends with Heer and Ranjha going off to Mecca, but I preferred to interpret that metaphorically, since the storyteller often used Mecca as a symbol for “far away.” For instance, when Ranjha blew his conch to summon Murad (Sehti’s lover), the sound of the conch is said to reach to Mecca.
In Umer Munir’s version, and so I assume also in Waris Shah’s poem, Heer’s mother promises Heer to Ranjha, to get him to return to being their buffalo herder. This is just a convenient lie to quiet down the scandal of having dismissed Ranjha without wages. In Temple’s version, when Chuchak betroths Heer to Ranjha, he seems to mean it — he defends the couple twice after that.
I picked this version because it reminded me of many of the loving, liberal-minded fathers in Rabindranath Tagore’s short stories: fathers who “spoil” their daughters by educating them, and generally treating them like human beings rather than chattel. Unfortunately, these fathers are also usually too weak to protect their daughters from the oppressive expectations of the patriarchal society of the time. Like Chuchak, they give in to the pressure from the rest of the family and marry off their daughters into unsuitable, unhappy marriages. So my version isn’t just a victory for the two pairs of lovers; it’s a victory for these fathers, as well.
The “quotes” in the story are from the several versions that I consulted, but mostly Temple’s. Sometimes I mixed lines from multiple versions together, if it suited the story. I also unified the spelling of names, and a few places I tweaked Temple’s translations. But (as I mentioned) the mixing of Islamic and Hindu references is really there, in the passages from Temple.
- Heer Ranjha, Artist unknown. Source.
- Luddan ferries Ranjha across the Chenab, c 1850. Artist unknown. Source: Wikipedia
- Heer, Abdur Rahman Chugtai. Source: All Things Pakistan
- Heer Ranjha, Shafqat Jilani. Source: Folk Punjab on Twitter
- Punjabi Bride, Sobha Singh. Source: sobhasinghartist.com
- Heer Ranjha, Sobha Singh. Source: sobhasinghartist.com
- Princess Kalabutti, 1920. Abanindranath Tagore. Source: Wikipedia
- Fairy in the Moon Light, Gaganendranath Tagore. Source: indiapicks.com
- Laddu. Source: Wikipedia