Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Story of Heer Ranjha

The Legendary Love of Heer and Ranjha

(This article appeared in a publication in U.K.)

Few stories that are recounted from generations to generations can command the pathos and poignancy of two folk icons and Jat youths Heer and Ranjha – the story of the beautiful Heer and the youthful Dheedo Ranjha. Legends have been spun around the story and it now stands as a tale that unites people on either sides of the Punjab – the state that was divided between India and Pakistan after the partition in 1947. The story at once has popular mass appeal and romantic allusions of undying love. Understanding the story of Heer and Ranjha also means understanding the social underpinnings of Punjabi society, and Punjabi culture to be specific.

Beautiful Heer is born into a wealthy Jat family of Sayyal in a village called Jhang. Dheedo Ranjha (Ranjha is his surname) is also born to Jat parents in Takt Hazara by the Chenab (one of the rivers that give Punjab its name, which means land of five rivers). Jats are an enterprising and strongly traditional clan of people who live around Punjab.

Dheedo was his father's favourite son, and the youngest of eight sons of his landlord father. Unlike his brothers who had to cultivate the lands, he led a life of ease playing the wooden flute (Wanjhli or Bansuri), and legend has it that he had bohemian looks and long hair. When their father died, a dispute arose between Dheedo and his brothers over the distribution of land. The brothers had taken possession of the best land to themselves and gave Dheedo only the barren land. He, after a heated argument with his brothers, left home in protest and headed aimlessly southward along the River Chenab until he reached somewhere near the present day Jhang where Heer lived and her tribe the Sayyals ruled.

The chief of Jhang was one Chuchak Sayyal who had an extraordinarily beautiful and headstrong daughter, namely Heer. On meeting Dheedo, Heer is instantly taken by his wild and romantic looks and the soulful tunes of his flute. She persuades her parents to hire Dheedo as a cowherd for their cattle. He is hired, and thus begins the legendary romance between Heer and Dheedo. The two lovers often meet in the forestland along the river where he takes the cattle to graze. While the cattle graze he plays his flute and she listens by his side. The days and months pass in total bliss — one of love and eternal happiness for the lovely couple.

However, Heer’s uncle, Kaido, becomes suspicious and starts spying on her. He gathers sufficient evidence to report about the romance to her parents. The parents admonish her and warn her to stop meeting Dheedo. When she is undeterred they call in the village Qazi, or priest, to advise her.

The Qazi tells her that good girls, when they come out of their home, keep their gaze lowered; that they always keep their families’ honour uppermost; that she should spend time in tiranjans (places where village women gather to spin yarn on spinning wheels and chat). He also reminds her that, being from a higher caste and a renowned family, it is unbecoming of her to mingle with family servants like Dheedo.

Seeing that Heer is committed to her love for Dheedo the Qazi threatens her with a fatwa of death. But Heer is undeterred by his threats. Exasperated by her behaviour, her parents decide to marry her to a man named Saida Khairra from village Rangpur. The wedding ceremony, or nikah, is arranged and the Qazi is invited to perform the ceremony. According to custom, the Qazi first asks the bridegroom if he would accept Heer as his wife, which, the bridegroom readily does. Then the Qazi asks Heer, still very much in love, and her answer is a loud No. When the Qazi insists for an affirmative answer, Heer says, “My nikah was already made with Ranjha in heavens by no less a person than the Prophet himself, and was blessed by God and witnessed by the four angels, Jibraeel, Mikael, Izarael and Israfeel.”

The Qazi goes ahead and solemnizes the marriage, anyway. After the ceremony Heer, in tears, is sent to Rangpur amidst great celebrations. Heer languishes in Rangpur, pining for Dheedo. Meanwhile, Dheedo is heartbroken. He is left to walk the quiet villages on his own until eventually he meets an ascetic Baba Gorakhnath, the founder of the "Kanphata" (pierced ear) sect. He becomes a Jogi, pierces his ears and renounces the material world. Reciting the name of the Lord, "Alakh Niranjan", on his travels around the Punjab, he eventually finds the village where Heer has been married.

Heer also comes to know through her friends that the young handsome jogi in town was none other than her lover. The two meet and, with the help of Heer’s friends and her sister-in-law, Sehti, manage to elope one night.

The two returns to Heer's village, where Heer's parents, convinced about their love, agree to their marriage. However, on the wedding day, Heer's jealous uncle Kaido poisons a sweet Laddu to prevent the marriage from taking place. Heer eats the Laddu. Hearing this unfortunate news, Dheedo rushes to her side full of concern for her, but he is too late, as she has been affected by the poison and dies. Brokenhearted once again, he takes the rest of the poisoned sweet which Heer has eaten and dies by her side.

Thus ended the tragic love story Heer and Dheedo Ranjha.