I got dropped a few kilometers before Jhang city as young van conductor pointed to a dusty street through thick cluster of shrubs, “that will lead you to the tomb of Heer-Ranjha!” It was early October morning, a little warmer than usual and adjusting my worn out travel bag on weary shoulders I delved into another spiritual quest into the realms of unrequited immortal love.
A deep hush greeted me as I had first glimpses of green colored doom across a dense cluster of wild shrubs scattered in the adjoining graveyard. Climbing a few concrete steps I reached a marble floor guarded on all sides by iron fence and white, blue and green tiled tomb of Heer-Ranjha stood humbly in the middle of it. Had I been here before in another place and time? A powerful feeling of déjà vu prevailed my being. Everything looked so familiar, the environment, the canteen and the white and green colored mosque with its abandoned grace, and the deep and pure silence occasionally broken by the sobbing young girl who placed her head on the marble slab of Heer-Ranjha’s grave and sought solace for the pain that her lost love caused. On the right side of the main entrance of the tomb, a limestone plaque read, “Darbar Ashiq e Sadiq Mai Heer wa Mian Ranjha”. I read on for a long long time, “Asihq e Sadiq [True Lovers] and felt some very sacred presence all around the place. Jo bhi kuch hai, muhabat ka phailao hai [all that is here…is created out of love].
“Heer Ranjha has been elaborated in more than a hundred versions in Punjabi, Urdu, Sindhi and Persian. Gradually the work took on Muslim assertions and by the time of Ahmed Gujjars 1693 version, Ranjha became a Muslim, defending Sufi concept of love against asceticism of the Naths. Sufi poets elevated mortal love to the level of spiritual love and the qisa of Heer Ranjha took a pre eminent place in Punjabi literature in the hands of Waris Shah, the Sayed of Jandiyala. Suzanne McMahon writes, “Waris Shah’s Heer is widely regarded as the most brilliant rendering of Heer-Ranhja tale.” It is the story of a young man and a young woman who didn’t receive the sanction of society in shape of marriage. Heer [Izzat Bibi] was a courageous and daring young girl, the daughter of Chuchak Sial and Malki from Jhang. Her courage is elaborated in a sub qisa as Sardar Noora from Sambal community had a slave Luddan. Due to ill treatment Luddan ran away with Sambal’s most beautiful boat and asked for shelter. Heer helped him. Sardar Noora enraged by the incident approached Heer who gathered her friends and confronted Sardar Noora and defeated him. Heer’s brothers learnt of this incident and expressed their concern, “you fought alone, why you didn’t send for us?” Heer replied, “Why would I? It was not Emperor Akbar who attacked us!”
Ranjha [Mian Murad Bakhash] was the youngest of his brothers in Takht Hazara and after a confrontation with his brothers over distribution of inheritance; he left home and wandered with his flute under his arm finally coming to Heer’s village to seek his fortune. On the way he encountered a narrow minded Mullah who didn’t allow him to spend the night in the mosque [saying that ashiq, bhor, fakir te kutay- lovers, insects, beggars and dogs were not allowed to enter the mosque] and Luddan who refused to take penniless traveler across river Chenab. Ranjha lured Luddan’s wives and Luddan agreed to take him across the river to get rid of the situation. On the boat Ranjha slept on a comfortable couch which was the property of Heer. When she learnt that her couch had been defiled by some unknown Jat, she rushed to river Chenab to taunt Ranjha. But her anger evaporated with Ranjha’s words, “Vah Sajjana!” and they were lost in each others eyes. “Ah Waris, nothing can help when eyes meet on the battlefield of love!”
Ranjha told Heer that life was only a dream and she must abandon the pride of youth and beauty and be prepared to leave the world. Heer became mesmerized by the way Ranjha talked and played the flute and eventually fell in love with him. He asked Heer to take an oath to love and become immortal. Heer offered him a job to take care of their cattle so she could secretly see him more often. She promised to sacrifice everything for love and even to lay down her life.
Ranjha Ranja kardi nii main apey Ranjha hoi
Ranjha main no har koi akho Heer na akhey koi
They would meet each other secretly until they were caught by Heer’s jealous uncle Qaido who conspired with her parents and Heer was forced to marry Saida Khera. On her wedding day Heer talked to Mullah [who was heavily bribed by Qaido to perform wedding ceremony] in presence of everyone, “I was married in presence of Nabi [prophet]. When did God give you the authority to perform my marriage ceremony again and deny my first marriage? You are bribed to sell your faith”, she added, “but I’ll keep my faith till my death. As wine drinkers cannot live without wine”, she said, “and opium-eaters cannot live without opium, so I cannot live without Ranjha!”
Broken hearted, Ranjha left on his own until eventually he met a Jogi. Wherever he looked, he could only see his departed lover and being emotionally scared he voluntarily became an ascetic. Heer could not forget Ranjha either. She sent a message to him and he came in guise of a Jogi to take her away [they escaped with help from Saida’s sister Sehti]. When Heer’s parents became aware of the elopement they repented and asked her to come back so they could arrange her marriage to Ranjha. The lovers returned to Heer's Village, where her parents agreed to their marriage. On the wedding day, Qaido poisoned Heer so the wedding wouldn't take place. She was buried in Ranjha’s absence. Ranjha learnt of her death, grieved and dejected he rushed to his beloved’s grave and prayed to be with her. Miraculously the grave parted and Ranjha laid down beside his beloved Heer in their eternal sleep. The beginnings of Ishq e mijazi lead them to the status of Pirs and Fakirs at a young age of 32 and 36 years respectively.
Syed Abid Hussein, caretaker of the tomb, finished the legend of Heer Ranjha and I recovered from the trance of an enchanting tale of love. A simple man, Syed Abid looked at me with gloomy eyes, “Is God not a lover?” he said, “Is universe not created out of love? Ishq has uncountable colors and forms. Is everything not Ishq?” I agreed. Ishq was everything, it was everywhere.
“Can my love for a woman lead me to God?” I asked.
“Sure it can! But only if it is true. Ishq is always divine in its essence. If you enter the realm of Ishq, sure it will lead to unknown dimensions. I’ve seen people coming here everyday for many years now. Few of them are true and commit to be burnt, bruised, tortured, and tested by their love. Very few, I assure you!”
A few paces away the young girl sat curled up with her head against marble slab of the grave. She had stopped sobbing somewhere in the middle of caretaker’s narration of Heer-Ranjha’s tale. But her eyes were still soaked with silent tears flowing down across her neckline. She kept staring blankly into something unseen.
“I searched for faithfulness everywhere”, her choked voice echoed inside the tomb, “I was betrayed. I come to tell mother Heer [Mai Heer]. Only she can understand!”
With my back resting against the tiled wall I witnessed everything.
A bare-footed old woman walked in. Went to the grave and kissed it affectionately. Wrinkles filled her face like deep trenches on dry land. She performed some secret ritual by closing her eyes and clasping her hands for several minutes. Then like a whirling wind she began to dance in the tomb. Her bare feet struck the floor with a loud thud, providing beat for her dance. But I could see that the rhythm was from within, not from without.
“Two bodies in one grave but body is nothing”, she talked as she danced. “Soul is everything. Soul is dance. I am a soul and I will dance!” Another loud thud and another swirl within her soul and another thud of the feet and so on. “Only two bodies are here!”
“And where are their souls?” I asked.
“Their souls have become Ishq and spread everywhere!”
“Why do you take my photos?”
“I am trying to capture Heer-Ranjha’s soul.”
“I know where you can find it” she said with a mysterious smile. “I am Mai Saleem, from the family of Heer [her maternal grand parents]”. She dropped down her dopata and threw her thin hair in the wind. “Look! The women in our family never tie their hair.”
“Ishq is God!” She said and whirled around like a feather in the wind. Only a woman could know better, I though. Annemarie Schimmel [professor of Indo Muslim culture at Harvard University] in her book “My Soul is a Woman: The Feminine in Islam” describes the spiritual experience of a woman’s love, “Women setting out on a long journey during the course of which they are separated from the world more and more everyday until their entire being is transformed into their lovers.”
Outside the darbar women prayed for offsorings, love, happiness and prosperity. Some tied cloth strips to the iron bar above entrance gate as a reminder of their wish to Mai Heer. Young girls brought many colored bangles and strings and tied them to the wooden
On all sides of the Heer-Ranjha’s grave, so they ask God to help them win their love. Sun gently went down the distant horizon, shedding golden light on everything in a blissful adieu kiss. I placed my bag on my back and stepped down the dusty trek. Abandoned course of river Chenab that once flowed close to darbar stretched far and wide. Echo of Heer’s eternal song echoed all across the land:
Mai nii maino Kheriyan di gal na akh