Col J P Singh
Sohni-Mahiwal is a 18th century tragic legend over River Chenab which I have often heard as folktale and in folk-songs many times mainly because of my student days regular summer crush with Chenab.
It is one of the unique tragic love stories, out of the four such other stories of Northwest India because it is an occurrence in the close vicinity of Akhnoor; others being Sassi-Punnun, Mirza Sahiban and Heer Ranjha which happened further South. Yet Sohni-Mahiwal is more popular in Punjab and Sindh than in Jammu. Out of the four, Sohni-Mahiwal’s tragic love inverts the logic of social, cultural and traditional discourse of earlier times. Since it is uncommon, unbelievable, hence it becomes a legend. The plot of the legend is like this. Sohni falls in true love with a foreign young trader. But she was forcibly married to a man she despises. She refuses to consummate the marriage. To live upto her true love, she puts her life at stake. She swims across mighty Chenab every night using a Pitcher (an earthen pot) to meet her beloved. Ironically, a fateful night comes her way soon. Her sister-in-law (Nanad) replaces her tested and trusted Pitcher with a half-baked Pitcher which melts away in the water mid-stream tragically drowning her in the whirling waves of Chenab. But her devotion to her beloved doesn’t go waste. Sensing her drowning, the lover jumps into the river and both pass away to the heavens together.
Sohni was born to a Potter named Tulla in a village on the West bank of Chenab, some distance away from Akhnoor; not very far from Malika Pukhraj’s house. She belonged to Kumhar clan and was very beautiful. She helped her father in the Pottery. Whenever drinking water pitchers (Surahis) would come off the wheel, Sohni would decorate them artistically and put them on the shop for the sale. Akhnoor is said to be the main market for Tulla Potter’s business.
Once a rich trader from Bukhara (Uzbekistan) named Shahzada Izzat Baig came to India with his Caravan. He was very rich and handsome. On his way to Punjab, he is said to have halted at Akhnoor. It was here that he saw Sohni at her shop and was completely smitten by her beauty and grace. Just to get glimpses of Sohni, he would daily buy Surahis from her. Sohni too fell for him. This practice went on for some time. Instead of returning back to Bukhara with his caravan, the rich trader decided to stay back. He took up a job of a servant in Sohni’s house. He would graze her father’s buffaloes. Soon he came to be known as Mahiwal which means buffalo herder but it is the culmination of true love which immortalizes him.
Ongoing Sohni-Mahiwal love story became a street talk and caused commotion in the Kumhar Community. Since it wasn’t customary for a daughter from Kumhar Community to marry an outsider, her parents arranged her marriage with a Potter boy against her wishes. She was quickly married in traditional rituals and style. A large Baraat came for the wedding. The bride Sohni was sent to bridegroom’s house in a beautifully decorated Palanquin (Doli) to convince Mahiwal that his chapter was closed. Seeing that happen, Izzat Baig renounced the world and started living as hermit (fakir). He eventually moved over to a small hut on the other side of Chenab. Sohni didn’t accept the relationship and refused to consummate the marriage. Fully understanding that Sohni was completely infatuated with Mahiwal, the husband set out on long business sojourn. When alone, Sohni started meeting Mahiwal. She would swim across the river, when the world would be fast asleep. The lovers would meet on the River bank. Sohni would cross the river with the help of a Pitcher. (Swimming with pitcher has been common in the countryside. One could see young girls swimming in village ponds with the help of their water pitchers). Mahiwal would catch fish during the day, roast it for her and feed her with own hands. It is said that once when he couldn’t catch fish, due to high tide, Mahiwal cut a piece of flesh from his thigh and roasted it. Sohni noticed a different taste and told Mahiwal about it. Initially, she didn’t realise but when she put her hand on his thigh, she noticed that Mahiwal had cut his flesh for her. This confirmed his reciprocal devotion towards her which incident only strengthened their love. Even the high-tides couldn’t stop her meeting Mahiwal thereafter.
Rumour of their secret meeting at night on the other side of the River started stigmatizing the family. Sohni’s sister-in-law tracked her and saw the place where Sohni hid her Pitcher. She told it to her mother. They planned to get rid of this undesirable episode from their life once and for all. Thus the mother (Saas) and daughter (Nanad) hatched a conspiracy. Sohni’s sister-in-law replaced the hard baked pitcher with a half baked pitcher. That fateful night Sohni set out on her journey as usual, unmindful of the replaced pitcher. The river was serene. Sohni set out on crossing the river with the raw pitcher. Soon it started dissolving in the water. Knowing that she won’t be able to get across, she shouted for Mahiwal. Seeing Sohni in distress and unaware of the fate that will befall upon them, Mahiwal jumped into the river to rescue her. While trying to save her, he also drowned solemnizing their love at the altar of immortality. Fortunately for them, God Almighty was the witness to tragedy. Sure the divine blessings would have been showered upon them making them immortal. The separated love birds would have certainly re-united somewhere. My endeavor behind this column is to ensure that what is not seen and heard must not pass over in silence. There are lot of lessons to learn from this legend. The readers can draw their own conclusions. My lesson is, one should not lose sanity under any circumstances.
Most acclaimed artist Sardar Sobha Singh has portrayed Sohni-Mahiwal legend in the above painting. He made first painting of Sohni-Mahiwal in 1937. But unfortunate partition of the country displaced Sobha Singh from Lahore to Andretta in Himachal. The painting got left in Lahore. He made second painting of the lovers in 1949 which took him two years. It was presented to Royal Air Force Station Ambala on the request of Dr. M S Randhawa, ICS. (Randhawa was Director General Rehabilitation Punjab, who resettled displaced Punjabis and played major role in country’s agricultural research. He was given the Sabriquet ‘Punjab da Chhewan Dariya). Third painting was done in 1952 which is with Maharaja Dr. Karan Singh, former Sadar-e-Riyassat J&K. Story of third painting is also interesting.
In 1954, Maj Gen Goverdhan Singh Jamwal, then ADC to Sardar-e-Riyasat, accompanied Dr. Karan Singh who visited Taragarh Palace, Himachal to meet his mother Maharani Tara Devi. Capt Jamwal visited Sadar Sobha Singh’s Art Gallery Andretta and saw the gallery filled. Sobha Singh told him that there were no buyers and hence he is at the verge of giving it up. He also told him that ‘Times of India Group’ has offered to print 1000 copies of Sohni-Mahiwal painting which will cost him Rs 4,000 after which they will sell each for Rs 100 and give him Rs. 10,000. Hence he desperately needs 4,000. Capt Jamwal brought four paintings including one of Sohni-Mahiwal for Dr. Karan Singh’s selection. HE liked them and bought all for Rs 2,500. Jamwal gave him other 1,500 to be returned after he received the promised 10,000. Dr. Karan Singh allowed the painting to be sent to Bombay for the print. Painting was received back at Srinagar but with a sad news that the desired print has not come up well. On further request, Dr Karan Singh agreed to dispatch it again to Bombay. Luckily, this time it was successful effort and the printed copies got sold like a hot-cake and the process continued. Poor Sobha Singh became rich overnight and an internationally acclaimed artist. This painting is seen in every Army Officers Mess Bar and Museum in India and abroad.
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LEGEND OF SOHNI-MAHIWAL – Jammu Kashmir Latest News | Tourism | Breaking News J&K – Daily Excelsior
Col J P Singh