The Punjabi language version narrates the story of Izzat Baig, a prosperous merchant from Bukhara who falls in love with a potter’s daughter, Sohni, and by a series of fateful events becomes a buffalo-herder or mahiwal. As the news of their burgeoning love spreads, Sohni’s community marries her off to another potter to preempt her marrying an outsider. Izzat Baig swims across the river to meet Sohni, and when he is injured, Sohni visits Izzat Baig in the nights, swimming across the Chenab river with the help of a baked clay pitcher. These nocturnal visits come to a tragic end as her sister-in-law learns of her rendezvous, and replaces her baked clay pitcher with one made of unbaked clay. Sohni drowns as the pitcher dissolves in the river. Izzat Baig also throws himself into the river, becoming united with his beloved in death.
In the Sindhi version, the buffalo-herder or mehar, whose name is Sahar, is a pious and beautiful young man whose life is one of hard work, prayer and playing the pipe. It seems he is destined for a saintly future as one day he is visited by four holy men with luminous aspects who ask him to give them milk from a virgin heifer. At their bidding, he finds that a heifer is ready for milking. After having their drink, the four holy men depart, promising to have a meal with him upon their return.
Next, another group of men come to him and ask for milk. They are from a wedding procession which wishes to perform the milk-offering ceremony for the bride and bridegroom while they await boats to carry them across the river. Sahar picks up the miraculous milk leftover by the four holy men and accompanies them.
Dum, the groom, refuses to drink the milk. While drinking it, the bride, Sohni, sees Sahar and the two of them fall in love at first sight. After the ceremony, Sohni departs with the wedding procession to her husband Dum’s house, which lies across the river opposite Sahar’s hut.
Marked by her love for Sahar, Sohni refuses Dum’s touch, who is described as an ugly, stupid, and impressionable young man, and reveals her love’s secret to her mother-in-law. Her husband and in-laws rebuke Sohni but she takes pride in the censure received on account of her passion. In the evenings she becomes restless when Sahar’s buffaloes return home and she hears the tinkling of their bells. When Sahar plays his pipe, Sohni wishes to fly to him across the river.
One night, when she can bear the separation no longer, Sohni crosses the river with the help of a pitcher and spends the night with Sahar. These trysts become frequent. Dum’s family and the whole community discover her secret and try to stop her, to no avail.
One day while crossing the river, Sohni swims past the spot where the saint Chhutto Pir is offering prayers on a mat spread over the river’s surface. He tells her that she should be ashamed of her love, which had blinded her to the extent that she interrupts his prayers. Sohni answers that she was indeed blind in her love for Sahar and asks the saint how he was able to see her if he was focused on thoughts of God.
Sahar had a slight blemish in one eye. After Sohni and Sahar had been seeing each other for a year, Sohni notices and comments on it, upon which Sahar asks her not to visit him ever again as she would not be able to cross the river. When Sohni asks why, he replies that until that day, the passion she felt for him did not allow her to see the blemish in his eye. Her noticing it meant that her passion was on the ebb, and since it was the same passion that allowed her to swim across the river, she may now endanger herself in the attempt.
In the Sindhi version it is Sohni’s mother-in-law who exchanged her pitcher with another made of unbaked clay. Sohni drowns while crossing the Indus on a rainy night. Sahar recovers her body from the water with the help of fishermen and makes a tomb in her memory. The tomb bearing Sohni’s name still stands in Shahdadpur, Sindh, in Pakistan.
In the Sindhi version of the legend, the complexion of the tragedy changes, with a beloved accurately presaging that an imperfect love would imperil the lover’s life, which had until then protected her despite the defiance of the codes of conjugality, community and religion.
Musharraf Ali Farooqi is an author, novelist and translator. He can be reached at www.mafarooqi.com and on Twitter at @microMAF. This monthly column explores the curious world of myths and folk tales of South Asia.
Read Musharraf’s previous Lounge columns here.