Sohni Mahiwal is one of the four popular tragic romances of Punjab. The others are Sassi Punnun, Mirza Sahiba, and Heer Ranjha. Sohni Mahiwal is a tragic love story which reverts the classical motif of Hero and Leader. The heroine Sohni, unhappily married to a man she despises, swims every night across the river using an earthenware pot to keep afloat in the water, to where her beloved Mehar herds buffaloes. One night her sister-in-law replaces the earthenware pot with a vessel of unbaked clay, which dissolves in water and she dies in the whirling waves of the river.
The story also appears in Shah Jo Risalo and is one of seven popular tragic romances from Sindh. The other six tales are Umar Marui, Sassui Punhun, Lilan Chanesar, Noori Jam Tamachi, Sorath Rai Diyach and Momal Rano commonly known as Seven Heroines of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai. Shah begins the story at the most dramatic moment, when a young woman cries out for help in the cold river, attacked by crocodiles. The whole chapter (Sur Sohni) is merely an extension of this dreadful and yet hoped-for moment when the vessel of her body breaks and she, faithful to her pre-eternal love-covenant with Mehar, will be forever united through death.
In the 18th century (late Mughal period), the beautiful girl Sohni was born to a potter named Tulla (Toolha). They were from the Kumhar caste, and lived in Gujrat, Punjab. At the time, Gujrat, on the river Chenab, was a caravanserai on the trade route between Bukhara and Delhi.
As Sohni grew up, she helped her father decorate his pots. Their shop is said to have been near Rampyari Mahal by the river. As soon as the Surahis (water-pitchers) and mugs came off the wheel, she would draw artistic designs on them and set them up for sale.
Izzat Baig of Bukhara
Shahzada Izzat Baig, a rich trader from Bukhara (Uzbekistan), came to Punjab on business and halted in Gujrat (now in Pakistan). Here he saw Sohni at the shop and was completely smitten. Instead of looking after the ‘mohars’ (gold coins) in his pockets, he roamed around with his pocket full of love. Just to get a glimpse of Sohni, he would end up buying the water pitchers and mugs every day.
Sohni too lost her heart to Izzat Baig. Instead of making floral designs on earthenware, she started building castles of love in her dreams. Instead of returning to Bukhara with his caravan, the noble-born Izzat Baig took up the job of a servant in the house of Tulla. He would even take their buffaloes for grazing. Soon, he came to be known as Mehar or “Mahiwal” .
The love of Sohni and Mahiwal caused a commotion within the Kumhar community. It was not acceptable that a daughter from this community would marry an outsider, so her parents immediately arranged her marriage with another potter. On the day the “barat” (marriage party) of that potter arrived at her house, Sohni felt helpless and lost. She was sent off to the husband’s house in a Doli .
Izzat Baig renounced the world and started living as a faqir (hermit). He eventually moved to a small hut across the river from Sohni’s new home. The earth of Sohni’s land was like a shrine for him. He had forgotten his own land, his own people and his world.
In the dark of night, when the world was fast asleep, the lovers would meet by the river. Izzat would come to the riverside and Sohni would come to meet him sitting in an inverted hard baked pitcher (inverted so that it would not sink). He would regularly catch a fish and bring it for her. It is said that once, when due to high tide he could not catch a fish, Mahiwal cut a piece of his thigh and roasted it. Sohni didn’t realise this at first but then she told Izzat that this fish tastes different and kept her hand on his leg, then she realised it was a piece of his thigh and cried.
Meanwhile, rumours of their romantic rendezvous spread. One day Sohni’s sister-in-law followed her and saw the hiding place where Sohni kept her earthenware pitcher. The next day, the sister-in-law removed the hard baked pitcher and replaced it with an unbaked one. That night, when Sohni tried to cross the river with the help of the pitcher, it dissolved in the water and Sohni drowned. From the other side of the river, Mahiwal saw Sohni drowning and jumped into the river and drowned as well, so their union was completed.
Sindhi version of Sohni-Mehar
A somewhat different version of the story is told in Sindh, where Sohni is believed to be a girl of Jat tribe living on the western bank of the Indus River; and Dam, Sohni’s husband, was of the Samtia, living on the eastern bank. The love between Sohni and Mehar is attributed to a drink of milk that Mehar gave her during the marriage procession over the river.
The story of Sohni and Mahiwal was popularized in the Punjabi qissa Sohni Mahiwal by Fazal Shah Sayyad, who also wrote poems on Heer Ranjha, Laila Majnu and others.
The Sohni Mahiwal love story continues to inspire numerous modern songs, including Pathanay Khan’s famous song Sohni Gharay nu akhadi aj mainu yaar milaa ghadeya. Alam Lohar has also made many renditions of this kalaam and was one of the first singers to present the story in a song format. Pakistani pop band Noori’s song Dobara Phir Se is inspired by the lore of this story.
Many paintings of Sohni Mahiwal continue to be created by well-known artists such as Sobha Singh. Folk versions of these paintings, for example in the Kangra style, are commonly found across the whole Punjab region.
Sohni is one of the favourite folktales both in Sindh and Punjab and India.