The lyrical folk tale of Sassi Punnu does not merely tell the tragic tale of two lovers but also speaks of the lilting romance of the River Indus, the resounding echo of the arid Baluch mountains, the dry, hot, sandy air wafting in the Thar Desert and the pleasing fragrance of the city of Bhambhor as described by Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, the 18th century Sindhi Sufi poet, scholar, mystic and saint in his poetic compilation Shah jo Risalo. The story of Sassi Punnu is the most famous of the seven tragic Sindhi romances that Shah Latif immortalized in his work. In keeping with Sufi tradition, he penned the tales not just as earthly love affairs but as examples of eternal love and divine union. Having lived during the golden age of Sindhi culture, Latif is considered to be the greatest Muslim poet of the Sindhi language. In fact, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University, called Shah Latif “(the) direct emanation of (the Persian poet) Rumi’s spirituality in South Asia”
As with all folk tales, there are many versions of this romance. This version has been adapted from the tale written by Shafi Aqeel in his book Pakistan kee Lok Dastanain (The Folk Tales of Pakistan) by Professor Muhammad Sheeraz Dasti, a lecturer at IIU in Islamabad and the University of Colorado at Boulder.
During Raja Dilu Rai’s rule in 11th century AD in Sindh, in Brahminabad on the bank of Bhambhor Canal near Gharo district, Thatta lived a Hindu Raja called Tania with his wife Mandhar who were childless. Desperate for a son, they visited temples, presented offerings and supplicated pundits, pujaris, yogis and faqeers for their blessings. Finally, one day the couple was fortunate enough to have a baby girl. Though they had prayed for a son, they rejoiced at the birth of their beautiful baby. As per Brahmin traditions, the parents went to an astrologer to foresee their daughter’s future. The astrologer carefully studied the birth-chart, made planetary calculations, and in a portentous manner declared that their daughter would bring disgrace to their royal house by marrying a Muslim boy.
The strict Brahmin couple was devastated. But they couldn’t kill their precious baby. For the sake of family honour and their upper caste status, they made a difficult decision. They put their baby daughter in a wooden box and, early one morning when it was still dark, floated it on to the River Indus, hoping she would be rescued by a kind soul.
By afternoon, the box floated into the dhobi ghaat (riverside laundry) of Bhambhor, a busy trading city at that time. The laundry owner Atta was a prosperous businessman employingscores of washermen serving the entire town. Atta and his wife too were childless and had made pilgrimages to the shrines of saints, dervishes and Sufis, donated charity and fed the hungry in the hopes of being blessed with a child.
The box was fished out of the river and a beautiful baby girl, sucking her right thumb, was found inside. The washerman took it to Atta. As soon as he looked inside the box, the baby smiled at him. Atta was instantaneously smitten; he picked her up, hugged her and took her home to his wife.
“Look, God has given us a daughter, bright and beautiful as the moon,” he announced happily. His wife was equally thrilled. They named their adorable newly adopted daughter, Sassi, the moon.
Sassi was raised in the lap of luxury. Atta spared no expense to bring her up. She was cosseted and petted as the only child of a prosperous dhobi. Sassi grew up to be absolutely beautiful.
Proud of his daughter who had a regal mien, the dhobi built a splendid new mansion teamed with maid servants to do her every bidding. Artisans decorated the interior with colourful tiles imported all the way from Central Asia. In Sassi’s bedroom a mural depicted the legendary Arab tale of Qais and Laila. Hence, she dreamt of love and romance whether sleeping or awake. Horticulturists and landscapers cultivated the garden with fruit trees, both indigenous and exotic as well as colourful fragrant flowers. She daily roamed her garden like the princess she was and distributed alms amongst the needy as a sweet, charitable girl. Soon Sassi’s fame spread far and wide.
Bhambhor lay on the route to various mercantile cities. Caravans from far off areas camped here to sell goods and restock. Atta owned a camping site behind his garden where he welcomed the travelers since the business they brought was welcome to the town. Occasionally, the lucky amongst them enjoyed the relaxing garden and even got to feast their eyes on the nubile Sassi. Tales of her beauty the foreign traders took back with them wherever they went.
One day, a caravan from Kech Makran camped there and some of the travelers chanced upon Sassi roaming blissfully unaware in her garden. On their return to Kech Makran, a mirasi (folk singer) related the tale of “drinking from the flood of (her) beauty.”
“Sassi is the prettiest of all girls in the world. Oh prince, she is absolutely matchless. She is a fairy from Koh Kaaf. Her eyes are deeper than oceans on the earth, her cheeks are brighter than stars in the sky, her voice is sweeter than the cuckoos in the jungles. Whoever sees her smiling loses heart to her,” he described the teenager reverently.
Punnu became agog to see the famous beauty for himself. “Think of the best plan to reach the famous beauty of Bhambhor. Let me know of your advice by tomorrow,” he told his advisors to concoct a plan for him to be able to see the beauty for himself.
One advisor devised a plan that the prince could not only see but interact with the well guarded Muslim girl: “A caravan should take a variety of perfumes to Bhambhor and you should go along with it as a musk trader.”
Punnu got permission from his father, the Raja Aari Jam, to travel incognito. He put together a caravan carrying exotic imported perfumes that would tempt a fine lady to acquire. As the caravan of the perfume sellers reached Bhambhor, the whole city was bathed in the fragrance of its wares. Even Sassi heard that a handsome trader called Punnu had arrived from Kech Makran hawking special perfumes.
All the Bhambhor residents and merchants from neighbouring areas flocked to where Punnu’s caravan had set up shop. Leaving the business of selling to the rest of the traders, Punnu kept his eyes peeled towards the entrance of the camp throughout the day waiting for a glimpse of the fair Sassi.
Finally, in the afternoon, accompanied by her friends, Sassi visited the site on a shopping expedition. As soon as Punnu spotted Sassi amidst her friends, he knew she was The One. She was far more beautiful than his imagination had pictured. In her turn, Sassi as she dealt with the trader, the Prince in disguise also fell in love with him at first sight.
“Back home, Sassi discovered that Punnu was now in her veins. He was everywhere: in the air, on flowers, in the mirror, on her tongue. She could not like anything, experienced a strange restlessness in sitting, discomfort in sleeping, unease in walking. She didn’t know how to describe this self, this no self. Had no idea of how to cure herself, not sure if she really wanted to cure herself of the sweetness of pain. Finally, she sought her best friend’s council. ‘I love the young musk trader. Think of some way that he is mine—mine forever.’”
A guileless female always confides tales of her love to her best friend who tries to help her win in the game of love. Likewise Sassi confided to her best friend who went to Punnu to guage his intentions. He readily admitted that that the sole aim of his life was to attain Sassi. Then, she went to convince Sassi’s parents to marry her to the young man. “Sassi is unable to live without him. And I must tell you, Punnu isn’t an ordinary man. He is the prince of his tribe in Kech Makran, and is the handsomest of men,” argued the girl earnestly.
But Atta would have none of it. He replied, “Punnu is a traveler. We know nothing about his caste and family. How can we give our beautiful daughter’s hand to a stranger? She will marry someone from our own fraternity, a dhobi,”
Sassi’s friend thought on her feet, “Actually, I have heard that Punnu too belongs to a tribe of dhobis, they only trade in perfumes. You can ask him to wash some clothes as a test.”
So Atta agreed to invite him to their house. Punnu, a prince in reality, went over pretending to be a laundryman. Atta bid him to wash a sack full of clothes to test his veracity.
At the time, clothes in the Subcontinent were washed by beating them on a stone at the edge of a water body. Prince Punnu beat the clothes against rocks besides the mighty gushing Indus River, hurting his hands and tearing the clothes. When Sassi got to know that he had torn most of the clothes were torn, she told her friend to carry a message:
“Tell Punnu to fold the clothes and place a coin of gold in every torn piece. The people of my town will be happy to see gold and won’t complain to my father.”
Punnu folded gold coins in the folds of the clothes. The townspeople demurred and Atta gave his permission reluctantly. He made Punnu promise that he would not take away his only daughter but would take up residence with them in Bhambhor after his wedding to Sassi. Punnu readily agreed.
Punnu’s brothers and friends came from Kech Makran for the wedding. Atta threw an extravagant and magnificent celebration in honour of his only daughter’s wedding.
While they were enjoying Atta’s gracious hospitality, Punnu’s brothers urged him to return to Kech Makran where their father was waiting for him, but Punnu refused to leave his ladylove’s side. When he wouldn’t budge, they returned home without him.
Upon reaching Kech Makran, brother Chunru told this to their father Aari Jam. Punnu, being his youngest son, was the baby of the family. Their handsome prince abandoning his life in the palace for the life of a dhobi, it was unthinkable! His parents wanted their bewitched son back at all costs.
Aari sent a messenger to tell him to immediately return. The messenger tracked down Punnu washing clothes sitting at the dhobi ghaat with other dhobis. “My Lord, this job is beneath your dignity. You are our prince. Come back to home and lead a life that suits your stature,” he said.
“Go back and tell my father and brothers to forget me. I will never be able to go away from here. My home is where my Sassi lives,” the erstwhile prince replied.
The messenger explained how worried his father was, and how the Prince had lowered himself to the level of an ordinary worker by washing clothes. But when Punnu paid no heed.
Aari Jam was so upset when he heard his messenger’s account that he felt dizzy and fell unconscious with worry. Seeing their father sicken, Punnu’s brothers, Chunru, Hoti and Noti put their heads together.
“We must do something to save our father from this agony,” said Hoti, the eldest. “I can’t see him suffer anymore.”
“Yes, we must bring Punnu back to Kech Makran, no matter what price we have to pay,” said Noti.
The brothers strode swift camels and rode toward Bhambhor to bring their brother back in any way possible.
Not being aware of their true design, Punnu and Sassi were thrilled that his brothers had finely accepted his marriage and were visiting them.
Nightly they laid out grand feasts and entertainment for them with mehfil (gathering) of singing, dancing and drinking. Hoti, Noti and Chunru bided their time. First they tried to convince Punnu to return by telling him how their father suffered, how sick he had become pining for him, “If you don’t come back soon, our father will no longer be alive.”
Punnu said categorically that he would never return.
One night, Chunru, Hoti and Noti did not get drunk but let Punnu have his fill and pass out. As Sassi kept waiting for Punnu in their bedroom, she applied henna to her left hand. She eventually fell asleep with the henna stick in her hand. The stick was to be planted in soil in the morning according to the custom in those days.
As soon as Punnu passed out, his brothers picked him up and flung him across a camel’s back. They quickly and quietly left for Kech Makran without disturbing the sleeping household.
In the morning, Sassi woke up to find herself alone in bed. Punnu was nowhere to be found. “My Punnu has been abducted by his brothers. They have deceived me,” she shrieked.
Devastated at her loss, she dashed out without even putting on her shoes, wailing his name. Her parents and the servants ran after her.
“Where is my Punnu?” She kept repeating inconsolably. “I’ll find him. I will find him.”
Threatening to kill herself if they stopped her, Sassi ran towards the jungle outside Bhambhor. Her parents and servants followed her but they lost track of her when twilight fell in the thick jungle. Sassi ran madly crossing the jungle, over the barren land, sandy dessert and craggy mountains. Her feet got cut over the thorns, branches, rocks and hot sand, but she didn’t even notice.
All are enemies, camels, camel men and brother in laws,
Fourth enemy is wind that removed the foot prints of Punnun,
Fifth enemy is sun which delayed its setting,
Sixth enemy is sky which did not make travel easy,
Seventh enemy is moon which did not shine longer
(Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, as translated by Muhammad Sheeraz Dasti)
Sassi walked another few miles before her blistered and bleeding feet became too sore and painful to walk on. She had reached the Harho mountain range where she was spotted by a shepherd from a distance. “Where is my Punnu? Have you seen my Punnu?” Sassi asked the uncivilized goatherd.
The lascivious man sought to take advantage. “You are searching for one Punnu? In this world everyone is a Punnu for you. I am Punnu for you. My father, my grandfather, my seven generations are Punnu for you. My sheep, my donkey, all the animals are Punnu for you.” He flung himself on her, desirous of raping her and fulfilling his baser animal urges.
“O merciless man, I am dying of thirst and you assault me. Fear Allah and get me something to drink,” Sassi begged him.
As the shepherd relented enough to get her some milk from his goats, Sassi beseeched Allah to order the ground to open and swallow her up. “O Almighty, the One who listens to the helpless, help me out in this moment of trouble. I am Punnu’s trust. Protect my honor from the wickedness of this shepherd. You and only You can hear me in this barren land!”She moaned with tears streaming down her face.
Her prayer was heard.
Suddenly the ground beneath her shook and split open. The crevice widened to engulf her into its protection and closed over her again, leaving only the border of her duppatta as a trace above ground. The shepherd got so scared to witness this miracle that he fell in a sajda and begged forgiveness from Allah.
To atone for his sin, he became the caretaker of Sassi’s grave. To mark it, he placed stones around where the spot where she had disappeared into the ground and built a small hut for himself nearby.
Meanwhile, the brothers had reached Kech Makran without incident. Punnu didn’t get a chance to escape because they had tied him to the back of a camel.
Punnu kept protesting, “I won’t go to Makran. Leave me here. I have to go back to my wife, my love. Don’t try to separate us, you can’t do that,” but they were adamant.
Though his old sick father Aari Jam felt so happy to finally see him home, Punnu didn’t care and said, “Release me. Let me go to my Sassi. She would be worried. She will die without me. I have to go to Sassi. I have to go to Sassi. Please release me.”
After failing to convince him, Aari Jam, a wise, thoughtful man, feared Punnu might harm himself if they didn’t relent. Eventually, he sent for his elder sons and told them, “Take him back to Bhambhor and bring both Punnu and Sassi here. He can’t live without his woman, and we can’t see him in this condition.”
Lying to Punnu that they were going to leave him to live with Sassi in Bhambhor, the brothers prepared for their journey.
Aari told them, “Bring Sassi to Kech Makran at any cost, and come back at your earliest possible. We’ll live to see the woman, who thieved a beautiful chamber of our heart.”
“Don’t worry, father. We’ll follow your wish and wisdom,” chorused all three in unison.
Punnu was desperate to get back as soon as possible. “Had he got wings, he would have flown to her. Since the time they had separated him from his Sassi, Punnu behaved like a stranger.”
When they reached the spot where Sassi had been “veiled under the earth,” Punnu’s sixth sense averted him. Pulling the reins of his camel, he looked around to detect her by now tattered dupatta border peeping out from the ground surrounded by stones. What was Sassi’s dupatta doing her and why did he feel her presence? He saw the shepherd squatting down on his haunches at the entrance of a nearby hut and asked him politely “Whose grave is this?” He had an ominous feeling in the pit of his stomach that he already knew the answer to his own question.
The shepherd burst out crying and sobbed, “She is the devoted lover of someone called Punnu. She was running about madly, calling out his name. and took refuge here in this rock.”
His worst fears had come true. He fell down on his knees and folding his hands together in supplication offered Fateha for his beloved Sassi casting his streaming eyes upwards. “O You the Creator of love and of the lovers, O the Greatest Healer of the injured souls, send me to where Sassi is, to where Love is,” he prayed to God.
All afternoon he repeated his prayer. Finally, in answer, the ground shook again, the rock split open and Punnu hurriedly fell in calling out Sassi’s name. The rock closed behind him, reuniting the lovers that no one again could put asunder.
Punnu’s brothers stood stock still terrified. The shepherd dissolved in tears; he was now the custodian of a single grave of the two lovers, and the tale of their miraculous and divine love. The brothers realized how wrong they had been to try to come between a love sanctioned by Allah; how grave a sin they had committed in their shallow, earthly considerations. After pondering over their grave mistake, they recited a Fateha for the lovers and, with a heavy heart, departed for Kech Makran.
Sassi Punnu’s alleged grave is located near Lasbela, 45 miles away in the Pub range to the west of Karachi. Haji Muhammad, an affluent resident of the area, constructed a simple mausoleum in 1980, which is visited by those from near and far. Ruins of Punnu’s fort are likewise located in Turbat.
Seeking the Beloved- In the spirit of Shah Abdul Latif
It is exhilarating to know that in these troubled times for Muslims, Sufi scholars of yesteryear are distinctly revered by people of all communities, faiths & sects. Gyaan Adab organized a book reading session by Author Anju Makhija, of her book of poetry. This book is an English translation of Shah Abdul Latif sur ( or couplets) from the Sindhi language .
Shah Latif, a mystic & poet from erstwhile Sindh, that extended from Sindh in Pakistan to Kacch in present India. Shah Latif of Bhittai, a place in Sindh were his mausoleum is built, wandered these areas during his lifetime in the quest of God. His followers now are pastoral nomads are rendering his tradition with folk tales, poems & recitals of his couplets .
So what is that Sufi’s spoke about that still reverberates with current generation?
Well, its imperative with all the references to wine, love & the beloved it was about annihilation of self/ ego, sacrificing the self for the love of Allah ( beloved). More we see engulfed in the wars, fueled by greed, over-consumption & urge to have more couplets of Shah Latif make immediate sense :
Their ego the ascetics have killed,
They wish their unity with God to be fulfilled .
Or if we were to contrast that with the lives of new age godmen in the modern era, who roam around in private jets, carry their own cavalcade of personal body-guards & enjoy a luxurious life, to them Shah sahab said :
Those jogis who treasure Food and cloth for their pleasure,
From them God will stay Still farther and away .
Sufi’s spoke of universal love & brotherhood and their teachings transcended through different religions . For them being “Good” was more important without attaching strings of religion. In short they loved humanity & so does humanity still loves them .
As you would have understood by now, they spoke the universal language of Love for all.
An important theme of Sufi poets of subcontinent, has been their emphasis on correcting the inner spiritual self & purifying it from within :
Faith does not in that direction lie that the Kalima you day and night cry,
Your heart is imprisoned in falsehood With Islam you mask your face Within, many idols hold their place?
What are you waiting for ?
The inherent qualities of spiritual masters has always been, once the inspiration strikes, to go out & seek their true love , i.e. God or as Shah Latif said :
Do not care about hot or cold weather,
Do not think about rest,
You should push forward without wasting your time because if you become late,
darkness will spread all around and you will not be able to see the footprints of your beloved .
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