River Of Love: Exploring Chenab, The Icon Of Punjabi Folklore

Chenab, an emblem in Punjabi folklore, embodies life's contradictions, love's transcendence, and the spiritual journey's symbolic currents
The Chenab, a mix of two words: chan (moon) and aab (river), is formed by the confluence of the Chandra and Bhaga rivers
The Chenab, a mix of two words: chan (moon) and aab (river), is formed by the confluence of the Chandra and Bhaga riversPhoto: Shutterstock

Chenab is not a river. It is a metaphor, a symbol of life. But not life as a powerful creative force (though rivers are a symbol of that as well), but life as dukkha, borrowing from the Buddhist tradition or maya of the Vedantic philosophy. It symbolises life's fickleness, unreliability, and inconsistency, as articulated in centuries of Sufi poetry. Chenab is a symbol that is understood across the religious traditions of Punjab.

Chenab is pain. It separates life from death, eternal bliss from a life of agony. It separates humans from their real destiny, death. Death not as a permanent loss, but as a gain, a return to humanity's most authentic form. Death as a symbol of marriage, a union of the devotee and the divine. In death, there is no separation between the creation and the creator, between Radha and Krishna, and between Sohni and Mahiwal.

Caught in the waves of Chenab on a half-baked ghara (earthen pot), Sohni is holding onto the last straws of life. Her Mahiwal, her beloved, is on the other side of the bank, watching her slowly drown. Every day, Sohni used to swim across the river using a ghara to be one with her beloved. But on this day, her sister-in-law, who had caught on to her secret, replaced the ghara with a half-baked one, knowing well enough that she would drown in the river. As the ghara began to melt in her hands, Sohni realised her destiny. This is the climax of this iconic love legend of Punjab that unfolded on the banks of Chenab.

Like other Punjabi legends, qissa, this story's protagonists are characters and symbols. At all times, the story unfolds at these two levels. Sohni, like Heer before her, who, like Radha before that, is a symbol of a perfect lover, while her beloved, Mahiwal, Ranjha, Krishna, is a symbol of the divine. Their union is the union of the devotee and the divine. Thus, while Sohni sees life slipping away from her, she also realises that this is the moment of the ultimate union with her Mahiwal, in the other world, the real world, outside of the maya, entrapments of this world. This is not a tragic situation but rather a moment of joyous celebration.

Laila visits Majnu in the wildnerness, painted by Narsing, in circa 1597
Laila visits Majnu in the wildnerness, painted by Narsing, in circa 1597Courtesy: Henry Walters, The Walters Art Museum

Waris Shah's "Heer-Ranjha" is perhaps the most well-known love legend of Punjab. In one part of the story, Ranjha, who is on his way to be one with Heer, jumps into Chenab, knowing well enough that he will drown in the process. His Heer, his destiny, is on the other side of the river, in the city of Jhang, while Ranjha is on this side. His drowning will connect him with his true destiny, even though it will take him away from Heer, the character on the other side of the river.

The Punjabi qissa writers were comfortable entertaining these contradictions, this multilayered unfolding of the story. For this is also a world that is imbued in the Bhakti tradition and the Sufistic tradition of Monism—Anal Haq (I am the Absolute Truth), where divinity is not imagined as being separate from existence, but rather as a unitary being. "There is only God" is the essence of this tradition, and everything that exists is a part of that. In this unitary world, night exists with day, evil with good, and life with death. These are not contradictory phenomena but rather an extension of one another. It is a world where Ranjha can be a character of a particular qissa and a symbol. He can embody both of these truths at the same time. It is a world where someone's death could also mean their real birth.

An early morning view of mustard fields in Punjab
An early morning view of mustard fields in PunjabPhoto: Getty Images

Waris wrote his rendition of "Heer-Ranjha," about two hundred years after Damodar Gulati, a Punjabi-Hindu poet, penned its first Punjabi written version. Before Damodar, there were oral traditions of the folklore. Therefore, the story was widely known by the time Waris wrote "Heer-Ranjha," and the characters and their symbolism were well understood. Likely, the oral traditions of "Sohni-Mahiwal" were also known to Waris. His qissa borrows from all these legends; it takes on their symbols and makes them his own. Sohni-Mahiwal, Yousuf-Zulekha, Laila-Majnu, and Krishna-Radha all combine to make Waris's Heer-Ranjha.

In the story of Sohni-Mahiwal, the half-baked ghara is a symbol of a devotee who has begun treading the paths of spirituality without proper guidance, without a murshad or a guru. This, too, is an essential feature of the Bhakti tradition, of which, these love legends were an expression. In this tradition, without a teacher, one couldn't access this world of spirituality. The fate of Sohni in the qissa is a testimony to that. It is a warning to all who want to access the truth of spirituality. It is a reminder that one needs to be prepared for this journey and that one needs to have a true teacher, a fully baked ghara, instead of a false, ill-prepared teacher, like Sohni's ghara.

Ranjha jumping into Chenab, without a proper boat or preparation, also taps into the same symbol. It is a reminder that those who jump into the waters of spirituality without adequate preparation will drown. The Chenab, in this context, becomes another symbol, a metaphor that is born out of the previous metaphor of life. Chenab is the symbol of the spiritual journey. It separates these two existences, one of uninformed, unquestioned life and the other of a life of fulfilment, a life in union with the divine existence.

The third and final legendary Punjabi qissa of "Mirza-Sahiban" is also based around Chenab. How can it not be? Wearing and shedding various symbols in its multiple incarnations and various lives, Chenab has also donned the symbol of love, perhaps its most well-known metaphor. How can any Punjabi love legend be situated anywhere else? Just outside the village of Kheiwa (located in the Pakistani province of Punjab), located close to Chenab, there is a mosque, believed to be the historical mosque where Mirza and Sahiban studied as children and fell in love. They are found by Sahiban's brother close to the river, as the river of love becomes a witness to their execution, their martyrdom.

Punjab flows through all these stories in its various identities and symbols. For it is not a river, but a metaphor for life and death, for false and truth, of love and hate.

Haroon Khalid is a freelance journalist and the author of several books. His latest novel, "From Waris to Heer," will be published by Penguin in February 2024.

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