The Dawn: April 15, 2016

Punjab Notes: Heer Waris Shah: He composed it 250 years ago

Mushtaq Soofi 

The year is 1766. It’s a small but ancient called Malka Haans, in between more than 1,000 years old Pakpattan and more than 5,000 years old Harappa, the metropolis of Harappa civilisation. A man in his early 40s has been staying here for some time. He is obviously not a local, not even a resident of Ganji Bar, the area with wild growth between the river Sutlej and the river Ravi. He is a stranger, a man from a far-off place called Jandyala Sher Khan, a village in the great Sandal Bar (the swathe of land between the Ravi and the river Chenab) in the precincts of present day district Sheikhupura, close to Lahore, the glorious capital of Punjab.

He lives in an underground cell attached to a mosque. Mosque and its perimeter are where strangers or travellers can stay. No one can push them out of this sacred space. That is the norm. Few can dare to flout the norm. And if they do so, they, people firmly believe, invite the divine wrath. Why this stranger from Sandal Bar is here. Why has he chosen to stay here, nobody knows. But everybody knows that he has come after paying his homage to one of the greatest saints of Punjab and the north India, who also happens to the first classical poet of modern Punjabi language, popularly known as Baba Farid Shakar Ganj. His shrine in Pakpattan is great site of pilgrimage for his votaries who are in huge numbers.

Town people surely know that the man is highly educated and is interested in books. They have been told that the man is from a religious family which though not rich is noble. They see him busy writing. He announces in 1766 that he has finished composing a book, the tale of a legendary upper class woman retold. The woman’s name is Heer and the poet’s name is Waris Shah. In the time to come, Heer came to be accepted as the greatest Punjabi female character and Waris Shah the greatest poet of the land of the five rivers.

It sounds like a piece of fiction. No, it’s not. It’s all real. Waris Shah’s date of birth can be contested but not the year he composed his masterpiece and the place where he composed it. It’s all there in his book that makes a hefty volume. “Sann yaran saye assiyan nabi hijrat, lammay des de vich tayyar hoi / atharan saye thrihan samttan di, Raje Bikramajit di saar hoi”. It unambiguously states that the tale was composed in 1180 Hijra in the South and according to indigenous calendar the year was 1830. According to the Christian calendar, the year was 1766. In the very next stanza Waris Shah says: “Kharal Haans da mulk mashoor Malka tethe shair keeta yaaran waste main / parakh shair di aap kar lain shaaer, ghora pheria vich nakhas de main”.Its loose translation would be like “The famous town of Kharal Haans is where I composed the verses for my friends / Let the poets judge; my horse is out in the public square”.


What Waris Shah wrote 250 years ago in a small village has stood the test of time. Rather it proved to be the best creative expression of Punjabi genius. The female character created, to be more exact, recreated by this supreme bard is one of most defiant female figures in the literary history that seems even today far ahead of contemporary advocates of gender rights and equality. She embodies not just gender empowerment but also the eternal spirit of human emancipation.

Culturally conscious Punjabis all over the world are gearing up to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Heer Waris Shah. Let us see how the Punjab government and its cultural institutions rise to the occasion. The least the chief minister can do is to set up an institute dedicated to do research on Waris Shah’s Heer. It’s just not a book. It’s Punjab’s socio-spiritual odyssey. —

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