Research Paper
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Waris Shah and his Heer


Muhammad Afzal Shahid




                Who was Waris Shah? Why he wrote Heer? What is special about his Heer? How his Heer was treated by his 'admirers'? Where does his Heer stand today? These are some of many questions still being asked by serious scholars of Waris Shah and his masterpiece creation Heer.


In Heer, Waris Shah says: 'Waris Shah vasneek Jandialray da', (Waris Shah is resident of Jandiala, Stanza 628). This small village of Sandal Bar of the old times is Jandiala Sher Khan which is now in administrative domain of district Sheikhupura in Pakistan.


The stanza 594 of Heer reads as: 'binan aml day nahin n'jat teri peya mar'en qutab deya beteya way' (even if you be son of a 'qutab', without practically following the commands you cannot secure salvation. In this line word 'qutab' means one level/rung, like a Vali, a Ghaos and an Abdal, of the sufi tariqa/order). Some have inferred from this line that Waris Shah's father's name was Sayyed Qutab Shah. On the contrary, family ancestral history indicates that his father was Sayyed Gul Sher Shah.


Like his date of birth, his date of death is also not known with certainty. Waris Shah says: 'Waris Shah j'vani di umr guzri ajay taba nanh hirs theen baz aaee' (Waris Shah has passed his youth and yet he has not overcome his greedy disposition; Stanza 439). Above all the maturity and experience revealed in Heer indicates that Waris Shah must have been at least in his fifties at the time of writing Heer (which was completed in 1766-7; Stanza 626).


Little is known about the person of Waris Shah. Lack of authentic and documented details of his life have proved a boon for some to put their own spin and fictionalize this great Punjabi scholar and poet of the Punjab. All sorts of baseless and questionable episodes have been fabricated. It is a matter of proverbial elephant in the hands of the blind describing whatever they can touch without any capacity to see or grasp the whole.


As was customary during his time, Waris Shah received his early education at home or in a Madrassah. This much is known from Heer that he went to Qasur for his higher education.


Qasur (now in Pakistan) was a popular place for higher education for young Punjabis. In particular Hafiz Ghulam Murtaza who headed a religious school (a seminary) was a religious scholar and a famous teacher. Bulleh Shah who was senior to Waris Shah by some twenty years went to Qasur for his higher education from Hafiz Ghulam Murtaza. Many years later Waris Shah also went to Qasur to become a pupil of the same teacher at the same institution.


Waris must have thoroughly quenched his thirst of knowledge from the fountain of scholarship springing from his great teacher. He certainly developed reverence for his beloved teacher which he lovingly expressed in Heer (Stanza 628).


Waris Shah mentions Qasur multiple times. For example, the devastation the marauders like Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali wreaked on Punjab was painful to watch and unbearable to experience for Punjab and its inhabitants. Waris Shah was grieved by the devastation that ensued in and around Qasur (Stanza 628).


A sound knowledge and understanding of Arabic and Persian was necessary for a student in a mosque-school because majority of the course materials and textbooks were in Arabic and Persian. Waris Shah names an elaborate list of textbooks, subjects taught, interaction between students and teachers (Stanzas 33 - 36).


In addition to being well educated, Waris Shah had keen eyes to observe, examine, and explore. He had a sharp mind with clear and analytical disposition to analyze what ever came across him in his public and private space and time. His Heer provides a clear evidence of his mastery over all aspects of social and human experience. He is a literary master with powerful expression and clear communication through behavior and verbal expressions of his characters of varied intellectual levels and maturity. He presents a realistic and convincing picture of his time to the extent that a reader feels part of every scene and event described. Through his clarity of expression, a reader appreciates good, acceptable and, in human terms, 'lawful'. At the same time the reader can recognize what is wrong, exploitive, ugly and simply evil.


Waris Shah was well versed with the value system of his open-minded and tolerant society where a variety of diverging systems of religious, moral and cultural values and traditions prevailed. Hindus, Budhs, Sikhs, Yogis, Muslims and other 'dharamis' co-existed peacefully. Waris Shah clearly shows how member of one 'belief system' (Dhido Ranjha, a Muslim) can easily enter the fold of another (become a Yogi) and yet be acceptable to all because that was the 'natural' to a heterogeneously mixed society for its peaceful coexistence. It is the 'other' - a clear outsider, the likes of marauding Nadir Shah and Ahmad Shah Abdali who destroyed the peace of this tolerant, peace-loving and peaceful society.


Waris Shah is not the original author of romance of Heer and Ranjha. The first author to compose Heer in Punjabi poetry is Hari Das Harya. Other authors who composed this folk lore before Waris Shah are: Gang Bhat, Baqi Kolabi, Damodar Das, Saeed Saeedi, Ahmad Gujjar, Meeta Chanabi, Gurdas Guni, Gurdas Khatri, Chiragh Awan, Ahmad Yar Khan Yakta, Faqir-ullah Lahori, Mansa Ram Khoshabi, Mir Qamar-ud-Din, Hafiz Shah Jahan Muqbal, and Sundar Das Punjabi. Many of these authors were contemporary of Waris Shah. It is his version which has made the story of Heer popular and his a household name. The word 'Heer' and the name 'Waris Shah' have become so enjoined that all other composers of Heer seldom matter. No author of Heer has enjoyed the same level of popularity before or since Waris Shah composed his Heer.


In his search for knowledge, exploration and learning, Waris Shah travelled far and wide all over Punjab. During an extended stays at Malka Hans, he composed Heer in the year 1180 AH (1766-7 CE; Stanzas 626, 627). In Malka Hans, Waris Shah stayed in a room adjoining a mosque and was also pesh-Imam (Muslim prayer leader) of the village.


The plot of Heer is simple. Dhido is the youngest of eight sons and two daughters of Maoju, head of the Ranjha clan of Takht Hazara. Dhido is the most favorite of his father. This stirs waves of jealousy among his brothers who are all married. After Maoju dies, the brothers and their wives taunt and tease young Ranjha making his life miserable to the extent that he leaves his ancestral land. On his way to Jhang where he intends to try his luck on winning love, he encounters several ordeals. Finally, he meets Heer, beautiful daughter of Chuchak, the head of the Sial clan of Jhang. It is love at first sight for both. In order to perpetuate and ripen her newly found love, Heer recommends Ranjha to her father that he be employed as their cow-herd. Their love blossoms. A village elder named Kaido, strongly disapproves their secret love meetings. He actively spies on them. Finally he succeeds in winning over parents of Heer to marry her away to Saida of Khera clan of Rangpur. Heer bitterly protests and refuses to marry to Saida Khera. She stubbornly insists to only marry Ranjha. She is forced into the marriage against her will and, as was the custom, to join the Khera family in Rangpur. This marriage is never consummated. At the urging of Heer, the dejected Dhido becomes a yogi and arrives in Rangpor. There he encounters beautiful, proud and arrogant Sehti, the sister-in-law of Heer. After an initial bitter encounter with Sehti, the two are reconciled. Sehti and Heer both concoct a secret plan to run away with their respective lovers;  Heer with Dhido Ranjha, and Sehti with Murad Baloch.  The Kheras follow run away lovers and catch Heer and Ranjha. A Raja intercepts and awards Heer to Ranjha. Ranjha is cheated one last time; Heer is poisoned and on hearing the news Ranjha dies of shock. Thus, unlike other composers of Heer, Waris Shah brings the story of Heer to a touching and tragic end.


The rhyme-scheme called 'baent' which is derived from the Persian 'baet' for a line of poetry was used by Ahmad Gujjar (1682) and Hafiz Shah Jahan Muqbal (1741) in their versions of Heer many years before Waris Shah. Waris Shah adopted the same rhyme scheme for Heer. But it is because of his masterful expressive overtones to link joy, mischief and misfortunes of his characters in Heer to relate most effectively to lives of its readers. In addition to stitching flow of events of Heer seamlessly, he spiced it with philosophical and spiritual wisdom to console the aching hearts of Punjabis devastated by the foreign marauders.


This rhyme is sung in a special melody that is known as 'Heer' style of singing 'Heer'. Popularity of Heer and its rhyme has also led to a source of textual corruption of Heer of Waris Shah. Starting from 1887, many greedy poets and money-minded publishers and printers deliberately started corrupting the text of Waris Shah's Heer by indiscriminately mixing their own poetry to it. It seems the imposters did not or could not discern the difference of the text of Heer from the melody of Heer.


As to the question 'Why did Waris Shah compose his Heer?' one is reminded of two verses in Heer.  At the start of his Heer he states that his friends (in plural) implored him to compose Heer anew (Stanza 6). On completing his composition he states that he has fulfilled request of his dear friend (this time in singular, Stanza 629). He does not reveal identity of his friend(s).


A careful reading of Heer tells us that Waris had a much bigger and noble goal in front of him in composing Heer. He adopted the plot of a well known Punjabi folk lore of Heer and Ranjha. Being a keen and sensitive observer, he could not stay silent about the social ills prevalent around him in his society.  Disregard of human dignity, values and rights particularly towards women was wide spread. He knew that direct prohibition is counterproductive when it comes to encouraging masses to reform. So he used a host of characters of the story to bid his calling. These characters were living and acting in real lives all around him. They were Maoju raising a large family, love spoiled Dhido, ever toiling and jealous brothers, crafty sisters-in-law, stubborn but bribable Mullas of mosques, carefree citizens, world-wise Ludden - the boat-businessman, beautiful Heer and her loyal girl-friends, head of the Sial clan - Chuchak, ever suspicious trouble stirring Kaido - aloof, afflicted with and addicted to drugs, Qazi Shams, Mithhi Nain, cows and cow herds, honor-conscious Sultan - brother of Heer, street-wise yogis, conspiring and impatient disciples, probing ayali/herder, arrogant Sehti, Saida Khera and his father Ajju Khera, Raja Adli and his religious advisor - another self-righteous qazi, natural world with all its abundance, shades of superstitions, world of calamities, angelic five peers/guides, etc. All these characters were from the masses and masses could relate to them rather easily. All were afflicted with instinctive self-centered dark passions of humanity such as ignorance, greed, envy, deceit, jealousy, hate, arrogance, cruelty, etc., and at the same time also carried noble human qualities like love, sympathy, patience, understanding, wisdom, bravery, etc. Imbalance between good and evil was always present and all too real.


That is why Waris acknowledges and accepts the request of his real or fictitious friend(s) and sets out to create the romance of Heer in the best style possible (Stanza 7). Throughout the narration of Heer, in all praiseworthy and blameworthy scenarios, he never lets his noble goal of reformation of his society out of sight. Where necessary he uses the obscene street language of common folk so that he can carry similar members of the real society along. When necessary he cites ayats/verses from Qura'n, ahadis of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and words of saintly wisdom to let readers and listeners of Heer know that his narration of the folk lore is not just a cheap entertainment but there is bigger, serious and sincere purpose behind it. That is why he sets the stage between Heer and Qazi to debate the question of forcing marriage on innocent young girls against their free will and without their consent and acceptance (Stanzas 201-215). This practice was prevalent then, as is to a large extent even now, which was and still is contrary to religious teachings, woman rights, human rights, values and dignity. The result is that many verses from Heer have become proverbial words of wisdom. Ordinary people use those lines in their daily life even today. This is not an ordinary feat.


The textual corruption of Heer started soon after the printing presses came to Punjab during the middle of the 19th century. The first printing of Heer was at the Hoop Press, Lahore, in 1865. No copy of this printing is available but it is claimed that its text was re-printed first in 1973 and then in 1988. It is clear that even this first printing of Waris Shah's Heer was grossly corrupted. Later many more corrupted texts of Heer attributed to Waris Shah were produced. Literary excesses of many psedo Waris Shahs, their financial sponsors, publishers and printers is all too well known and well documented in the Heer circles. I find it distasteful and inappropriate to discuss those texts and those imposters for the sake of reverence to the person of Waris Shah.


During early parts of the 20th century, admirers of Waris Shah became concerned about the damage being done by the profit driven wave of imposters. So efforts were initiated to clean the text of Heer and to restore it to the original text as Waris Shah had written. That is when many scholars started comparing and contrasting all the manuscripts of Heer available to them. This included the hand-written old manuscripts as well as printed copies of Heer attributed to Waris Shah.


Several texts were produced with the claims that the said texts were clean, pure and authentic. A comparison of these 'authentic' texts of Heers shows that those claims were simply not true.


Almost all editors of those texts started with the same noble claim: restoring text of Heer to the original as written by Waris Shah. Unfortunately, so far no manuscript written by Waris Shah himself has been discovered. However, there are many old high quality and complete hand-written manuscripts going as far back as 1821. Some of these are written in Gurmukhi script instead of Persian-scripted Punjabi which is the script in which Waris Shah would have written his Heer. Gurmukhi script suffers from transliteration problem when it comes to writing Muslim-specific worlds of Arabic and Persian origin.


On the other hand Waris Shah's version of hand written Punjabi is generally difficult to read for two main reasons. One, the written script used is usually 'cursive' so that shapes of letters are grossly distorted. Two, different letters with common shapes and sounds were generally not differentiated. It becomes even bigger challenge if an editor/reader is not familiar with the classical Punjabi language as pronounced by Waris Shah in his Heer.


I have read hand-written and printed versions of Heer going all the way back to 1859 and as recent as 2009. My conclusion is that we are fortunate to have an excellent quality and complete text of Waris Shah in the form of a hand-written manuscript preserved in Punjab Public Library, Lahore, Pakistan. It was copied by Kirpa Ram of Hafizabad (a city in Pakistan) in year 1859 at the request of Hardev Singh who was a Minister in the Sikh Government. This manuscript is clear in beautiful calligraphic Persian-scripted Punjabi. Kirpa Ram was well versed with Persian and was scholarly to the extent that he has correctly copied ayat/verses of Qura'n and other religious textual references cited in Heer.


Another hand-written manuscript which has a date of 1861 (7 Shaban 1277 AH) is complete from the beginning but is missing the last 9 stanzas. The text of this manuscript is almost identical to that of Kirpa Ram manuscript cited above. Two conclusions can be drawn by comparing these two manuscripts. One, prior to the era of printing presses, corruption of Waris Shah's Heer was not prevalent and almost non-existent. Two, both manuscripts may have been copied from the same earlier manuscript.


I have based text of the present book of Heer by Waris Shah on the two hand-written manuscripts cited above. This book consists of 4260 lines of poetry in 631 stanzas of unequal lengths.


I was born and raised in Shahkot (an old town, until recently in District Sheikhupura and now a tehsil in district Nankana Saheb). I am a descendent of local Punjabi parents with local ancestry from many generations. Our history is pinned to this 'Jangli' land from the times of 'Bars'. I have spent years of my boyhood in small villages like Kurlathi, Jhanggar, Phanddar, Bheray-Wali, Pakka Khooh, Mirpur Bhattiyan, Kot Allah Ditta (on Nala Dek), Pithorana, Islam Pura (Renala Khurd), etc. In these villages, I had the pleasure of meeting, observing and listening to many 100 year old local Punjabi elders grooming younger generation in 'theth Jangli' Punjabi language and ways of life as pronounced by Waris Shah in his Heer. This takes me almost 150 years back in time; now I am almost 63.


What should be done next about Heer? This is an important question and must be addressed sincerely and honestly by all those who want to preserve Punjabi literary heritage and history. This one book is a cyclopedia of Punjab and North-western regions of one of the oldest civilization in the sub-continent. My own view is that we should reject all printed versions of Heer altogether since without exception all these texts of Heer are corrupted. We should build on the unique and apparently authentic text of Heer as preserved in the Punjab Public Library, Lahore and other similar hand-written older books of Heer. It is our duty to produce a standard text of Heer of Waris Shah. Moreover, in order to introduce Waris Shah and his work to the rest of the literary world, we must translate Heer in all major languages of the world.