Folktales and storytelling are the oldest traditions through which human beings have interacted and communicated with each other throughout history. Before the arrival of the printing press and books, historical events were often recounted to future generations through oral means like poetry, stories, songs, riddles, and proverbs. Echezonachukwu Nduka, a Nigerian writer, states; “Every civilization has a historical and cultural heritage which people hold dear and transmitting the history and cultural heritage through the oral tradition of storytelling is a common phenomenon of human practice.” Hence, folktales hold immense significance as they carry the core values and heritage of a society, which are essential for the societal identities that are generated around these stories. These folktales have embedded in them moral lessons and societal norms that educate the masses along with entertaining them. Folk stories, all over the world, are constructed around the themes of marvel and magic that help the protagonists in their quest. Similarly, the hero’s bravery, valour, ability to overcome challenges and to ensure the safety of their beloved, are also recurring themes in these stories. However, the folktales of Pakistan move beyond the conventional thematic structure by actively involving elements of religion and regional terrain. Despite having a linguistic variety, the folktales of all regions and provinces of Pakistan tend to give the message of love, peace, and co-existence. Let us now delve deep into the wondrous world of Pakistani folktales and explore the traditions of various regions through folk narratives.
Folktales from Punjab are primarily romantic tragedies whose heroines are outgoing and nonconformist, challenging convention and obstacles in the way of their love. These protagonists transcend social customs, barriers, and class and gender segregation. Fayyaz Baqir, in his paper Female Agency and Representation in Punjabi Folklore: Reflections on a Folk Song of Rachna Valley notes that the lovers in Punjabi folktales “are opposed by clan, clergy and the so-called ‘custodians of social honour’ tooth and nail and are denied social space to cross the boundaries defined by traditions. They are accused of bringing shame to the family, clan and their near ones, violating religious teachings and polluting the pristine waters of tradition.”
Although the penalty for defying societal norms is death, the Punjabi folktale heroines do not surrender, rather they accept their fate with open arms. Heer and Sohni are two excellent examples who resisted cultural norms by meeting their lovers despite the presence of moral police at every nook and corner of their villages. Heer dared to love Ranjha, a worker at her father’s farm, whereas Sohni loved Mahiwal, a wealthy trader from Uzbekistan who took a job at her house only to stay close to her. Upon hearing the rumours, Heer’s parents engaged her to another man whereas Sohni was married off with another potter. However, both heroines fought and rebelled against the forced decisions of their families and saw their beloved. Although Heer was poisoned by her uncle and Sohni was drowned in river Chenab due to the devious schemes of her sister-in-law, history documented the unparalleled story of their love and loyalty. Today, Punjab’s cultural context is incomplete without these legends.
Sindhi folktales are a beautiful blend of Muslim and Hindu traditions that interact with each other without conflict. Besides this, the geography of Sindh, which comprises both desert and sea, is excessively used in the Sindhi folktales to foreground the difficulties faced by the protagonists of these narratives. For instance, the desert holds a significant role in the legend of Sassi-Punnu, a tragic love story that has been sung and written widely. Sassi, a Brahman girl raised by a Muslim washerman, fell in love with Punnu, the prince of Kech. Punnu risked his throne for Sassi and married her, but his family disapproved of the union. So, one night, Punnu’s brothers took him back to Kech while he was unconscious because they had drugged him. The next morning, when Sassi came to know about the abduction, she went out in quest of her husband, but the desert was so vast that she got lost. On her way, she was approached by a man who wanted to molest her, but Sassi ran away from him and begged the desert to save her. Her cries were heard, and the earth swallowed her forming her grave at the spot. On the other hand, Punnu took the same path that his beloved Sassi took and went on the journey to find Sassi, only to find out about her tragic death. In the end, Punnu died at Sassi’s grave, making the desert his eternal home. Desert is a haven for Sassi and Punnu where both the protagonists join each other eternally, but before this reunion, they both had to pass the test of the desert.
Like the desert, lakes, rivers, and sea also play a key role in Sindhi folktales; the love story of Nuri and Jaam Tamachi is a perfect example of this. Jaam Tamachi was a king of the Samma dynasty, while Nuri was a fisherman’s daughter. Jaam Tamachi saw Nuri at Keenjhar Lake and instantly fell in love with her, so much so that he married her. Since Jaam Tamachi and Nuri had a huge class difference, therefore, people in his palace never accepted Nuri’s new status and kept plotting against her. The devious schemes of her opponents became successful when Jaam Tamachi was told that Nuri was giving valuable items to her brother. Upon hearing this, Jaam Tamachi went to examine the box that Nuri gave to her brother, but was stunned to see that the box carried fish bones and leftover bread. Nuri told Jaam Tamachi that she was a fisherwoman and despite all the luxuries, she wanted to stay close to her roots. Nuri’s simplicity and pure intentions made Jaam Tamachi’s love stronger for her, but unfortunately, Nuri died a few years later. He buried her in the middle of Keenjhar Lake where he first met her. In this story, Keenjhar Lake holds value as it is the place that brought together the two characters, and finally became the resting place for the protagonist of the story.
The stories of both Sassi and Nuri depict that the horizon of love is beyond the conventional societal boundaries. Moreover, it can be concluded that these stories were developed when Muslims settled in this region. Apart from this, when observed through the sociological lens, these stories contain the message of integration as they rule out the rigid caste system. It can be hypothesized that in Sindh, social barriers were taken down, which implies that the communities believed in co-existence and harmony among different religious and social classes.
Balochi folktales are primarily oral due to the low literacy rate, but these folktales are heavily loaded with moral and cultural values, which inculcate the love of Baloch traditions among the younger generations. One key characteristic of Balochi folktales is the journey of love that demands selflessness. The legends of Hani-Shah Mureed and Sammo-Tawakli Mast are of primary importance in this regard.
Shah Mureed belonged to Kahiri tribe and was a brave soldier of Mir Chakar Khan Rind’s army. Mureed and Chakar Khan were good friends and were engaged to two beautiful women. One day after hunting, both men took the route to the village where their fiancées lived but according to the Baloch traditions, the men were prohibited from visiting the house of their fiancées before marriage, therefore, they met each other’s fiancées. Both men were offered water. Mureed was thirsty, so he drank the water in a single gulp, which made him sick. On the other hand, Mureed’s fiancée Hani used a clean dwarf leaf as straw for Mir Chakar to drink water with. Mir Chakar was cautious at first but eventually drank the water carefully. Later when both men met, Mir Chakar came to know about Mureed’s sickness, and he was impressed by Hani’s intelligence to use a straw. Time passed and one day Mir Chakar asked his noble fellowmen to make vows for which they could give their lives. After everyone had made vows, Shah Mureed’s turn came, whose vow became the turning point in his life. Mureed vowed that on his wedding day, he would give anything that Mir Chakar asked. Later that evening, Mir Chakar tested the vows of all others. However, to check Mureed’s loyalty, Chakar announced a surprise wedding for Mureed. On the wedding day, Mir Chakar asked Mureed for Hani’s hand in marriage, whom Mureed was deeply in love with. Since it is Baloch custom to keep one’s word, therefore, Mureed annulled his marriage with Hani and convinced her to marry Mir Chakar.
After Hani’s marriage to Mir Chakar, Mureed became a poet and word of his love for the Chief’s wife spread. His father forbade him from expressing his love publicly, so to lessen his heartache, Mureed started praying to Allah and later escaped to Makkah and Madina. After thirty years, Mureed came back to his country, but in his poor physical condition was unrecognizable. Hani, who was still in love with Mureed, recognized him at once and after a series of events, everyone in the village knew that Mureed had returned. When Mir Chakar came to know about his old friend, his conscience troubled him because Hani never accepted Mir Chakar. She felt that her opinion and desires were never considered. To Hani, getting married was a way of proving her love for Mureed, which always made Chakar guilty so he divorced her and told her to go back to Mureed. However, when Hani came to Mureed and confessed her love, he denied her saying that he had transcended mortal love and loving her had only been the path to finding God. After this, Mureed was never seen in the village.
The story of Sammo and Tawakli Mast is of the same nature where human love proved to be a route towards divine love. In this story, Tawakli Mast, of the Marri tribe was in love with Sammo, a married woman of his tribe. The word Mast is loosely translated as a frantic or a crazy man and Tawakli became Mast when he sought shelter on a rainy night and found himself under Sammo’s tent. After this incident, Tawakli became quieter and started watching Sammo from afar. Sammo’s husband got offended at Tawakli actions and took this to the chief of the tribe who ordered to confirm whether Tawakli was mentally unstable. Sammo was instructed to meet Tawakli — the meet up to be witnessed by four people. Sammo approached Tawakli three times and each time, he cried hysterically and became unconscious. This confirmed that Tawakli’s love for Sammo was pure. However, Sammo’s husband was not satisfied and wanted to kill Tawakli. One day, Sammo’s husband hired someone to push Tawakli from the mountain, but Tawakli landed on the ground without a scratch. After this incident, everyone respected Tawakli Mast because, like Shah Mureed, Tawakli had also moved beyond human love. Tawakli Mast and Shah Mureed are highly celebrated saints in Baloch folklore who surpassed worldly temptations and achieved unimaginable status.
In Pashtun folktales romance is given center stage. Pushtun folktales are a unique mix of native and foreign traditions that come mainly from Persia and Central Asia. These folktales show a strong male protagonist who leaves no stone unturned when it is a question of saving their beloved. This can be seen in the story of Yusaf Khan and Sherbano. Yusaf was a hunter who developed an affection for Sherbano at first sight. Yusaf’s cousins devised a scheme to deprive him of his father’s inheritance. Besides this, they also plotted to marry Sherbano with someone else when Yusaf was away serving in the army but these conspiracies against Yusaf perished when he brought soldiers to Sherbano’s wedding to rescue and marry her. However, his cousins did not stop conspiring. One day while hunting, his cousins killed him and when Sherbano came to know about this tragedy, she too took her life, for living without Yusaf was meaningless. In this legend, there is a stereotypical macho depiction of Pushtun men, but Yusuf’s character blurs this conventional portrayal by showing a loving side, which proves that like all men, Pashtun men also have soft contours to their personalities.
Folktales from the North
Folktales from Kashmir, Gilgit and the rest of the North contain elements of fantasy and magic along with romance primarily due to the influence of Hinduism and Pagan religions. The presence of fairies, djins, deos, and mythical animals, and spells, etc., is very common in these folktales. For example, in the story of Saif-ul-Maluk, Prince Saif of Egypt came to Naran after he dreamt about a beautiful fairy of the lake. Here he met a saint and recounted his dream about the fairy after which the saint suggested that he offer prayers on a mountain for 40 days. After 40 days, Prince Saif was able to capture two djins who gave the prince the Sulemani Cape. This cape, when worn, could make the wearer invisible. So, after obtaining the cape, Saif went to the lake where fairies of Koh-e-Kaaf visited. There he met Badi-ul-Jamal, the fairy of his dream but she was under the control of Deo Safaid. Badi-ul-Jamal fell in love with Saif and together they escaped using Sulemani Cape and praying to Allah. Legend also has it that Deo Safaid cried so much after this incident that his tears formed the Ansu Lake.
Pakistani folktales vary from region to region and culture to culture, but the themes of love, loyalty and loss bind them together despite the linguistic diversity. Moreover, these folktales depict that whether the heroes and heroines are from elite backgrounds or not, the rule of love remains the same, unhindered by divisions created by man, leaving a lesson of inclusivity and unity. Love and loyalty lead to loss, which is inevitable, but once the lovers surpass loss, they find themselves in eternal union with divinity, which elevates their status amongst the living. HH
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