Translated and annotated: Muhammad Sheeraz Dasti
All are enemies, camels, camel men and brother in laws,
Fourth enemy is wind that removed the foot prints of Punhoon,
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)
About the Tale and its Tellers
Sassi-Punnu is the most famous folktale of Sindh, the celebrated romance of the River Indus, the echoing song of the mountains of Baluchistan, the love pilgrimage to the Thar Desert, the fragrance of the city of Bhambhor. Sassi-Punnu’s season of love blossomed here in the 11th century AD. This legend of love was immortally retold by Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai (1689-1752), the famous Sindhi Sufi poet, in his Shah jo Risalo in the Sindhi language, which has also been translated into many languages such as German, English, Punjabi, Urdu, etc. Short versions of Sassi-Punnu in English prose can also be found online. This legendary folk tale has also been made into films in different languages such as in Sindhi (1958) and Punjabi (1965, 1983).
As it is natural to all types of oral literature in general and folktales in particular, Sassi-Punnu has different versions with conflicting traditions regarding the time in which it was lived, the order of the events, and the names, religions and professions of the characters, etc. The core text, however, remains the same.
The present English version of the tale is mainly inspired by the Urdu prose version of Shafi Aqeel, included in his book called Pakistan kee Lok Dastanain (Folk Tales of Pakistan) published in 2008 by National Language Authority Pakistan. However, in order to make this tale more cohesive and engaging, various other oral and written, poetic and prose versions have also been used.
Long, long ago, during the days of Raja Dilu Rai’s rule in the Sindh region, there lived in a small town of Brahmin Abad a Brahmin called Tania. He lived with his issueless wife Mandhar on the bank of Bhambhor Canal. The royal couple was blessed with all the gifts of life but a child. As the time went by, their desire to have a son intensified, and their visits to the temples frequented. They presented offerings, and begged jogis and faqeers for their blessings. All in vain. Mandhar did not conceive. In her weak and weary moments, Tania would console her:
“Don’t lose faith in Bhagvan’s kripaya. One day, he will hear us. Delay, there might be, but darkness is out of question from Bhagvan. He will light our home one day.”
Tania’s optimism was rewarded!
After years of waiting, they were blessed with a baby girl. But a girl was not welcomed by some among Hindus those days. Tania and his wife had always prayed for a son but, as they say, nothing can avert the decree of fate.
Following one of the old Brahmin traditions, they went to an astrologer to foresee their daughter’s future.
“A baby girl has been born to us. Tell us something about what is written in her fate, please.”
Tania gave the necessary details to the astrologer who took some time to study their daughter’s birth-chart, made planetary calculations, and then said, “This girl is going to marry a Muslim boy.”
This prophecy saddened the Brahmin parents. The little happiness that they had discovered at the time of her birth vanished. They would have loved to bring up their daughter, had it not been for her ill-fate.
“Will our Brahmin daughter marry a Muslim? No way. We won’t let that happen. Completely unacceptable.”
They had to think of a way to avoid the infamy they believed was in store for them. None of the ways they thought of seemed sophisticated enough to work. So, they were left with no choice but to do away with the child herself.
It wasn’t an easy decision for them as they were blessed with a child after years of pooja and pilgrimages. But in the name of honor, for the sake of the dignity of their Brahminism,
they had to stand by their decision firmly.
One night, after days spent in deliberation, they prepared a wooden box for her. All through the night, before shutting the infant in the box, they kept looking and looking and looking at their doll. Early in the morning when it was still dark they went to the River Indus and put the box on its kind waters, wishing the child luck and love.
The wooden chest went away with the waves, leaving the unfortunate parents with all the emptiness in their heart behind at the river bank. The infant listened to the lovely lullaby of the river and went floating down till the afternoon when it reached the dhobi ghaatof Bhambhor city which used to be important business town those days.
In this city, there lived a wealthy washer man called Atta who enjoyed a very good reputation in the whole region. His business was so vast that more than five hundred washer men worked under his supervision. They would collect clothes from around the whole town and its suburbs, wash and dry them and then go from street to street to return them.
Coincidently, Atta, the washer man, just like Tania, the Brahmin, was gifted with everything except a child. The grief of being childless was eating him away. He frayed much; went to saints, dervishes and Sufis. Being wealthy, he afforded charity, fed the poor and the orphans, and earned their blessings.
That afternoon, when he was supervising his employees washing clothes, he noticed some hullaballoo at the other end of the dhobi ghaat.
One of the washer men had seen a box floating in the river.
“What’s that floating in there?” He asked his fellow workers pointing toward it.
Those who heard him, straightened their backs, lifted their chins, and rubbed and narrowed their eyes to figure the floating object out.
“It’s only a box,” one of them said and bent to beat the pile of clothes with a bat.
As it drew nearer, the curious washer man dived into the river, saying: “Let’s see what is in it.”
He fetched the box to the bank. As the washer men opened the lid, they were astounded to find a beautiful baby girl, sucking her right thumb. One of the men ran towards Atta Dhobi to deliver the news.
Atta found it to be unbelievable.
In the meanwhile, the other servants brought the box to him. Atta Dhobi was surprised to see the innocent little girl lying in the box, smiling at him. He picked her up and hugged her and loved her.
“The womb of the river has given me everything I wanted,” he thought.
He took her to his wife.
“Look, God has given us a daughter, bright and beautiful as the moon,” he announced happily. His wife was also excited to see her.
They called her Sassi, the moon.
Hence, Sassi of Brahmins became daughter of the Dhobis of Bhambhor, or perhaps the otherwise. Atta appointed several servants and maid servants to babysit and wait on Sassi. He brought her up as a princess.
Time went by as fast as a horse, and Sassi grew up, youthful and beautiful.
As she reached her adolescence, her sublime beauty reached its zenith. Whosoever saw her was spellbound. As an expression of his limitless love for Sassi, Atta ordered a very beautiful and splendid palace to be constructed for her. Expert architects were hired to make Sassi’s house an earthly heaven to live in. After the palace was ready, the artists were called in for the interior decorations, and the horticulturists and landscapers were hired to cultivate a garden in front of it. Colorful tiles were imported from the Central Asia and pictorial narrative of the legendary Arab tale of Qais and Laila was portrayed in Sassi’s bed room in all the colors of love and romance. Trees of all good species, local and exotic, were grown in the wonderful landscape of the garden. Fruit plants of all tastes and fragrant flowers of all colors were also grown in rows and patterns that conveniently assembled to sing praise poems for Sassi who frequently visited them to distribute some alms from her beauty and sweetness. She enjoyed the sight and smell of her fresh and fragrant garden and, learnt and lived a lovely life.
Standing on the route to various mercantile cities, Bhambhor was an important town back in the days. The caravans that came from far off areas would camp here in Bhambhor to take rest for a few days, and sell and shop some items here and then proceed to their next destinations. Atta, the washer man, was always considered one of the noble personalities of the city, but after the construction of Sassi’s splendid palace, he became the most respected person there. Many of the caravans camped in the rear end of Sassi’s garden. He entertained them with his generous hospitality. Apart from having all other types of pleasures there, the luckiest of the guests would occasionally have the feast of Sassi’s sight, the most precious jewel of the town. These foreign traders would witness Sassi’s beauty, and on their return to their native places boast of it to their friends and acquaintances. Those who had been lucky enough to have received a glance from her would sing infinite praises of her captivating beauty.
A caravan from Kech Makran as usual stayed a few days in Bhambhor and went back. All the traders in this caravan had heard of Sassi’s beauty, and some of them had the chance to witness it. On their return to Kech Makran, one of them, a mirasi by caste, related his experience of ‘drinking from the flood of beauty’ to Punnu, the handsomest prince of Kech Makran.
“Sassi is the prettiest of all girls in the world,” he said to Punnu. “O 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.”
The man consumed several metaphors to describe Bhambor’s epitome of grace and still was like ‘how to tell what belongs to seeing’.
Maddened by this verbal illustration, Punnu decided to see her personally.
He sent for his official advisors and sought their suggestions.
“Think of the best plan to reach the famous beauty of Bhambhor. Let me know of your advice by tomorrow,” he ordered them.
The next day the advisors returned with a plan.
“A caravan should take a variety of perfumes to Bhambhor and you should go along with it as a musk trader,” they suggested to their prince.
Punnu approved the idea and went to see his father, Aari Jam, in his court and sought his consent which was instantly granted.
The caravan was to carry perfumes of all types imported from different parts of the world. So it took them quite some time to get it ready.
As the caravan of the perfume sellers reached Bhambhor, the whole city was bathed in fragrance. The fragrance of Sassi’s garden yielded to this new arrival. It was announced that a trader called Punnu had arrived from Kech Makran.
All the people of Bhambhor as well as the merchants from other regions camping there flocked to the place Punnu’s caravan had camped. But Punnu was least interested in this business. He was there to trade his heart—for the perfume of love. He kept staring at the entrance of the camp all through the day.
In the afternoon, accompanied by her friends, Sassi went to find a perfume of her choice unaware that he was waiting for her—ready to ambush.
As soon as Punnu spotted Sassi amidst her friends, his heart rode the arrows of his eyes and took a flight to its target, to pluck the dew drops from the rosy lips.
Sassi of Bhambhor was far more beautiful than Punnu’s imagination could have pictured. Prince Punnu was no less either. So Sassi who came to purchase perfumes was already trading herself with Punnu’s heart.
Rendering her heart to the passenger, Sassi ran back to home, without having perfumes. Yet perfumed! Her lips dry as desert, her chest thumping as trumpet.
She returned without herself and he was left without himself.
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.”
Her friend thought of a simple plan. First, she went to Punnu who told her that the sole aim of his life was to have Sassi. Then she went to Sassi’s parents and told them the whole story, suggesting: “She should be married off to Punnu, as she 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.”
“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,” said Atta.
“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,” Sassi’s friend lied, ambitious to get Sassi her love.
“Invite him to our house, if that’s true,” said Atta. Sassi’s friend ran to convey the good news to Sassi.
“Sassi you desired to have Punnu, and you are going to have him soon. It’s only a few clothes that he needs to wash and he will be all yours.”
She went to see Punnu, then.
“You are going to take a test. You must tell Sassi’s parents that you are a washer man by caste,” she advised Punnu who was ready to tell them anything to reach his love.
Sassi’s friend brought Punnu to Atta Dhobi and his wife.
“So you say you are a washer man? If so, go and wash these clothes,” said Atta Dhobi giving him a sackful of clothes.
A ruler’s son, who had seen nothing but comfort in life, picked the pile of dirty clothes and reached the dhobi ghaat. Standing at a distance from the other washer men he tried to wash the clothes. His hands were hurt and many of the clothes torn. What perturbed him the most was that Atta Dhobi would come to know of his non-dhobi origin. When Sassi got to know that most of the clothes were torn, she was also upset.
“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,” she said to her friend.
Punnu did the same and was somehow able to make Atta Dhobi believe that he belonged to the dhobis. Hence, Atta accepted Punnu’s proposal to marry Sassi.
However, before any further proceedings, Atta Dhobi asked Punnu to give an undertaking that he would stay at Bhambhor for ever after his marriage to Sassi. Punnu readily agreed.
Atta Dhobi, thus, ordered the preparations for his daughter’s wedding. Sassi was his only daughter and he wanted to celebrate her marriage ceremony happily and pompously. As he had no dearth of wealth, he spent extravagantly on the wedding.
All the people, who had accompanied Punnu from Kech Makran, participated in the ceremonies and enjoyed themselves a lot.
Punnu’s companions waited for him for a few weeks after the marriage. Eventually, they felt homesick. They thought Punnu would agree upon returning to home after he spent some more time in Bhambhor. But he firmly stood by his promise and was not ready to leave this romantic town. They tried to convince him but failed. One of his brothers Chunru who had accompanied him to Bhambhor also tried to persuade Punnu that homeland and the near and dear ones were more important than a woman. He urged him to return to Kech Makran but failed. Helplessly all of them set off for Kech Makran, leaving Punnu in Bhambhor.
Upon reaching Kech Makran, Chunru related the whole account of Punnu’s mad love to his father, Aari Jam, who was very upset. Punnu, being his youngest son, was closest to his heart. He could not bear his separation. He promptly sent a messenger to Bhambhor to deliver a message to Punnu commanding him to immediately return to Kech Makran.
The messenger was appalled to find Punnu washing clothes sitting at the dhobi ghaat with other dhobis.
“My Lord, this job is against your dignity. You are our prince. Come back to home and lead a life that suits your stature,” said the messenger.
He delivered his father’s message too, but Punnu was unable to obey it.
“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,” he said decidedly.
What could a poor messenger do? He tried to explain to him how worried his father was, and how bad he felt to see his Prince washing clothes like an ordinary worker. But when Punnu turned a deaf ear to what he said, the messenger went back.
Aari Jam felt ashamed and grieved to know about Punnu’s ‘disgraceful job’. The thought of his son’s separation kept troubling him. In the evening that day, he felt dizzy and fell unconscious in his royal chair.
Aari Jam could never imagine losing his loving son to the dhobis of Bhambhor. He looked like a patient for ages. Seeing their father suffer, Punnu’s brothers, Chunru, Hoti and Noti sat together to think of a plan.
“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.
So one day, they prepared swift camels and rode toward Bhambhor to get their brother back to Kech Makran.
In Bhambhor, they were very warmly received by Punnu and Sassi.
“We are excited to have you, my brothers”, said Punnu, “We’ll be glad to have the honor of hosting you here in our city.”
Sassi and Punnu were very hospitable to them. They had a grand feast on the day of their arrival. After that, every day the guests were served with the choicest new cuisines and every night, in a mehfil of dancing and singing, they were entertained by the best artists and served with the best quality drinks. Hoti, Noti and Chunru enjoyed the hospitality of Sassi and Punnu. But they never forgot their original mission. Whenever they had an opportunity they would start advising Punnu to go back to home telling him how their father suffered, how sick he fell in his absence, warning him: “If you don’t come back soon, our father will no longer be alive.”
But all their advice went astray. Punnu was not at all ready to abandon his life in Bhambhor. He told them clearly that they should try to convince their father to accept the fact that Punnu would never return. His brothers kept calm but were determined to take him home by hook or by crook.
One night, when the usual mehfil was on, and all were busy enjoying themselves, Chunru, Hoti and Noti drank less and made Punnu drink more to the point that Punnu became unconscious.
Sassi waited for Punnu in her bedroom late into the evening. She applied henna to her left hand, and kept waiting and waiting, eventually giving in to sleep with the henna stick in her right hand. It was meant to be planted in soil the following morning as per a custom those days.
“Hurry up. Do it before he regains consciousness,” Noti whispered to his brothers.
They had their camels ready. Quietly, they picked Punnu and loaded him on a camel, and left for Kech Makran. Before Punnu could regain his senses, they wanted to go as far away from Bhambhor as possible.
Back in Bhambhor, Sassi woke up to find herself alone in the bed. Punnu was to be found nowhere. She impatiently looked for him around the palace but could not find him anywhere. Suddenly she thought of something and shuddered. “My Punnu has been abducted by his brothers. They have deceived me”, she thought.
She madly ran about the palace, wailing and calling Punnu. All the servants came out of their quarters. Her parents also came out of their bedroom and tried to calm her assuring that Punnu would go nowhere without her.
“Where is my Punnu? Where is my Punnu?” she asked hysterically.
The housemates had no idea of how to respond to her questions.
“I’ll find him. I will find him,” she said.
She went outside the house and ran toward the direction Punnu used to point to while talking about Kech Makran. Her parents tried to stop her. She threatened that she would kill herself if they came in her way. She went running toward the jungle outside Bhambhor. Her parents and servants followed her but lost track of her due to the darkness of the early hours in the thick jungle. They tried to search her but couldn’t and returned home hopelessly.
Sassi ran madly through the difficult terrain: crossed the jungle, went through barren lands, dangerous mountains, sandy lands, and the zigzag ways. Her feet were wounded as she ran on thorns, pointed stones, and burning sands. But she kept running. By all means at all she wanted her Punnu back.
“Punnuuu, Punnuuuu, Punnuuuuu.” Her sound echoed all over.
It was hot as the sun rose. Sassi’s throat was dry, her lips were pursed and feet blistered. But she didn’t even think of taking rest. She kept running, out of breath and energy.
Every time she was about to collapse, she cried out: “Punnu, Punnu.”
It revitalized her, drove her ahead. By now, she had gone miles away from her home.
She reached the hills of a place called Pubb. She was so thirsty that it became difficult for her to even take one more step, her parched tongue unable to cry out for Punnu. She fell half dead on a hot rock.
“Punnu water, Punnu water,” she whispered. Her love for Punnu was recognized in the heavens. A water spring erupted right next to where she was lying. She took some water with the cup of her hennaed hands, and was restored. There she planted the henna stick she had in her hand. It grew into a tall henna tree to be found even now near the ever flowing spring in Pubb, as a reminder of the Truth of Love. She rested there and after a while resumed her journey toward the unknown.
Sassi had moved only a few miles when her feet started bleeding severely making it impossible for her to go ahead. She was thirsty as well. As she reached the Harho range, she was spotted by a shepherd standing at a distance. Curious to see a beautiful woman in that remote uninhabited mountain, he went to her.
“Where is my Punnu? Haven’t you seen my Punnu?” Sassi asked him.
The wild goatherd was already thinking of something of that sort.
“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 Punnus for you. My sheep, my donkey, all the animals are Punnus for you.” The vicious shepherd then tried to force himself on Sassi.
What could she do to save herself from the assault of the beastly goatherd? Who could she have called in that wilderness?
“O merciless man, I am dying of thirst and you assault me. Fear God, get me something to drink,” Sassi begged.
The shepherd relented and ran to his sheep to get Sassi some milk. As he went away with evil intentions to molest her, Sassi begged God to take her out of the trouble.
“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 said with tearful eyes.
Her prayer was heard.
It is said that the land shook to split open and engulf Sassi into its protection leaving only the border piece of her duppatta outside. The shepherd was puzzled and scarred to witness the strange happening. He touched his forehead to the ground to offer a Sajda begging forgiveness.
“O Lord, I’m sinful. I beg your forgiveness. You are the most Merciful. Have mercy on my poor soul.”
As a way to seek forgiveness, the shepherd decided to become the caretaker of the blessed woman’s grave. He placed many stones around the rock in order to mark it as a grave and near it built a hut for himself.
In the meanwhile, all the three brothers had taken Punnu to Kech Makran. They had tied him to the back of a camel, and were making the camels run fast. They wanted to reach their sick father as soon as possible. So that he could see Punnu before losing his sanity or life.
When Punnu regained his consciousness, he found himself tied to the camel. He saw his brothers around him. He instantly figured out what his brothers had done to him.
“Where are you taking me?” he asked them.
They didn’t respond to his question, instead made the camels run faster than ever.
“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,” Punnu protested.
They did not answer him. Punnu tried to untie the ropes but failed. Finally, they reached Makran, and the brothers presented Punnu, chained in ropes, before their father.
Aari Jam was happy to see his son home.
“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,” Punnu begged his father.
Aari Jam was a wise man. He feared Punnu might harm himself if kept away from his love. He used all means to convince him but to no effect. Eventually, he sent for his elder sons.
“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.”
All the three brothers prepared for another journey to Bhambhor. They lied to Punnu that they were going to leave him with Sassi in Bhambhor. When they were about to leave, their father said:
“See 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 the three of them.
They left for Bhambhor. They had to bring Sassi and Punnu back to their ailing father. Punnu was desperate to reach Sassi in the flash of an eye. 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. Travelling toward Bhambhor on their speedy camels, they reached the place where Sassi had been veiled under earth. Something rang in Punnu’s heart; he was alarmed by some sense unknown. He pulled the reins of his camel and looked around. Something informed him of Sassi’s beautiful presence.
His eyes fell on a tattered piece of cloth. How could he miss Sassi’s dupatta? He went to the shepherd’s hut to talk to the man sitting on his haunches at the entrance of the hut.
“Whose grave is this, gentleman?” Punnu wanted to confirm what he already knew.
The shepherd cried and cried and between his sobs said, “She is the devoted lover of someone called Punnu. She was running about madly, calling out his name. She took refuge here in this rock,” the shepherd said remorsefully.
Punnu wept and loudly called: “Sassiii, Sassiiii, Sassiiiii, Sassiiiiii.”
He told his brothers to wait for him while he could pray Fateha for Sassi. He sat by the grave and looked toward the heavens.
“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.
Punnu kept praying all the afternoon. Eventually, the land shook again to split the rock apart. Punnu hurriedly went in calling out Sassi’s name. The rock closed behind him.
The lovers were united, never to be separated again.
Punnu’s brothers were terrified. The shepherd all in tears. He was now the custodian of a grave of two lovers, and a Love. They stood there, still, like statues for a long time. They also wept for their wrong doings, to Punnu, to Sassi, to Love. After a long time, they recited Fateha prayer for them and, with a heavy heart, left for Kech Makran.
About the Translator:
On leave from the IIU in Islamabad, Muhammad Sheeraz Dasti is currently a lecturer at University of Colorado at Boulder.