ohni Mahiwal or Suhni Mehar is a tragic love story which reverts the classical motif of Hero and Leader. Here, the heroine Sohni, unhappily married to a man whom she despises, swims every night across the river where her beloved Mehar grazes buffaloes. One night her sister-in-law replaces the earthenware pot, which she uses to keep afloat in water, with a vessel of unbaked clay, which dissolves in water and she dies in the whirling waves of the river.
The story also appears in Shah Jo Risalo and forms part of seven popular tragic romances from Sindh, The other six tales are Umar Marui, Sassui Punhun, Lilan Chanesar, Noori Jam Tamachi, Sorath Rai Diyach and Momal Rano commonly known as seven heroines of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai.
Shah begins the story in the most dramatic moment, when a young woman cries out for help in the cold river, attacked by crocodiles. The whole chapter (Sur Sohni) is merely extension of this dreadful and yet hoped for moment, when the vessel of her body breaks and she, faithful to her pre-eternal love-covenant wit Mehar, will be forever united with the friend through death.
Sohni is one of the favorite folktales both in Sindh and Punjab, Pakistan.
Around the 18th century (late Mughal period), the beautiful girl Sohni was born to a potter named Tulla (Toolha). They were from the Kumhar caste, and lived in Gujrat, India. At the time, Gujrat, on the river Chenab, was a caravanserai on the trade route between Bukhara and Delhi.
As Sohni grew up, she helped her father decorate his pots. Their shop is said to have been near Rampyari Mahal by the river. As soon as the Surahis (water-pitchers) and mugs came off the wheel, she would draw artistic designs on them and set them up for sale.
Shahzada Izzat Baig, a rich trader from Bukhara (Uzbekistan), came to Punjab on business and halted in the town of Gujrat. Here he saw Sohni at the shop and was completely smitten. The song goes that instead of looking after the 'mohars' (gold coins) in his pockets, he roamed around with his pocket full of love. Just to get a glimpse of Sohni, he would end up buying the water pitchers and mugs every day.
Sohni too lost her heart to Izzat Baig. Instead of making floral designs on earthenware, she started building castles of love in her dreams. Instead of returning to Bukhara with his caravan, the noble-born Izzat Baig took up the job of a servant in the house of Tulla, Sohni's father. He would even take their buffaloes for grazing. Soon, he came to be known as Mehar or "Mahiwal" (buffalo herder).
When the people got to know about the love of Sohni and Mahiwal, there was a commotion within the Kumhar community. It was not acceptable that a daughter from this community would marry an outsider, so her parents immediately arranged her marriage with another potter.
Suddenly, one day the "barat" (marriage party) of that potter arrived at Sohini's house. Sohni felt helpless and lost. She was sent off to the husband's house in a Doli (palanquin).
Izzat Baig renounced the world and started living like a faqir (hermit). He eventually moved to a small hut across the river from Sohni's new home. The earth of Sohni’s land was like a shrine for him. He had forgotten his own land, his own people and his world.
In the dark of night, when the world was fast asleep, the lovers would meet by the river. Izzat would come to riverside and Sohni would come to meet him sitting in an inverted hard baked pitcher (inverted so that it would not sink) . He would regularly catch a fish and bring it for her. It is said that once, when due to high tide he could not catch a fish, Mahiwal cut a piece of his thigh and roasted it. sohni didn't realize this first but then she said izzat that this fish tastes different and keep her hand on his thigh then she realized it was a piece of his thigh and cried.
Meanwhile, rumors of their romantic rendezvous spread. One day Sohni’s sister-in-law followed her and saw the hiding place where Sohni used to keep her earthenware pitcher inside the bushes. The next day, the sister-in-law removed the hard baked pitcher and replaced it with an unbaked one. That night, when Sohni tried to cross the river with the help of the pitcher, it dissolved in the water and Sohni drowned. From the other side of the river, Mahiwal saw Sohni drowning and jumped into the river and drowned as well. Thus their union was affected.
A different version of story is generally heard in Sindh, where Sohni is believed to be a girl of jat tribe living on the western bank of the Indus; and Dam, name of Sohni's husband, is believed to be of the Samtia, living on the eastern bank. They attribute the love between Sohni and Mehar to a little milk that Mehar gave her to drink while the procession of her marriage with Dam was crossing the river.
The tomb of Sohni is in Shahdadpur, Sindh, Pakistan. Legends have it, that the bodies of Sohni and Mahiwal or Mehar were recovered from the River Indus near Shahdadpur, Sindh some 75 km far from Hyderabad, Pakistan. Sohni's tomb is said to be located in the said city.
The story of Sohni and Mahiwal was popularized in the Punjabi poet Fazal Shah Sayyad's qissa (long poem), Sohni Mahiwal. Though Fazal Shah composed other poems on Heer Ranjha, Laila Majnu and others, Sohni Mahiwal "has been considered his best". The Sohni Mahiwal love story continues to inspire numerous other songs in modern day Pakistan, including Pathanay Khan's famous song Sohni Gharay nu akhadi aj mainu yaar milaa ghadeya. Alam Lohar has also made many renditions of this kalaam and was one of the first singers to bring this in a song format.
Many paintings of Sohni Mahiwal continue to be executed, attracting also well-known artists such as Sobha Singh. Folk versions of these paintings, for example in the Kangra style, are commonly found across both Punjabs in Pakistan and India.
Three Bollywood film versions, named Sohni Mahiwal have been made:
in 1946 starring Ishwarlal and Begum Para
in 1958 starring Bharat Bhushan and Nimmi,
in 1984 starring Sunny Deol and Poonam Dhillon