Representations of Sasui and Punhun in Sindhi Tombs

Representations of Sasui and Punhun in Sindhi Tombs
There are many tombs located in various districts of Sindh which depict the romance of Sasui and Punhun. The folktale of Sasui and Punhun captured the imagination of painters and poets alike, who depicted different episodes of their amorous story in the various tombs erected during the Kalhora (1700-1783), Talpur (1783-1843) and British (1843-1947) periods in upper and central Sindh.

In Sindhi poetry, nearly all the classical poets have mentioned the character of Sasui in their poetry. Shah Abdul Karim Bulri (1536-1623) was the first known poet who referred to the character of Sasui in his poetry.

The following episodes of Sasui and Punhun’s story are painted in Sindhi tombs:

1) The departure of Punhun’s brothers from Kech Makran and their arrival at Banbhore.

2) Whisking away of Punhun back to Kech Makran

3) Sasui’s journey towards Kech

4) Her meeting with a shepherd in the wilderness

Sasui following her beloved Punhun in a Muidani Jamali tomb

All four episodes are depicted in the Kalhora, Talpur and British-period tombs located in four districts: Kamber-Shahdadkot, Dadu, Nawabshah and Sanghar. Mostly, the main episodes of the story are depicted in a single panel in the tombs. Sometimes, separate panels have also been made to represent these episodes. The departure of Punhun’s brothers is also separately represented. Sometimes, one or two brothers of Punhun are depicted. In one of the paintings in a tomb at the necropolis of Mian Nasir Muhammad Kalhoro, both brothers of Punhun are shown going to Banbhore. One of the brothers is shown seated on camelback and another on foot leading a camel. This motif was popular among Kalhora and Talpur painters: to paint the brothers of Punhun in a separate panel. In a few representations, only one brother of Punhun is depicted along with a shepherd. He seems to be asking something – probably about the route to Banbhore. In the tomb of Dato Faqir at Jalab Dero in Johi, two panels have been made to represent the two episodes of the story. On one panel, the brother of Puhnun is depicted leaving for Banbhore and in another, he is shown meeting and asking the shepherd probably the shortest route to Banbhore.

Sasui with her friends in the tomb of Sultan Marri

The folk painters tend to focus on the climax of the story when the brothers of Punhun take him back to Kech-Makran. When Sasui gets up in the morning and comes to know about her husband forcefully taken by her in-laws to Kech-Makran, she vows to follow and meet her husband. This episode of the story has been vividly painted in the Sindhi tombs. Sometimes, all four characters of the story – Sasui, Punhun, the brothers of Punhun and the shepherd – have been painted on the same panel. In a few tombs, all four characters have been painted separately on separate panels. But in the majority of the cases, a single panel depicts all four characters or episodes of the story. The earliest representation of this motif is found in three tombs at the necropolis of Mian Nasir Muhammad Kalhoro. Later, one finds this painted narrative in the tomb of Mir Allahyar Khan Talpur, a general of Mian Yar Muhammad Kalhoro (1700-1718) and Mian Noor Muhammad Kalhoro (1719-1753).  On the eastern wall is a panel depicting three folk romances of Sasui and Punhun, Suhni and Mehar and Laila and Majnun. This panel is divided into two sections, upper representing romance of Sasui and Punhun and the lower two folk romances of Suhni and Mehar and Laila and Majnun respectively. The depicted narrative has all four characters of the story-Sasui, Punhun, and his brothers and the shepherd.  The distinctive feature of this painting is the use of black and red pigment, a colour scheme which cannot be seen in other contemporary Kalhora tombs in Sindh.

Painting of Sasui and Punhun in the tomb of Dato Laghari in Johi

The romance of Sasui and Punhun greatly inspired the local artists. It is also painted in few other tombs at Jalab Dero, 2 km north of Drigh Bala. There are two tombs which belong to Mirzo Faqir and Dato Faqir. Both tombs represent the romance of Sasui and Punhun. The western wall of the tomb of Mirzo Faqir depicts Punhun on camelback escorted by his brother. Sasui is shown dejected and appears to have set out for Kech Makran where Punhun was taken. This painting is greatly damaged by the weathering condition. On the southern wall are three panels depicting the romances of Sasui and Punhun and Laila-Majnun. Two panels depict the episodes from the folk romance of Sasui and Punhun. On the first panel, Punhun’s brother is shown going to Banbhore to bring his brother back to Kech Makran. On the way to Banbhore, he meets a shepherd. As evident from this depiction, the brother of Punhun seems to have asked the shepherd shown grazing his goats, about the route that leads to Banbhore. On the second panel, the brother of Punhun is depicted carrying Punhun on the camelback to Kech-Makran. Behind the camel is depicted Sasui who appears to be pleading with her brothers-in-law not to take Punhun back to Makran.
The folk painters tend to focus on the climax of the story when the brothers of Punhun take him back to Kech-Makran

The canopy of Piyaro, which is located west of the tomb of Ghanwar Faqir at Thull village in Johi taluka depicts a few folk romances. Eight panels depict different folk romances and glimpses of everyday life and equestrian scenes. The folk romances of Laila and Majnun and Sasui and Punhun are found in the canopy. One of the panels shows Laila meeting with her beloved Majnun who is sitting under a tree. Close to Majnun is a depiction of a camel, which was the companion of Majnun in the wilderness. too.  On another panel in the canopy, Sasui is shown imploring her in-laws not to dissociate her beloved Punhun from her. Punhun is shown carried away by his brothers on camelback to Makran.

Tombs of the Muridani Jamalis in Johi

The canopy of Seerakh Khan in the necropolis of Shahan Faqir near Thull village depicts more refined paintings. The canopy represents the folk romances of Sasui and Punhun, Suhni and Mehar, and Laila and Majnun. The western wall depicts the folk romance of Sasui and Punhun. Interestingly, this painting only shows Punhun and his brothers. Generally, this folk story shows all three characters – Sasui, Punhun and his brothers. But in this depiction, Punhun is shown on the camelback with his brothers heading to Kech-Makran. They are shown ascending the hill which artists have painted by using brown, mustard and red colours. Just on top of the depiction is a pair of parrots which symbolizes love. Interestingly, the next panel depicts Sasui with her friends who are holding her back and forbidding her not to tread on the difficult path that is full of sufferings and pain but she seems to be bent upon following the footprints of her beloved. Every passing moment is increasingly painful for her. She desperately wants to meet her beloved. The artist has conveyed the story of Sasui and Punhun on these two panels.

This depiction seems to have inspired many artists of Kachho region lying between Khirthar and the Indus. A similar depiction of Sasui and Punhun is found in the tomb of Sahib Khan, lying 3 km east of the necropolis of Shahan Faqir Rodhrani in Johi taluka. A panel on the western wall represents Sasui standing alone without her friends. In front of her are the shepherd and her beloved Punhun on camelback with his brother. The artists of Kachho, Kohistan, Larkana, Dadu, Shaheed Benazirabad (formerly Nawabshah) and Sanghar areas seem to have adopted this illustration as a ready reference to depict the romance of Sasui and Punhun. They painted three episodes in a single panel giving a more unique touch to the two most important characters of the story-Sasui and Punhun, with the shepherd getting less importance. A majority of the tombs in these districts depict similar painting. Two tombs at Muridani Jamali necropolis depict refined drawings of the couple’s romance. In these depictions, Sasui occupies the centre of the panel indicating how artists communicate that story. According to a tradition, following the footprints of her beloved Punhun, Sasui met the shepherd in the wilderness. Seeing her alone in the vast uninhabited area, he tried to molest her.  But in both panels, the artists tried to indicate that Sasui appears to have asked to shepherd the whereabouts of cameleers and way to Kech-Makran. After inquiring from the shepherd, she crossed a few looming mountains to continuously move on in search of her beloved Punhun. But interestingly, in another episode of the story, when she meets the shepherd and queries about Punhun, the shepherd is shown seizing Sasui’s arm with his hand and attempting to assault her with sinful intention.  This episode is depicted in a tomb near Hairo Khan village in Johi taluka. Two panels depict the episode, the first panel shows Punhun and his brother and the second panel represents Sasui being molested by the shepherd. A similar event was also painted in a tomb at Muridani Jamali necropolis. In both representations, Sasui is shown alone. In still another panel in a tomb at Muridani Jamali graveyard, Sasui is shown with her maid. She asks the shepherd accompanied by her maid, holding a hand-held fan, the pathway to Makran.

In some paintings, the artist portrays the shepherd as a villain and in the other as a gentleman who helped in guiding Sasui en route to Kech-Makran.

Apart from Kachho region, there are also a few tombs in the district of Kamber-Shahdadkot which represent three episodes together in a single panel. The best examples were those of Jamali tombs in Kamber-Shahdadkot (both tombs collapsed in the floods of 2010). The tombs of Mir Sobdar Jamali and Rehan Khan Jamali depicted Sasui with her maid. The brothers of Punhun were shown taking him back to Kech-Makran. In both paintings, the shepherd was depicted spinning a yarn (charkho) and grazing his goats. Unlike the other representations of Punhun and his brother, these show them holding weapons. Punhun was shown holding a gun and his brother a large axe.  On the contrary, in earlier representations, one finds brothers of Punhun are shown carrying clubs only while escorting him back to their kingdom.

A similar representation can be seen in a tomb at Tilla Shah necropolis in Sanghar district, in which a brother of Punhun is depicted carrying a club. In this depiction, four brothers of Punhun are shown, two seated on camels and the other two on foot. In the earlier representations in the tombs in Dadu and Kamber-Shahdadkot, only one camel is shown with Punhun and his brother on camelback and another on foot. This is the most refined mural painting. Sasui is shown with her two friends who seem to have pacified her and dissuaded her from treading on the difficult path that passes through the treacherous mountains of Lasbela, but she seems to be determined to follow the footprints of her beloved Punhun. In the tombs of Kamber-Shahdadkot and Dadu, Sasui is depicted alone standing in the wilderness searching for the road to Kech-Makran. The artist of Kamber-Shahdadkot depicts Sasui with just one friend who is trying to stop her from following the camel caravan of Punhun.

The love story of Sasui and Punhun fascinates the imagination of Sindhi artists. Some artists rendered the figures in a naturalistic style and others in a more primitive style. The most refined illustrations have been found in the tombs at the graveyards of Mir Allahyar Khan Talpur, Muridani Jamali and Tilla Shah.

The author is an anthropologist. He may be contacted at Excerpts have been taken from the author’s new book “Wall Paintings of Sindh, From the Eighteenth to Twentieth Century” published by Silk Road Centre in 2020. All photos are by the author

The author is an anthropologist. He tweets at: @Kalhorozulfiqar