Translated by Noor Zaheer, this folktale of treachery and thwarted romance—from the Kunju Pass Area in Lahoul, eastern Himachal Pradesh—explores the question of whether love can survive after death.
Outside a cave, three men crouched around a fire on that fateful night.
Winter is severe in the upper Himalayas, but nowhere is it as harsh as when you have crossed the Great Himalayan ranges and reached Lahoul. Dotted with fields of potatoes and maize in the summer, when each mountain is carpeted with irises that contest the clear blue of the skies, Lahoul turns into a frozen desert in the winter. If it was just snow and frost one would stay indoors, light a fire and, like a bear, sleep through the winter, waking only to eat. But winter here comes with howling winds, hail and powerful storms. Blizzards rush down mountain slopes, and because they can’t smash the rocks that stand in their way, they bang their heads against the mud huts built low to the ground in an attempt to escape the blizzard’s cruel eye. But the blizzard has sharp eyes, and many a house finds itself without a roof or a wall by the time the storm is done with it.
People who lose their homes and are left to fend for themselves as best they can are usually the poorest of the poor. Often, they did not have houses at all. These are the shepherds, but they know of caves where they can shelter when such a mishap befalls them.
The three men were sitting curled up tightly. They knew that they should move into the cave, but they were loath to leave the warm, comforting circle of the fire. Two of them were shepherds traveling down to the green valleys of Kullu with their herd. The third man had befriended them because he was lost in that icy desert. An old proverb says, “ . . . so cold as to freeze even the tears of the sorrowful,” but in the wilds of Lahoul, it is so cold that people stopped talking to one another. What was the use? The words would freeze and fall before they reached the ears of the listener!
The three men were praying silently for the night to be over because a morning, even a misty and cloudy one, brings its own cheer. Suddenly, a male voice rose out of the dark, cold night. It was loud and clear. “Sunni—!” it called. The shepherds were alert in a trice and reached for their staffs. The voice cried out again and the outsider became restless. He said, “It sounds as if someone needs help. Why don’t you call him here? He will freeze to death in this cold.”
“No, he won’t, he’ll be fine,” replied the elder of the shepherds and the younger one nodded his head in agreement. Both of them stayed exactly where they were. But the outsider could not sit still. He jumped up and ran towards the voice that was still calling “Sunni—Sunni!” Suddenly, he felt himself in the grip of strong arms. His companions had caught up with him and had pinned him to the snow-hardened ground. He stopped struggling and was led firmly back to the fire. Meanwhile, the cry from the icy wilderness became softer, as if the caller had moved further into the dark and stormy night.
“Bhunku is at it tonight!” remarked the younger shepherd.
The outsider was shocked. “You know who he is! You know his name! And you let him perish! What kind of human beings are you?”
“Sit down, son, and I’ll tell you a story, the story of Sunni and Bhunku,” said the older shepherd as he stirred the twitching embers.
“On the way to Spiti, just as you cross the Kunzum Pass, lies the village of Gadhakal. It’s a prosperous village, situated between two rivers and facing east. The people who live there are warm and generous, and everyone works equally hard to contribute to the village output. Their land is well-irrigated and has lots of sunshine. Their crops are plentiful and their houses are strong enough to withstand the rainstorms and the blizzards. They eat well and are contented, and they say that the girls of the village look like the celestial dancers in the court of the king of the gods.
“Now, as we all know, the gods are temporary visitors to earth; they come here only for pleasure. The people of Gadhakal know that gods have their own enticements, and so they accept the beautiful girls born from the follies of the gods and respect the women who are their mothers.
“One such girl was born to a rich landowner in the village. Her beauty was so luminous that it lit up the room even as she slept at night. She was named Sunni, which means ‘ray of sunlight,' and as she grew older, she became ever more beautiful, if that was even possible. Her fingers were nimble enough to weave carpets, her arms could manage the huge, cumbersome looms, her back was as strong as a yak’s so that she could carry loads of corn from the fields to the threshing ground.
“As word of her beauty and skills spread, there were many families who wanted her as their daughter-in-law. They sent her father proposals for her hand in marriage, with promises of generous bride money, but Sunni’s parents were not willing to marry off their daughter in a hurry. No other child had been born to them after Sunni, and they did not wish to be separated from her so soon. The summer when Sunni turned sixteen, a goatherd arrived in the village with a flock of long-haired Himalayan goats. He was called Bhunku, and his name proclaimed that he belonged to the caste of professional shepherds, men who did not own the flocks they cared for. They took other people’s animals to graze and were paid in wool for their work. Surefooted and nimble as his goats, Bhunku would climb to the higher mountain pastures, where the grass was greener and juicier, where his goats would have space to run, play and eat their fill. He would sit in the sun and play his reed flute. The goats knew all the tunes he played. They recognized the tune that meant it was time to go home and they would return to Bhunku when he played it. Together, goatherd and flock would climb back down to the village.
“Sunni was amazed at the power of Bhunku’s flute, and she began following him higher up the slopes. She kept her distance and would hide behind a tree as she listened to the songs that Bhunku coaxed from his simple reed instrument. Before long, she had succumbed to the lure of the flute and was dancing and swaying to the music. Bhunku saw her and came closer. She smiled when she saw him so close, for he was a good-looking man. Love bloomed as easily as mint takes root beside gorges. But mint spreads its fragrance and is soon discovered. The village got to know of Sunni and Bhunku’s love, not because it kept a watch on its girls, but because Sunni was missing when the potato fields were being dug and cleared, when they were being sown and the saplings thinned, at the time of the first watering, and then again at the time of the weeding. Love is a time-consuming business, and lovers treat all other work as unimportant; that is how they are usually found out.
“Sunni did not have any reason to hide the truth. She knew her parents did not wish to part with her, and Bhunku, who did not have a home, was willing to give up his nomadic life and settle down in Ghadakal. The village elders met and decided to let them marry the following spring. This suited Bhunku very well. He would have time to tell his employers that he was giving up grazing their goats, he would collect his payment in wool and sell that to buy gifts for Sunni. Sunni’s parents were also pleased, as it would give them time to build another room for the newlyweds and to brew enough wine to celebrate the wedding of their only child in style.
“With the first snow, Bhunku gathered his flock to make the journey into the valleys. Sunni went with him as far as the Rohtang Pass. As they said goodbye, Bhunku asked Sunni if there was anything special she wanted from Kullu because that was where he was headed. Sunni mentioned Mojris, the special shoes made only in distant Jaipur by shoemakers who were, in reality, magicians. The shoes they made took the shape of the wearer’s feet so sweetly that those who wore them forgot that their feet were shod at all. Lahoulis wear shoes made from hemp that is rough and very uncomfortable. They say that a Lahouli woman might have a face as pretty as a fairy’s, but her feet are as hard as the hooves of sheep. Bhunku laughed at Sunni’s request. He teased her for planning to sit pretty and make him do all the hard work. But he promised to bring her the shoes and ran after his flock, which had smelled the juicy, green grass of the lower mountain pastures and was scampering down the slopes without him.
“Months passed and winter settled in. Sunni stayed indoors spinning wool and tales; wool to make Bhunku a wedding coat and tales to entertain him during the night. She learned new songs to please him, and new dance steps because she did not want him to dance with any other woman. She ate frugally and frowned at visitors who had to be fed because she wanted the granary to have ample grain in case Bhunku returned before the harvest.
“It was a harsh winter, but nothing is difficult for the one who waits for a beloved. The thaw set in—you could tell from the water moving under the ice in the streams and rivulets. The banks of the smaller streams turned green, first with moss and then with the new leaves of the snow lotus. But when the snow lotus bloomed, Sunni’s vigil became painful. Like the lotus, the vigil burst from her heart and teased and mocked her with doubts and suspicions. Each day, she finished her chores at an almost electric speed, and then she climbed to where she could see the path that the goatherds usually took and waited. Each evening, she returned with a heavy heart and spent the night filled with misgivings. But every morning, the dawn brought her new hope.
“Zhering Thopo lived in the same village as Sunni and her parents. He was a rich man who traded in salt and oil. He did not own land, but he possessed a beautiful house. His ailing wife had died recently, and he was looking for a suitable woman to take her place. He had been planning to talk to Sunni’s father, offer a bride price so huge that it could not be refused, but Bhunku had spoiled his plans. Zhering nursed his anger and bided his time.
“We know that all kinds of people make their way up the Himalayas—some come for a change of weather, others to hunt for rare herbs, some to run away from personal responsibilities, but all of them come to seek peace. Though the Himalayas hold the answers to all human questions, they rarely reveal their secrets. Those who come to gain something claim that they have attained enlightenment and they are sought out by those who seek shortcuts to solutions for their problems. But some paths in the Himalayas are rough and rugged, they have no shortcuts. Sometimes, it’s better to stay on the longer routes to reach one’s destination.
“Anyway, Zhering befriended a saffron-clad, long-haired, filthy-bearded hermit and told him of his heart’s desire and how difficult it was to obtain. The hermit told him to convince Sunni to come to a lonely mountaintop in the middle of the night. Together, they hatched a plan to spread the story of the hermit who could see the future in the flames of a fire. By now, Sunni was desperate to meet Bhunku. The sun had started to rise early and set late, the corn was turning golden, rivers gurgled with the melted snow from the high mountains. Preparations for the second crop were underway, and people, as is their wont, were beginning to make fun of Sunni and her endless wait.
“It was at this desolate moment that Zhering asked Sunni to consult the holy man who lit a fire every night on the mountaintop and could see visions of the past and future in its dancing flames. Sunni swiftly agreed, thinking that if she knew when Bhunku might return, she would be able to concentrate on the tasks before her. In the middle of the night, Sunni stole out of her house. The flickering flames at the top of the mountain guided her in that night as dark as pitch, and she considered that a good omen. She approached the fire and found the hermit and Zhering sitting there. Silently, the hermit motioned to her to sit down and to repeat her beloved’s name seven times. As Sunni pronounced ‘Bhunku’ the seventh time, the hermit yelled, ‘I can see! I can see Bhunku! There he is, I can see him!’ Sunni and Zhering moved closer and peered into the fire, but they could see nothing. The hermit seemed to go into a trance and he began to wail loudly. He writhed on the ground and thrashed around, bawling and howling. Zhering held him fast and asked, ‘What is it you see, learned sage?’ In between sobs and moans, the sadhu said, ‘I see Bhunku, but he is dead. I see Bhunku, but his body is being cremated! I see Bhunku, but his soul is leaving for the heavens!’
“Sunni lost all sensation in her limbs when she heard the hermit’s words. As if in a dream, she stood up and walked away. The hermit and Zhering nodded and winked at each other. Zhering was now sure that he could send a marriage proposal for Sunni, that it would be accepted, and that the wedding would be over and done with before Bhunku returned, if at all he did. Suddenly, Zhering and the hermit realized that Sunni was not heading towards the path that led downhill. She was walking in the opposite direction, towards the precipice. They set off behind her, calling out as they ran. But Sunni had had a head start, and now she ran faster. Before they could catch up with her, she screamed ‘Bhunkuuuuuuu’ and jumped off to meet the death that she believed had taken her beloved.
“Zhering was overcome with grief and remorse. He could not confess to anyone in the village, even though everyone was searching for Sunni everywhere. He took to waiting on the path taken by goatherds to enter Lahoul. Sure enough, Bhunku arrived in a few days. He was happy that someone from his beloved’s village had come to welcome him.
“Embracing Bhunku, Zhering asked, ‘What took you so long? ” Bhunku laughed and replied, ‘My work was done before winter ended, I had been paid for my work and I was able to sell the wool in the market.’
“‘Then why, oh why, did you not come back immediately?’ cried Zhering.
“Bhunku smiled shyly and said, ‘Sunni wanted a pair of Mojris, and this year the Mojri makers did not come to the market fair in Kullu. I heard that they were camping in Kangra, so I walked all the way there. That took several weeks, but I bought the Mojris and came back as soon as I could. Look how beautiful they are! Imagine how lovely my Sunni will look wearing them.’
“Zhering began to sob loudly when he heard this and told Bhunku everything, cursing himself and the hermit. Bhunku dropped all the gifts that he had brought from the lowlands. He even took off the new shirt that he had bought to wear as a bridegroom and removed his new shoes. He fell to his knees and bowed low, touching his head to the ground before Zhering. Then, he stood up and extended his right hand. Zhering had no option but to put his hand on Bhunku’s, acknowledging the pledge that he would give whatever was asked for. Bhunku looked Zhering in the eye and said, ‘Show me the place where I will find Sunni.’
“Zhering had to escort Bhunku to the mountaintop, across the plateau, and show him the precipice where Sunni had last been seen. Bhunku stretched out his arms as if to embrace something and then, as his body hurtled downwards, he cried, ‘Sunni—.’
The old shepherd had reached the end of the story. He sighed and said, “Death does not unite lovers. At least, this time it didn’t. On some nights, she calls for him, and on others, he longs for her. Maybe lovers unite only as embodied selves and earth itself is heaven. When we are no longer of the earth, there is nothing left but yearning, endless yearning.”
Translation © 2019 by Noor Zaheer. All rights reserved.