The famed Rajasthani folktale is set in Lodhrawa in Jaisalmer district Rajasthan, India, around the mid-14th century. Lodhrawa stood on an ancient trade route through the Thar Desert, which was vulnerable to frequent attacks.
In the Sindhi story, Momal Ji Maari (Momal’s mansion), the heroine’s house was located in Ghotki district, near Sukkur. The story occurred in the times of Hamir Soomro, the King of Amarkot (now Umerkot district in south-east Sindh). The city was named after its Hindu founder Maharaja Amar Singh, belonging to the Sodha clan of Hindu Rajputs, who built the Amarkot Fort to wade off Muslim invadors. During the Mughal Empire, Emperor Akbar was born in Amarkot 1542, his father Humayun having fled from his capital in Delhi after his military defeat at the hands of Sher Shah Suri and the Rajput ruler Rana Prasad giving him refuge.
Beautiful Princess Momal of Ghotki lived in a luxurious and magical palace named Kak Mahal or Mirpur Mathelo, near Lodhrawa, north-east of Amarkot (now known as Umerkot). Momal oiled, perfumed and draped in exquisite silken ensembles was a beauty beyond compare. She lived with her seven equally indulged sisters and attendants in the seclusion of her grand palace. Two of her most famous sisters were named Somal, known for her intelligence, and Natir, infamous as a schemer. The condition on becoming Princess Momal’s consort was set on a man being brave enough to enter the magical magnetic field and cross the jungle to enter the palace and being clever enough to solve the puzzles devised by her wily sisters.
Many princes hearing about the unmatchable princess tried but failed; they were robbed by the sisters and attendants and lost their way forever in an unsolvable maze of labyrinths and mirages much like in a House of Mirrors attraction at an amusement park. The princes were never heard from or found again. The more unattainable the princess and the more impregnable the castle, the more legendary and enticing became the prize. The ruler of Amarkot, Hamir Soomro and his three ministers Seenharro Dhamachanni, Daunro Bhatyanni and the youngest Rano Mahendro, all Rajput Sodhas by caste, used to go horseback hunting in far flung areas of the kingdom.
Adventurous and intrepid by nature, they would even cross the boundaries of the small state to neighbouring areas. One day, on a hunting trip, the four men encountered a bedraggled looking man to whom they did not disclose their identity. Grateful for their help and for sharing their food and water, the young man told them what had befallen him. He was a Kashmiri prince who, having heard the legend of Momal’s beauty and charm, got so inspired that he travelled all that distance to try his luck. Having finally fought through to the enchanted castle, the prince was so overcome by Momal’s beauty that her seven sisters and attendants successfully played all types of tricks on him, confused him with multiple puzzles and stripped him of his wealth. Finally, he ran for his life.
Now men by nature love a challenge, want what they cannot have and are egotistical by nature, and kings are great men. Hamir badly wanted to succeed where so many men before him had failed. Having extracted the whereabouts of Kak Mahal, he decided to conquer the castle and win the princess’s hand but failed to do so. Then, in turn, his ministers tried as well, and also failed.
The youngest, Rano was an extremely intelligent, courageous and persistent young man; when it was his turn at last to try his luck, he succeeded in cracking the code of the illusion and reaching the palace. Impressed with hi, Momal accepted him as her consort and that night they consummated their marriage. The next morning, Rano left Kak Mahal and returned to Amarkot to continue his day job of working for Hamir Soomro.
Rano kept visiting Momal every night and their feelings for each other kept growing. Though it was quite a distance between the two palaces, his journey was shortened as if by magic. King Hamir felt envious that his young minister had succeeded where he couldn’t—it was a matter of pride for him. So he forbade Rano from meeting Momal and had his guards keep a check on his nocturnal movements.
Being Hamir’s subject, Rano had no choice but to obey his ruler. But try as he would, his passion would not let him rest. Stealthily, he would slip out at dusk on his camel and return before dawn. He hardly got any sleep, feverishly burning the candle at both ends, gripped by his passion.
Finally, one day the guards caught Rano sneaking off and Hamir had him thrown in the dungeon. After some time, thinking he had learnt his lesson and feeling guilty imprisoning such a loyal and trusty minister, Hamir released him on the condition that he would not meet Momal again. Not being able to resist her pull, Rano snuck off to meet Momal again.
Momal too had started pining for Rano. One night when he was late, thinking he had stood her up, the princess asked her sister Somal to disguise herself in men’s clothing and lie beside her in bed. She wanted to test Rano’s love for her by making him jealous. As was expected, when Rano saw the two sleeping together, he mistook Somal for Momal’s lover. Furious, he left Kak Mahal for Amarkot, leaving behind his cane. Momal woke up, saw the cane and realized what happened. Fearing that he had left her for good under the misapprehension that she had cheated on him, she lit a candle in her window to message to him to return. At last, when there was no sign of Rano, Momal was left with no choice but to set off to Amarkot in search of him. Disguised as a man, she set up residence in Amarkot and Rano recognized his princess.
When the two parted lovers met, Momal pleaded Rano for forgiveness for playing a thoughtless trick on him. But he remained obstinate in his resolve to punish and not forgive her. Out of desperation, Momal jumped in a raging fire to prove her love to him. Rano jumped in after her and both got consumed by the fire, the flames of their mutual passion purifying their bodies and souls.
Apart from the more obvious comparisons with the classical fairytale Sleeping Beauty, the story of Momal Rano shares similarities with the Greek mythological enchantresses the Sirens who lived on the island of Anthemoessa and lured sailors with their enchanting songs and made them crash their ships on their island’s rocky shore. Very few heroes were sharp enough to outwit these deadly mermaids. The mythological hero Ulysses stuffed wax in his sailors’ ears so they couldn’t hear the sirens’ singing and had himself tied to the ship’s mast. This story has parallels with Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey when Odysseus does the same. Similarly, in the mythological story of Jason and the Argonauts Orpheus, the legendary musician, plays his lyre, his lilting music drowning out the siren call.