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Romeo and Juliet of the East: Laila and Majnun

Laila and Majnun Play at the Opening Ceremony of the 2015 European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Love Story

Romeo and Juliet of the East: Laila and Majnun

Laila and Qays are the Romeo and Juliet of the East. The tragic tale of these ill-fated lovers has been widely featured in Asian and Middle Eastern folklore. The story of their unconsummated love has been told many times in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Azerbaijani and Indian cultures and been a great source of artistic inspiration.

Asian & Middle Eastern Folklore

It is believed that Qays and Laila lived in Bedouin Arabia in the 7th Century. Qays ibn-al Mullawah was a poet who was captivated by Layla al-Aamiriya, a wealthy girl who belonged to the same tribe. Though there are several versions of their story, the most well-known legend of Laila and Majnun was popularized in the 12th century by the great Persian poet, Nizami Ganjavi.

Laila and Majnun
Laila and Majnun Converse Beneath a Tree, ca. 1730, Kishangarh School (Rajasthan, India) © San Diego Museum of Art.

Tale of Intense, Undying Love

Qays love for Layla was intense and his affections, unreserved. Although Laila loved him too, her family thought Qays to be mentally unstable and found his audacious admiration of Laila inappropriate. When Qays asked for Laila’s hand in marriage, her family turned him down and betrothed her to a more appropriate suitor.

Keshan Carpet wool on cotton, ca. 19th century, Keshan (Iran). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Heartbroken

Laila was soon married off to another man and remained a faithful wife. In some versions of the story she never consummated her marriage out of loyalty to her true beloved. Forbidden from being with his true love, Qays lost all motivation to live and became a recluse. He wandered the forests in despair and spent his days composing poetry and pining for Laila. This earned him the epithet of ‘Majnun’ (one madly possessed with love).

Laila and Majnun
Laila visits Majnun in the wilderness, ca. 14th Century from the “Khamsah”, Five Poems (Quintet) of Amir Khusro. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Laila Visits Majnun in the Forest

Many artworks were created depicting their tragic tale. A popular rendition features Laila visiting Majnun in the forest to urge him to eat. Laila is usually depicted well-dressed, her clothes and hairstyles vary depending on the tradition of the region where the painting was rendered. Majnun is usually portrayed as a withered and shrunken man who is surrounded by forest animals. It is believed that the animals were his constant companions and showed Majnun great compassion.

Laila and Majnun
Unknown Artist, Laila & Majnun, ca. mid-18th century, Shiraz (Iran) © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

The Unforgotten Lovers

Aside from the paintings, there are many poems, songs, couplets and plays about or based on the story of Laila and Majnun. This love story has also inspired several Bollywood films, some as recent as 2018.

Laila and Majnun 1953 movie poster, India.
Source: Youtube.

Rumored Mausoleum

According to some Indian versions of the lore, the ill-fated couple eventually ran away together but died in the desert while being pursued by Laila’s family. Just before their death, they found refuge in Binjaur, a small Indian village near the border between India and Pakistan. Though greatly disputed, locals believe that Laila and Qays are buried here and revere their graves as a symbol of love. The mazhar (mausoleum) continues to attract many tourists each year.

Laila and Majnun
Laila & Majnu Mausoleum, Binjaur.
Source: Times of India website.

If you want to read other love stories in art there they are in every configuration!
The Flying Lovers, Bella and Marc Chagall
An Avant-garde Love Story: Goncharova and Larionov’s Romance
Gilbert & George, Art And Love At First Sight
King Pedro And Inês de Castro – What Life Took Apart, Death Put Back Together
The Sad Story Of Vincent Van Gogh And His Lovers
The Nude Love of Ida Rubinstein and Romaine Brooks

Art, history, mythology, and dachshund enthusiast from New Delhi, based in Los Angeles.


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