The legend of Rajput queen Padmini and the battle of narratives, Padmavati

The legend of Rajput queen Padmini and the battle of narratives, Padmavati

Mumbai, Jan 31:It is a tale of love and lust, valour and sacrifice — the celebration of a Rajput queen’s willingness to die rather than give herself over to a tyrant who coveted her. The tale was told in the Padmavat, a long Awadhi-language poem by the 16th century Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi. It has as its central characters Padmini or Padmavati (or Padumawati, as Jayasi referred to her), the queen of Chittor, her husband, Rana Ratansen Singh, and the sultan of Delhi, Alauddin Khalji (also transcribed as Khilji).

In its essentials, the story is as follows. (One of the earliest edited translations is The Padumawati by G A Grierson and Mahamahopadhyaya Sudhakara Dvivedi, Bibliotheca Indica, The Asiatic Society of Bengal, Calcutta, 1896) Padmini, the “Perfect Woman”, of beauty “no such was e’er seen upon the Earth”, was the princess of Simhala-dvipa (Ceylon). She had a talking parrot named Hira-mani (or Hiraman), who read “the holy books and the Vedas” together with Padmini. After Hira-mani incurred the wrath of the king of Simhala-dvipa, it reached Chittor, where it told King Ratansen of the great beauty of Padmavati. The king, “like the fabled bee, became enamoured”, and travelled to Simhala-dvipa, where he married Padmini, and after a long journey filled with trials and adventure, brought her to Chittor.

In Ratansen’s court lived a sorcerer called Raghav Chaitanya. After he was caught invoking dark spirits, the king banished him from the kingdom. Filled with a desire for vengeance, Raghav travelled to the court of Alauddin in Delhi, and told him about Padmini’s beauty, following which the sultan marched upon Chittor to acquire her for himself.

After several months of siege, Alauddin slaughtered tens of thousands and entered the fort to look for Padmini. But she and other Rajput women had committed jauhar, burning themselves alive to escape the sultan.

How much of the legend is fact?

Some points must be noted. One, The Padmavat was written in 1540 — Jayasi himself says that “it was in the year 947 (Hijira, which corresponds to 1540 AD)”. 1540 is 237 years after Alauddin’s Chittor campaign of 1303.

Two, Jayasi was patronised by Sher Shah Suri and his ally (against Humayun, among others) Jagat Dev, who ruled over present-day Bhojpur and Ghazipur — some 1,200 km from Chittorgarh.

Three, there are no contemporary accounts of Alauddin’s siege that mention Padmavati. Satish Chandra, one of India’s most prominent medievalists, noted that Amir Khusrau, who accompanied Alauddin to chronicle the campaign, made no mention of jauhar at Chittor, and none of Khusrau’s contemporaries spoke of Padmavati. Khusrau did, however, refer to jauhar in his account of Alauddin’s conquest of Ranthambhore, which immediately preceded the Chittor campaign. The Padmini legend “has been rejected by most modern historians, including (the doyen of historiography on Rajasthan) Gauri Shankar Ojha”, Chandra wrote.

While there are still some historians who believe the story of The Padmavat to be true, almost everyone agrees that Alauddin’s march on Chittor was more an expression of an ambitious ruler’s campaign of relentless military expansion rather than a lovesick man’s quest for a beautiful woman.

Does this mean Jayasi made up the story of Padmini?

In today’s terminology, The Padmavat would probably qualify to be called historical fiction or historical fantasy — in which some characters, events and situations are based in fact, while others are imaginary. Alauddin, for example, certainly invaded Chittor and a siege and battle followed — but the talking parrot and the adventures of the Rana and Padmavati on the way from Ceylon to his kingdom are obviously fantasy. Indeed, there is no historical evidence for the existence of Padmavati herself. The poem — originally written in Awadhi but in the Persian script — is shot through with Sufi imagery from the philosophical tradition to which Jayasi belonged, and of which love and longing are an important part. Various versions of the original followed in the centuries after Jayasi, and embellishments were added along the way, especially in the versions propagated in Rajasthan’s bardic tradition.

So how should the controversy over Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film be understood?

The group that assaulted Bhansali and vandalised the set at Jaipur’s Jaigarh fort on Friday was protesting against an alleged sequence in the film in which Alauddin Khalji’s character dreams of getting intimate with Padmavati’s character. They would not allow any “distortion of history”, the protesters said — the same demand was subsequently made by union Minister of State Giriraj Singh and Rajasthan Home Minister Gulab Chand Kataria.

On Monday, Shobha Sant, CEO of Bhansali Productions, clarified, “There is no romantic dream sequence or any objectionable/romantic scene between Rani Padmavati and Alauddin Khalji. It was not a part of the script. It was a misconception.” The film’s heroine, Deepika Padukone, had earlier tweeted, “As Padmavati I can assure you that there is absolutely no distortion of history. #Padmavati”

The question of “distortion of history” can, however arise only after the debate on the historicity of Padmavati is settled on the basis of historical evidence. Also, many other films have earlier been accused of distorting history — among them, the classic Mughal-e-Azam, Asoka, Bajirao Mastani, Jodhaa Akbar and Mohenjo Daro. Padmavati isn’t the first, and likely won’t be the last.

Artistic depictions of historical characters or situations have sometimes clashed with subnationalistic impulses or extant narratives of the ‘truth’. Recent attacks on historical figures such as Aurangzeb and Tipu Sultan have been seen as rooted in a majoritarian Hindu narrative. Giriraj Singh was quoted as saying on Monday that “the film is being made by those for whom Aurangzeb and such personalities are an icon” — the reference being to the popular understanding of the Mughal emperor as a tyrant and bigot. Singh alleged that Padmavati was portrayed in a poor light “because she was a Hindu”.

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