Every year between the months of February and March, the city of Chittorgarh in Rajasthan comes together in celebration of what is believed to be one of the most critical episodes of their community’s history — the Jauhar (self-immolation) of Queen Padmavati in defence of her honour and virtues. For the Rajputs, Rani Padmini or Padmavati, has held a semi-Goddess like position for centuries now. Her choice to rather die than be captured by another man has been celebrated with utmost vehemence as the symbol of Rajput valour and integrity. When director Sanjay Leela Bhansali announced his upcoming project — Padmavati — it was the Rajput consciousness of their historical identity which was at stake. So Rajput group Karni Sena took it upon itself to protest against the film’s alleged attempt to distort Rajput history.
The legend of Padmavati first appeared in a piece of poetry called ‘Padmavat’ dating back to the sixteenth century. Written in Avadhi language by Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi, ‘Padmavati’ was a tale of love, heroism and sacrifice, dotted all along with fantastical elements giving it a larger than life imagery. The poem narrates that a princess of unparalleled beauty called Padmini lived in the kingdom of Simhaladvipa, now Sri Lanka. Enamoured by her beauty, King Ratansen of Chittor was engulfed with the passion to acquire her and overcame a large number of adventurous obstacles to make her his queen. Back in the kingdom of Chittor, Ratansen banished a sorcerer, who travelled to Delhi and told its ruler Alauddin Khalji of Padmini’s beauty. The Khalji ruler marched to Chittor and vanquished Ratansen. But he did not manage to win Padmini as she along with other Rajput women committed Jauhar by consigning themselves to the flames.
Padmavati’s story is sacrosanct among the Rajputs who consider her the ideal wife and woman and within her is vested their legacy of bravery and virtue. Further, this narrative of their past is something that has been learned through oral transmission from one generation to another and local folk tales that have given it a sacred legitimacy. Ever since the protests against Bhansali’s film broke out, an issue of constant debate is to what extent the legend of Padmavati historically authentic and to what extent is she a product of fiction.
Cultural memory of a community hardly ever distinguishes between historical authenticity and fictional concepts that have over time acquired the garb of historicity. In that sense, it becomes increasingly difficult for the community to come to terms with the fact that a part of their historical pride may or may not have existed at all. While parts of the Padmavati legend has been proven historically, particularly the battle between Ratansen and Alauddin Khalji, the extensive use of fanciful elements in the story make it imperative for us to approach the authenticity of the narrative carefully. More important, however, is the necessity to read the Padmavat focusing on the time and social order in which it was composed and then analyse the corruption in interpretation it has gone through to finally become an episode of Rajput and Hindu pride.
The poet, the poem and its social context
Alauddin Khalji was the Sultan of Delhi between 1296 and 1316. Under his rule, the Khalji empire expanded rapidly to occupy regions in western, central and peninsular India. Khalji’s attack on Rajasthan had a particularly destructive impact upon the ruling lineages of the region resulting in the Delhi Sultan occupying a particularly hated space in Rajput memory. Khalji’s rule was also noted for having destroyed the authority of local chiefs, most of whom belonged to the social group of Rajputs. However, we need to note that Amir Khusrao, the Sultan’s court poet who had accompanied him during his invasion of Chittor, mentions no account of a Rani Padmini there in his accounts of the attack.
Padmavati is introduced to us by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, about two centuries after the attack on Chittor took place. Jayasi was from the region of Jais in North India and had been initiated in the Chisti Sufi lineage of Saiyid Ashraf Jahangir Simnani. In the sixteenth century, when Padmavat was written, it was common for the Sufi pirs to provide religious legitimation to the ruling elite in return for the patronage the rulers gave them. “The choice for the story of the siege of Chittor and the role of the Rajput queen Padmavati as the main theme of Padmavat makes the poem particularly relevant in this context. It locates the poet in a literary field defined by the interests of both worldly and religious patrons,” writes historian Thomas de Bruijn in his book ‘Ruby in the dust: history and poetry in Padmāvat by the South Asian Sufi poet Muḥammad Jāyasī’.
From the fifteenth century new Rajput ruling lineages claimed lineal and political descent from the predecessors who had been destroyed by Khalji. Historian Ramya Sreenivasan notes that this was the period from when the Rajput memory of Alauddin Khalji’s invasion began to be actively reshaped focusing on the valour of the monarch of Chittor who resisted Khalji’s attacks. One of the first texts to participate in this celebration of Rajput history was the Kanhadade Prabandh, which was commissioned by the Chauhan chief of Jalor. The narration of Padmavati by Jayasi, needs to be contextualised in this new form social order that had emerged in Rajasthan.
Awadh at this time was populated by a large number of Rajput elites. Sreenivasan has located the creation of Padmavat in the sixteenth century politics of Awadh, where the rising influence of Sher Shah Suri had led to great anxiety among the Rajput elites. Further, she also pointed to the historicity of another king Ratansen who was the Rana of Chittor in the sixteenth century. Under his reign, nine years before the Padmavat was written, an episode of mass immolation had taken place in Chittor, just before its conquest by Bahadur Shah of Gujarat. It is possible that Jayasi in his narration of Padmavat was transporting contemporary politics to a historical period. “As these Awadh elites were deeply involved in the patronage of Chisti Sufis, it seems all the more justified to position Jayasi’s Padmavat in this context,” writes Thomas de Bruijn.
The construction of Padmavat’s narrative in the form of a fantastical tale of love needs to be located in the influence of other literary and cultural traditions of the sixteenth century in North India had on Sufi literature. Such narratives of a king falling in love with a beautiful princess, overcoming all obstacles in the process of acquiring her and in their union the king obtaining spiritual apogee was an imagery common among Jain, Persian and other folk genres of the period and Jayasi was bound to be inspired by it.
The interpretation of Padmavat in modern times
The circulation and transmission of the Padmavat has been an ongoing process and its interpretation at various historical stages needs to be located in the political context of the time in which it was being read. The modern interpretation of the text is a result of the twentieth century rendition of it inspired by the nationalist movement of the time. The nationalist struggle inspired scholars to investigate early modern vernacular literature to promote a Sanskritised form of Hindi which was deemed to be a necessary prerequisite to the linguistic unity of independent India. Awadhi and Braj literary traditions were particularly promoted as the predecessors of modern Hindi.
With respect to Padmavat, the rendition of Ramchandra Shukla in 1924 was particularly important. Ideologically Shukla was inclined to represent early modern vernaculars in a Hindu religious context, and the Sufi literature of the period posed a problem for him. While he was unhappy with aspects of the poem as not being ideally Indian, he is known to have been touched by the mysticism in Jayasi’s poem which he believed was similar to Kabir’s poetry and therefore Jayasi was accepted as “Indian.” Further, as Thomas de Bruijn notes, “he is also positive about the representation of the behaviour of Padmavati when Ratansen is taken captive by Alauddin, which he interprets as an ideal image for the devotion of the Indian wife, in the manner in which he sees it portrayed in truly ‘Indian’ poetry.”
Shukla and his contemporaries’ interpretation of Padmavati as depicting the Indian and Hindu positivities of the nation is what has stayed on in the way the text is read and remembered till date. The celebration of Rani Padmini’s jauhar in Chittor and the Karni Sena’s relentless protest against Bhansali’s film need to be located in the flawed and motivated interpretation of Padmavat that has seeped into the Rajput cultural memory for decades now.