There is a curious relationship that literature and history share with each other. There comes a point when it is difficult to say which one is the source and which one, a derivative of it. The controversy surrounding Sanjay Leela Bansali’s “Padmavati” is a perfect example of this confusion between historical fact and fiction. When Bhansali was assaulted by a fringe group on the sets of his film, for allegedly “distorting history”, the issue at hand was historical pride over a character derived from a piece of literary work.
The character of Padmavati was first mentioned in a 16th century piece of poetry, “Padmavat” written in Awadhi language by the Sufi poet, Malik Muhammad Jayasi. That the poem could be based on historical facts cannot be completely shunned. In fact, some parts of the legend, particularly the part about the ruler Alauddin Khilji invading Chittor, has indeed been authenticated by other historical evidences. However, a quick read of this long piece of literary work reveals a large amount of fantastical elements associated with the story of queen Padmavati and the invasion of Chittorgarh by Alauddin Khilji. The extensive use of fanciful events in the telling of “Padmavat”, does ask for caution when ascribing to its historical authenticity, especially so when no other contemporary historical record mentions the existence of a queen named Padmavati.
Padmavati is hardly the first fictional character to have entered historical consciousness over time. Personalities like Anarkarli and Jodha Bai are also similar cases of fictional accounts becoming part of popular historical understanding.Popular historical characters of the West like Homer and King Arthur are also believed to have to taken roots in oral and literary fictions being passed on for generations. Following are the accounts of few Indian historical characters who might very well have been myths.
The story of Padmavati
Best understood as a story of Rajput valour, the poem Padmavat, begins with a fanciful description of the kingdom of Simhala-dvipa, where a princess named Padmani lived, who was believed to be of unparalleled beauty. She was, according to the poet, a “perfect woman”. Padmini had a talking parrot, Hira-mani who, on being berated by the king of Simhala-dvipa, flew away to Chittor and informed King Ratansen of the beauty of Padmini. Being completely mesmerised by Hira-mani’s account of Padmini, the king longed to marry the princess and managed to do so after a long series of dramatic battles and adventurous trials.
Back in the kingdom of Chittor, where Ratansen lived with Padmini after their marriage, a sorcerer named Raghav Chaitanya lived. Being banished by Ratansen for invoking dark spirits in the court, he travelled to Delhi which was under the rule of the Khiljis. He told Sultan Alauddin Khilji of Padmini’s beauty, arousing in him the strongest passion to acquire her. The Sultan invaded Chittor with the intention of obtaining Padmini. However, the valiant Rajput Queen would rather kill herself than be taken by the Sultan of Delhi. She along with other Rajput women committed jauhar (a custom largely practised by Hindu women in north India of mass self-immolation to avoid capture by invaders).
The fact that Khilji did indeed invade Chittor is not debatable. Contemporary historical accounts give details of the act. The earliest of these sources is the written account of Amir Khusrau, who had accompanied Khilji in his quest. However, he mentions nothing about a jauhar being held.
The Khiljis are said to have been the first among the Delhi Sultanate rulers to have walked the path of territorial expansion. As per the accounts of historian Satish Chandra, the territorial expansion of the Khilji sultans took place in phases wherein they first captured Gujrat, Rajasthan and Malwa, before moving towards Deccan and Maharashtra. The invasion of Chittor needs to be understood as part of the Sultan’s political strategy to bring more territories under his control. The story of ‘Padmavat’ written almost 200 years after the actual invasion, can best be understood as a fictionalised account of history. As written by historians Catherine B. Asher and Cynthia Talbot, “Such stories cast the fierce military struggles of Alauddin’s era in an overly romanticised light and should not be taken as historical truth.”
The myth of Anarkali
The character of Anarkali, a favourite among playwrights and filmmakers is also said to have dubious historical origins. The story goes that Prince Salim (Jehangir) was immensely in love with a slave girl in Akbar’s court, who was originally called, Sharif un-Nissa or Nadira begum. She was given the name Anarkali (pomegranate blossom) on account of her beautiful pink skin tone. Akbar on hearing about the illicit affair between his son and Anarkali, was so enraged that he ordered for her to be buried alive within the walls of his palace. Years later, a heart broken Jehangir built a tomb on her name, in the midst of a four-squared garden, typical of Mughal architecture.
While the story of Anarkali, set in Lahore is widely popular as part of local Punjabi folk tradition, the fact that the most important primary sources of the period of Akbar and Jehangir’s rule- the Akbarnama and the Tuzuk-e-Jehangiri (an autobiography of Jehangir), both do not mention anything about the episode casts sufficient doubt upon its authenticity. The first time we come across the legend of Anarkali is in the writings of an English trader, William Finch who visited India in the 17th century. Later European writers like Edward Terry and William Foster incorporated the tale in their writings. The only Indian source to have mentioned Anarkali was in the book of Abdul Halim Sharar, who calls it a work of fiction right in the beginning. The fact that the English writers were influenced by local folk lore traditions and found them fascinating enough to be incorporated in their works is definitely a possibility.
Further, the story of Anarkali would have been particularly liked by the British for whom the narrative was in stark contrast to the image of justice and rationality typically associated with the Mughal emperor. One of the first adaptations of Anarkali was the play of Imitiaz Ali Taj in the early 20th century. As explained by Professor Alain Désoulières in his work, for the playwright, the local folk tale had the best combination of imaginary characters in real historical circumstances, suitable for the kind of elite and popular audiences in early twentieth century British India.
The dubious identity of Jodha Bai
Jodha Bai, another Rajput-Mughal character made popular by Indian cinema is also a case of doubtful historical evidence. The story of a Rajput princess from Amber being given in marriage to the Mughal emperor Akbar and their marriage leading to a gradual shift in the emperor’s social and religious policies has captured popular consciousness for a long time before it became the plot of a Hindi cinema. However, the name Jodha Bai does not appear in any of the Persian records of the period.
The first person to mention about Jodha Bai is historian James Tod in his Annales and Antiquities of Rajasthan. However, Jodha Bai according to Tod, was the mother of Shah Jahan and wife of Jehangir.
Akbar did have matrimonial alliances with Rajput women, as part of his policy for territorial expansion. The closest evidence we have of Rajput woman who might have had a stature similar to Jodha Bai is that of Mariam-uz-Zamani Begum, who was the princess of Amber and is said to be the mother of Jehangir. While there is no historical evidence of a close romantic relationship between Akbar and any of his Rajput wives, the story of Jodha and Akbar is often held up as a tale of Rajput-Muslim unity.