Girls who wish to dance like Deepika, others who want to go to a cinema hall like the boys, daughters-in-law looking to speak their minds, youth who want jobs, historians who want parity. The Indian Express travels across Chittor to get a sense of the queen — off-camera. Express Photographs by Tashi Tobgyal
Autorickshaw driver cum tourist guide Guddu has an audience and a story. So he begins: “Here lived Rani Padmini, a queen so beautiful that the sultan of Delhi, Alauddin Khilji, driven by lust, attacked the kingdom of Chittor in 1303… As the queen sat on the steps of Jal Mahal, her reflection in the waters of the Padmini lake fell on a mirror in Padmini Palace, where Khilji stood…”
The soft morning sun on their backs, the group of around 50 from Maharashtra — elderly women with scarves wound tightly at the chin and men in sweaters and woollen caps — turn around to look at the Jal Mahal, believed to be the summer palace of Rani Padmini, the 13th-century queen of the kingdom of Chittor in Rajasthan’s Mewar region.
“Next,” announces Guddu, and the group files along. As he directs them to another part of the monument, Guddu says, “We have to say all this to keep the tourists happy. Par sachayi to yeh hai ki woh sultan tha, usse apna samrajya badhana tha. Ek ladies ke liye thodi aayega woh (But the truth is, Khijli was a king, he wanted to expand his empire. Would he have come for a woman).”
Here in Chittorgarh, a city built around the whale-shaped fort and the legend of Padmini, Guddu’s version of a smitten sultan catching a glimpse of the Rajput queen is no longer widely accepted, so he refuses to talk any further. The story now increasingly being told is that of the queen’s “ultimate sacrifice” of leading the jauhar, an act of mass self-immolation to “protect the honour of all Rajput women” from the “treacherous Muslim sultan”.
With every such retelling, the legend of Padmini gets fortified and is now almost unimpeachable, much like the fort built on the tabletop plateau of the Vindyachal range of mountains. Any deviation from this script can be risky, as guide Guddu knows and as filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali has come to realise.
In Chittorgarh, they repeat it faithfully: Rani Padmini is “hamari rani… Unka nakhun tak kisi ne nahin dekha aur film mein unhein naachte hue dikhaya hai… Rani kabhi naachti hai? (She is our queen… Nobody has seen even her fingernail and they show her dancing in the film. Does a queen ever dance)?”
But behind that narrative, of a fight for women’s honour, lie other stories. All looking for, hanging on to their Padmavati.
There is no Padmavati. No Padmini either. Only Padma. The Class 9 student of the Government Co-ed Senior Secondary School in Ochidi, a village just outside the municipal limits of Chittorgarh, walks down the dusty school ground to where the other girls, most of them from Class 11 and 12, are sitting, and listens to their stories — of how every day in school is an act of rebellion, a battle against early marriages, parents, in-laws, teenage husbands and “samaj, jo ladkiyon ko jeene nahin deta hai (society, that doesn’t let us girls be)”.
Sumitra Kumhawat, a Class 12 girl who was engaged when she was five and married off in Class 9, lives with her family in Ochidi. “There is a lot of pressure from my in-laws to stop studies and go to their house. I say I’ll first complete my education. But once in a while, my father-in-law comes and I have no option but to go with him. There, my mother-in-law tells me to share the room with him (her husband) but I fight and go to my aunt’s house nearby,” says Sumitra.
As the conversation veers round to Padmavati, the movie, there are broad smiles. “Haan, ghoomar dance dekha hai. TV par (Yes, we have seen the ghoomar dance on TV). Deepika looks so beautiful. Kaise dheere dheere nachti hai (She dances so gracefully),” says Krishna Meena, 11.
“They say they won’t let the movie be released… it’s so sad. These filmmakers spend all that money and people raise objections. Ungli uthane mein yeh maahir hain. Aur aurton ki izzat ka bahana banate hain. Aurton ki izzat hoti kahan hai (They are experts at raising objections. And women’s honour is an excuse. Where are women respected)? Here they don’t let us go to school and then talk of izzat (respect). It’s tough for Rajput girls too. Their men proudly say our women don’t go out to study, don’t work,” says Sumitra.
Sumitra knows of Chandralok Talkies, the only cinema hall in Chittorgarh town, “par kya fayda (what’s the use)? Our parents won’t let us go there. Most of us have never been to a cinema hall… But the boys go.”
As the other girls spell out their dreams — “teacher”, advocate” — Padma, who has until now been hiding, looks out from behind Sumitra’s shoulders and says, “I want to study, be a policewoman.” And after a while: “Ya phir dancer… Deepika jaisi (Maybe a dancer… like Deepika)”.
Padma isn’t married yet, but there’s pressure from her parents and she isn’t sure how long she can hold off. According to Census 2011, 15.88 per cent of girls in Rajasthan between 15 and 17 are married off before they turn 18, with Chittorgarh, Jaisalmer, Alwar, Tonk, Karauli, Dholpur and Barmer among the most vulnerable.
As the girls leave, a group of Class 12 boys walk up, saying they too have an opinion on Padmavati. “The film shows Padmavati dancing, romancing… Pehle kabhi naachi nahin Rani Padmini (She has never danced before),” asserts Devilal Gadilohar, 18.
On the road leading to the main gate of the fort, under a makeshift pandal, sits a motley group of protesters under the banner of “Sarv Samaj”. “We demand a complete ban on the movie, across the world,” says Romendra Pal Singh Rathore, “computer science HoD”, Mewar Girls Institute of Management and Technology. He is at pains to stress that their protest isn’t of Rajputs alone, but of “all communities”.
Behind them are banners in Hindi and French — “because we have a lot of French tourists”. A few metres away hang three mannequins with names tagged to them — Salman Khan, Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Deepika Padukone. ‘Deepika’ is in a floral T-shirt and polka-dotted leggings, while ‘Bhansali’ is more haggard, with a tuft of straw for feet. Why Salman Khan? “Because he spoke out in support of the movie. Jo bhi jan bhawna ke virudh vaktavya dete hain, unko yahan latkayenge, unke putle jalayenge (whoever issues a statement against people’s sentiments, we will hang them here, burn their effigies),” thunders “Dr” Natwar Singh, “principal, Chittorgarh Ayurveda College”.
“I am a Brahmin, but I am speaking up because the filmmakers have distorted historical facts about Ma Padmini. Satya toh yeh hai ki Ma Padmini ne jauhar kiya aur Chittor ki hi nahin, poore desh ki naari asmita ka prateek banin (The truth is, Padmini did jauhar and now represents the pride of all women of India),” says Singh, before launching into a poem on the queen’s “sacrifice”.
“From a girl as young as three to an 80-year-old jumped into the jauhar. Not one woman remained. That’s how great our women were,” he says, his voice devoid of all irony.
“The casting itself is wrong. A superstar (Ranveer Singh) is Khilji and an average hero (Shahid Kapoor) is our Maharaja Ratan Singh. This is an attack on Hindu culture, on Rajput pride,” says Rathore.
Historian Harbans Mukhia explains this “sense of hurt” as “part inability, part inheritance and part construction” — “the inability to distinguish between history and a literary character; confusing inheritance or stories you would have heard from your ancestors or puranas for history; and the construction of a discourse to suit your present day needs”. “According to this narrative that is being constructed, the Muslim is the enemy. This construction comes with political power. So according to this narrative, it’s not Khilji who is guilty, but the entire Muslim community of 2017 that is guilty,” he says.
At the protest site, 22-year-old Harshvardhan Singh takes a break from the protests to ask, “Is there a place in Delhi to prepare for the civil services? Here there are no good coaching centres.”
“Oh, Deepika (Padukone) is drop-dead gorgeous. And the jewellery she is wearing is authentic Rajput stuff. The movie should be released,” says Hansika Rathore, 26, daughter-in-law of Digvijay Singh Thakur, sarpanch of Chittorgarh’s Ochidi village.
At their bungalow, with clearly demarcated areas for men and women, Hansika has just walked in, dressed in the traditional Rajputi poshak, a dupatta covering her head.
“I think Bhansali should have ideally got the facts right, but if he didn’t and it ends up as a bad movie, it’s his problem,” says Hansika, who went to college in Jaipur and whose father is a hotelier in Udaipur. She married Rituraj Singh Shaktawat two years ago and says she is happy to be part of a “liberal Rajput family” that encourages her to have a different opinion on a lot of things, including Padmavati.
Hansika’s husband Rituraj, 28, studied at Delhi University and spent four years in Delhi working for an online portal company before moving to Ochidi to manage the family business — a hotel in Chittorgarh and two restaurants. He says his views are “slightly different” from Hansika’s. “Yes, the film would have been good for Chittorgarh and its tourism, but no, there can’t be anything in it that offends an entire community.”
Rituraj’s mother Usha Kanwar, 54, soon joins them. “Of course, her views are very different from mine,” says Hansika, smiling.
“When they made Zubeidaa, the filmmakers sought permission from the Jodhpur royal family. Similarly, here they should have sought the Mewar royal family’s permission. They didn’t, and so got a lot of things wrong. You can see Deepika’s waist in the ghoomar dance. If you are doing something, do it well. This is like making a movie on Sonia (Gandhi) and casting Rakhi Sawant in shorts. Kyon, sahi bata rahin hoon main (Am I not right)?” says Usha, turning to Hansika.
Sitting in another part of the bungalow, Digvijay Singh says they are Shaktawat Sisodias, descendants of Maharana Pratap’s brother Shakti Singh of the Battle of Haldighati fame. “Most Rajputs in Mewar are Sisodias,” says Singh. “Though there are barely five-six Rajput households” in the village of over 3,000 people, Singh has been sarpanch of Ochidi for over 30 years. The majority, he says, are from the OBC castes of Kumawat and Gujjar.
Just outside the village is a colony of Gadia Lohars, a nomadic community of ironsmiths whose members spend about six months of the year travelling, selling their wares in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and elsewhere. A few of them also buy cattle from nearby villages and sell them, but say “these days, it’s risky”.
On a Thursday evening, a group of them sit on their haunches, sipping sugary tea and discussing their problems — from how notebandi (demonetisation) squeezed them dry to how police trouble them for bills under the new GST regime; from no jobs for the youth to lack of water supply. “Our community is the worst off. This government hasn’t done anything for us,” says Kalu Rathore, who travels to Jodhpur, Bilkaner and parts of Gujarat to sell sieves, iron buckets and tubs.
But on Padmavati, there is no sense of victimhood. They too have managed to claim their share of the queen’s legacy. Anil Rathod, 19, who says he has a diploma in mechanical engineering but is unemployed, says, “Our ancestors used to make swords and sheathes for the palace. This is not just a Rajput problem, she was our queen too. Padma rani par jhoothi film kaise bana sakte hain (How can they make a false film on her)?” The elders nod through rings of beedi smoke.
Lokendra Singh Chundawat, head of history department at the Government PG College in Chittorgarh, blames “Muslim historians” such as Irfan Habib, A B M Habibullah, and Kalika Ranjan Kanungo for relying excessively on Amir Khusrau’s account of the battle for Chittorgarh. In his Khaza’in ul-Futuh, one of the earliest accounts of the 1303 siege of Chittorgarh, Khusrau makes no mention of Padmini or Raja Ratan Singh. “He only says the rai (ruler) of Chittorgarh sought the sultan’s shelter and escaped his wrath. But my theory is, that being a court historian of Khilji, he was deliberately hiding details to please his master,” says Chundawat.
He points to works such as Udaipur Rajya ka Itahas by G H Ojha, curator of the British museum in Ajmer, and Vir Vinod by ‘Kaviraj’ Shyamaldas, a 19th-century writer who documented the history and culture of Rajasthan, to say how they quote Arab, Persian, Sanskrit sources to prove the existence of Padmini, Ratan Singh, jauhar and saka (the do-or-die battle by Rajputs) in Chittorgarh.
“If only these Muslim historians had bothered to look at local Jain and Sanskrit sources, they wouldn’t have questioned the very existence of Rani Padmini,” says Chundawat, who is also the spokesperson of the Jauhar Smriti Sansthan, an organisation, he says, that seeks to equate jauhar with the idea of sacrifice and compassion.
“Now people question if Rani Padmini even existed. This is what the Left has done to our history and culture… Raniji ne jauhar karke vishwa ko ek disha nirdesh diya (Her act of jauhar gave the world a new direction),” says Govind Gujjar, M.Com student and students’ union president at the Government PG College in Chittorgarh.
The ABVP won all seats in this year’s elections. “Ab hum sab ek hi vichardhara ke log hain (now we all share the same ideology). People like Kanhaiya (Kumar) and others who talk of breaking the nation exist only in Delhi; here we don’t let AISA and others enter our campus,” Gujjar says.
Standing in the Union office that has large paintings of “Bharat Mata”, Vivekanda and Maharana Pratap, and photographs of Mahatma Gandhi and RSS stalwarts, he adds, “We don’t have Nehru here, because I don’t share his ideology. What has he given the nation after all?”
As for the film, Gujjar says, “We believe it is against Hindu society. Everybody knows who funds these movies — the money comes from outside, from Dawood.”
A queen and her many legends
Amir Khusrau: In Khaza’in ul-Futuh, one of the earliest sources to mention the Chittor siege of 1303 CE, Khusrau, who accompanied Alauddin during the campaign, makes no mention of Padmavati or Padmini. Khusrau only says the ruler of Chittor surrendered to Alauddin. Khusrau makes no mention of jauhar either.
Malik Muhammad Jayasi: In his Awadhi poem Padmavat, Jayasi writes about Padmavati, a Sinhala princess, whose parrot Hiraman comes in contact with the king of Chittor, Ratan Sen. The parrot praises Padmavati’s beauty in front of Ratan Sen, who falls in love with Padmavati. Later, Alauddin Khilji hears of Padmavati’s beauty and attacks Chittor. He captures Ratan Sen through deceit but Padmavati seeks help from the loyal Gora and Badal, who reach Delhi disguised as Padmavati and her woman companions and rescue Ratan Sen. But he is attacked and killed in a battle with a neighbouring Rajput king and Khilji attacks Chittor again. Facing certain defeat, Padmavati commits the jauhar. This is believed to be the first mention of Padmavati or Padmini, but local historians in Rajasthan differ.
James Tod: In Annals and Antiquities of Rajas’han (1829-32), Tod, the Resident of the East India Company to the Rajput States, writes that Padmini was married to Bhim Singh (not Ratan Singh), the uncle of the ruler of Chittor, Lachhman Singh. Much of the rest of the story is similar to that of Jayasi’s; though a re-interpretation.
SC Chandra: In his Medieval India: From Sultanat to the Mughals-Delhi Sultanat, the historian writes, “Khusrau’s account is supported by all the contemporaries. None of them mention the legend of Padmini, which is mentioned for the first time in a literary work in the first quarter of the 16th Century. It was embellished with fanciful stories and adventures by (Jayasi) over two centuries later. It has been rejected by most modern historians, including Gaurishankar Ojha, one of the leading Rajasthan historians. The Padmini legend, therefore, need not detain us any further”.