As the magnificently projected and fiercely debated “Padmaavat” nears its climax, there is one scene which fairly sums up the basic point being made by the story. Squirming under the pain of the multiple arrows shot at him from behind, Rawal Ratan Singh (played by Shahid Kapoor) tells his opponent Alauddin Khalji (played by Ranveer Singh) “is jung ko toh usoolon ke saath lad leta (you could fought this war atleast with principles).” To that a victorious Khilji responds, “jung ka bas ek hi usool hain, jeet. (there is only one principle of war, victory).” Moral of the story being, the Rajputs fought with principles, valour, pride and honesty. The Khiljis on the other hand fought, and won, through deceit and dishonesty.
Through the two hours and forty-five minutes of grand aesthetics that ‘Padmavat’ is, it is the character of Khalji that stands out, both in terms of his monstrous appearance and the ruthless demeanour. With his kohl-lined eyes and rugged, messy hair, Ranveer Singh propels up the character of Khalji to its most barbarian self. He is lecherous in nature, cold-blooded in his ambitions and, of course, has no regard for any kind of principles in politics and warfare. Bhansali’s villain is in every way starkly contrasting to his hero, the mild voiced and principled Rawal Ratan Singh.
The writer of any history has always held the advantage of bestowing praises upon his side, while putting down the other. But Bhansali is no historian and neither has he claimed to reproduce a historical episode in all its accuracy. Rather, his film is based on a piece of Sufi literature, the Padmaavat, written in the sixteenth century by the poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi. A tale of love, heroism and sacrifice, Jayasi’s poem by itself is also not history. It comes closest to what we in modern times call, historical fiction. There are elements in it which hold claim to historicity, but essentially Jayasi was telling a tale, its purpose being to render legitimacy to a Rajput past that was shining in its valour and heroism. Seen in this context, it is but natural for Rajput’s opponent, Alauddin Khalji to be made to appear villainous.
Whether and to extent Bhansali has followed Jayasi’s writing in his portrayal of Khalji is hard to tell. What is noteworthy, however, is that there is very little that can be ascertained about the medieval Indian ruler in full accuracy. He is the valiant hero in the chronicles written by the poet Amir Khusrao, the ruthless oppressor in the Rajput annals and the villainous descendant of Muslim invaders in nationalist historiography of independent India. What we do know of Khalji for certain is that he was the Sultan of Delhi between 1296 and 1316. Under his reign, the Khalji empire spread far and wide, occupying regions in central, western and peninsular India. He was known to be an ambitious monarch whose initiatives in revenue generation and administrative system were unique in his times. Everything else about the Sultanate monarch needs to be located in the socio-political context in which he was being written about.
Alauddin in the tales of Rajput court
It is fascinating to note how frequently Alauddin is mentioned in literary narratives produced by Rajput courts. Historian Ramya Sreenivasan in an article titled, “Alauddin Khalji remembered: Conquest, gender and community in medieval Rajput narratives” analyses four texts produced in Rajput courts between the fourteenth and the sixteenth century – Nayacandra Suri’s Hammiramahakavyam, Padmanabha’s Kanhadade Prabandh, Narayndas’ Chitai-varta and Jayasi’s Padmaavat. Sreenivasan notes that Khalji’s characterisation in each of these four works revolves around his invasion of Rajput kingdoms, ending with the defeat of the Rajput kings and the self-immolation of the queens. Khalji’s ambition to invade Rajput kingdoms in these accounts are rooted in either ruthless greed or in his fierce attraction to the queens of the Rajput kings.
“Alauddin Khalji was the first ruler of the Delhi Sultanate to make deep inroads into Rajasthan. His campaigns had a profoundly destructive impact upon the ruling lineages in the region,” writes Sreenivasan. Centuries later when newer Rajput lineages arose in these areas, it was seen necessary to produce literary narratives that can claim a past steeped in valour despite being crushed by the Sultans in war. Women had a significant role to play in these narratives. As Sreenivasan notes, “in the political order of the Rajputs, marriage was an institution integral to the maintenance of state power.” In such a situation, the trope of a lustful Sultanate ruler who wants to acquire a Rajput queen and that of an honourable Rajput queen who would rather die than give herself up to the invader was seen as essential in making Rajput history appear as steeped in pride.
Throughout these texts therefore, it is the narrative of a principled Rajput being defeated by an unprincipled Khilji that is repeated. Khalji in this context was bound to appear as the lustful, treacherous villain.
Alauddin in the chronicles of the Sultanate court
Perhaps the most popular chronicler of Alauddin Khalji’s reign was the Sufi poet and scholar, Amir Khusrao, known to have accompanied the former during his invasion of Chittor. Khusrao had joined the Sultanate court during the reign of Ghiyasuddin Balban. In the later thirteenth century, after Alauddin took over the reigns of the Khalji empire, he wrote in glowing terms the Khaza’in ul-Futuh (The treasures of victory). In his work, he wrote about Khalji’s construction works, the wars he waged valiantly and the unique administrative system he built. Khalji is believed to have been so pleased with Khusraou’s writings that he bestowed a large amount of wealth upon him.
The other popular political thinker of the Delhi Sultanate to have recorded Khalji’s reign is Ziauddin Barani. His work, Tarikh-i-Firuz Shahi written in 1350s covers in detail the period from the rule of Balban to that of the Firuz Shah Tughluq. As per Barani, however, though Khalji was an ambitious and strong monarch, he was ignorant when it came to the knowledge of Islam. “Barani recorded the Sultan’s profane eccentricities; the achievements of the monarch were peppered by accounts of his irreligiosity,” writes historian Sunil Kumar in his work, “Assertions of authority: A study of the discursive statements of two sultans of Delhi.” It is in Barani’s work though that we get to know that Khalji, unlike most Muslim rulers, did not associate himself with the Ulama (the guardians and interpreters of religious knowledge in Islam). Rather, he believed that worldly government and the Sharia occupied two different realms.
Alauddin in the works of modern historians
In the historical traditions of independent India, characters like Alauddin Khilji and Aurangzeb have often been villianised as means of creating a nationalist narrative in which Muslim rulers were seen as the other. “History of the Khaljis” written by historian Kishori Saran Lal in 1950 had for a long time been noted as being an authoritative text on the rule of the Khaljis. In recent years, however, the book has often been labelled by historians to be regressive in its analysis of the Khaljis.
Lal’s analysis of Alauddin Khalji describes him as a powerful monarch who “carried Muslim arms into the remotest corners of the country.” “Some of the reforms of Alauddin are unique experiments in medieval times. They succeeded quite well, what if their success was short lived. But reliance on force which was the mainstay in of the Khalji regime, proved a canker in its body politic,” writes Lal. He described in gory details the scene of Alauddin murdering his uncle and the then Sultan Jalaluddin Khalji and described the ways in which he had betrayed his own family. But Lal also noted in great detail the dexterity with which Alauddin built an administrative system from scratch and went about reconstructing the landscape of Delhi. In his chapter on the conquest of Chittor, Lal details out a section on Muhammadan raids on Chittor previous to that of Alauddin and then writes about the barbarous acts of the Sultan in crushing the Hindus.
While Lal’s writing has come under much criticism in recent years, there have been few other historical accounts which take an alternative view of Khalji’s reign. One of the most important works in this regard is that of historian Sunil Kumar. In his work, “Courts, capitals and kingship: Delhi and its sultans in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries CE,” Kumar points out to the flaw in analysing Khalji as part of a homogenous Muslim ruling elite. Kumar pays attention to the efforts made by Alauddin in altering the architectural landscape of Delhi. “During Alauddin’s reign it was the Old City that witnessed large-scale building activity, considerable renovation and repair, a huge increase in population and the construction of a new suburb, Siri,” writes Kumar. As per Kumar, Alauddin is known to have lavished largesse on the residents of the city after coming to power in order to win supporters. He is believed to have employed a large number of people in order to make his empire more inclusive and is known to have appointed slaves and social menials to high positions as well.