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Distorting the Legend of Padmavati

Murad Ali Baig

The uproar caused by a Bollywood film that was rumored to contain a dream romance between Padmavati the Rajput queen of Chittor and the Muslim sultan Allauddin Khilji of Delhi shows the power of mythology among many Indians. With the bardic tradition in Rajasthan it is not surprising that it was a mix of a number of contradictory versions of a mythical story about Padmini over the past seven hundred years that provoked an obscure Jaipur based organization called the Shri Rajput Karni Sena to begin violent protests claiming that the film is distorting Rajput history and hurting Rajput sentiments.

The myth originated from the work of a 16th century Sufi poet called Malik Muhammad Jayasi called Padmavat about a mythical Rani Padmavati. Sultan Allauddin Khilji’s sacking of the great Rajput fort of Chittor in 1303 CE is a historical fact that was enlarged over seven centuries into a legend for Rajput chivalry and sacrifice. With each retelling the bards and storytellers embellished the story over the centuries.

The earliest literary source to mention the Chittor siege is Khaza'in ul-Futuh by the famed Amir Khusrau, who accompanied Allauddin during the campaign. He however makes no mention of any Padmavati or Padmini. Khusrau also describes the siege of Chittor in a later work Diwal Rani Khizr Khanthat with the love story of Allauddin but with a princess of Gujarat and makes no mention of Padmini.

The legend then gets tangled in an old Islamic myth where Amir Khusrau makes a veiled reference to Padmini in Khaza'in ul-Futuh with a reference to King Solomon and Bilkis (the Queen of Sheba) according to which Solomon once set out on an expedition that included a bird called hudhud that evidently told him that it had visited the territory of Sheba and described a beautiful queen Bilkis or Sheba. Solomon then sent a message to the Queen, asking her to submit before him.

The most popular myth was Jayasi’s poem was written in the Awadhi language at Ayodhya in 1540… or 237 years after the sacking of Chittor. It claimed that Khilji went there to capture the beautiful Rani Padmini and the ruler raja Ratan Singh tried to escape the fury of the sultan by agreeing to show him his wife. Jayasi’s story says that Padmini only allowed Allauddin to see her reflection in a mirror from a distance but Allauddin decided that he must capture her and arrested raja Ratan Singh demanding that that he surrender his queen.

According to the storyh the Rajputs however decided to trick the Sultan and sent word that Padmini would be surrendered the following morning and one hundred and fifty palanquins for a retinue of royal ladies went to Allauddin's camp. They however first stopped before the tent where Ratan Singh was prisoner. Instead of women, the palanquins howevery contained 750 armed soldiers who freed Ratan Singh and galloped towards Chittor on horses snatched from Allauddin's stables. After a long siege Ratan Singh gave orders that the Rajputs should fight to the death while Padmini and her womenfolk committed `Jauhar’, or sacred suicide, in a blazing fire pit, rather than face the disgrace of capture.

Fifty years after Jayasi another poet called Hemratan wrote Gora Badal Padmini Chaupai in 1589 saying that a Ratan Sen (SIC), the Rajput king of Chitrakot had a wife named Prabhavati, who was a great cook. One day, the king expressed dissatisfaction with the food she had prepared. Prabhavati challenged him to find a woman a better cook than her. Ratan Sen allegedly set out with a Nath Yogi ascetic who told him that there were many padmini women on a Singal (Srilanka? Buddhist?) island. Ratan Sen then crossed the sea and defeated the king of Singhal in a game of chess and married his sister Padmini. The legend says that he gave a huge dowry; of half the kingdom, 4000 horses and 2000 elephants.

Later in Chittor, according to this legend, while Ratan Sen and Padmini were making love a Brahmin named Raghav Vyas accidentally interrupted them. Fearing the ruler’s anger, he escaped to Delhi, where he told Allauddin about the existence of the beautiful padmini women on the island of Singhal. Allauddin set out on an expedition but his soldiers drowned in the sea. The legend then states that he learned that the only padmini woman on the mainland was a Padmavati of Chittor so he raised an impossibly large army of 2.7 million soldiers to besiege Chittor.

In a variation of this legend the ocean god punished Ratan Sen for having excessive pride in winning over the world's most beautiful woman and everyone except Ratan Sen and Padmavati was killed in a storm. Padmavati was marooned on an island of the daughter of the Ocean God. Ratan Sen was rescued and the ocean princess decided to test Ratan Sen's love for Padmavati by disguising herself as Padmavati but he was not fooled so the Ocean god reunited Ratan Sen with Padmavati.

540 years after the sacking of Chittor colonel James Tod in his `Annals and antiquities of Rajasthan’ compiled most of the bardic and oral history of Rajasthan. He mentions a Padmini, the beautiful daughter of a Hamir Sank of Ceylon and the story of the Johar. 270 years later a Bengali poet Abinendra Tagore wrote Rajkahani in 1909 that has a brief description of the Rajput history and claims that one Bhimsinha marries Padmini after a voyage to Sinhala and brings her to Chittor. Then, when Allauddin learns about Padmini's beauty from a singing girl, he invades Chittor to capture her. Bhimsinha offers to surrender his wife to Allauddin to protect Chittor, but his fellow Rajputs refuse to surrender. Allauddin then captures Bhimsinha, and demands Padmini but she, with support from the Rajput warriors rescues her husband using the palanquin trick.

With such a complex miasma of contradictory legends it is very clear that there could never have been any historic Padmini or Padmavati but that the colorful legends of chaste Rajput women preferring `jauhar’ to surrender and the valor of Rajput warriors preferring death to dishonor were pure romantic legends. This film romance was merely rumored and the very few people who have actually seen the film stoutly say that there is not a single frame that shows Padmini and the Sultan in any romantic situation. These facts did not however stop the activists vandalizing the sets of the film. If the film is as beautiful as some believe the controversy will make the film a huge success and greatly embarrass the bigoted critics. 

Several states like Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, UP, Punjab and Gujarat, pandering to the hysteria, have banned the film but the Supreme Court has ordered them to allow the film and ensure that the law is not violated. The leaders of the BJP led states deserve awards for Rajput cowardice and political leaders like Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi have also been conspicuous with their silence. Rahul has actually missed a great opportunity of taking a position on a higher moral plane by proclaiming his party as the champions of the Indian constitution, the Supreme Court and the rule of law.  

Jan 28, 2018


Murad Ali Baig baig.murad@gmail.com

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