The many Padmavatis
As the release of Bollywood film Padmavati draws near, protests against it are reaching a fever pitch. Claiming to speak on behalf of all Rajputs, several political figures have objected to the portrayal of the title character of the film for two reasons — that it is a distortion of history and that it is disrespectful to Queen Padmini (appearing in some texts as Padmavati), who is deeply revered by the Rajput community. Recent scholarly work on the Padmavat, such as that of Thomas de Bruijn, Shantanu Phukan and especially Ramya Sreenivasan, makes possible an informed engagement with these claims.
The earliest tale
The earliest known composition of the Padmini tale is Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s Padmavat, dating to 1540. This tale is part of a new genre, the Sufi premakhyan (‘love story’), that flowered from the 14th to 16th centuries in North India. Most of these tales feature a hero-king’s quest for union with supreme truth and transcendent beauty — embodied in the texts by a woman of unparalleled physical beauty — and the difficulty of navigating the contradictory pulls of the spiritual and worldly domains. The Padmavat is perhaps the only one of these texts to be grafted upon a historical event, Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khilji’s siege of Chittor in 1303. Writing more than 200 years after the event, Jayasi’s tale bears little resemblance to surviving historical accounts of the siege and instead appears to draw in details from contemporaneous events and places.
Some manuscript copies explain the Sufi import of the tale by referring to Chittor as the body, Ratansen the spirit, Padmini the mind, Hiraman the spiritual guide, and Khilji as illusion (‘maya’). Literary representations of Khilji in a polyvalent text such as the Padmavat and in future iterations of the tale then should not be taken as historical. The historical Sultan Alauddin Khilji, as we know him from accounts of his time, was a gifted statesman who strengthened the fisc of the Delhi Sultanate, expanded the frontiers of his kingdom, and capably protected North India from the expanding Mongol domain, a feat that many of his contemporaries could not accomplish.
As for Padmavati, there is no historical evidence that there was such a figure in Chittor when it was besieged, or that desire for a woman played any role in Khilji’s interest in conquering the fortress. Padmavati/Padmini, then, is a literary artefact, as is the entire story of love and sacrifice at whose heart she is placed. Any depiction of Padmavati thus cannot be a distortion of history since, in our current state of knowledge, she never existed. Born as a figment of poetic imagination, she is free to be reshaped in the hands of a different creator.
And indeed, the Padmavat was told and retold over the centuries and across the land. As historian Ramya Sreenivasan has carefully shown in her book, The Many Lives of a Rajput Queen, in each retelling, the contours of the story and the key characters within it, including Padmini, changed. Starting a few decades after the original composition, the Padmavat was adapted into Persian forms in North India and Gujarat, and Jain literati and bardic groups composed versions of it for Rajasthani courtly elites. In the 17th century, professional genealogists wove the Guhila house of Ratansen into the genealogy of their patrons, the Sisodia rulers of Mewar. By the 18th century, after the decline of the Mughal empire but before colonial conquest, the tale of Padmini was refashioned in Mewar to demonise Alauddin Khilji, also emphasising his Muslim identity and presenting the clash between the Rajputs of Chittor and the Sultan of Delhi as the resistance of Hindus against an encroaching, ‘impure’ Islam.
In the 19th century, Colonel James Tod, Political Agent in Rajputana of the English East India Company, was guided in his attempt to write the first authoritative history (by contemporary European standards) of the region by the philological, historiographical, and intellectual frameworks of his age, as well as by the political goal of stabilising the region by strengthening the hands of kings against rebellious chiefs. He selectively chose information from the range of pre-colonial sources at his disposal. He incorporated the courtly Rajasthani Padmini narrative into his early 19th century history of Rajasthan, using it, along with other material, to cast Rajputs as a valiant, pure fighting race of Hindus that resisted Islamic conquest, just as Christians had done in the West. Bengali intellectuals of the nascent bhadralok were deeply impressed with the figure of the Rajput as presented in his account, not just for his selfless bravery but also for his resistance against a Muslim conqueror. As the earliest imaginings of an Indian nation — and a Hindu nation — began to take shape, Padmini became a token of the self-sacrificing, virtuous, and chaste Hindu woman that was to be at its heart. In this idealised form, her decision to annihilate her own body was celebrated for the preservation of her ‘honour’ (read ‘chastity’) through which was indexed the honour of her husband, her family, her community, and now, her nation.
In her journey from the 16th to the 21st century, Padmavati appears to have become increasingly shackled in the confines of patriarchy. In Rajasthani versions, Padmavati lost her autonomous voice, reduced to a prop on the edges of a scene largely occupied by the king and his courtiers. It was this Rajasthani Padmavati who was celebrated in 19th century bhadralok plays beginning to imagine a Hindu nation and who is today deified as the apotheosis of Rajput, and even Hindu, valour, purity, and sovereignty. Padmavati has been recast as adhering strictly to codes of conduct applied to elite Rajput women. Allegations of disrespect and inaccuracy being levelled against the film are thus rooted in the expectation, by those familiar only with the Rajput or early Hindu nationalist adaptations, of a silver-screen Padmavati who observes the purdah and does not display any trace of sexuality. The current row over Padmini’s portrayal only underscores that in the long arc of its history, the imagined Hindu nation holds in its heart the dutiful, chaste Hindu woman, who acquiesces to patriarchal controls and only exercises her agency within their bounds.
No exclusive legacy
It is important to bear in mind, as Ms. Sreenivasan has shown, that at the same time that the Rajputs were articulating a new claim upon the Padmavat in the 17th century, other Padmini tales continued to be composed. A Sufi migrant from Bengal to the Arakan court (in today’s Myanmar) composed his own version of the text in Bengali. In the 19th century, there were multiple Urdu adaptations of the tale printed in North India and an opera performed in 1923 in Paris. There have then been many Padmavats, just as there were many Ramayanas. The tale, and its heroine, are then not the exclusive legacy of any single community. The effort of spokespersons of a single community, one that continues to exercise tremendous sociopolitical power, to freeze the text into a single, authorised version, will rob it of the vitality that has allowed it to thrive over the ages.
(Divya Cherian is an assistant professor at the Department of History, Princeton University, U.S.)