There’s been much controversy and debates regarding the film ‘Padmavati’, which is to release nationwide on 1st December, 2017. The hullabaloo has ranged from disgrace to history of Rajput Community to violent threats and even sets of the film being vandalized. While the whole nation has varying opinions on the matter, what we have failed to accommodate is the actual historical facts and the Queen’s power and stature itself.
The greatest question to be considered here, is the very existence of the historical figure called Rani Padmini. The first mention of Padmini or Padmavati as she is better known, took place in medieval Awadhi poet and artist Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s poem ‘Padmavat’ in 1540. Apart from this, there are hardly any textual references that support the existence of Queen Padmini, either in Hinduism or in Rajput tribe.
According to Jayasi’s version, Rani Padmini was born at some point between the 13th and 14th century, in Simhal Dvipa, former Sri-Lanka. As the story goes, Padmini was noted for her unparalleled beauty and had caught the eye of many suitors. She also had a talking parrot by the name, Hira-mani, who spoke of Padmini’s beauty at length to Chittor’s Ratan Singh, who then proceeded to travel to Simhal Dvipa and win her hand in the swayamvar. But this swayamvar was hardly ordinary as there was one condition set out by Princess Padmini, herself; whosoever defeated the designated fighter in the sword battle, could marry her. No one knew the fact that it was Princess Padmini herself in the disguise of the designated fighter and as the tale goes, she fought and lost to King Ratan Singh of Chittor, who she duly married as per her condition.
This demonstrates that the real Padmavati was not just a normal princess awaiting her prince but a strong and independent woman who was actually allowed by her father to fight and also choose her husband herself and on her own terms.
While King Ratan’s gallant and loyalty to his kingdom was undoubted, his love and passion for arts was unmatched and thus, his royal kingdom was employed with talented and skillful people. One of whom was an artist named Raghav Chetan who not painted beautiful images, but also served the King with secrets from within the four walls of the palace. But he had secret of his own which the king was not aware of, he performed black magic and witchcraft for his own selfish purposes. He hid this cagey practice well by killing many who tried to hinder it until he was caught red-handed by the king himself.
The king subsequently banished Raghav Chetan from his kingdom after blackening his face with face and making him ride a donkey. This harsh Punishment earned the king an uncompromising enemy. Sulking after his humiliation, Raghav Chetan made his way towards Delhi with -the aim of trying to incite the Sultan of Delhi Ala-ud-din Khilji to attack Chittor. He settled down in the forests which were frequented by the Sultan during his hunting expeditions. One day, on hearing the Sultan’s hunt party entering the forest, Raghav Chetan started playing a melodious tone on his flute. When these comforting notes of the flute were heard by the Sultan’s party, they were surprised, and were curious to know as to who could be playing a flute in a forest and to find out the source of this tune, the Sultan dispatched soldiers. Raghav Chetan was found and was invited to the Sultan’s Court. The cunning Raghav Chetan accompanied the king and tried to trigger him into attacking the Chittor kingdom but none of the attempts were successful until he told the Sultan about the extraordinary beauty possessed by the kingdom. Upon being told of Rani Padmini’s beauty, Ala-ud-din’s lust was aroused and immediately on returning to his capital he gave orders to his army to march on Chittor.
Khilji wanted to see this beauty in person but unfortunately, found the fort to be heavily defended. Desperate to have a look at the legendary beauty of Padmini, he sent word to King Ratan Singh that he wished to see the Queen and looked upon her as his sister. Sensing no danger, King Ratan Singh agreed and requested his wife Padmavati to come and meet the ‘brother’ but under the disguise of this meeting, Khilji brought his best army men, who took notes of Chittorgarh fort’s defense loopholes. Queen Padmini aware of the brutalities caused by the foreign invaders was wary of meeting Khilji in person but after being persuaded by the king, she agreed to let him see her reflection only and there were arrangements made and mirrors were set in such a way that Khilji could only see her reflection. However, on seeing Padmini, the lustful ‘brother’, Allah-ud-din Khilji decided that he should secure Padmini for himself and while returning to his camp, Allah-ud-din invited King Ratansen to his royal camp outside the kingdom. The wily Sultan deceitfully kidnapped Ratansen and took him as a prisoner into his camp and demanded that Padmini come and surrender herself before the Sultan, if she wanted her husband, King Ratansen alive.
The very fact that the Queen sensed the danger well before the king was a depiction of her strong senses and the interest of her kingdom at heart. She was not an ordinary or passive Queen but one who believed in using her strengths and actively participating in ruling the kingdom. The mere mention of her in poetry and legends indicates her strong presence as at that period in time the chastity of the queens was protected and even their names were not to be mentioned. This has been clarified by historian Harbans Mukhia.
Further, the folklore suggests that on hearing the news of this kidnap, Rawal Ratan Singh’s nephew devised a plan to save his uncle, on the other side, the women of the royal palace were preparing for Jauhar (self-immolation). The nephew and the generals decided to dupe the Sultan and sent one hundred and fifty palanquins towards Ala-ud-din’s camps and the palanquins stopped before the tent where king Ratansen was being held prisoner. Seeing that the palanquins had come from Chittor and thinking that they had brought along with them his queen, king Ratansen was mortified. But to his relief, fully armed soldiers poured out and quickly freed Ratansen and galloped away towards Chittor on horses grabbed from Ala-ud-din’s stables.
This news enraged Khilji further, who gathered more army men and ordered a siege on the fort walls, from all sides. Ratan Singh’s army fought bravely, but as they had already lost hundreds of warriors, their defeat was inevitable. Ratan Singh too died fighting along his men. Hearing this news, there were only two choices for the women- either to commit suicide in a practice of jauhar or face dishonor at the hands of the enemy. The choice was in favor of suicide through Jauhar. A huge pyre was lit and followed by their queen, all the women of Chittor jumped into the flames and thus, even after this clear victory the Sultan’s troops entered the fort only to be confronted with eerie screams, ashes and burnt bones of the kingdom’s women. The heat and sounds, coming out from the Jauhar Kund were so fierce that Khilji ordered to permanently close the tunnel passage. Some hundred years ago, the passage was reopened by the then King of Chittor who honored these brave women and this sacrifice is still very valued in the region of Chittor.
The act of self-immolation instead of submitting to foreign kings shows the strength in the character of the Queen, and for the same reason she is revered and protected by the Rajput Community. The story of the brave queen is important to the Rajputs as while many Rajputs, later entered into matrimonial alliances with the Mughals, Padmini chose to commit jauhar rather than fall into the enemy’s hands. But whereas the Rajputs have accepted and celebrated Jayasi’s depiction of Padmini and her fight for her honor, the part about her reflection being shown to Khilji doesn’t sit well with them. “Even today if someone tells a man to show him his wife’s face because she is very pretty, no man will accept. It is against Rajput tradition. And a queen who can burn herself rather than fall into the enemy’s hands, would never have accepted it either,” says Narpat Singh Bhati, treasurer of the Jauhar Smriti Sansthan, which honors the memory of the three queens of Chittorgarh, who had at different times committed Jauhar.
There have been many versions of this folktale which have come up over a period of time, but some historians like Irfan Habib, even reject the entire fiasco as a mere figment of fiction. Per their knowledge, it was merely a story woven to praise and sing songs about the bravery of the Rajputana clan. However, the truth of the incident has been debated over the years. While some call it a fable, Khilji’s subjugation of Chittor is indeed a part of history. Many historians also believe that Khilji’s invasion of Chittor was an attempt to expand his kingdom rather than a quest for Padmavati. There are also a few who look at ‘Padmavat’ as a historical fiction that was corrupted over the generations. On the other hand, there are a few Rajput groups who look at the jauhar as a significant moment in their history. It is in-fact often seen as an epitome of bravery of Rajput women.
Meanwhile, the confusion has led to the infamous controversy going on, regarding Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s adaptation of this folklore due to various scenes in the film which show the Queen dancing and even romancing with Khilji. Amid this row, members of Rajput community have decided to stage real-story of legendary queen of Chittor on Saturday.
A team of theater artiste Sandip Dubey will perform a two-hour long drama based on the real life story of Rani Padmavati at Anand Mohan Mathur auditorium and an invitation of the same has been sent to the film director Sanjay Leela Bhansali on his email and at the registered post. “The drama is an attempt to show authentic facts related to Rani Padmavati and her committing self-immolation (Jauhar),” said a member of Rajput community Mohan Sengar.
Sengar also claimed that “As seen in the film’s trailer, director has tampered with the facts and tried to glorify Alauddin Khilji, who had intruded Chittor and other states of the country only with an intension of loot”.
This report came only a day after the Supreme Court voiced its support for the freedom of speech and expression for filmmakers in the plea for the Stay of “Insignificant Man”.
A plea was filed before the highest court of appeal in India, seeking removal of the alleged objectionable scenes from Padmavati and registration of an FIR against the makers of the film. A Bench of Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra and Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud agreed to hear the plea, but declined the request for an urgent hearing. The petitioner, advocate M L Sharma, also sought a direction for removal of all scenes of alleged “character assassination” of Queen Padmavati from the movie before its release, which is slated for December 1.
While this petition awaits a result, the decision of the Supreme Court earlier, hints towards its support of artistic license and creativity. Thereby, there is a strong chance that the Supreme Court may allow the release of the film in favor of the exercise of Freedom of Speech and Expression.
But, another major area of concern for the nation is where the status of women is deteriorated in such a controversy. The Rajput Community wants the Queen to be portrayed in a manner where she is only glorified for the act of saving the kingdom by her act of jumping in fire for her king but nowhere do they recognize the robust personality of Queen Padmavati, as an individual who was famous for her beauty and her cleverness. A wholesome character, the Queen encompassed not only sacrifice and dutifulness but also courage and power.
In this day and age where women have travelled through decades fighting inequality, sexism, abuse and rape, to view Jauhar and/or Sati, where women are forced in the name of culture and tradition to commit suicide and jump into fire for the honor of their husbands and the kingdom, is alarming. It is shameful to say the least and undermines the hardships and work done by feminists and women’s rights’ activists, especially when it is revered and termed as ‘bravery’ and ‘honor’. Centuries of turbulent, brave fights against prejudice and abuse is being brought to waste by terming this exploitation as ‘honor’, and to fight to depict this in artistic outputs as well, brings the success of feminists down by years. This violent practice sets in the character of women to be ‘pure and pious property’ yet again, and once more the women are deemed to be blamed when they are victims of horrific sexual violence, if we admire and revere such a ritual in our culture, all over again.
Harshita is a law student at Symbiosis Law School, Pune. She’s a writer, a dancer, a poetess, a traveler, but more importantly, a feminist.