Did Padmaavat’s content even matter in the end?

Published: January 27, 2018

The strength of Rani Padmini's myth in India lies in the fact that Rajputs are among the most patriarchal groups in an already patriarchal Indian social milieu.

The year is 1303 AD. We are in the lush scrub jungle of Mewar, which surrounds the Chittorgarh Fort watered by the rains from previous months, and are witnessing Sultan Alauddin Khilji lay siege. Much that exists here in 1303 will cease to exist in the year 2018. A pride of Asiatic Lions are witnessed moving further away from the rough and tumble of the scene of battle, disappearing from our view. By 2018, they would have disappeared from Mewar entirely. The mind’s eye, however, looks for someone who is conspicuous despite her absence.

And yet, by 2018, the Mewar of 1303 would have gained something it did not have back then; a celebrated queen by the name of Padmini, who committed jauhar (a Hindu custom of mass self-immolation by women in parts of the Indian subcontinent, to avoid capture, enslavement and rape by any foreign invaders) over the possibility of Khilji laying a finger on her. Consequently, in her name, violence would erupt in parts of North India in 2018 over the release of a Bollywood film.

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari conjectures that it was the ability of Homo Sapiens to imagine myths following the “cognitive revolution” that enabled the species to outcompete other hominids like the Neanderthals. According to him, those myths and totems enabled unknown sapiens to cooperate with one another at a level and in numbers not possible for other hominids. While that may be true, one wonders what he would have to say if he looked at India today. Whether he would be of the opinion that, while imagination continues to be used to create bonds and cement identities, this ability may be more of a hindrance today as opposed to the boon that it was then.

For Rani Padmini was brought to life in a work of fiction by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, an Indian poet who wrote his epic poem, Padmavatin the 16th century, more than two centuries after the siege of Chittor. On the contrary, no contemporary Rajput literature mentioned her. And while Khilji’s chroniclers, Ziauddin Barani and Amir Khusro, wrote about the siege of Chittor, they did not mention Rani Padmini either. In time, this work of fiction embedded itself in the historiography of the Rajputs, and she became a totem of Rajput pride and the maintenance of honour, which is often the most important duty of any woman in an inherently patriarchal community. The strength of her myth in India lies in the fact that Rajputs are among the most patriarchal groups in an already patriarchal Indian social milieu.

However, the strength of her myth alone does not explain why a Rajput group known as the Karni Sena has gone to the extent of attacking a school bus, and terrorising little children, in their quest to assert themselves. It doesn’t explain why their women threatened to commit jauhar, and why bounties have been announced by various groups and politicians threatening the lives of the people involved in the film. To better understand this, perhaps we need to look at several factors.

The first is the growing strength of the caste system in Indian politics. Perhaps India’s foremost sociologist, MN Srinivas, had aptly warned  in the early years of India’s independence that caste in Indian politics would strengthen over time. He was criticised for this view back then, but today he has become prophetic, as this has led to the proliferation of caste-based political pressure groups in India today. The Karni Sena is just one amongst many.

The second point to keep in mind is that most Indians are not liberal. Political scientist, James Manor, in his book Politics and State-Society Relations in India, asserts that for a liberal Indian political system to work, liberal Indians are not needed. He suggests that liberal politics in India is anchored and rooted in the proclivity of most Indians to forge and maintain accommodations. In short, despite India’s thriving liberal democratic tradition, one would be hard pressed to find individuals who profess faith in the maxim,

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Manor warns us that the tendency of Indians to forge accommodations must not paint a rosy picture. In a broadly hierarchical society like India’s, accommodation generally entails that the dominant caste groups have their way. The Karni Sena’s hooliganism is a manifestation of this attempt.

The third point to keep in mind is that the dominant upper castes are often an important vote bank for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which happens to be in power at the centre and in 19 states across India. Therefore, the Karni Sena has felt emboldened to indulge in violence in some BJP-ruled states, under the impression that the BJP dispensations will treat them with kid gloves. There is evidence to bear this impression out, since there is a perfect correlation between the states where Karni Sena indulged in violence and the presence of a BJP govenment.

Several BJP leaders have made it quite clear that they stand with Rajput sensibilities. Some BJP Chief Ministers proclaimed that they would ban the film even before the Central Board for Film Certification (CBFC) had viewed the film and certified it. The CBFC even had the name of the film changed from Padmavati to Padmaavat, almost as though it was trying to drive home the point that this was a fictional story. It was left to the Supreme Court of India to remind the chief ministers of their responsibility to uphold the rule of law and ensure that the film runs in their states. Even so, under the fear of the muscle of the Karni Sena, the Multiplex Associations of some BJP-ruled states decided not to screen the film.

It goes without saying that this violence is completely unjustifiable. Nonetheless, the power of myths in reinforcing identities, the strength of caste in Indian politics, the illiberal outlook of most Indians, rising unemployment and BJP’s electoral expediencies are all factors that can explain why the violence is taking place to begin with. They also explain why, even though the film is essentially an ode to regressive Rajput values and portrays Muslims in hackneyed stereotypes, it still continues to lead to violence and angry mobs. Almost as if the content of the film was irrelevant all along.

Ayush Khanna

Ayush Khanna

The author is an Environmental Engineer from Bengaluru, India. He writes on history, economics and socio-political issues. He tweets @AyushyaKhanna (twitter.com/AyushyaKhanna)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Patwari

    An article par excellence. Clear cut, concise and hard hitting.

  • wb

    This whole thing is silly. Sanjay Leela Bansali is a horrible filmmaker. His films are maudlin nonsense set in beautiful sets, costumes worn by good looking hideous actors.
    But the sad news is, this whole bunch of cartoons called Karni Sena turned this stupid film into some kind of a God.
    The film is full of cringe-worthy one-liners praising Rajputs and demonizing Muslims.

    Another thing that this episode proved is that North Indians are really regressive people vastly inferior to South Indians in terms of intellect and education.Recommend

  • RHR

    Great articleRecommend

  • Ayush

    Thank youRecommend

  • Ayush

    Thanks RazaRecommend

  • mahak

    You said that Rani Padmavati isn’t mentioned in any literature other than malik mohammed jayasi’s padmavat…….this is false because so many decades before, rani padmavati was mentioned in a book call ” chinaayi charit ” written in 14th centuryRecommend

  • Ayush

    I’m afraid there is no such historical text


  • Anuruddha Kshatriya

    The author makes many incorrect claims, Rani Padmavati is mentioned in the local records of Mewar as well as the bardic traditions of the region. Col. Todd has done great research on the same and one can refer to his works Annals and Antiquities Of Rajputana. In reading and understanding history oral traditions are equally important as the authors may not record all the facts.In fact many of the written records are filled with inconsistencies and contradictions. Writers like Khusro being attached to the Delhi court were restrained from stating things that may have incurred the sovereigns wrath. If The author believes that mention in persian chornicles is a vindication of truth,he will be surprised to medieval Sultanate/Mughal are records are filled with superfluous language and inconsistent claims.
    Ziadduin Barani was not a contemporary of Khilji and wrote much after his death during the time of Firoz Shah. The Author fails to mention the Barani himself presents a very cruel and bigoted picture of Khilji.
    The caste issue in India is an entirely different subject and needs to be addressed separately,
    Johar has happened on multiple occasions including the sack of Chittor by Akbar where it was witnessed and mentioned by Abul Fazal in he Akbarnamah. Interestingly Abul Fazl records that the wives of the Muslim commanders fighting on the side of the Rajputs also commited Jauhar.
    Lack of facts cannot be made up by generic statements like “Rajputs are one of most patriarchal community in India” . Rajput rulers were one of the first to set up girls schools in India which is know as the Maharani Gayatri Devi School amongst others.
    If by regressive values the author implies chivalry and self sacrifice, then he needs to reevaluate things.Recommend

  • Zafar Iqbal

    I can’t imagine people burning n plundering over a story that never took place. And if anything portraying the Rajput Queen in good stead. THank you for clearing the smokescreen. I was fairly confused about what was behind all the shor sharaba.Recommend

  • Patwari

    In your nationalistic zeal, which is currently overpowering
    and infecting Hindustan in a way never seen before, you
    have mixed facts with fiction.
    Wives of the Muslim commanders did not commit Jauhar.
    [Voluntarily. Sword wielding eunuchs of the Zanaan-khana
    threw them on a pyre, is a different story]
    They could not have. Because in Islam, if you commit suicide,
    your soul is immediately, perpetually, consigned to everlasting
    Hades. No amount of prayers, zakaat, alms, majlises, feeding
    widows and orphans on your behalf, post suicide, will make
    a dent. You have a one way passage to 9th level of Dante’s Inferno.Recommend

  • Anuruddha Kshatriya

    Dear Friend , Please read the Akbarnamah of Abul Fazal, and read the verses relating to siege of Chittor. Don’t make up false stories about eunuchs etc. I invite everyone to read the Akbarnamah which is available online and correct me if I’m wrong. Please remember in the poem Padmaavat The poet says the sacrifice of Chittor symbolises Islam and not the behaviour of Khilji . All readers should read the accounts of Khusro , Barani etc and they will know the truth of the matter as these accounts are bigoted . Even then Khusro in his poem Nuh E siphr salutes the heroines who sacrifice their lives instead of facing dishour. Please don’t hide behind rhetoric.Recommend

  • Ayush

    I’m afraid this is incorrect. Col Todd is not a contemporary of Allaudin Khilji. And no “contemporary” Rajput literature mentions her. Subsequent Rasput poetry does but that is after Jayasi’s story and after his story had embedded itself into Rajput historiography.
    Ziauddin Barani was a contemporary of Allaudin. He was an 18 year old adult when the siege of Chittor took place.
    No reason for Khusro not to mention Padmini if she eixisted and was the reason for Allaudin’s attack.
    Jayasi himself says at in his work that his poem is made up.

    There are real Jauhar incidents. An unfortunately large number of them. Rani Karnavati, Queen of Rana Sanga for example.
    Rani Padmini was not one of them because historical consensus says she never existed in the first place. Nor did her magical parrot ‘Hiraman’.

    Indians generally do history badly and this is no exception. We, more than most, have a difficulty in separating fact from fiction. Oral traditions are only acceptable in so far as they complement other forms of evidence. The nature of the oral evidence is also very important. None of that adds up for Padmavati.Recommend

  • Anuruddha Kshatriya

    Factually incorrect and stated without reading the relevant sources.
    In the Annals, Col. Tod has compiled written records and oral/bardic traditions which span several centuries. The legend of Padmavati is mentioned here and the songs celebrating here were sung for ages , when they were picked up by Jayasi as a premise for his story. There is no evidence to support the claim that the story entered history later.
    Amir Khusro in his work Khazain E Futuh has omitted / hidden anything which might offend the Sultan. He himself states this in the work. Eminent historians like Prof Mohamed Habib of Aligarh Muslim University , have commented on the distortions , unreliability, bias, bigotry and falseness of his accounts. As well as how he has hidden facts.
    Ziauddin Barani being “an 18 year old adult “ at the time of the siege of Chittor is of no consequence. Barani was not present at the siege neither was he in the army of Khilji, nor did he occupy any important position under Khilji’s Rule so as to give him access to the happenings. his account was written more than forty years after the sign of Chittor and the death of Khilji. Barani was then In his seventies. His account cannot be considered a “contemproray account”. He refers to no “contemporary source”instead relying on hearsay.
    The unreliabity , bigotry and falseness of Barani is attested to by Sir HM Elliot one of the worlds most eminent historians.
    Jayasi never says his work is a myth. Khusro works such as Khazain and Nuh E Siphr have even more magical ,and fantastical elements. Such as Hindustanis can bring dead men back to life , can suck blood of humans and circulate it back and turn into wild animals at will. Are Khusro ‘s work fact or fiction ?
    Bulk of Persian chronicles and what is passed as medieval history including Khusro and Barani are based on oral tradition , hearsay , being replete with statements such as “so and so told me “, “I heard from reliable sources “ With absolutey no “ other evidence “ to support them .
    There is no cogent argument to refute one set of sources on the basis of others which are shown to be inconsistent and having no ground in logic.
    There is no consensus on Padamavati , but there is certainly consensus that the Khusro and Barani are unreliable and inaccurate sources.Recommend

  • Ayush

    That is what I am saying. Col Tod was not a contemporary and therefore has no way of accurately dating these songs to the 13th century. Also please share a screenshot of col Tod’s work which mentions songs going back so far.
    Like i said, there is a historical consensus on this issue and historians are certain no such character existed. This was a creation of Jayasi.

    There is no premise to say that Khusro omitted Padmavati because the episode offended the Sultan. That he did not get something he wanted is not equivalent to offense. It may be from your point of view. Does not make that a general truth.

    Barani being 18 year old at the time of the siege is of consequence. It means he was a contemporary ( please see what that means) and that he had access to the not just the records of Allaudin’s chroniclers but also had access to any and every oral tradition pertaining to the siege. That Barani also did not know that the siege took place because of Padmavati is nonsense. Read Barani. He does refer to contemporary sources. He refers to Khusro too. Who he knew personally.

    The thing is, there may be inconsistencies in the written records of these historians. However, owing to the fact that they are written contemporary records, they will always be treated a lot more seriously than ‘oral traditions’ that have no basis.

    Jayasi does not say his work is a ‘myth’. He says he made it up. Which would also explain why historians do not take the magical parrot ‘Hiraman’ seriously.

    Like I said, In India we don’t do history well. We find it difficult to separate fictional stories from history owing to our own poor record for writing. And there is a consensus on Padmavati. Whether that is acceptable or expedient or not is another thing altogether.


  • Ayush

    No. When the word contemporary is used, it means alive during the same period. Period. Nothing more, nothing less. If I wanted to say contemporary court chronicler, I would have said so. He was alive during the same period as Khilji and that is all the word means. We cannot sacrifice all rationality for the sake of an argument. It makes the argument pointless. We cannot also add interpretations to a word that has a clear meaning. Queen elizabeth and Akbar were contemporaries. Because they are alive during the same period. They need not have died together, hand in hand to be referred to as “contemporaries”.

    Please understand the basic difference between “contemporary” and “court chronicler”.

    Barani was a chronicler in the court of the Tughlaq dynasty which means that he had access to all court documents at that point in time. This includes the period of Khilji rule. That is a critical source of information. As someone who was alive then, he also knew what was being said about the siege both from official documents and from word of mouth in popular opinion. To therefore think that he would not be aware of the Queen’s act that was being celebrated throughout Rajasthan, can only be the views of a partisan interpreter of history. That is why one places importance on Barani being a “contemporary”.

    And yes, the chrincles of contemporary historians will always be more important. We can then chose to infer biases into their accounts. However if something is not mentioned at all in their accounts, no historian will attribute that to bias. The fact that she is not mentioned in their accounts does go against validating the myth.

    Like I said, oral histories are given importance in certain cases and only when they complement other sources of information. There is a method that is employed in interpreting them. They are NEVER accepted at face value precisely because nothing would then separate fact from myth. Countless stories abound in India and “historical fiction” is not a new genre. Something not being written down does make its historical validation very difficult. In the case of Padmavati, of course, she is a myth simply because the entire story, right from the magical parrot named ‘Hiraman’ to the kingdom Padmavati comes from is fictional.

    I am aware Col Todd’s work and read the relevant passages to in his work pertaining to Mewar. He is a romantic with much sympathy for the Rajputs. He writes with style. He does not quote any poetry “contemporary” to the siege or immediately after that validates the Queen’s historicity.

    Like I said, there is historical consensus on her fictional status. One can choose not to see it.

    As for being taught history in a certain way. if people think accepting every fable of India as ‘history’, then for India’s sake, India needs to be spared of such nonsense.
    The burden of proof must be high and robust for good history to take place. Not lowered for political or ideological expediency. That is exactly what poor history is all about. But someone unacquainted with the rigorous methods that go into historical authenticity would find it difficult to appreciate this. If you were aware of any contemporary Rajput literature validating her existence, you would have quoted it by now. Good interacting with you.