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In Search Of Identity: The Padmaavat Story!

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The (Muslim) army left Delhi in November 1310. After crossing rivers, hills and many depths, the elephants were sent, in order that the inhabitants of Ma’bar might be made aware of the day of resurrection had arrived amongst them; and that all the burnt Hindus would be dispatched by the sword to their brothers in hell, so that fire, the improper object of their worship, might mete out proper punishment to them.

– Amir Khusrow (Alauddin Khilji – Court historian Delhi Sultanate), Táríkh-i ‘Aláí

Padmavati to Padmaavat: The Remnants Of An Age

The ruckus over Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bollywood blockbuster – Padmavaati, since rechristened as “Padmaavat” is not only interesting but has distant echoes, which is clearly missed by some.

What are the facts of the case? Rani Padmavati or Padmini (Incidentally the Hindu Shastras call a woman with a beautiful figure as Padmini) the beautiful Rajput queen of Rawal Rattan Singh of Mewar, catches the fancy of the Sultan of Delhi, Alauddin Khilji, and he is prepared to go to war for her. Khilji was an Afghan of Turkic descent from Central Asia and had come to the throne of Delhi by murdering his old uncle, the incumbent Sultan.

In the ensuing battle ( 1303 CE ) Rawal Rattan Singh, the king and husband of Padmavati is killed along with his loyal troops. Innumerable Rajput women at the fort of Chittorgarh, immolate themselves in ritual suicide (Jauhar) rather than be taken captive by the Sultan of Delhi and placed in his already large harem. Alauddin Khilji is horrified to see the ashes of burnt women even as he enters Chittorgarh.

The term Jauhar sometimes connotes to both Jauhar-immolation and saka ritual. During the Jauhar, Rajput women committed suicide with their children and valuables in a massive fire, to avoid capture and abuse in the face of inescapable military defeat. The abuse included rape, death and being sold into slavery. Simultaneously or thereafter, the men would ritually march to the battlefield expecting certain death, which in the regional tradition is called saka. The Delhi Sultanate, indeed had a pretty business in slaves generally from captured territories. Malik Kafur, Alauddin Khilji’s, trusted slave, friend and general was supposedly picked up from Gujarat as a young eunuch.

This story has remained in the collective conscience of the people of Rajasthan and all Rajputs. Indeed it is part of their culture and identifies them as a people who place their honour before death. Padmavati is eulogized as a ‘Sati’ or pure woman. Unfortunately, the only written record related to Padmavati is delivered by Padmawat (or Padmawat) a poem written in 1540 by Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi in the Awadhi language. A famous piece of Sufi literature from the period, it relates a heart wrenching story of passion, lust, war and of course violent death, which is in variance to the story narrated by Bhansali.

The Heady Cocktail: Religion and Politics

Bhansali has been courting trouble for a while, under his fundamental right of freedom of expression. His “Bajirao Mastani” on the romance between the great Maratha warrior Peshwa Baji Rao and his romance and subsequent marriage to the mixed blood Hindu – Muslim princess Mastani, drew muted murmurs in many parts of Maharashtra. Bhansali, probably waded through that issue simply because the Brahmin community chose to ignore his historical excesses. In the case of Padmavati, he was dealing with the more powerful Rajput – Kshatriya community that has more than 10% of the vote share in North Indian states like including Rajasthan and Gujarat. The crux of the issue apparently involved a dream sequence involving Padmavati and Khilji. While this has raised hackles, across North India, Bhansali has taken refuge in the fact that Jayasis’s Padmawat is a piece of fiction and he is free to take ‘artistic’ liberties, after initially trying to spin it as a historical magnum opus.

This, unfortunately, is rather convenient. Many Indians, of my generation, had their first brush with Indian history, through Shyam Benegal’s – “Bharat Ek Khoj”, produced for Doordarshan (Indian National TV Broadcaster) in the 1980’s. The series was based on Jawaharlal Nehru’s book “A Discovery of India”, a tome which he wrote while in prison in Ahmednagar, Maharashtra in 1945. Bharat Ek Khoj has an entire episode on Padmavati, and Nehru’s book is considered a piece of well-researched historical literature based on evidence. In the episode, Alauddin Khilji is seen to be a milder, more reluctant suitor, who is instigated into going to war over Padmavati. Whenever he is seen to do something unethical, he is goaded on by a companion. In reality, he was a war monger and a fairly bloodthirsty one at that.

In 1301, Alauddin Khilji besieged and conquered the Ranthambore Fort. When faced with a certain defeat, the defending ruler Raja Hammiradeva decided to fight to his death with his soldiers, and his minister Jaja supervised the organisation of a Jauhar. The queens, daughters and other female relatives of Hammiradeva committed suicide in a fiery Jauhar. The Jauhar at Ranthambore has been described by Alauddin’s courtier Amir Khusrau in fairly vivid detail, which makes it the first Jauhar to be described in a Persian language text. So there are close and inescapable parallels between Chittorgarh and Ranthambore.

Is It Hypocrisy Or A Point Of View?

The hypocrisy is unfortunately too obvious to be missed. History books across the nation, carry the story of Rani Padmavati and has it etched on the minds of young school going children only to have them told later that it is a piece of creative fiction, by a fourteenth century bard expressing his thoughts in a burst of creative outpouring. Jawaharlal Nehru too seems to have acknowledged that this was a story that was not entirely true, but still chose to include it in his book.

Even as many historians of the day claim that “Padmaavat” has no historical credibility it is evident, that Bhansali has literally played with fire. The Rajput community is up in arms and with elections around the corner in Gujarat, no politician would want to commit political harakiri or saka over artistic freedom. Indian history is, unfortunately, a mish-mash of conveniences and has been interpreted keeping political necessities in mind right from the advent of the British Raj to the present. Even greater a tragedy is the fact that the unspeakable horrors that followed invasions by people of alien cultures and religions have never been acknowledged and have been papered over, over the last several years. It is not polite to talk about atrocities, including genocide perpetrated against a considerable population in India.

Will Durant calls the Muslim conquest of India “probably the bloodiest story in history?”  The destruction of temples and educational institutions, the killings of learned monks, widespread slavery and the scattering of students, led to a steep decline in Hindu education and culture. Durant goes on to say, that civilisation is a precious commodity in a world of barbaric savagery and needs to be cherished. However, the Hindu civilization, battered and deeply wounded, a pale shadow of the past is seeking an identity through a cultural ethos. It seems Bhansali has stepped on that ethos by questioning an identity, even at a time when India faces genocide in the state of Jammu & Kashmir?

Us And Them?

Interestingly imperialistic surges have increasingly taken on a religious colour. Loot, murder and rape were justified in the name of religion and this is a fact. Unfortunately invaders were not only seen as expansionists for territory but as a religious evangelist. Historians in Pakistan have often distorted history by painting invaders as religious heroes, while those in India have attempted to downplay the excesses of the very same invaders, while sweeping many religious excesses under the carpet. This intellectual dishonesty has created serious fissures in how history is viewed and the more we discuss it, it turns into an emotional issue rather than an academic pursuit.

The year 712 AD is critical to the history and cultural ethos of the Indian subcontinent. It was the year in which the Arab general Mohammed Bin Qasim, made a second and successful attack on the kingdom of Sindh (Pakistan). After the conquest of Sindh, Qasim adopted the Hanafi school of Sharia law which regarded polytheists such as Hindus, Buddhists and Jains as “dhimmis” and “People of the Book” (Initially attributed to Christians and Jews), allowing them some religious freedom as long as they continued to pay the tax known as “jizya”. This approach would prove critical to the way Muslim rulers ruled in India over the next centuries and treated people of different faiths, predominant among them being the Hindu. Muhammad bin Qasim, the invading general, is often referred to as the first Pakistani according to Pakistan Studies curriculum, ignoring the fact that the people of present day Pakistan shared a Hindu ancestry.

The irony is that Pakistan was established in 1947, a good one thousand two hundred years later. Muhammad Ali Jinnah also toasted Muhammad Bin Qasim and claimed that the Pakistan movement started when the first Muslim (Qasim) put his foot on the soil of Sindh, which he labelled as the Gateway of Islam in India. While this might have been political rhetoric, in his quest for a political settlement, the significance is not lost on latter administrators in Pakistan, giving rise to an ‘us versus them’ narrative with regard to people of different faiths, who continue to face discrimination in Pakistan.

It is also conveniently forgotten that Sindh had a rich and thriving pluralistic culture with Hindus, Buddhists and Jains rubbing shoulders with each other. The abrupt imposition of an alien culture, has repercussions to this day with Sindhi nationalism raising its head on various platforms, even as the Pakistani Punjabi backed by a mullah military nexus gains ascendancy. The plain fact is that the status of dhimmi reduced the Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and the agnostic to the status of a second class citizen in a land that they had lived in for centuries. Muhammad Bin Qasim, thrills the imagination of the lay Pakistani and more importantly the historian like no other Muslim warrior. He is represented as the man who brought civilisation to a dark, anarchic land dominated by Hindu monarchs. Other heroes of Pakistan history are also those who left deep wounds on the subcontinent and funnily enough more so in Pakistan: Muhammad Ghaznvi, Muhammad Ghori, Babur, Aurangzeb and Ahmad Shah Abdali. They are referred to as Ghazi’s or a warrior of Islam. In India, too there seems to be a singular pride, in the achievements of some of these invaders. The BJP governments move to rename Aurangzeb Road met with some amount of rancour from the Muslim community, without considering the sensitivities of the Hindus who suffered immense pain and trauma under the rule of Aurangzeb.

Empire Of Fear

The aftermath of the death of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and the American invasion of Iraq, unleashed a terror that sought to take the region back to the days of the caliphate and rampaging Arab armies. The ISIS created an Empire of Fear!

The directive from ISIS, to a tiny Christian population in the city of Raqqa, Syria citing “dhimma”, required Christians in the city to pay tax of around half an ounce (14g) of pure gold in exchange for their safety.

It said that Christians must not make renovations to churches, display crosses or other religious symbols outside churches, ring church bells or pray in public. Christians must not carry arms, and must follow other rules imposed by ISIS.

The ISIS leadership had met Christian representatives and offered them three choices – they could convert to Islam, accept ISIS’ conditions, or reject their control and risk being killed. A group of Christian leaders chose to surrender and accept the new set of rules rather than risk the sword of these barbarians. Sounds familiar indeed, to the lay Indian who probably suffered this indignity, till the time of Aurangzeb and in some cases into the nineteenth century.

As in every other aspect of life, ISIS unabashedly and brutally applied pre-modern Islamic law, making no concessions whatsoever to modern thought, morality or international law. Beheadings, flogging, torture and enslavement being among the most shocking injunctions that the ISIS practiced, taking the region back in time by about fifteen hundred years. The Yazidis, a people who practice, a non- Islamic pre-Islamic religion were at the receiving end of the ISIS, with their women and children, not even receiving the sad privilege of Dhimmi but being sold into slavery and sexually exploited.

Echoes Of History

As the echoes of history reach a crescendo in twenty-first century India, it has little to do with freedom of expression, thought and ideas, ideals in our constitution but with a search for identity. As the French general and later emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, said: “History is a set of lies agreed upon.” Unfortunately, when lies are agreed upon, one is going to have dissenters. Rajput angst in attempting to derail a movie might seem funny, but then the legend is probably an important cultural artefact of the people of Rajasthan.

Kroeber, A.L., & Kluckhohn, C. define culture consisting of “Patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiment in artefacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e. historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, and on the other as conditioning elements of further action.”

A culture is eventually defined by its stories and it is the Rajput story of Rani Padmavati, which we are dealing with. It is an important story for Rajputs. It is a legend that they hold dear and it defines their existence.


  1. Catherine Weinberger-Thomas (1999). Ashes of Immortality: Widow-Burning in India. University of Chicago Press. p. 122. ISBN 978-0-226-88568-1
  2. Will Durant (1976), The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 978-0671548001, page 458-472
  3. Elliot and Dowson, The History of India, as Told by Its Own Historians – The Muhammadan Period, p. 86, at Google Books, Vol. 3, Trubner & Co., London, pages 86-89
  4. Satish Chandra (2007). History of Medieval India: 800-1700. Orient Longman. ISBN 978-81-250-3226-7.
  5. Banarsi Prasad Saksena (1992) [1970]. “The Khaljis: Alauddin Khalji”. In Mohammad Habib and Khaliq Ahmad Nizami. A Comprehensive History of India: The Delhi Sultanat (A.D. 1206-1526). 5(Second ed.). The Indian History Congress / People’s Publishing House. OCLC 31870180.
  6. The Discovery of Indiaby Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, ISBN 0-670-05801-7
  9. Kishori Saran Lal (1950). History of the Khaljis (1290-1320). Allahabad: The Indian Press. OCLC 685167335.
  12. Nicholas F. Gier, FROM MONGOLS TO MUGHALS: RELIGIOUS VIOLENCE IN INDIA 9TH-18TH CENTURIES, Presented at the Pacific Northwest Regional Meeting American Academy of Religion, Gonzaga University, May, 2006
  13. “History books contain major distortions”. Daily Times.
  14. “Pakistan Movement”.
  15. Khadduri, Majid (2010). War and Peace in the Law of Islam. pp. 196–198. ISBN 9781616190484.
  20. Kroeber, A.L., & Kluckhohn, C. (1952). Culture: A critical review of concepts and definitions.Harvard University Peabody Museum of American Archeology and Ethnology Papers 47.
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