By Nilanjana Goswami
The identities of both myth and history have often been irrevocably bound together, turning out to be two faces of the same coin in various cultures. This is more so in a country like India which, with its immense digestive power, has absorbed wave after wave of marauders throughout its history to give rise to one of the most composite cultures discernible across the world.
Does the legend even exist?
Locating a single figure, a single voice from among the thousands that call out from between the pages of history books, apocryphal texts and famous folk legends is truly a herculean task. Such is the case with the semi-mythical, debatably historical figure of the goddess-queen Padmini or Padmavati.
With the release of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s 2017 production “Padmavati” inching close, the figure of this Rajput queen that history has veiled in a legend becomes more and more compelling.
Revisiting the pages of history
The earliest mention of Padmavati was in Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s epic poem Padmavat, written in 1540. The text details a fictionalized account of Alauddin Khilji’s historic siege of Chittor in 1303 BCE. He crafts the story of the exceptional beauty of princess Padmavati of Singhal (Ceylon, now Sri Lanka).
He wrote that the fame of her beauty and sweet nature spread far and wide across India. After a long arduous quest, Rana Ratan-Sen, the Rajput ruler of Chittor impressed with the talks of her beauty eventually married her and brought her to Chittor.
When stories of her beauty reached Alauddin Khilji in the Delhi Sultanate, he laid siege on Chittor to obtain her. Meanwhile, Rana Ratan Sen had been killed in combat while defending against Devpal, the king of Kumbhalner, who was also entranced by Padmavati’s beauty.
Khilji had won and captured Chittor after a decisive battle. In order to evade capture and the subsequent humiliation at Khilji’s hands, Padmavati and her 16,000 sakhis committed Jauhar (ritual self-immolation) to preserve her honour.
The epitome of Rajput womanhood
This legend told and re-told through various adaptations, semi-religious myths and apocryphal additions endure to this day. Many of its versions characterise Padmavati as an esteemed, greatly honoured Hindu Rajput queen, who defended her honour (and, by extension, that of Chittor) against a Muslim invader. Apart from the steadily built up dichotomies of chastity, purity, lust and destruction as allied with two religious dispensations, the sentiment of honour is clearly emphasised in the Rajput culture.
Her celebrated beauty, her unmoving faith in the marital bond and her strong and silent revulsion towards any show of coercion (both on her and on the body-politic of Chittor) have all conspired to set her figure up as that of a goddess in local folklore. Ritual self-immolation was seen as one of the holiest acts of sacrifice to be performed, and those who upheld it were regarded as divine.
Padmavati’s modern-day audience
Jayasi’s Padmavat has been taken up, adapted and re-adapted in various forms. The most famous ones are those by the British writer James Tod and the Bengali painter and scholar Abanindranath Tagore’s celebrated compilation of stories, Rajkahini.
There have been numerous TV adaptations, though historians in modern times have debunked the idea that the figure of the goddess-queen had any authentic historicity. She is relegated to being a mythical figure, albeit a very strong one. Like some of the greatest voices of Vedic and Mughal India, Rani Padmavati’s is one such extremely alluring and harrowed voice narrating a tale one has to come back to again and again.
Featured Image Source: Visualhunt