"Ala-ud-Din Khilji, the ruler of Delhi, along with his mighty army, had reached Chittor. A grim sense of foreboding spread all around like a pall of smoke. An imminent sense of danger hung in the air. It seemed as if they were all on the brink; anything could happen at any time."
Rani Padmini's legend is well-known to the people of our country. Married to Maharawal Ratan Singh, she was the queen of Chittor and was known for her beauty, intelligence and courage. In the fourteenth century, news of her beauty reached ambitious sultan Ala-ud-Din Khilji and he asked to see her. He wanted to see if the rumors were true. Under the disguise of this meeting, Khilji brought his best army men to take notes of Chittorgarh fort's defence loopholes.
Rani Padmini allowed the sultan to see only her reflection, but it was enough for him to fall in love with her. Subsequently, he arrived at her doorstep in Chittor and lay siege on her fort. Ratan Singh's army fought relentlessly but defeat was imminent. To protect her honor, she performed jauhar along with all the other consorts of Rawal Ratan Singh, the wives of army men and every woman present in the state.
The production of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's movie titled Padmaavat, based on this famed legend brought a lot of controversy and debate. From its very inception, many Rajput fringe groups, including the Shri Rajput Karni Sena, an organization of the Rajput community, claimed the film had distorted historical facts. They opposed the film's release with threats and acts of vandalism. Film sets were set ablaze, movie posters were burned, and riots carried out, all in the claim that the movie was a misrepresentation of history. The director, however, stated that all controversy was based on rumors as the movie was based on the 16th-century poem by famous Indian sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi.
So did Rani Padmini really exist or is she only a fictional character?
Padmini's story finds place in many traditional songs and bards. Famous poet Hem Ratan too has sung about her while historians Farishta and Abul Fazal have written about her in glory. Late Padma Shri archaeologist and scholar, Muni Jinvijay too gives credence to her existence. But because of the fictional incidents used to lend romantic hues in Jayasi's epic poem, Padmavat, many dismiss her as a figment of the poets' imagination. Historians shun the epic as fiction and believe it was merely a story woven to praise and sing songs about the bravery of the Rajputana clan. In Padmavat, Jayasi mentions Raja Gandharva Sen as Rani Padmini's father. However, there seems to be no mention of any such name in the entire Sinhalese history. Also, the then Buddhist rulers of Sri Lanka had direct links with the Pandya kingdom and had no links with the Rajputs whatsoever.
There is also debate on her place of birth. Hem Ratan spoke of her as the princess of Singhal Dweep, present-day Sri Lanka. Well-known historian Colonel Todd is of the same opinion. But there isn't any other reason to believe she hails from Sri Lanka at all. In many folktales Poogal, a small town near Bikaner, has been described as her native place. Padmini was the princess of the Pratihar dynasty that ruled Poogal during the time of the famous folktale of love, Dhola Maru. It is for this reason that the beautiful woman described in the tale is assumed to be Padmini.
But fiction or not, one thing is certain; Padmini's story is an inspiring one. Mridula Behari's novel Padmini is based on Gora Badal Padmini Chaupai, a little-known sixteenth-century work by Hem Ratan. Narrated from Padmini's perspective, this moving retelling of the famed legend brings to life the atmosphere and intrigue of medieval Rajput courts. We cannot help but be swept along as Padmini grapples with the matter of her own life and death, even as she attempts to figure out what it means to be a woman in a man's world.
Excerpt written by: Indrani Grewal