Fifth Columnist: Salvation from history

History – wrote the arch imperialist and wartime leader of the Great Britain, Winston Churchill – “is written by the victors”. This suggests, therefore, that historical writing and analysis of the past is not shaped by reasoned interpretive historical scholarship or any factual understanding, but by the might of political and cultural leaders on the `winning’ side of history; the ‘winners’ have the power to shape historical narratives through school text books, public iconography, movies and a range of other mediums.

How lopsided would this theory be when applied to modern India, when goons and lumpens attack school buses, set fire to public property and terrorise neighbourhoods in the name of undoing historical wrongs? What would it mean for a foreign investor to realise that three templates of the India’s growth story, Gurgaon, Ahmedabad and Jaipur, have been held hostage to marauding mobs out to undo a historical wrong, that is perceived to have taken place several centuries ago?  

The Queen of Chittor, history’s heroine and the protagonist of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film, currently has India in its grip. It is important to understand the background in which this story is being told. Padmavaat is a quintessential Indian story of sacrifice and valour in a country, which is virtually treasure trove of stories, the veritable Kathasaritasagara, as it were. 

Was Padmavati or Padmini a historical figure? Difficult to say but what is pretty much uncontested is that Allauddin Khilji did lay siege to Chittorgarh, capturing it in 1303, after eight months of stubborn resistance by Guhila Rajput ruler Ratan Singh. The earliest account of this military feat is Amir Khusrau’s Khaza’in ul-Futuh. Khusrau, one of the founders of Hindavi literature, better known today for his Sufi songs dedicated to Nizamuddin Auliya, was Khilji’s courtier, a medieval version of an embedded scribe. More importantly, he actually accompanied the sultan on this campaign. In Khusrau’s account, there is no mention of Padmini, nor of the terrible jauhar, mass immolation, committed by her and the ladies of the fort before it fell into Khilji’s hands. Though he has vividly described in horrific detail as to what was done to the warriors who were captured by Khilji’s army. Would Khusrau not have written about Padmini or the jauhar led by her? We cannot be sure, but he does mention that during Khilji’s earlier conquest of Ranthambore, the ladies of that fort performed jauhar rather than be taken as sexual prey to the hordes.

Where does then the legend of Padmini spring from? The answer is from Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s Padmavat, an Avadhi epic. The poem was composed in 1540, nearly 250 years after the siege of Chittor. Jayasi, interestingly, moreover, lived in what is today’s Uttar Pradesh, a village called Jayas, close to Amethi and not in Rajasthan. So how did he come to know this story? The likely answer is that Jayasi combined the legend of Padmini, which was already prevalent and popular, with known literary antecedents. He, of course, added his own imagination to make the story rich and powerful. Jayasi’s Padmini does commit jauhar to repel Khilji.

But that still does not explain why this Muslim Sufi poet, who lived 200 years after the siege of Chittor, chose to write about it. Why did he make it his main theme? He probably did so because he too thought he was telling the story of India, the India that he knew and loved. Padmavat, we must acknowledge, is an epic of Hindu-Muslim synthesis and comingling. If anything, it is more Hindu than Muslim. It is not simply a tale of Islamist conquest, nor is it written in Persian, the court language of Muslim rulers, but in Avadhi, the people’s language, particularly from the region to which Jayasi belonged. 

The bard follows Hindu narrative traditions; his epic is steeped in Hindu mythology and metaphor, beginning in Kailash, with a supplication to Shiva. He, moreover, follows Hindu aesthetic and spiritual traditions.

The whole story, like the Illiad and the Ramayana, is in a sense one of conquest which links woman to territory. Padmini – not unlike Sita in Ramayana - is the trigger of Khilji’s imperial lust not just for a woman, but for territory and the spoils of war. What it means is that Padmavaat is not about history or Rajput pride or Hindu anxiety or glorification of sati. It is really about splendid, if not solitary, exemplars of resistance.

But to suggest – as the failed politicians of the Karni Sena and undoubted beneficiaries of state patronage, are obliquely hinting - that this is the time for retributive corrections or revenge histories is not just absurd but also unfortunate. The wrongs of history – if any - cannot be righted by present politics or academics.

When it comes to Padmini, the legend is more important than history; she quickly escaped from history to be immortalised in legend. India, to this day, recognises and awards sacrifices. Prime minister Narendra Modi never fails to mention the sacrifices made by RSS workers to put his party in the position he is in. Indira Gandhi’s sacrifice in 1984 catapulted the Congress to a Lok Sabha majority, which could not have been visualised even by Jawahar Lal Nehru. Padmini needs to be seen in that context rather than a modern-day score settling historical game of thrones.


Ranjit Bhushan