It was almost midnight, as the moon grew near the full, when we looked for the first time, on the fortress of Chittor. The lights in the village at its foot had been extinguished, and the hill with its great length stood dark and isolated against the sky … And the newly arrived traveller watching it may see it tonight as the returning escort may have seen it when Padmini’s marriage procession halted for the last time on the homeward way, more than seven centuries ago …
Little could the ‘lotus-fair’ Padmini have slept that night, the last of the long journey from her father’s distant strong-hold … Did no vision of the future cast its shadow across the path before her to make Padmini shrink and pause, in the glory of this her great homecoming? Had the bird whispered no word above her cradle of the tragedy of greatness that lay before her? Did she know that as long as the winds should wail over Chittor they would sing her name, that with her would every stone and every building associated in the world’s memory till the end of time?” wrote Sister Nivedita in the last decade of the 19th century in her Studies from an Eastern Home.
We can well imagine how deeply the legend of Padmini or Padmavati had moved her, a Westerner, and with what profound love, pride and emotion the story must have been narrated to her. For Nivedita, the end Padmavati embraced was the tragedy of greatness.
Is a second tragedy looming large on Padmavati seven centuries later? The legend is too innocent to deserve any demotion, the character too serene and sad for us to dance for entertainment. How much I hope that these were mere rumours.
I am of course referring to the legend of Padmavati, not an episode in academic history. But the legend is intricately mixed with the stark fact of history that was Alauddin Khalji, the Turko-Afghan whose passion was to conquer and plunder. As the Delhi sultan’s son-in-law and the governor of Kara he ransacked the prosperous kingdom of Devagiri, looting an incalculable quantity of wealth, devastated Asirgarh and massacred for the sake of it, invaded several cities of Gujarat, destroyed much of Ranthambhore, Malwa and Dhar. He beheaded his benefactor and father-in-law treacherously. He seized Chittor in 1303. During his last days he executed so many of his officers merely on suspicion generated in him by his slave-confidant Malik Kafur for whom he had an uncanny attraction. Some believe Kafur murdered Khalji.
Alauddin was lusty and had carried away the Vaghela queen Kamala Devi. Let us summarily recollect the Padmavati legend and examine what it represents: Padmini, wife of Rana Ratan Singh, was beauty nonpareil. Khalji demanded the Rana to sacrifice her to him. Refused, he desired to have a glimpse of her. Refused, he proposed to see her reflection in a mirror. Granted. In fact, Padmavati would hardly care to oblige him; it was a beautiful maid facing the mirror—an old Chittorian told me this well-kept secret for generations!
Khalji came to the fort alone. Courtesy led the Rana to see him off, alone. As soon as the host stepped out of the gate, Khalji’s men hiding in the bushes kidnapped him. Padmini was given the ultimatum: she had to come over to Khalji or see her husband dead.
Padmavati responded: She would surrender, but with a retinue of 700 maids, a paraphernalia her status demanded. The infatuated sultan agreed. Seven hundred palanquins with 1,400 soldiers carried by about 3,000 soldiers as bearers descended to the invader’s camp, devastated it and freed Rana. The sultan managed to escape with dear life. But he returned with a huge army. While the Rajputs fought to the last man, the ladies plunged into a massive fire.
Why had the legend been so immensely popular not only in Rajasthan but all over India, through folk songs, plays and ballads? Padmavati is not only a woman of dauntless courage, but also an example of wit and a strategist. Through death she snubbed the monstrous assault on her dignity intended by the invader who entered the fort only to meet with a literally sepulchral silence and to be blinded by an ominous cloud of smoke. Last but not the least it is a celebration of revenge against a brute invader. Their role in upholding certain ideals and satisfying emotional demands cannot be replaced by arguments of formal rationality. We need a superior rationality to appreciate it, the rationality that does not bring issues of law or constitution into our propensity for loving a lotus or our emotional inclination towards classical music.
We may go on arguing over the legitimacy or otherwise of Tipu Sultan being hailed as great or not with facts and figures from history, but it will be absurd to censor King Vikram’s claim to semi-omniscience, for he represents our faith in the human genius to solve the myriad riddles of life.
Armed as we are with our right to freedom of creativity, we ought to be armed also with a conscience within that would question our motive behind altering the basic nature of an age-old legend. Is my motive loftier than the spirit of the legend? Is it an inspiration beyond crude commerce? Fine, if the answer is in the affirmative.
The history of Mewar presents four women remarkable in four different ways: Padmavati and Meerabai are as well known as Panna who sacrificed her own child to save the infant prince. The fourth one was Princess Krishna Kumari who chose death because had she been given in marriage to one of her two powerful suitors, the other one would have invaded her father’s kingdom that was weak at the time. We must see them in the backdrop of their times and the values they deemed noble. Let them rest undisturbed in the cosy corners of our memory.
Eminent author and recipient of several awards including the Sahitya Akademi Fellowship