THE HINDU EDITORIAL- 17th November 2017

The many Padmavatis

As the release of the Bollywood film Padmavati draws near, protests against it are reaching a fever pitch. Claiming to speak on behalf of all Rajputs, several political figures have objected to the portrayal of the title character of the film for two reasons — that it is a distortion of history and that it is disrespectful towards Queen Padmini (appearing in some texts as Padmavati), who is deeply revered by the Rajput community. Recent scholarly work on the Padmavat, such as that of Thomas de Bruijn, Shantanu Phukan and especially Ramya Sreenivasan, makes possible an informed engagement with these claims.

The earliest tale

The earliest known composition of the Padmini tale is Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s Padmavat, dating to 1540. This tale is part of a new genre, the Sufi premakhyan (‘love story’), that flowered from the 14th to 16th centuries in north India. Most of these tales feature a hero-king’s quest for union with supreme truth and transcendent beauty — embodied in the texts by a woman of unparalleled physical beauty — and the difficulty of navigating the contradictory pulls of the spiritual and worldly domains. The Padmavat is perhaps the only one of these texts to be grafted upon a historical event, Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khilji’s siege of Chittor in 1303. Writing more than 200 years after the event, Jayasi’s tale bears little resemblance to surviving historical accounts of the siege and instead appears to draw in details from contemporaneous events and places. In Jayasi’s composition, a parrot, Hiraman, tells the king of Chittor, Ratansen, of the unequalled beauty of the princess of Sinhal, Padmavati. Hiraman’s description is enough to trigger in Ratansen the desire to attain Padmavati. He leaves behind his wife, Nagmati, becomes a yogi, and heads out, along with his men who also become yogis, on the arduous quest to the faraway Sinhal. With great difficulty, and only after he is ready to give up his life for the quest, Ratansen is united with Padmavati and marries her. Due to the pulls of his natal home and the suffering of his first wife, he returns to Chittor, bringing Padmavati along with him. While Ratansen works on building peace between Padmavati and Nagmati, a deceitful brahman, expelled from Ratansen’s court, seeks revenge by going to Delhi and informing Khilji of Padmavati’s stunning beauty. Piqued, Khilji decides to march upon Chittor to demand Padmavati. Ratansen refuses to part with her. With the Sultan’s forces closing in, Ratansen dies of injuries sustained in a fight with a Rajput rival. Padmavati and Nagmati commit sati on Ratansen’s funeral pyre while the remaining Rajput men go into the battlefield to be martyred. When Khilji manages to finally conquer the fortress, all that remains of Padmavati are her ashes. His victory is thus rendered hollow. Some manuscript copies explain the Sufi import of the tale by referring to Chittor as the body, Ratansen the spirit, Padmini the mind, Hiraman the spiritual guide, and Khilji as illusion (‘maya’). Literary representations of Khilji in a polyvalent text such as the Padmavat and in future iterations of the tale then should not be taken as historical. The historical Sultan Alauddin Khilji, as we know him from accounts of his time, was a gifted statesman who strengthened the fisc of the Delhi Sultanate, expanded the frontiers of his kingdom, and capably protected north India from the expanding Mongol domain, a feat that many of his contemporaries could not accomplish. As for Padmavati, there is no historical evidence that there was such a figure in Chittor when it was besieged, or that desire for a woman played any role in Khilji’s interest in conquering the fortress. Padmavati/Padmini, then, is a literary artefact, as is the entire story of love and sacrifice at whose heart she is placed. Any depiction of Padmavati thus cannot be a distortion of history since, in our current state of knowledge, she never existed. Born as a figment of poetic imagination, she is free to be reshaped in the hands of a different creator.

Padmini, recast

And indeed, the Padmavat was told and retold over the centuries and across the land. As the historian Ramya Sreenivasan has carefully shown in her book, The Many Lives of a Rajput Queen, in each retelling, the contours of the story and the key characters within it, including Padmini, changed. Starting a few decades after the original composition, the Padmavat was adapted into Persian forms in north India and Gujarat, and Jain literati and bardic groups composed versions of it for Rajasthani courtly elites. In the 17th century, professional genealogists wove the Guhila house of Ratansen into the genealogy of their patrons, the Sisodia rulers of Mewar. By the 18th century, after the decline of the Mughal empire but before colonial conquest, the tale of Padmini was refashioned in Mewar to demonise Alauddin Khilji, also emphasising his Muslim identity and presenting the clash between the Rajputs of Chittor and the Sultan of Delhi as the resistance of Hindus against an encroaching, ‘impure’ Islam. In the 19th century, Colonel James Tod, Political Agent in Rajputana of the English East India Company, was guided in his attempt to write the first authoritative history (by contemporary European standards) of the region by the philological, historiographical, and intellectual frameworks of his age, as well as by the political goal of stabilising the region by strengthening the hands of kings against rebellious chiefs. He selectively chose information from the range of pre-colonial sources at his disposal. He incorporated the courtly Rajasthani Padmini narrative into his early 19th century history of Rajasthan, using it, along with other material, to cast Rajputs as a valiant, pure fighting race of Hindus that resisted Islamic conquest, just as Christians had done in the West. Bengali intellectuals of the nascent bhadralok were deeply impressed with the figure of the Rajput as presented in his account, not just for his selfless bravery but also for his resistance against a Muslim conqueror. As the earliest imaginings of an Indian nation — and a Hindu nation — began to take shape, Padmini became a token of the self-sacrificing, virtuous, and chaste Hindu woman that was to be at its heart. In this idealised form, her decision to annihilate her own body was celebrated for the preservation of her ‘honour’ (read ‘chastity’) through which was indexed the honour of her husband, her family, her community, and now, her nation. In her journey from the 16th to the 21st century, Padmavati appears to have become increasingly shackled in the confines of patriarchy. In Rajasthani versions, Padmavati lost her autonomous voice, reduced to a prop on the edges of a scene largely occupied by the king and his courtiers. It was this Rajasthani Padmavati who was celebrated in 19th century bhadralok plays beginning to imagine a Hindu nation and who is today deified as the apotheosis of Rajput, and even Hindu, valour, purity, and sovereignty. Padmavati has been recast as adhering strictly to codes of conduct applied to elite Rajput women. Allegations of disrespect and inaccuracy being levelled against the film are thus rooted in the expectation, by those familiar only with the Rajput or early Hindu nationalist adaptations, of a silver-screen Padmavati who observes the purdah and does not display any trace of sexuality. The current row over Padmini’s portrayal only underscores that in the long arc of its history, the imagined Hindu nation holds in its heart the dutiful, chaste Hindu woman, who acquiesces to patriarchal controls and only exercises her agency within their bounds.

No exclusive legacy

It is important to bear in mind, as Ms. Sreenivasan has shown, that at the same time that the Rajputs were articulating a new claim upon the Padmavat in the 17th century, other Padmini tales continued to be composed. A Sufi migrant from Bengal to the Arakan court (in today’s Myanmar) composed his own version of the text in Bengali. In the 19th century, there were multiple Urdu adaptations of the tale printed in north India and an opera performed in 1923 in Paris. There have then been many Padmavats, just as there were many Ramayanas. The tale, and its heroine, are then not the exclusive legacy of any single community. The effort of spokespersons of a single community, one that continues to exercise tremendous sociopolitical power, to freeze the text into a single, authorised version, will rob it of the vitality that has allowed it to thrive over the ages.


1) Fever pitch

Meaning: A state of very strong emotion.

Example: Excitement at the stadium had reached/was at fever pitch.

2) Flowered

Meaning: Be in or reach an optimum stage of development; develop fully and richly.

Example: She flowered into as striking a beauty as her mother.

3) Quest

Meaning: A long or arduous search for something.

Example: The quest for a reliable vaccine has intensified.

Synonyms: Search, Hunt

4) Transcendent

Meaning: Surpassing the ordinary; exceptional.

Example: Her transcendent beauty.

Synonyms: Superior, Supreme

Antonyms: Average, Mediocre

5) Embodied

Meaning: Be an expression of or give a tangible or visible form to (an idea, quality, or feeling).

Example: A national team that embodies competitive spirit and skill.

Synonyms: Personify, Incorporate

6) Resemblance

Meaning: A way in which two or more things are alike.

Example: The physical resemblances between humans and apes.

Synonyms: Similarity, Likeness

Antonyms: Dissimilarity

7) Siege

Meaning: A military operation in which enemy forces surround a town or building, cutting off essential supplies, with the aim of compelling those inside to surrender.

Example: Verdun had withstood a siege of ten weeks.

Synonyms: Blockade, Beleaguerment

Antonyms: Relief

8) Contemporaneous

Meaning: Existing at or occurring in the same period of time.

Example: Pythagoras was contemporaneous with Buddha.

9) Heads out

Meaning: To aim something outward; to move something on its way, head or front first.

Example:  I headed out the car and we were on our way.

10) Arduous

Meaning: Involving or requiring strenuous effort; difficult and tiring.

Example: An arduous journey.

Synonyms: Onerous, Taxing

Antonyms: Easy, Effortless

11) Natal

Meaning: Relating to the place or time of one’s birth.

Example:  He was living in the south, many miles from his natal city.

12) Deceitful

Meaning: Guilty of or involving deceit; deceiving or misleading others.

Example:  A deceitful politician.

Synonyms: Dishonest, Lying

Antonyms: Honest, True

13) Piqued

Meaning: Arouse (interest or curiosity).

Example: With his scientific curiosity piqued, he was looking forward to being able to analyse his find.

Synonyms: Stimulate, Arouse

14) Pyre

Meaning: A large pile of wood on which a dead body is burned in some parts of the world.

Example: A traditional Hindu custom used to involve widows burning themselves alive on their husbands’ funeral pyres.

15) Martyred

Meaning: A martyred person has been killed because of their religious or political beliefs.

Example: A martyred saint.

16) Conquer

Meaning: Overcome and take control of (a place or people) by military force.

Example: He conquered Cyprus

Synonyms: Defeat, Beat

17) Fortress

Meaning: A military stronghold, especially a strongly fortified town.

Synonyms: Fort, Castle

18) Rendered

Meaning: Represent or depict artistically.

Example: Money serves as a reward for services rendered.

Synonyms: Give, Provide

19) Polyvalent

Meaning: Having many different functions, forms, or facets.

Example: The polyvalent character of his thought.

20) Fisc

Meaning: The total amount of money that a government or state has available to spend.

Example: The state may decide to subsidize private lawyer’s fees out of the public fisc.

21) Besieged

Meaning: Surround (a place) with armed forces in order to capture it or force its surrender.

Example: The king marched north to besiege Berwick.

Synonyms: Beleaguer, Blockade

22) Depiction

Meaning: The action of depicting something, especially in a work of art.

Example: The painting’s horrific depiction of war.

Synonyms: Picture, Painting

23) Figment

Meaning: A thing that someone believes to be real but that exists only in their imagination.

Example: It really was Ross and not a figment of her overheated imagination.

Synonyms: Invention, Production

24) Contours

Meaning: An outline representing or bounding the shape or form of something.

Example: She traced the contours of his face with her finger.

Synonyms: Outline, Shape

25) Genealogy

Meaning: A line of descent traced continuously from an ancestor.

Example: The genealogies of the kings of Mercia.

Synonyms: Pedigree, Ancestry

26) Patrons

Meaning: A person who gives financial or other support to a person, organization, or cause.

Example: A celebrated patron of the arts.

Synonyms: Sponsor, Backer

27) Conquest

Meaning: The subjugation and assumption of control of a place or people by military force.

Example: The conquest of the Aztecs by the Spanish.

Synonyms: Defeat, Rout

Antonyms: Victory, Surrender

28) Demonise

Meaning: Portray as wicked and threatening.

Example: He was demonized by the right-wing press.

29) Emphasising

Meaning: Give special importance or value to (something) in speaking or writing.

Example: They emphasize the need for daily, one-to-one contact between parent and child.

Synonyms: Highlight, Foreground

Antonyms: Understate

30) Encroaching

Meaning: Intrude on (a person’s territory, rights, personal life, etc.).

Example: Rather than encroach on his privacy she might have kept to her room.

Synonyms: Intrude, Trespass

31) Nascent

Meaning: (Especially of a process or organization) just coming into existence and beginning to display signs of future potential.

Example: The nascent space industry.

32) Annihilate

Meaning: Destroy utterly; obliterate.

Example:  A simple bomb of this type could annihilate them all.

Synonyms: Destroy, Obliterate

Antonyms: Create, Build

33) Shackled

Meaning: Chain with shackles.

Example: The prisoner was shackled to the heavy steel chair in the centre of the room.

Synonyms: Chain, Fetter

Antonyms: Free

34) Deified

Meaning: Worship or regard as a god.

Example: She was deified by the early Romans as a fertility goddess.

Synonyms: Worship, Revere

Antonyms: Demonize

35) Apotheosis

Meaning: The highest point in the development of something; a culmination or climax.

Example: His appearance as Hamlet was the apotheosis of his career.

Synonyms: Zenith, Apex

Antonyms: Nadir

36) Valour

Meaning: Great courage in the face of danger, especially in battle.

Example: The medals are awarded for acts of valour.

Synonyms: Bravery, Courage

Antonyms: Cowardice

37) Elite

Meaning: A select group that is superior in terms of ability or qualities to the rest of a group or society.

Example: The elite of Britain’s armed forces.

Synonyms: Best, Pick

Antonyms: Dregs

38) Acquiesces

Meaning: Accept something reluctantly but without protest.

Example: Sara acquiesced in his decision.

39) Tremendous

Meaning: Very great in amount, scale, or intensity.

Example: Penny put in a tremendous amount of time.

Synonyms: Huge, Enormous

Antonyms: Tiny, Small

40) Thrive

Meaning: Prosper; flourish.

Example: Education groups thrive on organization.

Synonyms: Flourish, Prosper

Antonyms: Decline, Fail