Was Rani Padmini a fictional character that sprang out of a 16th century poem? Or was she a flesh-and-blood queen whose valour is still remembered fondly across Chittorgarh?
The controversy over the Bollywood movie Padmavati has put its inspiration, Padmini, in the spotlight but historians are divided over the authenticity of the character.
Noted historians such as S Irfan Habib say Padmini is a legend originating in the epic poem Padmavat written in 1540 by Malik Muhammad Jayasi. “No mention in any historical record before this,” Habib had tweeted hours after men from the Rajput Karni Sena vandalised Padmavati’s sets.
But many historians in Rajasthan say the queen was a real-life person.
“It is a well-documented fact that Padmini was the 15th wife of Rawal Ratan Singh, who has been described as Madam Kunwar Padmini and there’s no doubt about the fact she was a real historical figure. Padmini was also from Sri Lanka, and Ratan Singh had married her there after a swayamvar,” said Krishna Gopal Sharma, professor of history at Rajasthan University.
However, Sharma added that the legend surrounding Alauddin Khilji’s supposed obsession with the beauty of Padmini that apparently drove him to attack Chittor was a myth.
“The story of how Khilji was enamoured by Padmini’s beauty and saw her reflection in water is a myth which traces its roots from Padmavat written by Malik Muhammad Jayasi,” said Sharma.
Lokendra Singh Chundawat, head of history department in Government PG College, Chittorgarh, agreed with Sharma on Khilji’s lust for the queen being a myth but contradicted him on claims that Padmini was from Sri Lanka.
“In Padmavat, Jayasi wrote Padmini was from Sri Lanka but believing it would be wrong as she was born in Pungal Pradesh, an area between Bikaner and Jaisalmer. In fact, after writing Padmavat, Jayasi clarified that it is a work of fiction,” said Chundawat.
But Rima Hooja, historian and author of the book ‘A History of Rajasthan’ felt that a woman must have inspired the legend of Padmini.
“Logically it would seem that there must have been a queen whose action was such that she was remembered even though the Rawal line ended with the death of Rawal Ratan Singh. The truth lies somewhere between history and mythology.”
Hooja added that it was highly probable that the reverence associated with Padmini invites stemmed from the life of this queen who sacrificed her life.
However, Meena Gaur -- former professor and faculty chairperson of Humanities in the Mohanlal Sukhadia University at Udaipur, the capital of Mewar – said it was unlikely that the legend of Padmini sprang completely from Jayasi’s imagination.
“Even today, one can see the place inside the Chittorgarh Fort where Alauddin Khilji saw the reflection of Padmini and the place near the water where she stood. Is it really possible that everything was fictional about her and the narrative was made to suit the one in Padmavat? I think that there must have been some basis, even for Jayasi to write Padmavat,” she said.
Gaur added that over the years, Padmini has become the pride of Mewar and Rajasthan because of her act of sacrifice. “That’s why any contradictions from the legend invites strong reactions from the people,” said Gaur.
Padmavati’s director Sanjay Leela Bhansali has struck a compromise with the Karni Sena, which said Rajput feelings were hurt by the film that reportedly showed a romance between Khilji and Padmavati. The queen is seen as a mark of Rajput bravery after she committed Jauhar, a Rajput tradition of women jumping into the fire to thwart aggressors.