Chittorgarh: For most of his72 years Ramcharan Vaishnav has lived inside the sprawling Chittorgarh Fort, surrounded by magnificent artworks reminiscent of Mewar’s golden age and hugely-popular folklores that have withstood the test of time.
The wrinkled face of Vaishnav, an elderly priest of Kumbhshyam temple inside the fort, lights up as he repeats a legend that has been passed on to him by his ancestors.
“When Rani Padmini would drink water, one could see it flowing down her neck as the blue streaks would be visible on her fair skin, such was her beauty,” says Vaishnav.
The recent protest by the Karni Sena against the Bollywood film “Padmavati” has renewed the interest of historians and general public in perhaps the most famous woman in Rajasthan’s history, whose portrayal in popular culture can still flare up tempers of the Rajput community, even though 700 years have passed since her death.
The legend of Rani Padmini–also known as Padmavati–has over the years become synonymous with the valiant history of Mewar, a region which could well be termed as the heart of Rajasthan.
“I grew up listening to the story of Rani Padmini from my elders. There is not an iota of doubt that she existed in real life. Traces of her memory are scattered throughout the fort, be it the place where she committed Jauhar along with 16,000 Rajput women or her palace,” he says.
With a history spanning more than 1,500 years, the Chittorgarh Fort boasts of figures such as Hammir, Kumbha, Sanga and Maharana Pratap but somehow both inside and outside the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the narrative always revolves around the tale of Padmini and the siege of Chittorgarh by Alauddin Khilji in 1303.
Elsewhere, tourist guide Shanti Lal Salvi animatedly recounts the tale of Khilji seeing Padmini’s reflection on a mirror and getting enamoured by her beauty.
“The queen stood over the steps of Jal Mahal and her reflection was visible on the water. It was this reflection that Padmini’s husband Rawal Ratan Singh had agreed to show Khilji during the siege of Chittor,” says Salvi, pointing towards the mirrors.
It results in a flurry of photo requests from the tourists who hurriedly pose in front of the mirrors where Khilji is believed to have stood.
“It is highly unlikely that such an incident had happened as I doubt that it is scientifically possible to see such an apt reflection in the water,” Salvi tells Hindustan Times.
“It is hard to believe that 14th century Rajput customs would have permitted such an instance where a woman is seen by another man who is not her husband or a relative,” he says.
Over the years the incident has become part of the lore of Padmini, which has resulted in the guides retelling it to tourists as history, he adds.
While the incident has not been documented in history, the first reference was made in “Padmavatan”, an epic poem written by Malik Muhammad Jayasi in 1540, more than 200 years after the siege of Chittor.
“Tourists ask us to recount the incident as it has become so popular over the time and has become almost an alternative history. If we tell them about the historical discrepancies then it will leave a negative impact on our income as this is what the tourists want to hear,” says Salvi.
Mukesh Chawla, another guide, seconds Salvi and admits that the chances of the incident actually taking place are very slim.
The popularity of the legendary queen is evident from the mementoes and pictures being sold inside the fort and attributed to her although no such picture from the 14th century exists.
“Over the years, Padmini has become associated with Rajput pride because of the way she chose death over surrender and committed Jauhar by jumping into a funeral pyre along with 16,000 other women.
“It was this act of defiance that makes her such a popular figure and also a sensitive subject to meddle with,” says academician Lokendra Singh Chundawat.
Chundawat, who heads the department of history at the Government PG College, Chittorgarh, says every year in March-April, thousands of people from all over the country come to the Jauhar Mela in Chittorgarh, organised to pay respect to the women who sacrificed their life.
“After Padmini committed Jauhar, the men performed Shakha wherein they fought till death and at the end of the battle, when Khilji conquered the fort, not a soul left was left.
“This incomparable act of bravery made James Tod mention in his book that there is scarcely a city in Rajasthan that hasn’t produced its Leonidas, the fabled Greek warrior-king.”
This belief of the legend of Padmini being identified with the sense of Rajput pride and a symbol of their fight against Muslim rulers is the reason why any modern depiction of the legendary queen is at risk of inviting the wrath of Rajput fringe groups who allege “distortion of history”.