A wrong sense of honour: The disturbing glorification of jauhar in Padmini’s Chittorgarh
The release of Padmaavat has led to a renewed idealisation of jauhar in Chittorgarh. Historians, women’s rights activists call out the dangers of its glorification in today’s world.
A young girl dressed in a black track suit greets Narpat Singh Bhati with a “Jai jauhar” (hail jauhar) and bends to touch his feet, as he sits comfortably in the office of Jauhar Bhavan in Chittorgarh. Others too greet him in the same manner as they pass by. While anyone who knows what jauhar is may find the greeting disturbing, especially in today’s context, Bhati, treasurer of the Chittorgarh-based Jauhar Smriti Sansthan, says calmly, “Here, at Jauhar Bhavan, we don’t greet each other with namaste. We say Jai jauhar.” Though the Sansthan was formed in 1948, Bhati says it was registered only in 1983. Jauhar Bhavan, the organisation’s office, was built in 2009, he says.
Jauhar is generally viewed as the Hindu custom of mass self-immolation by women in parts of the Indian subcontinent to avoid capture, enslavement and rape by any foreign invaders, when facing certain defeat in a war. Huge pyres were built, says Lokendra Singh Chundawat, head of the department of history at Maharana Pratap Government Post Graduate College, Chittorgarh, and women would jump into them. The women burnt themselves, or in some cases drowned themselves, instead of dying by any other means (such as swallowing poison). The reasoning: this way, the men of the enemy camp would not even be able to touch their dead bodies.
Strangely though, in Chittorgarh, few shudder at the evident gruesomeness and agony of such a death. Rather, it is upheld and celebrated as an act of valour, equalling the bravery of men who were killed in battle. So much so, that last month women protesting against the alleged distortion of history in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Padmaavat, threatened to commit jauhar if the release of the film was not stopped.
The film was released and the women did not commit jauhar – “because of the last-minute discovery that jauhar can be equated with sati (a different kind of self-immolation practised by women in India in the past) and termed illegal. We had then appealed to the President and Prime Minister to grant us permission to kill ourselves, but have received no response,” says 48-year-old Manjushree Bambori, president of the Jauhar Kshatrani Manch which had led a group of women in a Swabhimaan rally against Bhansali’s film and also given the call for jauhar. On most days, the Manch is a loose organisation of Rajput women that holds events to “keep their culture alive”. The protest against Padmaavat was a different matter.
“Jauhar is not suicide. It is the last weapon in a war. If all the people are dead, there will be no one for the ruler to subjugate. Simply acquiring territory is not enough,” says Bambori. Married at 18, Bambori decided to continue her studies after her children grew up, and completed her Masters in sociology in 2017. She now plans to study law, but sees no reason why she should put her degree to use by taking up a job. Shrugging off the years of hard work that gave women the right to economic independence and their place in the public space, Bambori says, “What’s the need of going out to work when my husband doesn’t need me to? We have enough.” She is dressed in the traditional lehenga of the Rajputs, head covered with a dupatta. In the presence of male members of the family, she says, the veil is drawn further, covering her face. Even her 28-year-old daughter, a teacher at a government school, says she follows the practice when she’s at her in-laws’ house.
The act of women’s self-immolation – both in the form of jauhar and the more commonly-practiced sati – has a long and painful history, and the battle to give women the right to live, even after the death of their men, was a hard fought one. While the colonial government banned sati in 1861, the law against the practice was made more stringent in 1988 with The Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act of 1987, which criminalised any form of abetment to the act. The law came in the wake of death-by-sati of 18-year-old Roop Kanwar in Rajasthan in 1987. When it comes to jauhar, most recorded accounts of it in India can be found in the medieval era among the warrior class, predominantly the Rajputs, says historian Harbans Mukhia. “Jauhar was committed while the husband was alive, but there was no chance of his return from war. Unlike sati, which was the practice of a woman burning herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. After the women committed jauhar, the men would perform saka, or fight till death,” explains Mukhia.
It happened in 712 AD, says Chundawat, after Muhammad Bin Qasim attacked and defeated King Dahir of Sind, though he claims instances of similar self-immolations by women can be found even earlier in other parts of the world, and even in India. After Dahir’s death, the queen is believed to have initially resisted the invaders, but eventually committed jauhar, along with other women.
In Rajasthan, says Chundawat, the first jauhar took place in 725 AD.“In India, almost all the jauhars were performed in resistance to Muslim invaders,” he adds. While Mukhia agrees that there are no records of jauhars in India prior to Muslim invasions, he says there were, however, examples of jauhar being committed even by Muslim women. “These were either inspired by the Hindu practice, or the people had belonged to the Hindu warrior class before converting to Islam, and continued the custom even after their conversion.”
In Chittorgarh, locals believe, there were three jauhars – in 1567, when Akbar attacked Chittor (the royal family escaped through a secret route and the jauhar was led by a woman named Phool Kanwar); in 1535 when Bahadur Shah of Gujarat attacked the fort and Rani Karnavati committed jauhar along with other women; and the first, by Padmini in 1303, when the kingdom was attacked by Allauddin Khilji. But as Mukhia points out, “Amir Khusro, who accompanied Khilji on his wars, mentions jauhars in other kingdoms, such as the one in Jalor, but there is no mention of a jauhar in Chittorgarh in reaction to Khilji’s attack.”
The Worship Of Padmini
That hasn’t stopped the people of Chittorgarh, however, from celebrating the sacrifice of the legendary Padmini, and from venerating the women who committed jauhar – “a sacrifice,” as 38-year-old Teena Shaktawat puts it. “If Padmini hadn’t killed herself, she would have been forced to join Khilji’s harem. We would have come under Mughal rule and would have been sitting in burqas today,” says Shaktawat. A Master’s degree holder in sociology, Shaktawat rides a scooty, with a dupatta, and not helmet, covering her head. “While on the scooty if the dupatta slips from my head, I just stop and pull it back,” she says, with a laugh.
The celebration of jauhar is almost directly linked to a prejudice against Islamic rule and culture, and there is pride in choosing death over any kind of alliance with a Muslim ruler. Ironically, according to Rajasthani accounts, not supported by contemporary records, the second of the Chittorgarh queens to commit jauhar – Rani Karnavati – had sent a rakhi to Humayun, requesting for help, when attacked by Gujarat ruler Bahadur Shah. But Humayun was on another invasion at the time, and couldn’t reach Chittorgarh in time to help her.
Both the fort and the town of Chittorgarh have memorials to the jauhars committed by the women in the past. Inside the fort is a Jauhar Sthal, where locals believe the last of the three jauhars had taken place. After members of the Jauhar Kshatrani Manch threatened to commit jauhar, entry to the spot was closed with barbed wire and a team of police personnel was stationed there. The underground tunnel where Padmini is believed to have committed jauhar has long been closed.
At Jauhar Bhavan, statues of the three women who led the three jauhars – Padmini, Karnavati and Phool Kanwar – were erected two years back. “For the past one-and-a-half years we have also been organising a daily puja of the three women here,” says Bhati. The Sansthan hosts an annual Jauhar Mela around Holi. The worshipping of Padmini is a daily ritual at many homes in Chittorgarh.
Meanwhile a plaque at what is popularly referred to as Padmini Palace inside the Chittorgarh fort was covered, allegedly by the Archaeological Survey Of India, after protests against the information imparted there – the popular story of Khilji attacking Chittorgarh after being mesmerised by accounts of Padmini’s beauty as described in Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s 16th century poem Padmavat. The room from where Khilji was said to have glimpsed a reflection of Padmini was also locked. “We recently held a historians’ meet here and were told that the story of Khilji attacking Chittor for Padmini was wrong. It was a battle for expansion,” says Bhati. Since Bhansali’s film is based on Jayasi’s imaginary account of the war, it is unacceptable in Chittorgarh.
The Right Over Her Body
Whatever the reason for the battle, the women here have no doubt that rape and forced inclusion in Khilji’s harem would have been the eventual destiny of Padmini if she had not committed jauhar. The fact that rape and enslavement of women of the defeated side was common during battles can’t be denied, says Lubna Irfan, research scholar at Aligarh Muslim University, who specialises in medieval Indian history. What she questions is the extent to which the women were willing to choose death over enslavement. “Even when it comes to sati, we hear of widows being tied to the pyre so that they couldn’t escape. Similarly, there are accounts of entire harems being massacred so that they wouldn’t fall into enemy hands,” says Irfan.
During jauhars too, Chundawat says, drums would be played and ballads extolling the virtues and the family name of the women would be sung to encourage them to take this step. “It became an act of honour,” says Mukhia – an honour that Irfan says was linked to a woman’s sexuality, an honour not just her own, but that of her family’s, so that any act of sexual abuse was viewed (and often continues to be viewed even today), as the woman and her family having lost their honour, a reflection of a patriarchal society’s control over a woman’s body.
How did such an act come to be glorified as an act of bravery? “Perhaps it has something to do with the way our history was recorded. All the accounts that we have of history were written by men. We don’t have the women’s perspective,” says Irfan.
No Lesson Learnt
If one takes into account the criticisms against Bhansali’s film Padmaavat, it would seem as if nothing has changed. Actor Swara Bhaskar courted controversy when she said that at the end of film she felt reduced to a vagina. While the film does start with a disclaimer that it does not support sati or any forms of the practice, Bhansali has been unable to stop himself from romanticising the act in the last part of the film, where a beautifully decked-up Padmini defiantly walks towards the pyre before Khilji can reach her. Her eyes are calm, there’s a determination in her, and a palpable enthusiasm to end their lives in the women accompanying her. There’s no questioning of the practice, no hesitation or doubt shown in any of the characters.
“I don’t understand how one can have such a film when the Prevention of Sati Act clearly criminalises any form of glorification of the practice, including building of temples or any sort of worship of ‘sati matas’ or women who committed sati,” wonders Ranjana Kumari, director, Centre For Social Research. If sati can indeed be equated with the practice of jauhar, much of the veneration of the practice in Chittorgarh would become not just disturbing, but illegal. But then, Rajasthan also has temples to sati matas, such as the Rani Sati temple in Jhunjhunu.
Like many others, Kumari doesn’t understand the glorification of these women who committed jauhar. “What is brave about suicide? If they were brave, they should have gone and fought, like Rani Lakshmibai had done. All those who are protesting against the film, are protesting against the wrong issue. They claim to be fighting for a woman’s honour, but anyone fighting for women today should be fighting for a better life and safety for women, and not about how and why a supposed character in history killed herself,” she says.
The veneration of a woman killing herself rather than allowing herself to be touched by a man against her wishes, and other women threatening to do the same to protect her image centuries later, are dangerous examples to be set at a time when the discourse on crimes against women has moved light years ahead.
Today, there is discussion around the rights of the rape victim and the fact that sexual abuse is an act of aggression that doesn’t rob the victim of her honour. Efforts are being made to remove the stigma attached to rape, so that victims and their families are able to access the law and get the guilty punished.
While the women of Jauhar Kshatrani Manch and the members of Jauhar Smriti Sansthan agree that jauhar is a historical practice and that women today should be taught to stand up and fight for themselves and approach the police and judiciary in case of any physical or sexual aggression, they still uphold Padmini’s jauhar and the principle of death over dishonour.
“We had also moved the Supreme Court when we felt Bhansali’s film was hurting our sentiments. But the court did not stop the release of the film. If the law also does not give one justice, death is the only option left,” says Nirmala Rathore, another senior office bearer of the Jauhar Kshatrani Manch. She adds, “Even today we teach our children to fight for their honour, but if it becomes impossible to protect one’s honour, it’s better to die rather than
compromise.” Her 21-year-old daughter, Bhagyashree, an M Com student dressed in jeans and also riding a scooty, has also been praying to Padmini from the time she was a child.
Meanwhile at Jauhar Bhavan, Rajshri Shaktawat, the warden of a girl’s hostel run by the Jauhar Smriti Sansthan, confesses that not all the women who participated in the rally against Padmaavat would have committed jauhar. She, as well as all the girls living in the hostel that is named after Padmini, had participated in the rally and daily venerate the legendary queen.
Was jauhar a brave thing to do? “Yes,” is the immediate reply from 18-year-old Chitra Rathore, who stays at the hostel and is studying to be a teacher. But she adds after a moment’s thought, “That’s not what women today should do if in a similar situation. They should fight. Today women should also be trained in self defence.” The salute ‘Jai jauhar,’ however, comes spontaneously to her lips, as she turns to greet an elder.
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