“I have made up the story and related it,” are the words with which Malik Muhammad Jayasi ends his Awadhi masnavi, Padmavat. One would think that such a clear admission of “making up a story” would leave no doubt that the epic poem is a work of fiction. But such is not the case. Following the announcement of a Bollywood film on the subject, Jayasi’s fictional story is now being pandered as Hindu history, the rumoured distortion of which was punished by violence on January 27, when vandals attacked the film’s director Sanjay Leela Bhansali and its sets near Jaipur.

Calling Jayasi’s masnavi a work of history is doing great injustice to the many efforts he took to weave together such brilliant poetry. A practising Muslim, Jayasi belonged to Jayas, a small hamlet in Amethi, and was schooled in the philosophy of Vedanta and Kabir’s couplets. His patron, Raja Jagat Deva, a Rajput ally of emperor Sher Shah Suri, could have been the driving force behind Padmavat. The legend of Alaudin Khilji’s pursuit of Rani Padmini has not been related by any author before Abul Fazl, who bases it on Jayasi’s work. Then where does Jayasi get this epic tale from?

The inspiration

Aziz Ahmed, in his paper Epic and Counter-Epic in Medieval India, said Jayasi’s masnavi, completed in 1540, drew heavily on an earlier source, Nayachandra Suri’s Hammira Mahakavya. The epic penned by Suri in the 15th century is largely a legendary biography of the 14th-century Chauhana king Hammira Mahadeva. Before Suri committed it to writing, the legend of Hammira’s gallant fight against Khilji’s attack on Chittor was orally transmitted. In the epic, Khilji has to mount a series of three expeditions against Chittor, following Hammira’s refusal to pay tribute to the Delhi sultan, before finally capturing it. The first expedition is inconclusive while the second results in the defeat of the sultanate army by the Rajputs and in the capture of several Muslim women, who are humiliated and forced “to sell buttermilk in every town they pass through”.

Before the third expedition, Khilji offers a truce on the condition that Hammira resumes paying tribute and gives him his daughter’s hand in marriage. Even though the daughter agrees to such a liaison, Hammira refuses to give her away to an “unclean mlechcha” (literally, barbarian, usually used to refer to outcasts). Learning that defeat is near for the Chauhanas, the womenfolk in the fort commit mass self-immolation (jauhar) and Hammira dies fighting bravely.

Cut to the 16th century, Suri’s dauntless Hammira becomes Jayasi’s Ratan Sen. Much like Hammira, who refused to stake his honour by giving away his daughter, Ratan Sen refuses to give up his wife Padmini to the lecherous Khilji and fights valiantly. Given his Rajput patronage, Jayasi would have been well-versed with Suri’s work.

Queen Nagamati talks to her parrot, an illustrated manuscript of Padmavat, by Malik Muhammad Jayasi. c1750. North India.

Signs of his time

Padmavat, however, is not merely a copy of Suri’s work. Jayasi also drew a lot from the current political milieu of his time. For example, Ratan Sen, (1527-’32 AD) who was the rana of Chittor more than 300 years after Khilji’s death, is a contemporary of Jayasi and, hence, his name is borrowed for Padmavat’s hero, a move made perhaps to impress the rana (given the poet’s close association with the Rajputs). Furthermore, captivating tropes employed in the story, such as smuggling Khilji’s army into the Chittor fort through women’s palanquins, was an actual move employed by emperor Sher Shah Suri (Jayasi’s contemporary) in his conquest of Rohtas.

Aziz Ahmed argued that the much maligned Khilji of Padmavat was confounded with Ghiyas al-din Khilji of Malwa (1469-1500), who is said to have had a roving eye and purportedly undertook the quest for Padmini, not a particular Rajput princess but the female ideal type in Hindu erotology. It is further gathered by an inscription in Udaipur that Ghiyas al-din Khilji, in 1488, faced a crushing defeat at the hands of a Rajput chieftain, Badal-Gora, incidentally also the name of the twins (Badal and Gora) who help Ratan Sen escape the besieged fort of Chittor in Jayasi’s Padmavat.

Princess Padmavati ca. 1765 Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

Sufi philosophy

However, Padmavat is more than just an epic poem that merges many legends and contemporary figures together. The epic verse is allegorical and subservient to the didactic, the main thrust of the poem being the depiction of Sufi concepts of nafs (soul) and ishq (love). Jayasi quite explicitly mentions that Ratan Sen is an allegory for the human soul, Padmini represents intelligence (firāsat, the supreme virtue of a monarch in Muslim philosophy), Alauddin Khilji is illusion (maya) and Chittor stands for the human body. Thus, the tale is that of the travails that the human soul has to suffer in order to be one with the human mind where both illusion and the human body act as deterrents. This is Jayasi’s own interpretation of the Sufi concept of the nafs that suffers many a torment to purify itself and unite with the supreme being. Such a connection is heightened by Jayasi devoting the first part of his Padmavat to Ratan Sen, who is inspired by a parrot, Hiraman (allegorically a Sufi pir/preceptor) to search for the Ceylonese beauty Padmini. The search causes Ratan Sen many a suffering but eventually leads him to the object of his desire.

Such a curious mix of legend and Sufi philosophy was not the first of its kind. Before Jayasi, Mulla Daud, in the 14th century, composed his Chandayana, the love story of Chanda, a Hindu woman, and Laur, a Muslim man, who face many a trial to be united, just as the human soul suffers to be with god. The genre of such poetry came to be called premakhyan (poetry of love) and was solely composed in the Awadhi dialect of medieval Hindi.

Jayasi’s literary genius was so well received in medieval India that at least a dozen Persian versions of the text were produced, chief of which is Mulla Abdush Bazmi’s Rat Padam, penned in the 17th century in Jahangir’s reign. None of the versions, however, hailed the story as a fact of history. Jayasi’s work is such a marvel of creativity that to claim it as history would be the real “tampering of history”.