Editor’s Note: An earlier version of the article, published under the headline “History lesson: Padmavati was driven to immolation by a Rajput prince, not Ala-ud-din Khalji”, stated that the fictional heroine of Malik Jayasi’s Padmavat commits jauhar fearing rape by Devapala of Kumbhalner after he defeats and kills her husband Rawal Ratan Sen.

After this article was published, several alert readers pointed out to us that in the fight between Ratan Singh and Devapala, both are killed and, as a result, Padmini has no need to fear Devapala when she ends her life.

We apologise to our readers that this important detail was not corrected by our editorial processes before publication. 

We had withdrawn the article temporarily. The author has now amended the article to reflect this change.

We assure our readers that we are taking necessary steps to strengthen our editorial processes and ensure that such errors are not repeated.

A movie is being staunchly opposed, an actor’s life is being threatened, and Rajput pride is being extolled to justify it all. But despite what the Karni Sena will have you believe, the history of the Rajputs is not one of fierce valour. It is one of constant internecine warfare, rife with bloodshed and kidnapping and raping of women from rival Rajput clans. Indeed, it was an inter-Rajput conflict that led to Rani Padmini, the fictional queen of Chittor, immolating herself.

Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s Sufi allegory Padmavat, which first introduced the character of Padmini, was so creatively woven it took the 16th century literary world by storm, and the epic poem’s legacy continued to be celebrated well into the 19th century, with many different versions being written such as Rat Padam and Padmavat-i-Zikr. Crucially, most later versions of Padmavat retained a key aspect of the story: Padmini’s immolation was not brought about by the much-maligned Ala-ud-din Khalji, but the machinations of a Rajput prince, Devapala of Kumbhalner.

According to Jayasi’s Padmavat, being a famed beauty, Padmini has many suitors and Devapala is one of them. After her husband Rawal Ratan Sen is taken as Khalji’s prisoner to Delhi, Devapala, driven by his lust for Padmini, sends a woman messenger by the name of Kumudini, who beseeches Padmini to accept Devapala’s offer of marriage and forget about her captive husband. She entices Padmini by telling her how rich the prince is and how “one forgets Chittor when one goes to Kumbhalner”.

Padmini declines the offer and hatches a plan with the Rajput chieftains Gora and Badal to free Ratan Sen by sending soldiers into Khalji’s Siri Fort in palanquins. The plan succeeds and Ratan Sen returns to his wife in Chittor, only to learn of Devapala’s conduct. In the fight that ensues between Ratan and Devapala, both kings are killed. Distraught, Padmini commits suicide, burning herself to ashes on a pyre. It is only after Padmini is dead that Khalji attacks Chittor.

Even though Padmavat is a work of fiction, it stands as a testament to the internecine warfare that was endemic to the Rajputs. In his study on the ethics of warfare in South Asia, Kaushik Roy argues that for the Rajputs, enmity within the community was more important than fighting the Turks. Thus, when Muhammad Ghauri attacked Bhimadeva, the Rajput Chalukya ruler of Gujarat, the famous Tomara ruler Prithviraja refused to help his fellow Rajput king because of long-running Tomara-Chalukya enmity. A pan-Indian Rajput consciousness is largely a post-colonial construct and certainly did not exist previously.

Soft target

One major casualty of the gory Rajput conflicts were Rajput women. The practice of jauhar was in vogue among Rajput women long before the Muslim empire was established in the subcontinent. The earliest instances of jauhar resulted from Rajput internecine warfare. Further, raiding neighbouring Rajput kingdoms to steal princesses was a common practice among the Rajputs. A 1660 chronicle reports that after the Sisodiyas of Mewar killed Rana Mokal of Jodhpur, the latter’s son, Rao Rinmal, took his revenge by successfully besieging the Sisodiya fort of Chittor. He then executed his father’s killers, cutting off their heads and planting them on stakes. With these stakes he created a mandap, or wedding pavilion, where he forcibly married off Sisodiya women to men from his kingdom. The loot of women was apparently so huge the weddings continued through the day.

This custom, in fact, persisted well into the 18th century, when the Rajput raja of Alwar subjugated the Meo pastoralists and stole 200 Meo women and 900 cows. Similarly in 1807, when the Rajput rulers of Jodhpur and Jaipur were fighting each other, the Jaipur army captured and sold women from Marwar for two paise each. In retaliation, the forces of Jodhpur stole and sold the women of Dhundhar for one paisa each. From the women stolen in such raids, the Rajput kings would sift the ones they fancied for their harem while the rest were “distributed as loot” among Rajput soldiers.

Therefore, much like Padmini, Rajput women suffered much more at the hands of men of their own community than men of any other community. However, such a nuanced and detailed study of Rajput internecine warfare was lost on the colonial chroniclers of India whose superficial understanding of the subcontinent’s history was largely viewed through the myopic Hindu-Muslim binary. Today’s rhetoric against the likes of Khalji derives mostly from such flawed colonial histories of India.

As for Rajput women, their fate is not much different today. Take, for instance, the horribly skewed sex ratios of Rajput communities and the alarmingly high incidence of female infanticide and dowry deaths. Instead of now accepting the responsibility for oppressing their women for centuries and addressing the question of their empowerment, the Rajputs continue to find scapegoats in the Khaljis of yore. Perhaps, that is easier than facing the reality.

Ruchika Sharma is pursuing a doctorate in history at Jawaharlal Nehru University.