The controversy over Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati is yet another stop-over in the life of Padmini, the mythical character of sixteenth-century poet Malik Muhammad Jaisi’s Avadhi poem Padmavat.

In Jaisi’s Sufi poem, Ratansen, the king of Mewar, comes to know of the heavenly beauty of Padmini, the princess of Simhala Dweepa, from the parrot Hiraman. He travels all the way to Simhala Dweepa, leaving behind his wife Nagmati, and obtains Padmini after several hurdles. Back in Mewar, the Brahmin Raghav Chetan, exiled by Ratansen, travels to Delhi and tells Sultan Alauddin Khilji about the unearthly beauty of Padmini.

The lustful sultan attacks Chittor, entices Ratansen with an offer of friendship, and manages to catch a reflection of Padmini. He captures Ratansen, forcing Padmini to devise a stratagem by sending Rajput men in palanquins, who liberate Ratansen.

Meanwhile, in Ratansen’s absence, Devapala, a neighbouring Rajput king, propositions Padmini, which leads to a battle between Ratansen and Devapala. Ratansen is killed in this battle and both Nagmati and Padmini commit sati. Though Alauddin wins Chittor, he only finds the ashes of the woman he so ardently sought.

In the closing lines of the poem, Jaisi poignantly mentions that he soaked the tale with his tears and patched it together with his blood. In his poem, Padmini represents the knowledge that Ratansen seeks. In Jaisi’s allegoric world, Chittor is the body, while Simhala Dweepa is the heart. The parrot Hiraman symbolises the preceptor, who enlightens the path of knowledge, while Raghav Chetan is the satanic force.

Nagmati, the first wife of Ratansen, represents earthly shackles, while Alauddin Khilji represents illusion, or maya. Resonating the everlasting idiom of story-telling, Jaisi points out that the narrative of the search outlives the search itself.

Padmavati (2018).

Jaisi’s text is a part of the regional premakhyan tradition, in which love poems veiled the deeper contexts of the search for true knowledge and lovers crossed several hurdles in difficult journeys to seek each other. Mulla Daud’s Chandayan, Qutban’s Mirigavati and Shaikh Manjhan Shattari’s Madhumalati are some representative texts of this tradition. The tormented search for divine love was a common trope in the Bhakti and Sufi milieus of the sixteenth century, with poets such as Kabir, Surdas and Mira composing poems about the agony of viraha, or separation.

Through the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries, several regional courts patronised poets who composed in multiple languages such as Sanskrit, Persian, Prakrit, Dimgal, Gurjari, Braj, and Avadhi. Patronage to poetic compositions placed the emerging chiefs in the legion of kings. Jaisi’s patron was a Rajput chieftain of Amethi, who influenced his choice of the battle of Chittor – a battle that had formed an imprint on the emerging Rajput imaginary. Over the centuries, several transcriptions of the poem were made in nastaliq and kaithi, the script used by Kayastha scribes in the courts.

The Padmini myth

The poetic accounts of Padmini did not reach Mewar until almost 1590, when Hemratan composed Gora Badal Padmini Chaupai. Versions of this narrative travelled to other courts, such as Jatmal Nahar’s Gora Badal ki Katha in 1623, Labdhoday’s Padmini Charit in 1645, and Bhagyavijay’s Padmini Charit in 1702.

The account of Padmini also finds space in texts such as Raj Vilas, Khumman Raso and Amarkavyam, as well as chronicles such as Sisod Vamsavali, Munhata Nainsi ri Khyat, Rawal Ranji ri Bat, and Chitor Udaipur Patnama in the seventeenth century. Nainsi, the Diwan of the Jodhpur state, who chronicled the histories of Rajput clans, mentioned that he has heard that Ratansen was killed in the matter of Padmini when Alauddin had attacked Chittor. Thus from a poetic sufic ideal, Padmini was transformed into a queen of Mewar whom the lustful Alauddin had sought.

Padmini’s tale continued to travel on Nath, Jain and Sufi narrative networks and was retold by an Oswal Jain, Jatmal Nahar, as Gora Badal ki Katha in Lahore in 1623. In this account, Ratansen dons the robes of a Nath jogi to obtain Padmini. He also decides to surrender Padmini in order to save his own life, for which he is derided by the poet.

In the Sufic context, Padmini’s narrative travelled to the distant shores of Arakan, where Saiyid Aalol composed Padmabati in 1651.

James Tod’s ‘Annals’

In the early nineteenth century, it was James Tod, the Scottish annalist of Rajputana, through whose Annals Padmini became a part of Mewar’s history. Tod’s Annals were based both on manuscripts that he collected as well as bardic accounts that he heard and translated.

In Tod’s account, Padmini becomes the daughter of Hamir Sank of Ceylon and the wife of Bhim Singh of Mewar. Though the plot line remains much the same, in Tod’s account, the tale of Padmini becomes a part of the historical recollection of the Mewar line, often to be read and quoted as history in the future.

Tod was a romantic, someone who equated the Rajputs of Rajasthan with the Anglo-Saxon knights, with valour and chivalry as the inherent virtues. In his telling of Padmini’s narrative, the honourable Rajput faces defeat due to deceitful tactics of the Muslim sultan, a trope that dominates his entire Annals.

Rajasthan to Bengal

With Tod’s accounts, as well as with the numerous narratives in regional languages, the story of Padmini reached Bengal, where she found space in Ranglal Bandhopadhyaya’s Padmini Upakhyan (1858), Jyotindranath Tagore’s Sarojini ba Chittor Akraman (1875), Kshiroprasad Vidyavinod’s Padmini (1906), Yajneshwar Bandopadhyaya’s Mewar (1884) and Abanindranath Tagore’s Rajkahini (1909). Relying heavily on Tod’s valourisation of Rajputs, these accounts portray Rajputs as valiant sacrificial warriors protecting their lands, religion and women against the lustful Muslim aggressor.

These accounts were composed in times of early awakenings of nationhood, and clearly posited Hindu and Muslim as opposing identities, with the Padmini story providing an appropriate frame.

Padmini’s narrative has found itself being retold in several ways over several centuries, in the form of poems, stories, nautankis, swangs (dance dramas), comic books, plays and films. Each retelling is unique in its way, located in the context of its own time.

Jaisi’s Padmavat conflated several events that occurred in the sixteenth century with those in the fourteenth. The subsequent retellings too play with the narrative, adding what the times required. No retelling is truer than the other, and should be accepted in the long tradition of versatility of narrative traditions in the country.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati is just another telling, and should find space in the vast ocean of stories that exist about the mythical beauty Padmini.

Tanuja Kothiyal teaches history at Ambedkar University Delhi and is the author of Nomadic Narratives: A history of Mobility and Identity in the Great Indian Desert. This article draws from Ramya Sreenivasan’s book The Many Lives of a Rajput Queen: Heroic Pasts in India.