Is Padmavati just a myth?


At the root of the controversy around Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Padmavati is the fact that there is not a single historical and authentic document describing the life and times of Padmini, who was said to be queen of Chittorgarh when Alauddin Khilji attacked in 1302. Her name finds no mention in the known works of that era.
So those who have accused Bhansali of distorting history — without even watching the film — have no evidence to prove what exactly has been depicted wrong about her. Bhansali has claimed that his movie is based on the poem Padmawat, composed by Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi in 1540. Historians view Jayasi’s work with scepticism and consider it a work of fiction. “I have made up the story and related it,” are the words with which Jayasi ends his Padmawat.
There is a vague reference to Padmini in Amir Khusrau’s Khaizain-ul-Futuh (The Treasures of Victory) in which the court historian of Khilji narrates his conquest of Chittorgarh through the metaphor of Solomon, a hudhud bird, and Bilkis, the Queen of Sheba. Based on this, scholars such as Muhammad Habib conclude that Padmini was a historical figure and Khilji attacked Chittorgarh seeking her submission.
Jayasi’s work influenced his contemporary Abu’l Fazl to write about the legend of Khilji’s pursuit of Padmini but Abu’l Fazl described Padmini as a class of women, extraordinarily beautiful and not as the queen of Chittorgarh. Later, Persian historian Ferishta (1560-1620), 17th century historians Muhnot Nainsi and Khwaja Nizam-ud-din Ahmad, British scholar Col. James Tod (1782-1835), and Shyam Lal Das, who wrote a poetic history of Mewar in the early 20th century, have also written about Padmini. But there was no unanimity that Khilji invaded Chittorgarh for her.
Much later in the 20th century, works such as Annals of Jaisalmer by Hari Singh Bhati, Pugal ka Itihas by Hukum Singh Bhati and Udaipur Rajya ka Itihas by G.H. Ojha make more specific reference to Padmini’s existence. “She is described as daughter of Rawal Punpal Bhattai of Jaisalmer and his wife Jam Kanwar, who was born in Sirohi,” says Ranbir Sinh and Rao Shiv Pal Singh, Jaipur-based historians. Sinh denies that Khilji had set his sights on her.
What’s ironic is that while Jayasi could get away with his fictional account in medieval India, Bhansali’s celluloid drama got stuck in a political drama in 21st century India.