Art & Culture

What history can and can't tell you about Alauddin Khilji and legend of Padmavati

Rana Safvi
Rana SafviNov 16, 2017 | 14:06

What history can and can't tell you about Alauddin Khilji and legend of Padmavati

The recent controversy about Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Padmavati led to me read up on the Padmavat or Padumavat by Malik Muhammad Jayasi. That, in turn, also led to me to two wonderful authors Ramya Sreenivasan and Aditya Behl, as well as an annotated Urdu text of Padmavat with explanation and translations.

Malik Muhammad Jayasi was a Sufi who was influenced by two Sufi masters of the Chisti and Mahdavi silsila (spiritual lineage) respectively. One was Sayyid Ashraf Jahangir Simnani of Jaunpur, and Jayasi's Pir-o-Murshid was Shaikh Mubarak Shah Bodale, probably a descendant of Simnani.


The second murshid was Sheikh Burhanuddin Ansari, the disciple of Sayyid Muhammad of Jaunpur.

The Chisti silsila is noted for adopting yogic practices, in particular, the breathing exercises of Hath yoga, as practiced by the nath panthis of Gorakhnath.


Padmavat was written in 1540 AD. Muhammad Ghawth Gwalior wrote Bahr-ul-Hayat, a Persian rendering of the Amrtakunda, a Sanskrit text on yoga with illustrations a few years later showing that yoga was very much present in Sufi circles.

A Sufi's journey to his/her ultimate destination is divided into four stages: shariah (religious law), tariqah (path) , haqeeqat (truth) and marifah (gnosis, or being one with the beloved).

The religious laws which teach ethical behaviour and piety are the basis on which a Sufi builds his journey. Tariqah is the oath of allegiance with a Sufi master who helps guide the traveller on his journey. Control of ego and haqeeqat is the realisation of truth that God is within oneself. Marifah is a stage very rarely achieved except by Sufi saints which is when the veil is lifted from the seeker's heart and the seeker becomes one with the divine.

The love of a mortal for the divine is known as ishq-e-haqeeqi and is the only love worth seeking since only God is worthy of adoration.


All Sufi allegories are based on this. That's why a Sufi saint's death anniversary is celebrated as an urs, or marriage ceremony, as now the soul travels to the beloved 's house and achieves union, or wisaal, with the beloved.

On the way, the traveller overcomes many obstacles by his steadfast devotion and continuous remembrance of the divine and control of nafs, or ego.

Jayasi's Padmavat was an allegorical poem based on this premise. It was written in Awadhi, the dialect spoken in Allahabad, Jaunpur and Ayodhya. Amethi and Rae Bareli, areas where Jayasi lived, were part of this.

The choice of language as Awadhi instead of Persian is perhaps for greater reach considering his target audience were the common folks and it was their singing of it that spread the word until it reached far and wide.

However, the first known manuscript of this is written in the Persian script and found in Rampur Raza Library. It was copied in 1675 by a Muhammad Shakir in the Khanqah of Abdul Qadir Jalali at Amroha, another town in Uttar Pradesh.

After that many manuscripts were copied, and adaptations and translations were made. In some of them, there was an element of "lost in translation" and that was the Sufi element of the epic.


Jayasi's Padmavat is the first reference that one finds historically of a Rajput queen called Padmavati/Padmini living in Chittor.

The epic begins in the tradition of Persian masnavis with praise for Allah and the Prophet.

According to Aditya Behl in "The Soul’s Quest in Malik Muhammad Jayasi's Hindavi Romance", the Hindavi Sufi romance "drew on local languages of asceticism and devotion, drawing symbolism and imagery from Gorakhnathi yogis and worshippers of Krishna".

The story of Padmavat is about a young princess living in the island of Sinhaldvip, a land famous for its ideal woman, Padmini. She had a parrot, Hiraman, of whom she was so fond that her father, the king  got jealous and tried to kill it.

Hiraman managed to fly away to safety and was sold by a bird dealer to Ratansen, the king of Chittor.

Ratansen was soon enraptured by the descriptions of Padmini and was determined to marry her. He renounced his kingdom and led by Hiraman, left with 16,000 warriors and princes on his quest.

This quest had the overtones of a Sufi's spiritual journey in search of his beloved.

After some setbacks, he attacked the kingdom of Sinhaldvip and the king Gandharvsen after seeing the strength of Ratansen's love married off Padmini to him. The young princess too had already seen him and reciprocated his feelings.

After some more trials, he returned to Chittor with his new wife. His first wife Nagmati was naturally jealous until one day Ratansen admonished both his wives after which they became friends. Perhaps signifying  the balancing of the spiritual and temporal life. 

There was a Brahmin in the court of Ratansen named Raghav Chetan, who won a contest by duplicity which led Ratansen to banish him from the kingdom. Padmini gifted him her bangle to soften the humiliation. The Brahmin saw her and was captivated by her beauty.

Raghav went to the court of Alauddin Khilji in Delhi and his description of the queen made Khilji passionately fall in love with her and determined to have her. As per Sufi teachings, the most important step towards haqeeqat and marifat is the conquering of nafs, or ego.

This was the difference between the ascetic Ratansen, who is the hero, and the lustful Alauddin Khilji, who is the villain. Khilji could not control his nafs.

This led him to lay siege to Chittor and demand the surrender of Padmini which Ratansen rejected. In turn, Khilji rejected Ratansen's offer of tribute instead.

Against the better advice of his vassals, Gora and Badal, Ratansen invited Khilji inside the fort where the latter caught a glimpse of the queen in a mirror. Unable to get the queen with whom he is now even more obsessed, Khilji captured Ratansen and took him as a prisoner to Delhi.

The queen sent Gora and Badal to rescue him. They went in palanquins disguised as Padmini and her attendants.

Meanwhile, Devpal, the ruler of neighbouring kingdom of Kumbhalner, who too had heard tales of her beauty, sent a marriage proposal to Padmini which she promptly rejected.

Gora and Badal managed to free Ratansen, though Gora was killed. On his return, when Ratansen came to know of Devpal’s importune advances, he decides to punish him and challenges him to a duel, thinking he’d be back before Khilji attacks Chittor, as he was bound to. But both the Rajput kings die in this single combat.

On hearing the news, the two distraught widows of Ratansen committed sati on their husband's pyre.

Meanwhile, Alauddin Khilji once again attacked Chittor and managed to conquer it. The men are killed and the women commit jauhar by throwing themselves into a burning fire.

All that Khilji got was an "empty victory" as Padmini, the object of his desire, had been reduced to ashes.


Such heroic tales were very popular in Awadh, and Jayasi used it to weave in his Sufi philosophy.

Jayasi himself has given a key to the poem where Chittor stands for the body and Sinhaldvip for the heart; Padmini symbolises wisdom and the parrot represents the spiritual teacher who shows the way.

Nagmati is materialism that pulls the seeker, the magician Raghav represents the devil, and Khilji stands for a temporary world or illusion.

His love for Padmini was selfish and driven by lust, whereas Ratansen's love was ishq-e-haqeeqi and pure.

The marriage of Ratansen and Padmini was the union of souls with the divine.

Padmavati's death by fire symbolised the Sufi philosophy of fana, or annihilation, in the fire of love to become one with the divine.

Sinhaldvip is an imaginary land where the seeker is on his spiritual journey. Chittor is probably chosen for its symbolic meaning - "Chit" or mind and "aur" or heart.

Now, the historical references. Jayasi was writing his poem in 1540 when Sher Shah Suri was ruling Delhi as mentioned by him in the poem.

While Alauddin Khilji had defeated raja Ratansen of Chittor in 1303, there was another Ratansen ruling Chittor in 1527-32.

Bahadur Shah of Gujarat had invaded Chittor in 1531 and the women had committed jauhar.

According to Baburnama, Rana Sanga's wife was named Padmavati.

In 1537, during the siege of Rohtas, Sher Shah Suri had entered the enemy's fort in palanquins with soldiers wearing women's clothes.

Although Amir Khusrau describes jauhar during the siege of Ranthambhore, he makes no mention of it in Chittor.

Now comes a shocker. According to Sreenivasan, there  could have been "an unconscious confounding (mix up) in Jayasi’s mind between Alauddin Khilji and Ghiyath al-din Khilji of Malwa (1469–1500) who had a roving eye, and is reported to have undertaken the quest for Padmini, not a particular Rajput princess, but the ideal type of woman according to Hindu erotology. Ghiyath al-din Khilji, according to a Hindu inscription in the Udaipur area, was defeated in battle in 1488 by a Rajput chieftain, Badal-Gora, which incidentally also happened to be the names of the twins, Badal and Gora, the vassals of Ratansen".

Sreenivasan also feels that there is also a possibility that Khilji was taken as the villain to signify the insecurity felt by local Rajput kings and locals - who were Jayasi's patrons and audience - about the expansionist designs of the new rulers.

Khilji was an expansionist who saw himself as a second Alexander and was famous for his market policy and land reforms, not romantic disposition.

In fact, he'd probably be surprised if he were to somehow come to know of it. So did Jayasi get the wrong Khilji, or was it a deliberate attempt to warn those who were eyeing the throne of Delhi?

So many elements from Sufism, yogic texts, historical events and classical Persian literature were taken by Jayasi and strung together in the local dialect to reach the largest audience.

The epic ends on the verse that Chittor has become Islamic. In material terms, it would be the result of Alauddin Khilji 's victory and so the establishment of Islam, but in the Sufi poet's mind, it would probably  be the result of the triumph of ishq-e-haqeeqi over nafs.

Violence can never triumph and any victory gained by it can only be pyrrhic as Alauddin Khilji found out. Jayasi may very well be surprised to see his Sufi allegorical poem in the eye of a storm involving so much violence and threats.

Sufism teaches controlling of nafs. The Rajputs protesting against the film should perhaps read the epic and draw some lessons from it.

Last updated: November 17, 2017 | 17:58
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