A well-known Rajput legend tells us that, having heard of the great beauty of the woman called Padmini, Rani of Mewar, and wishing to add her to his harem, Ala-ud-din Khilji, Sultan of Delhi, marshaled his army,marched south, and laid siege to Chittorgarh, her husband’s capital. But after months of fruitless fighting, the sultan concluded he had to content himself with something less than outright possession. He sent word to the defenders that he would end the war if Padmini’s husband, Ratan Singh Rawal, permitted him a mere glimpse of so beautiful a woman. Ratan Singh agreed to a brief glimpse by means of a mirror.
And so it happened. The sultan saw Padmini’s image in the mirror as she emerged from her rawala( ladies’ quarter) and began to bathe. The sultan then marched his army back to Delhi, but the beauty he had glimpsed so tormented him that shortly afterward he reassembled his army and renewed the siege. This time through trickery he captured Ratan Singh and as ransom demanded Padmini’s surrender. After some deliberation, Padmini’s Uncle Gorah and his son Badal devised a rescue plan. Fully armed and in a closed palanquin, Uncle Gorah went to the sultan’s camp in Padmini’s stead, with him Cousin Badal and thousands of Rajput warriors, all disguised as Padmini’s attendant women, armed, and in purdah(veiled.)
Once inside the sultan’s camp, the warriors threw off their disguises, snatched Ratan Singh, and retreated. Ratan Singh regained sanctuary within the walls of Chittorgarh, but far too many Rajputs died during the rescue. In council, the Rajputs decided upon the rite of jauhar (voluntary mass suicide.) The remaining warriors rode out to kill as many of their enemies as they could before they themselves fell. Led by Padmini, the women of Chittorgarh gathered in a subterranean passage leading from the palace to a nearby kund, and died by self-immolation. Padmini, herself, is believed to have applied the torch to the pyre.
So goes the legend. But interestingly enough, although the siege did occur, historical records give no evidence that the woman called Padmini ever existed.
According to known history, in late 1302, Samar Singh Rawal, the king of Mewar, died and his son Ratan Singh ascended to the throne. Ala-ud-din Khilji, Afghan Sultan of Delhi, perceived an opportunity in the transition of power, and, marshalling a huge army, marched south in January 1303, laying siege to Chittorgarh. The siege ended August 25, 1303, with the deaths of the defenders and their women and the destruction of the citadel.
The Khaza’inul Futuh (English title: A Treasury of Victory: The Campaigns of Ala-ud-din Khilji) by Hazrat Amir Khusrau, contains the only extant contemporary account of the sultan’s attack. In his typical cryptic fashion, Khusrau offers no details of the siege itself, other than the dates; he merely tells how Ala-ud-din came, saw, and conquered. And his record contains no mention of Padmini other than what one may take as an oblique allusion.
Strangely out of context, casting himself at one point in the narrative as Hud-Hud, the hoopoe bird, Khusrau alludes to the story of Solomon and Bilqis, Queen of Sheba, as told in the Koran (Al-Naml 27:29-44), an allusion which makes little sense unless one assumes, as many have, a hidden reference to Padmini and Ala-ud-din’s lust for her. Although reasonable enough, the assumption remains, nevertheless, just that. His account constitutes the only creditable contemporary source.
The first written version of the legend appeared some 237 years after the event, in the long narrative poem Padmavat (begun 1540) by Malik Muhammad Jayasi. Giving, of course, no grounds for his assertions, Jayasi identifies Padmini as Padmavati, a Chauhan Rajput, the daughter of Hamir Shank Chauhaun, a king in Sri Lanka. But one should immediately notice that history records no Rajputs of any tribe resident in Sri Lanka at any period. And if one measures Jayasi’s Padmini against the depiction of similar women in two major extant Rajput works of the medieval period, the Prithiviraj Rasau (the chronicle of the Chauhan dynasty of Delhi) and the Alha Khand (a Rathor Rajput poem) and in various collections of Rajput folklore, it becomes rather clear that Jayasi’s Muslim assumptions about women and his Sufism have much corrupted events and depictions in his poem. The mirror device first appears here, but in a somewhat different form from that which it takes in the popular folk version.
According to Jayasi, Ala-ud-din came within the Rajput fortress carrying his own mirror which he used surreptitiously to gain his first view of Padmini, a view that so inflames his lust that he conceives his treachery, takes Ratan Singh prisoner, and transports his captive to Delhi. While Ratan Singh languishes, a neighboring king named Devapal tries unsuccessfully to seduce Padmini. Uncle Gorah and Badal muster a force, march on Delhi, and rescue Ratan Singh. Immediately after, Ratan Singh leads an assault on Devapal’s citadel during which Devapal thrusts a spear through Ratan Singh, who lingers just long enough to kill his killer. Upon learning of her husband’s death Padmini performs sati.
Another version of the story first appears in the Golshan-e Ebrahimi (1589+) (English title: Mohamedan Power in India) by the Indian Muslim historian Firishtah. Firishtah asserts that Ala-ud-din quickly captured Chittorgarh and its king but that the king’s family, including a daughter of remarkable beauty (Padmini), managed to escape and took refuge in the Aravalli mountains. The sultan carried the king captive to Delhi, but, having heard of the daughter’s great beauty, offered the king his freedom if he surrendered the daughter.
The king sent a message to the family ordering that this be done, an order that outraged the family. The daughter then devised the familiar stratagem, a force of warriors in closed palanquins, purportedly the daughter and her attendant women, which marched to Delhi and rescued the king.
The remaining two versions also first appeared in the last decades of the sixteenth century. One appears in Volume 3 of the Ain-e Akbari, a history of the reign of Akbar written by Abu Fazl. This volume includes a version of the Padmini story that seems to owe more to Jayasi than to Firishtah, for, like Jayasi, Fazl uses the mirror story, changing it, however, to assert that Ratan Singh furnished and placed the mirror so the sultan could get his glimpse of the renowned beauty. After thus seeing her, the sultan returned to Delhi, then, tormented by what he had seen, renewed the siege.
The Khuman Raysa, the great chronicle of the Guhilot and Sisodia Rajputs, offers the first written Rajput version of the story. Originally composed during the reign of Raja Khuman II, Guhilot ruler of Mewar from 828 to 853, this chronicle underwent a massive recasting and expansion during the reign of Maharana Pratap Singh (1572-1597) after a lapse of some 750 years. During this reworking, it acquired a lengthy account of Ala-ud-din’s attack on Chittorgarh and of Padmini’s role in the resistance.
According to this version, the sultan views Padmini in a mirror supplied and set up by Ratan Singh, works his treachery as in the other accounts but holds his prisoner in the siege camp he has established on the flood plain between the Gambheri and Berach rivers to the west of Chittorgarh. The Rajputs organize a rescue employing the familiar “Trojan horse” device, and, while they fight the sultan’s troops, Ratan Singh, mounted on a fleet horse, manages to reach safety within the walls. Discouraged, Ala-ud-din marches back to Delhi, broods a while, and then returns to renew the siege.
Still weakened by the rescue operation, the Rajputs have no strength to prevail a second time. They resort to the jauhar, Padmini leading the way, while the men ride out to sell themselves as dearly as possible in a final battle.
But three major facts militate against any of these versions. First: Amir Khusrau’s chronicle, the one fairly reliable account, clearly states that only one siege of Chittorgarh occurred during the reign of Ala-ud-din. Further, one should note that the historical record shows Ala-ud-din as an astute albeit cunning, cruel, and treacherous ruler, certainly not one so foolish as to trade an important territorial conquest for a glimpse of a woman in a mirror, no matter how beautiful the woman. History makes it clear that this Sultan of Delhi very much wished to spread his conquests south of the Narmada, a dream he had nurtured ever since his successful raid on Devagiri (modern Daulatabad) in 1292, and he could not do this while so strong an enemy state as Mewar remained unconquered in his rear.
A final point: the history of the Guhilot and Sisodia Rajputs shows that never would these particular Rajputs, the proudest of the proud, ever willingly expose one of their women, least of all while she bathes, even by reflection in a mirror to the rude stare of a known lecher, an avowed enemy, and a Muslim at that.
What, then, accounts for the long and apparently illogical preservation of this story? Why has it so captured the imaginations of so many Hindus and Muslims? To these Western eyes, it is a perplexing mystery that becomes even more so when one reflects that the established history of the Guhilot Rajputs offers the story of another woman much more worthy of such renown, a woman, however, who has drifted into almost total obscurity. I refer to Kuramdevi. She, too, was a Rani of Mewar, wife of Vikram Singh Raj, who died at the second battle of Tarain in 1192 at the hands of Qutubudin, Muhammed Ghori’s slave-general.
Upon learning of the loss of her husband and the destruction of his army, Kuramdevi first made certain of her infant son’s place on the throne, secured the regency for herself, and then raised a new army including a large corps of women warriors. Marching north from Chittorgarh, she found Qutubudin near Jaipur and there engaged him, she, herself, fighting a duel with the renowned general and wounding him so severely that he fell from his horse and had to be carried from the field. Seeing their general so stricken, his army panicked and fled in wild rout.
Now there’s a woman worth a legend. Did she get it? No. Padmini did. Why?
A former university professor (including an appointment at the University of Paris-Sorbonne), Frank Rogers has written a number of scholarly books and four novels, one of the latter, Dewdrop on the Lotus, a study of Padmini that casts her in more of a Rajput mold à la Kuramdevi.