Padmavati and the Unsung Heroines of Indian History


Padmavati and the Unsung Heroines of Indian History

Illustration: Sushant Ahire/Arré

Telling Padmavati’s story has been one of the most incredibly special experiences of my life.

The writing and research for my book, Rani Padmavati: The Burning Queen was an arduous process that revealed some uncomfortable truths regarding patriarchal notions about womanly virtue, which unfortunately haven’t changed much even as we’ve gone forward in time.

While celebrating Rani Padmavati as a legendary queen who determined her own fate and chose the flames of jauhar over the disgrace of defeat and the prospect of surrendering to a conqueror with a proven penchant for cruelty, we forget one important detail. In glorifying her demise, bewailing her fate, and frothing at the mouth over real and imagined attempts to malign her memory, we have failed on a spectacular scale to understand the ruinous factors that culminated in an epic tragedy, thereby failing to safeguard ourselves against a similar fate.

Rani Padmavati was only one of thousands of women, unsung heroines who chose the same path, or made the even bolder decision to try and survive when their men failed against the invaders who drove them from their homes, pillaged their possessions, and ravaged their country. She wasn’t the only victim of collateral damage between warring, ambitious, and powerful men, though she is the one we have chosen to remember and revere. There are too many whose sacrifices and misfortunes have gone unlamented every time the male ego went on a rampage, resulting in death and devastation. This seems to have happened over and over again in an endless cycle in every part of the world without exception.

Even a casual glance at conquests waged across the ages by Alexander and Cyrus the Great, Julius Caesar, mighty marauders like Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, and their like, in addition to two World Wars, as well as areas of conflict to the present day, clearly indicate the near total lack of female involvement in the bloodthirsty decision-making that has repeatedly unleashed mass destruction and apocalyptic horror. If that were not bad enough, bloodthirsty men have made it a standard practice to drag helpless women otherwise usefully employed, into the maelstrom of violence by subjecting them to savage acts of rape, torture and enslavement.

We Indians like to think of ourselves as people who are certainly not lacking in the valour department, but despite the vaunted bravery and chivalry of the warlike clans who have long distinguished themselves on Indian soil, why did we fare so badly against the likes of Alexander, Mahmud of Ghazni, Muhammad of Ghur, Alauddin Khalji, the Mughals, and the British, in addition to failing to do the right thing by our women? The answer is embarrassingly simple. This land has always been divided into warring, factious clans who persist in squabbling over petty issues, paltry parcels of land, and nursing grievances that go back for several generations, if not longer. Almost always, women are reduced to little more than pawns who are ruthlessly sacrificed at the altar of male pride.

Women are often reduced to objects of desire for men to fight over, whether it is Padmavati of Chittor or Helen of Troy, and subsequently blamed for the ensuing bloodshed.

Our history is littered with examples of this small-mindedness and mean-spiritedness that has led to bitter clashes that have ripped apart the heart and soul of our country. There are too many instances of treachery when traitors chose to fight by the side of the loathed conqueror and betray their own. King Porus was screwed over by Ambi. Prithviraj Chauhan was stabbed in the back by Jaichand. Rawal Ratan Singh and Chittor were let down by Raghav Chetan. And let us not forget that women are often reduced to objects of desire for men to fight over, whether it is Padmavati of Chittor or Helen of Troy, and subsequently blamed for the ensuing bloodshed. This insidious pattern is a recurring motif in every shameful chapter of Indian history. But we still refuse to learn.

A filmmaker’s attempt to resurrect or reinterpret the legend of Padmavati, for better or worse, has brought to the surface simmering passions and buried issues that have cleanly stripped away the glossy veneer of civilization, revealing the rot and ugliness within. History has repeated itself. Once again, a woman is collateral damage in a war that she never chose to fight.

On paper, India is a secular nation and a democracy where everybody is entitled to the same rights. But that is hardly the case. Our land is as divided as it always was and we are still ready to fight each other to the death over religion, caste, gender, and ideological differences. Men are still ruled by all-consuming egos and too many women pay the price with their lives.

Yet Padmavati is also a tale of enduring hope, and the cornerstone of her legacy is that even when her world went to hell, she looked doom in the eye and did not even blink. Instead she made a choice to turn her back on the greed, hatred, and violence that had consumed her life and departed with the same grace and dignity with which she had lived. It is not enough to remember Rani Padmavati. We owe it not just to her but the other brave men and women who came before and after, to soldier on in the face of ever-present adversity; to survive and create a better India and a safer world for our children to inherit, where everyone irrespective of social background or sex enjoys the same rights both on paper as well as in practical life. It is the only worthy way to honour the memory of Rani Padmavati.