Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s 16th century epic poem ‘Padmavat’ is full of glowing odes to the Delhi sultan Ala-ud-din Khalji. His preparation for war “scares the Vedic god, Indra”, his army’s march causes the “castles to quake and their lords to tremble”. These powerful eulogies for the villain of Jayasi’smasnavi often overshadow its hero, Rawal Ratan Sen of Chittor.
Now a movie by the name ‘Padmavat’ by Sanjay Leela Bansali has steered the Rajput community and created much controversy. It uses Ala-ud-din Khalji’s conquest of Chittor in 1303 CE and his supposed obsession with Rani Padmini of Chittor as a backdrop for its ficitional tale.
Much of the strife around the film was fuelled by hatred towards Khalji, based on the notion that he was an oppressive ruler to his subjects, who were mostly Hindu. So, the plausibility of romance or love between a Muslim “villain” and a Hindu queen being depicted on screen, even as a work of poetic license, infuriates the Republic of Superfluous Sentiments.
But looking to actual history, one realises that like all rulers in history, Ala-ud-din Khalji was a ruler with a mixed bag for the subjects. If it were not for his defence, the Mongol rulers would have beaten their way into Hindustan, as Indian land was called then. The Mongols were known to be ruthless plunderers.
Their habit of leaving conquered countries as wastelands that would not spring back for at least a hundred years, and their tendency to rule even the regions they settled in, such as Russia, in an exploitative and backward way, are well-documented by historians.
With his formidable military generalship and able statesmanship, Ala-ud-din Khalji turned the small kingdom of Delhi into a full-fledged empire in the 14th century. Despite being illiterate, he devised a new taxation system so successful that its broad contours were retained by emperors who ruled Delhi well into the 20th century.
Image Credit: Movie – Padmaavat
But why did 16th century writers make a monster out of one of the greatest rulers to ever grace the throne of Delhi?
Khaljimade many enemies during his rule. Historian Irfan Habib quotes an 18th century source as noting that before the advent of Muslim rule in India, the rajas “whose descendants are called Rajputs” used to collect the land tax from cultivators, and that their lot changed drastically after Khalji established a new taxation system.
Khalji made many enemies by introducing a new taxation system
Furthermore, he led a series of campaigns in the Deccan, Rajasthan and Gujarat, where kingdoms fell like ninepins before his formidable military. But these conquests and conflicts were the order of that time. That was the way state contours were shaped and resources divided.
So, then and now, works of fiction chose to portray Ala-ud-din Khalji as the quintessential villain. From Malik Jaisi to Sanjay Leela Bhansali, artists are allowed the poetic license to create their work. But like all rulers, Ala-ud-din Khalji was shades of grey.
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