Revisiting Padmavati, One Last Time

November 29, 2017 § 2 Comments


(Readers of my blog who aren’t interested in Indian cinema, history and folklore may safely ignore this post and avoid bemusement)

In the legend of Padmavati (to resurrect a dying controversy but move beyond the controversial dream sequence), her husband Ratansen is captured by Allauddin Khilji, who demands Padmavati as ransom for releasing the king. Instead of Padmavati, some brave Rajput soldiers led by the heroes Gora and Badal dress up as Padmavati and her maidens, and are carried into the Khilji camp in veiled palanquins. Once inside, they take the guards by surprise, rescue Ratansen and flee the camp, though a few of them die in the attempt. It’s a very unique story, you’d think, until you hear another story that is startlingly similar, one that supposedly took place 920 years earlier, a story we know purely as legend. It makes you wonder about repeating themes in legend and history, and what they mean.

Once upon a time (the legend goes), there sat on the throne of Magadha a weak king called Ramagupta. His father had left behind a huge empire, but Ramagupta was both insipid and insecure. He married a princess called Dhruvadevi who was reputed to be the most beautiful woman in the land. Yet he felt he wasn’t respected as much as his father had been.

So, Ramagupta decided to pick a fight with the mighty Saka king Rudrasimha III, who ruled on his western borders. His younger brother and his ministers tried to dissuade him, but Ramagupta was adamant and went ahead.

Now the Sakas were brutal and lawless warriors whose domain stretched from the Hindukush mountains to Gujarat. They were kin to the Scythians and the Messegetae nomadic tribes that ranged across Asia from the Caspian Sea to China. They were also at the time, without a doubt, the best horsemen in the world. As the lumbering Magadha army, with the entire royal family in tow, made its ponderous advance, the fleet-footed Saka cavalry whirled around Ramagupta’s troops and encircled his camp quickly. The battle was over before it began.

Rudrasimha sent his terms into the Magadha camp.

He said, “My ancestors and cousins fought Cyrus and Darius, Alexander and the Yellow Horde. Even your father, who was a mighty general, had the good sense to leave us alone. And yet you had the temerity to provoke us to battle.

“We cannot allow this to go unpunished. We need to set an example. We have to kill every man, woman and child in this camp, starting with you, and we will hang your head on a pole at our borders as a warning for puppies like you that play at being soldiers.”

Ramagupta asked for mercy, promising never to make such a mistake again.

Rudrasimha hesitated. The Gangetic plains were too hot and humid for the Sakas. He wanted not territory but security: and security came from fear. He had to humiliate the nervous, stupid man standing in front of him so utterly that no other king would dare violate Saka borders again.

“Your father was a wise man,” said Rudrasimha. “I grieve for him that he had an utter nincompoop for a son. However, for the sake of his memory, I will spare all your lives, on one condition.”

“Accepted,” gasped Ramagupta gratefully. “Tell me the condition.”

“I heard you have married a very beautiful woman,” said Rudrasimha. “She deserves better, just as your father’s throne does. I am told she is in the camp now. Send her to be my wife, and I will let you go.”

When Ramagupta saw that there was no other option except death, he ordered a messenger to tell Dhruvadevi to get ready to go over to the Saka king. His courtiers sat in shocked silence, unable to believe their ears. The messenger returned, and said, “My lord, the Queen refuses.”

“What do you mean she refuses?”blustered the king. “I am her lord and master, and I command her.”

But Dhruvadevi had strode boldly into the room by then.

“You may have no self-respect, but I remain the Queen of Magadha,”she said contemptuously, “and the daughter-in-law of the Lichchavi princess Kumaradevi. What you suggest is an affront to my honour and the honour of these royal houses.”

Ramagupta’s voice turned whiny. He begged her tearfully for his life: she held it in her hands, he said. He wept. She refused to move.

Ramagupta then turned to his younger brother.

“Brother,” he said, “Rudrasimha hasn’t seen Dhruvadevi. He doesn’t know what she looks like. I know you have a lover, who is a common court dancer. I order you to dress her in the queen’s finery, and send her out to the Saka brute. I am your older brother and your king: you cannot disobey my command.”

The younger brother spoke. “It is against my honor to do this, and I will not obey.”

Ramagupta said, “You have to obey! Will you get me killed? Have you not sworn to protect me and the kingdom, you traitor?”

“I HAVE sworn to protect you,” said the brother, thoughtfully,”and this I will do.”

So a single palanquin left the Magadha camp that evening, carried by four bearers, and was allowed into the Saka camp. It was conveyed directly to the tent of Rudrasimha, where the bearers set it down and left the tent.

Rudrasimha asked the lady to come out, but there was no movement from inside. Impatient, he leaned over and poked his face through the palanquin screen to catch a glimpse of the reputed beauty.

They say the silly leer didn’t leave his face even after his head was sliced off its neck.

Ramagupta’s younger brother emerged from the palanquin, drenched in Rudrasimha’s hot blood. With a terrible look on his face, the head of the Saka king in one hand and a sword in the other, he strode out of the Saka camp. The Saka soldiers saw the head, and the face of the man carrying it, and parted like the Yamuna on the night Krishna was born, and didn’t dare challenge him. Soon, the army retreated in confusion.

When he entered Ramagupta’s tent, every eye was rivetted on him.

Ramagupta panicked. “Look what you’ve done now!” he cried in fear. “Now we will definitely get slaughtered by these Saka monsters. How is this protection!”

But the brother walked past him, and dropped the head at the feet of Dhruvadevi, who stopped it rolling with her foot.

“I have avenged you,” said the man, looking her in the face for the first time ever. “The honor of this family is intact.”

“You have indeed avenged me,” she said, a strange look in her eyes. “Yet the honor of this royal house is still defiled.”

“How so?”

“I am now beholden for my life and honor to a man who is not my husband,” she said. “This is an intolerable shame, and I cannot live with it. Kill me immediately with the same sword.”

“This I cannot do,” said the brother.

Something like anger flashed across her face.

“Then as your queen, I order you to kill yourself. You are the source of my shame, and you may not live.”

“This I refuse to do,” he said.

They stood in silence.

“Then,” she said, finally, “there is only one other solution. I am sure the Queen mother agrees.”

The brother turned and looked at his mother, the proud Lichchavi queen Kumaradevi, who was standing stone-faced in the corner.

“The queen is right,” said Kumaradevi. “There is only one other way to remove this stain from this royal family.”

The brother nodded, walked towards her to seek her blessing. On the way, as he passed the bewildered Ramagupta, he buried his still dripping sword into the king’s belly. He was stooping down to touch his mother’s feet when Ramagupta’s body fell with a thud, but he didn’t even look behind.

“Rise, king of Magadha,” said his mother, firmly. The entire court roared in approval.

And thus came to the throne of Magadha the man we know as Chandragupta Vikramaditya, second son of the illustrious Samudragupta, and second husband of the beautiful queen Dhruvadevi, and quite possibly the owner of the biggest empire in India before Allauddin Khilji.

Notes

  • The Sakas retreated then, but they did come back in force. Chandragupta was more than equal to the situation. Wisely, he had made peace with the powerful Vakatakas to his south before taking the Sakas on. As a result, the Saka backbone was conclusively broken in the north-west, and most of India was under the Gupta-Vakataka alliance. This was good, though India lost a powerful buffer against the Huns, who came in waves in the next few generations and eventually wiped out the Guptas themselves
  • While Dhruvadevi, Chandragupta, Ramagupta and Rudrasimha III were undoubtedly historical, the events are entirely legendary. A poet called Vishakhadatta wrote the legend down in a play called Devichandraguptam, only fragments of which are extant today. The play was referenced briefly by Bana Bhatta a few centuries later. The legend went to Sri Lanka, and then on wings of trade to Arabia, where it became known as the story of the brothers Rawwal and Barkamaris. A Persian translation (Mujmal-ut-Tawarikh) from the Arabic is how the story comes down to us. Who knows? Malik Mohammed Jayasi might have read this book, too, before he wrote the Padmavat.
  • The theme wasn’t original to this story, either. It contains traces of the Mahabharata story relating to the Virataparva, when the powerful general Keechaka asks Sairandri, who is Draupadi in disguise, to meet him at midnight. Her seniormost husband Yudhisthira is unwilling to help, but Bhima dresses up as a woman and beats Keechaka to pulp. I speculate that at the mythic origins of this theme is the matriarchal custom described in the Golden Bough where the queen of the tribe changed husband frequently. Perhaps it indicates a sacrificial ritual where the new husband dressed up in women’s clothes and killed his predecessor. It is interesting to speculate on how a highly matriarchal legend could have progressively become more and more patriarchal in nature, from firebrand Draupadi through Dhruvadevi, until finally we get the tame and passive Padmavati of medieval times, when women were worshipped for subservient suicide.
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