Reformer or Cruel – Will the Real Alauddin Khilji Please Stand Up?

Would Khilji be portrayed as barbaric in Padmavati? We ask some historians whether such a portrayal is accurate.

Indian Cinema
5 min read
Hindi Female

While describing actor Ranveer Singh’s character as the medieval Indian ruler Alauddin Khilji in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s upcoming film Padmavati, some media reports have thrown around terms like “cruel”,  “nightmarish” and “face of barbarism”.

Perhaps because in the recently released trailer, the negative overtones associated with Khilji’s character are all too apparent.

One might ask here if such a linear characterisation is all there is to Khilji — considered one of the most powerful and successful rulers of the Delhi Sultanate?

In this context, The Quint spoke to some experts of medieval Indian history to gain a better understanding of Alauddin Khilji.


Padmavati, Based on a Fictional Poem?

Bhansali’s upcoming film is a period drama set in the medieval times, based on an epic poem called Padmavat, written by Malik Muhammad Jayasi in 1540 in Awadhi. The legend, which is not accepted as a reliable source of historical information by many historians, narrates how Khilji fell in love with queen Padmavati and subsequently decided to lay siege to the fort of Chittor to take her away.

Said to be one of the earlier works by a Muslim in a vernacular language, Padmavat came more than 200 years after Khilji’s death. The wide chronological gap between the composition of the text and the events it narrates might explain its historical inaccuracy.

Tasneem Suhrawardy, professor of history at Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, says that while Khilji’s siege of Chittor is a fact, it was not because of any romance he had with Padmavati, but rather stemmed from his imperialist and expansionist policy.

Would Khilji be portrayed as barbaric in Padmavati? We ask some historians whether such a portrayal is accurate.

“There are many errors in Jayasi’s work and many details given by him do not apply to Alauddin’s period. In some places, the details seem to be about the Khiljis of Malwa who ruled in the 15th century, rather than about Alauddin. Some aspects even correspond to Sher Shah.”


Focusing on ‘Cruelty’ a Narrow Way of Understanding Khilji

Coming back to the portrayal of Khilji’s character as “cruel” and “brutal”, Suhrawardy attributes these catchwords to the accounts of Ziauddin Barani – a 13-14th century chronicler in the Delhi Sultanate – who, she says, “had his own reasons and biases for portraying Khilji like this.”

The bias came due to the difference of opinion between the two, especially regarding the relationship between religion and governance.

While Barani was the upholder of orthodoxy and believed in the supremacy of the Shariat and the Ulema in all matters, Khilji believed in a clear separation of religion and matters of governance.

“In Barani’s accounts, Alauddin does come across as a strong ruler who successfully repulsed the Mongols and established a strong state.” Khilji’s campaigns against the Mongols show that he would not have seen himself to be an ‘invader’ of the Indian subcontinent, but a ruler who considered this region as his own.

Noted scholar Harbans Mukhia, while accepting that Khilji was a fierce ruler, takes exception to the usage of the words such as “cruel” when describing him.

Would Khilji be portrayed as barbaric in Padmavati? We ask some historians whether such a portrayal is accurate.

Alauddin Khilji, The Reformer and Able Administrator

While emphasising on the need to look at Khilji beyond the narrow connotations, Suhrawardy, along with Sandhya Sharma – a medieval history professor at Vivekananda College, Delhi University – bring focus on the ruler’s abilities as an administrator and reformer.

Would Khilji be portrayed as barbaric in Padmavati? We ask some historians whether such a portrayal is accurate.

Khilji is particularly noted for introducing a system of land assessment for revenue collection based on measurement, which was a precedent for similar systems under Sher Shah and Akbar. Besides, he also established a network of state granaries to ensure a regular supply of commodities.

Suhrawardy calls the military reforms, the northwest policy and the economic regulations initiated under Khilji as the most fascinating aspects of the period.

The fact that someone could think of price and market regulations as well as rationing in those days is fascinating.
Tasneem Suhrawardy

The two most important military reforms in Khilji’s period are said to be dagh and chehera. While the former refers to the branding of horses at the time to distinguish the superior ones from the inferior ones, the latter involved maintenance of elaborate records of the soldiers in the army.

Meanwhile, as part of the northwest policy, Khilji had identified the various areas of strategic importance and built forts there to keep a check on any Mongol offensive

Suhrawardy also considers Khilji as ideologically not being influenced by the Shariat or the Ulama (religious scholars) — one “who could take decisions benefiting the people, irrespective of the fact that they were permitted in the Shariat or not.”


The Debate on Khilji’s Sexuality

Ahead of the release of Bhansali’s film, there is much speculation about whether the character of Khilji would be portrayed as a bisexual or not, with some media reports indicating that he would be shown having a fascination for his general Malik Kafur, and others citing sources to deny such rumours.

On this subject, the historians too have differing points of view. While Sharma agrees that Khilji may have been a bisexual man, like many others at the time, Suhrawardy points out to the absence of any mention of the ruler’s bisexual tendencies in the contemporaneous records.

“There is no mention of Khilji’s bisexual tendencies in Barani's accounts. If there were any, it would have been mentioned by Barani as the writer did not hesitate from mentioning those who were bisexual, like Khusrau Khan,” says Suhrawardy

Sharma counters this by saying that the Islamic faith and the restrictions associated with it explains the absence of any mention of bisexuality in the records.

Meanwhile, Mukhia asserts that it was not Alauddin, but his son Mubarak Khilji, who was a bisexual.

Is it Fair to Adhere to a Narrow Portrayal?

Of course, we don’t know yet whether Bhansali would portray Alauddin Khilji only based on the narrow negative stereotypes, or not.

We can say that Bhansali’s film is ultimately a work of historical fiction and should only be seen as one. But does that mean it is fair to portray a personality based only on narrow negative stereotypes in the garb of artistic liberty?

But, we can’t ignore how popular culture can play a huge role in shaping people’s understanding of the past.

Nevertheless, in real life, there was certainly much more to Alauddin Khilji than what terms such “cruel”, “barbaric” and “despot” can tell.


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