Lakshmibai, Jhansi Ki Rani or the queen of Jhansi, was one of the main leaders of The First War of Indian Independence during 1857-58. Her childhood name was Manikarnika. She was fondly called Manu. She was born on 19 November 1828 in Varanasi. Her father was Moropant Tambe and her mother Bhagirathi Sapre. Her mother died when she was two years old.
When Peshwa Bajirao ΙΙ was exiled by the British to Bithur near Kanpur in 1817, Moropant’s father Balwant Rao accompanied Chimmanji Appa, the younger brother of Bajirao ΙΙ, to Varanasi as an adviser.
Moropant grew up in Varanasi and took over his father’s position as an adviser to Chimmanji Appa. In 1832, Chimmanji Appa died and subsequently Moropant, along with Manu, moved to Bithur. Bithur had a large Maharastrian community, the followers of the Peshwa. Moropant belonged to the Brahmin caste. He was engaged to take care of temples, shrines and religious activities.
Manu spent her childhood in Bithur. Unlike many girls of her time, Manu got an education. She learnt to read and write, studied Sanskrit and some Persian, which was the court language of the time. She was outspoken and of independent mind. Since she had lost her mother, she did not have the conventional upbringing of a girl. Moropant was liberal in his thinking and did not impose restrictions that were normally considered typical for girls at that time.
Tales are told about Manu’s friendship with Nana Sahib, the chosen heir of the Peshwa, and with Tantya Tope. Tantya, a young man with great interest in wrestling, was in the service of the Peshwa. They rode together, practiced sword fencing and war games. Their childhood connection played an important role during their later life. Manu became an accomplished horse rider and learnt how to use arms.
As time passed, Manu became a teenager. Girls were married at an early age and Moropant was concerned about Manu’s marriage. At this stage, an opportunity appeared and Manu was chosen to marry Gangadhar Rao, the king of Jhansi.
Jhansi is a city in the state of Uttar Pradesh. It lies in the region of Bundelkhand, which is divided between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The region is named after Bundel clans who controlled it during the medieval period.
According to a legend, King Virsingh Dev of Orchha gave Jhansi its name. He had grown old and was loosing his eyesight. When he looked at the settlement from Datia, a nearby fort, he said all he could see was Jhain-si (like a mist). His description of the place became the popular name of the town.
During the reign of Aurangzeb, Chhatrasal, the chief of Bundels, led a revolt against the Mughals and conquered a large tract of land. He established his own kingdom, which he ruled from 1675 to 1731. In 1729, with the help of Maratha leader Peshwa Bajirao Ι, he defeated the Nawab of Farrukhabad, Mohammad Khan Bangash, who had attacked his kingdom. As a mark of gratitude for his assistance, Chhatrasal gave one third of his kingdom to Peshwa Bajirao Ι. The part bestowed to Peshwa included the town of Jhansi.
Originally, locally appointed Subedars managed the bequeathed region. Later Subedars were unable to control it. In 1770, one of the best generals, Raghunath Hari Newalkar, was sent from Pune to Jhansi to govern the region. He was a capable administrator and ruled the region for thirty-four years. He abdicated his position in favour of his brother Shivrao Bhau.
In 1803, a treaty was signed between the East India Company and the Marathas. According to the treaty, Shivrao Bhau was acknowledged as an independent ruler of Jhansi. After Shivrao, two more rulers governed the region. The last ruler passed away without an heir.
In 1838, Gangadhar Rao, the youngest son of Shivrao, was chosen by the British East India Company to rule the region.
The British East India Company had entered into India as traders and exploited the prevailing political instability in the country to its benefit. It emerged as an effective master of the large part of the nation after the battle of Plassey in 1757.
The affairs of the Jhansi kingdom were in a mess when Gangadhar Rao took over its reign. With the help of the British, he restored normality in his realm. He had lost his wife, Ramabai and he was anxious that he did not have a son to succeed him. When situation in the kingdom stabilised, he started his search for a second wife. It was not easy to find a suitable girl of his caste in Jhansi.
Bithur had a large Maharastrian community so a priest was sent there to search a suitable bride. There, the priest met Moropant Tambe and sought his help in accomplishing his mission. Moropant showed him Manu’s horoscope. The priest inspected the horoscope and remarked that according to the horoscope the girl was destined to become a queen. Not just that, she was destined to bring immortal fame to her husband’s family. She would be a suitable wife for the king.
Later a meeting was arranged for the priest with Manu in the presence of Moropant at the Peshwa’s court in Bithur. The priest was impressed with Manu and obtained her and Moropant’s consent for her wedding with the king.
The priest returned to Jhansi and submitted the proposal to the king for his consideration to wed Manu. Gangadhar Rao consented. An engagement ceremony was held in Bithur with royal pomp and ceremonies. For the wedding, Manu was brought to Jhansi where the king provided a number of female attendants of her age to serve her. These girls proved to be of a similar temperament to that of Manu and played important roles during later events in her life.
Wedding rituals were performed to solemnise the marriage of Manu with Gangadhar Rao in 1842. During the wedding, Manu shocked all present when she called out in a ringing voice, “Panditji, make sure the knot is tied tightly.” Manu was fourteen years old whilst the king was a middle-aged person. Manu’s name was changed to Lakshmibai.
Soon after the wedding, Gangadhar Rao invited Lakshmibai’s father to Jhansi to settle and arranged a stipend for him. Moropant built a Krishna temple there and maintained it. He was thirty-two years old at this stage and remarried to Chimabai, who was just a few months older than Lakshmibai. It was Chimabai’s grandson Chintamani Tambe who provided much of the information about Lakshmibai’s personal characteristics to biographers. He had heard about the queen, from his grandmother.
The king and queen led a peaceful life for sometime after the wedding. They spent time enjoying art and culture. On special occasions, they rode elephants and horses in processions. The king had a huge collection of books in his library. Artists were handsomely rewarded. The British granted the king full reign of the kingdom.
However, the king was worried, as the queen had not produced a son. Lord Dalhousie, who was the governor general of India between 1848 and 1856, had formulated a Doctrine of Lapse. According to the doctrine, any princely state or territory under the direct influence of the East India Company as a vassal state under the British Subsidiary System would automatically be annexed if the ruler was either manifestly incompetent or died without a direct heir.
The queen gave birth in 1851 to a baby boy who was named Damodar Rao. However, the baby passed away when he was only three months old. The king was totally shattered. His health deteriorated and during the Navaratri in 1853, he became seriously ill.
His Newalkar relatives had come to Jhansi during the Navartri celebration. Among them was a five-year-old boy named Anand. The king wished to adopt the boy. With consent of the boy’s father, an adoption ritual was performed in the presence of the British Agent. The adopted boy was named Damodar Rao. Soon after the adoption ceremony, Gangadhar Rao passed away.
After recovering from the shock of her husband’s death, Lakshmibai maintained a strict discipline in her routine that included rising at 4am, worshiping Lord Mahadev and listening to Bhajans. She exercised regularly that included horse riding, sword fencing, wrestling and archery. She trained all her companions and several women from the town in these arts. They became famous as her Durga Dal.
Dalhousie issued an order in February 1854 annexing the kingdom using the Doctrine of Lapse. An English administrator was appointed, and the administration of the kingdom was restructured.
Lakshmibai was granted a pension of 5.000 Rupees per month. She was forced to vacate the Jhansi fort and relocate to the city palace. Intolerable excesses committed by Company officials in their dealing with her tormented Lakshmibai and her subjects.
Discontent against the Company’s rule was simmering in many parts of the country. The introduction of a controversial rifle, Enfield Pritchett, provided the spark for the rebellion. The cartridges used in this rifle were smeared with the fat of cows and pigs. The soldiers had to bite off the rear of the cartridge to put it in the barrel. The biting of such cartridges was abhorrent to both Hindu and Muslim soldiers of the Company.
Soldiers refused to use fat smeared cartridges that subsequently resulted in rebellion against the company’s rule. It started in Bengal and spread into Bihar and Awadh, and then in other provinces.
In Jhansi fort, the Company’s soldiers rebelled and killed their foreign masters. The condition in Jhansi became precarious. In the absence of any functioning government, Lakshmibai, assumed her position as a ruler, the Rani of the kingdom. She stabilised the situation and moved to the fort, which was further reinforced. Life seemed quite normal in Jhansi during the period between September 1857 and February 1858.
The British suspected that the Rani had supported the rebels. After suppressing the revolt in Delhi and Awadh, the Company’s forces surrounded Jhansi and led a siege of the town. The siege continued for two weeks, and during this period heavy battles were fought between the warring forces. The Rani valiantly defended the fort but when she started to loose ground, she decided to leave it. Carrying Damodar on her back the Rani along with her supporters left the fort. Next day she arrived at Kalpi where she met Nana Sahib’s nephew Rao Sahib, Tantya Tope and other leaders who were also fighting against the foreigners.
At Kalpi, a number of battles took place between Indian and Company’s forces. Rani led her army in the battlefield. In one of the battles, Rani Lakshmibai lost her much loved horse named Sarangi. She took another steed named Rajratna.
From Kalpi, Indian forces moved towards Gwalior. Gwalior’s king, a supporter of the British, attacked them, but was defeated. Gwalior’s king fled to Agra. Company officials learnt from him about Gwalior’s situation. They decided to attack the Indian forces in Gwalior.
A decisive battle took place near a fort at Kotah Ki Sarai on 17 June 1858. Lakshmibai, along with her female companion Mandar, was fighting the foreign enemies in the battlefield. During the fight, a bullet struck Mandar ending her life. Rani noticed her companion’s assailant and killed him with her sword. At that moment, a bullet whizzed through the air into her chest. She slumped on her horse. One of her generals named Gul Muhamad caught the horse and brought it to the hut of an ascetic, Baba Ganganath. The Rani breather her last murmuring “Har Har Mahadev”.
Her final rites were completed and her body was cremated near the hut before enemy soldiers arrived. A monument at Gwalior marks the spot where she was cremated. It lies in front of the Phoolbag palace.
Variations in details of Rani’s feats are found in folklores and tales.
Lakshmibai’s story of valour has been told and sung by bards, poets and writers. The poem Jhansi Ki Rani by Subhadra Kumari Chouhan is one of the most recited and loved compositions. Subhash Chandra Bose named the women regiment of Indian National Army, The Rani of Jhansi Regiment. Lakshmibai remains an inspiration for patriots and especially for girls and women.