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'Bundelay harbolon ke munh hamne suni kahani thi/khuh lari mardani woh to Jhansi wali Rain thi' sings the hard narrating the valiant struggle of one of the most famous characters of India in recent history. When Rani Lakshmi Bai rose against the British in I857 AD she immortalized Jhansi.

The rather formidable young woman pictured is Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi. She died in 1858 fighting the British in what was the last major action in the Great Indian Rebellion which had started the year before.

Her story first caught my attention in a book in which she only rated a couple of paragraphs. Not surprisingly since in the scope of the Rebellion in particular, or Indian history in general it is just one episode among many, a footnote. Indeed in some works on Indian history the whole episode is not mentioned.

She was cheated twice by the British. Firstly, in 1854 when they annexed Jhansi on the death of her husband, the Raja. Secondly, when they unjustly accused her of complicity in the mutiny and massacre that occurred in Jhansi 3 years later. As a result of the actions of the British, and others, she was catapulted from being a 'housewife' to the leader of an army and the most important leader of the Indian Rebellion in the space of less than a year. Her death on June 17th 1858, effectively ending the Indian resistance.

It could be said the British tried to cheat her a third time with their attempts to blacken her name and reputation. Within India they failed, and there are suggestions that not everyone was convinced in the British camp as well. Nonetheless even today those claims continue to cast a shadow. .

Today her name is commonplace throughout India, renowned as a leader of the Rebellion, but she was more than a martial leader. In her brief time she cast aside many conventions to unite peoples of all castes and religions in her cause. She put aside purdah, which she only observed with respect to the British in any case, encouraged other women to do the same and trained them to fight and support the main army; Lakshmibai was not the only Jhansi woman to die fighting the British. She cut across the social norms of the time, refusing to accept her fate 'as a woman'. She cared for all her people, and consulted with them at crucial times, and carried them with her.

This is, I suppose, my homage to a remarkable woman and to all the other Lakshmibai's the world over, those women who have had to fight, whether with words or swords, to protect themselves, their families, their homes, and, sadly, still are fighting. Perhaps the biggest fight for women right now is that faced by the women of Afghanistan faced as they were by a misogynistic and psychotic leadership and whose struggles continue.

 

The Legendary Rani of Jhansi

Birth

Lakshmibai started life as Manikarnika, nicknamed Manu, born in Varanasi (Benares) the daughter of Bhagirathi and Moropant Tambe in 1827 or 1828. There is some confusion over her birthdate.

Manikarnika's mother died when she was small, possibly when she was about two years old.

Moropant Tambe was an advisor to Chimnaji Appa, brother to Baji Rao II who was the last of the Maratha peshwas. Chimnaji Appa died when Manikarnika was about three and her father moved to Bithur and became a member of the court of Baji Rao. As a result of her father's position she spent her childhood in the palace.

Childhood

As a child she seems to have been something of a tomboy. Was her father disappointed that his only child (so far as we know), was a girl? Did she try to compensate and be the son he wanted?

She is said to have had Nana Sahib, Tatya Tope among her playmates. However it should be noted that Nana Sahib was at least 7 or 8 years older, being born about 1820, and Tatya Tope, who was born about 1813, was about 14 years her senior, and this at an age when even a single year can make a big difference.

One story has it that when denied a ride on his elephant by Nana Sahib, she declared that one day she would have 10 elephants to everyone of his. If this story is true it could either be childish bravado or may have occurred in the period between betrothal and her marriage.

It is also said that her father educated her to be a queen. As her father travelled with her to Jhansi and was employed by Gangadhar Rao it is likely that this education occurred after her marriage.

She was married to Gangadhar Rao, Raja of Jhansi, when she was about 14 in May 1842. An entry in the Jhansi accounts shows that a sum of 40,000 rupees was allocated for the celebrations. This entry confirms the oral history noted by Lebra for this date and that the marriage was celebrated with fireworks and cannon firing a salute. Lakshmibai was Gangadhar Rao's second wife, the first having died, and without bearing a child.

Married Life

With her marriage, Manikarnika changed her name to Lakshmi. The change of name being the custom for Indian royalty, not dissimilar to the change of name when British royalty (or the Pope) ascend the throne.

We can not know what life was like for her in Jhansi, or what her married life was like - some have suggested that the Raja was a homosexual, others that he had at least one mistress, in either case not exactly a devoted husband. And this is before we consider their age difference.

Lakshmibai was an excellent horse rider, and was also said to have been a good judge of horses. It is known that she exercised and practiced with weapons, and famously at some point, drilled and trained a 'regiment' of women. This may not have been quite so unusual as it appears. The zenana (women's quarters) was often guarded by armed women, and these occassionally took part in battles. What was unusual was for the Rani to be in charge of their training.

It is said that she had a son in 1851 but that it died after 3 months. Whether or not this is true, when Gangadhar died in 1853 they were childless. When he fell ill and his death was anticipated they tried to persuade him to adopt a son, he relented only the day before his death. They adopted the 5 year old Damodar Rao, a member of Gangadhar's extended family. To ensure that the British understood that the adoption was proper the local British officials, the Political Agent, Major Ellis, and a Captain Martin, were called to witness the event.

At the same time, a will was prepared requesting the British to treat Damodar as the true son of Gangadhar and that Lakshmibai should be Regent. The will was read to Major Ellis, and repeated in a letter to the Political Agent for Gwalior and Bundelkhand, a Major Malcolm.

Gangadhar's grandfather had signed a treaty with the British which granted him and his heirs and successors title to Jhansi in perpetuity. The history of the succession had been complicated by previous childless successions, British interventions in the running of the state, and additional treaties. Nonetheless, the rulers of Jhansi had been pro-British since that time of the initial treaty and it was not anticipated that there would be a problem with the succession.

Gangadhar Rao died on the 21st November 1853.

Note that the will precludes that Lakshmibai would become a sati, some would have it that she declined that 'honour'. The practice of sati had been outlawed by the British in 1829. It is unlikely that Gangadhar Rao, even if he approved of the practice (many didn't), would expect his wife to break that law. In fact Lashmibai limited her official mourning activities to the minimum, she stayed inside for the minimum period expected, 13 days, did not shave her head, break her bangles, or dress in the widow's white

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