The archetype of the Rani of Jhansi, strident warrior queen has consistently fascinated historians, and with good reason. Her life and times as well as the impact of her personality and rule make for interesting study. The fact of her valour in spite of her womanhood in the typically male province of war just exacerbates what is the typically romanticised ideal of her life. However, her masculinity is the oft emphasised fact, with her physical prowess being the facet of her life looked at most often. The stanza from a famous poem about her life talks about her as a mardani, a masculine woman and her masculine appearance including her style of dressing and much-admired figure made her a more imposing physical presence to follow, especially on the battlefield.
Her stature as a viranagana continues to inspire, and the women’s regiment of the Indian army even today is known as the Rani of Jhansi Regiment
The doctrinal method of research has been followed in the creation of this project, consulting both books available in the NALSAR library as well as online publications and sources. No part of this project has been plagiarised from any of the sources available.
Nature and Scope
The aim of this project is to give as comprehensive as possible of an overview of the life of the Rani of Jhansi, both as a historical figure, and a figure of popular imagination. An attempt will also be made to study in detail and specifically her role in the 1857 Mutiny also commonly known as the First War of Indian Independence.
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This project has been chapterised in such a manner that the first chapter covers the early life of the Rani, before she became the Rani of Jhansi and was just a tomboyish child named Manikarnika. The second chapter attempts to explore her life during the pendency of her marriage, while also exploring the political background and situation at the time. The third chapter deals with her life as a widow, and explores the true significance of her period as the de facto leader of an area. The fourth chapter deals with her role in the revolt of 1857, while the fifth talks about the battle of Gwalior, where she met her eventual fate.
Born around 1828 to a Brahmin family from the region of Nagpur, her father Moropant was employed as a military adviser to Chimnaji Appa, brother to Baji Rao II, and she thus grew up with military exposure, spending her time with names such as Tantia Tope and Nana Saheb. Originally named Manikarnika (Ear Jewel), her nickname has remained in popular culture as Manu. She was born in the region around Benares or Varanasi. Her mother’s name was Bhagirathi; however, she died early, possibly when Lakshmibai was around the age of two.
When Lakshmibai was nearly three, Chimnaji Appa died, and her father moved to the region of Bithur to join the court of Baji Rao, spending most of her childhood in the palace there, learning skills such as reading and writing as well as military practice.
Of her childhood and early life not much is known, and indeed the details of nearly her whole life are shrouded in mystery, with contrary reports emanating from several sides. In her childhood, she appears to have been somewhat tomboyish, with several stories about her confirming such fact. One of the apocryphal tales about her runs thus: When she was seven years old or so, she climbed an elephant’s trunk until its tusk and in doing so managed to tame it.
When she was around fourteen, she was married to Maharaja Gangadhar Rao of Jhansi, in a lavish celebration where she a sum of almost 40,000 rupees was spent. Lakshmibai was the second wife of Gangadhar Rao, the first having died issueless. This has been approximately dated as being around May 1842.
The political state of the area was of a location in upheaval. Until 1843, Jhansi was ruled in accordance with the dictates of the British. After this, Gangadhar Rao who the British generally considered to be a fool ruled solely, but apparently “neither very wisely nor very well”. Nevertheless, the rulers of this princely state had followed a consistently pro-British policy, thus believing they would be protected from the ill effects of British rule.
With her marriage, Manikarnika, in keeping with popular royal practice, was changed to Lakshmi, becoming, as she would forever more be known, the Rani of Jhansi. Her married life apparently was not the happiest; reports have suggested that the Raja was a homosexual or that he had one or more mistresses, also that he had a general penchant for dressing up as a woman and there existed a great difference in ages between them.
For the first time since her mother died, she was required to live in proper seclusion, having to follow the many rules and etiquettes dictated by the ladies of the court. Lakshmibai, growing weary of the boredom of court life, decided to begin a consortium or regiment of like-minded women for the purposes of horseback riding and training in arms. She is also said to have practised swordsmanship and wrestling, being greatly proficient in all these skills and being self taught in the use of weaponry.
The traditional people of the court did not appreciate these feats of hers, instead condemning her for such unwomanly pursuits, especially since as can be seen from several accounts, she adopted as masculine a dress as possible (Marathi saris, draped between the legs and long belted tunics into whose belt she stuck her sword. At the time of her death she was said to be wearing a red jacket, red trousers and a turban.) and chose to ride, not side saddle but astride. She encouraged her ladies-in-waiting also to undergo physical training, and it is said she occasionally took part in battles at the zenana with the armed women who guarded it.
According to the biographer of the Rani, eventually Gangadhar Rao lost all interest in governance and passed the reigns of state on to his young wife. This fact has been disputed, though.
She did beget a son; however, he lived for only three months. The death of this successor caused much sadness to the maharaja, but its real significance came from its drastic impact on the line of succession. It is said that, overcome with grief, her husband died soon after, although not without adopting an heir first: Damodar Rao, a member of the extended family. Initially the Maharaja was very reluctant to take such a step, only finally acceding to the request the day before he died. To make sure this was understood by the British correctly, two British officers were invited to observe the ceremony. At the same time, a letter was written, making the request that the British were 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. A tract from this letter is reproduced here below:
“I trust that in consideration of the fidelity I have evinced towards the government favour may be shown towards this child and that my widow during her lifetime may be considered the Regent of the state and mother of this child and not be molested in any way.”
There was cause for worry considering the death of the heir since Gangadhar’s grandfather had signed a treaty with the British that granted him and his heirs’ title to Jhansi in perpetuity. However, the history of the succession had been confused, and with the coming of Lord Dalhousie into power in 1848, the Doctrine of Lapse had taken on great significance, with the states of Satara, Jaitpur, Samabalpur, Raghat and Udaipur all being annexed in quick succession.
Life after the death of Gangadhar Rao in 1852
Lord Dalhousie, however, did not see fit to uphold the trust reposed in him by Gangadhar Rao and decided upon the annexation of the territory in accordance with the provisions of the doctrine of Lapse. To justify taking this step despite the presence of a validly adopted heir, they cited a precedent wherein the adopted heir of a previous Maharaja of Jhansi had been rejected and instead an uncle had been appointed to the throne. This, Lord Dalhousie argued, gave a clear precedent that the British possessed the power to accept or reject adopted heirs at will.
These developments must have come as a crushing blow to the young Rani, who in one fell swoop lost not only her husband, but her inheritance, the title to the land, and was strongly encouraged to shave her head and live a life of seclusion as befitted a widow.
Shockingly, for the time, but indicative of her strong personality, she chose not to do this but instead engaged a renowned English solicitor by the name of John Lang, and about a month after the order for the annexation of Jhansi had gone forth, who attempted to caution her against inopportune action. He counselled her to accept the pension of nearly 60,000 rupees being offered by the British. This, however, was unacceptable to her and with a cry of “Main Jhansi nahin doongi”, she whirled off to explore other possible avenues.
She began sending letters to various people, including Lord Dalhousie. Three letters, translated from the Persian, were sent in December 1853, February 1854 and April 1854 protesting the annexation has been found. She talked in these letters of the proper Hindu rites that had been validly performed to create a sound adoption. However, Dalhousie in India was the model of anti-traditionalism, and placed very little importance on Indian customary practice.
The Rani then announced her intention to retreat from Jhansi and live in Varanasi. This threw the British authorities into a state of considerable turmoil, since they realised what a backlash of public sentiment this would cause. The people of Jhansi had made amply clear their lack of desire to be governed by the British.
Sir Colvin requested the Sir Robert Hamilton, the political agent to appease the Rani, and pursuant to this he arrived at Jhansi. A banquet in his honour was thrown, with people including her adopted son and her father arrived. As tradition demanded, the Rani was in purdah but she emerged partway to make her demands in face-to-face conversation. She made it amply clear she would not accept being a citizen under a magistrate. Sir Robert was greatly impressed by her forthrightness.
However, nothing followed from this meeting. The next year, again, such an invitation was extended, where the Rani expressed her whole dependence on the British. By playing thus on British sympathies, she managed to create a strong relation with Sir Robert, that at points seemed to border on impropriety.
However, apart from Sir Robert, the Rani grew ever more resentful of British heavy-handedness. The manner of treatment was insensitive to India morality and opprobrious to their traditions. In the year that Jhansi was officially annexed, there was a law passed amidst myriad protests allowing cow slaughter in the territory. The Hindu population thus had their beliefs most cruelly trampled upon. There was also a discontinuance of a long-practised temple subsidy. Thus we can see the formation of rather than the previous equality, a formation of a rather more rigid master-servant relation. This was the situation roughly at the beginning of the 1857 revolt.
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Revolt of 1857
The immediate cause of the variously named First War of Indian Independence or the Sepoy Mutiny is a matter of common knowledge. To recant, the revolt began for several reasons, including that of the doctrine of Lapse coming into force, but the immediate cause was a further flaunting of the Indians traditions and cultures by introducing for the sepoys a form of rifle cartridge that was said to be greased with pig and cow fat. The idea of pig fat was desperately offensive to the Muslims, while cow fat rendered the Hindus unclean, thus tainting their caste status. The simmering resentment they had been feeling boiled over at this point, leading to the outbreak of open warfare. The revolt began from Meerut in the May of 1857, and quickly spread to various locations throughout the country. The army there was disbanded, but the movement had spread. The mutineers managed to recapture Delhi, and reinstated Bahadur Shah II as the King. The armies of Central and East India rose up as one collective voice.
The Rani was informed of the revolt near the end of May. Tantia Tope and Nana Sahib were ringleaders in this revolt, and they had been childhood friends of hers. Contrary to what is popularly believed, she did not throw herself into the revolt incautiously or rashly, but initially was apprehensive and fearful about the possible consequences. She initially vacillated, but eventually threw herself in with the rebels whole-heartedly and bravely. She was one of the few rulers of the princely states to do so, most choosing to side with the British instead.
The decision she took was a hard one for several reasons. She was aware that the collapse of authority could pose a serious threat to the continuance of her own existence. Ever since Jhansi had been annexed, she was without her own military retainers and was viewed largely as a rich, helpless widow. The position of the rebels was said to be precarious, and even the reinstated emperor was not being treated appropriately. She had no reason to believe she would fare any better.
The British officer initially had no apprehensions about the breakout of a rebellion in Jhansi. The Rani sent word to Captain Skene, a British office, that she was very worried about the wellbeing of the British citizens in the territory, and offered to house them in her palace. Captain Skene, however, gave the orders for all Britons to be moved to a fortress on the outskirts. There was apparently an attempt at an abortive mutiny at night, which however was speedily abandoned, and accounts of which are thoroughly confused. On 6th June, however, there was a great crowd that marched to the Rani’s house, following which they marched across the city to the barracks and then opened fire, immediately killing officers such as Captain Dunlop, Lieutenant Turnbull and Lieutenant Campbell. Lieutenant Taylor fled on a horse and managed to reach palace gates, and thus safety.
The prison inmates were then released, and a mob went and placed the British fortress under siege. During all of this there was no sight of the Rani, and there were reports she had barricaded herself in her own palace. On the 7th of June, the rebel heads met with the Rani to discuss the leadership of Jhansi and what was to become of the imprisoned Britons. Although there is no concrete information on this point, it is considered likely that she was aware of the fact that those in the fort were under a sentence of death.
She refused at this point to receive British envoys from Captain Skene in whom she had previously reposed a not-inconsiderable amount of trust. At this point, she was relatively passive towards both sides, refusing to help or hinder either. There has been no consensus on the degree of responsibility she enjoyed for allowing the deaths of nearly every European in her city.
Initially the British believed in her general lack of complicity in the entire situation, thus positing her as the regent of the city until the point when soldiers of the British could be allowed into the city.
One of the reasons posited for so much trust being reposed in her was that she possessed not-inconsiderable personal charm and also was a very hands-on ruler, appearing every morning to judge matters as an able, fair administrator.
At this point the Rani faced danger from two directions: firstly, to a lesser degree from the British and secondly from the person she had previously posited as a candidate for the rule of Jhansi, Sadasheo Rao. However she was successful in routing him and allowed him to then live under her regency. She then became victim of another plot- Jhansi’s neighbour, Orccha, was under Prime Minister Nathe Khan preparing to attack her. The city and fortress of Jhansi were besieged on 3rd September, 1857. She relied on the fact she would receive British help- however, certain officers, believing she had been unnecessarily devious, began what amounted to a smear campaign. She had a difficult time maintaining control of the city but she eventually managed to. It is during this period that she gained most of her reputation as a staunch and steadfast warrior.
In the meanwhile, the mutiny had raged strong and steady in the rest of the country.
The mutineers had, by recapturing Delhi, attracted the notice of the British who prior to this were disinclined to take much notice of the incidents. In September,
Delhi was recaptured, and the titular Mughal emperor was recaptured. He was then deported to Rangoon where he remained until his death.
The insurgents in Central India were ably led by Tantia Tope, who towards the end of the year, joined the troops of Nana Saheb, and managed to capture the territory of Cawnpore. He then joined Rani Lakshmibai and carried out a desperate fight in Central India. Meanwhile, Sir Hugh Rose, an able British officer managed in early 1858 to defeat Tantia Tope, and in April stormed Jhansi. The Rani stole out stealthily on the night of 4th April with a few followers going to Kalpi which was also captured shortly after. The Rani and Tantia Tope then marched to Gwalior, and drove out Sindhia to Agra. Nana Saheb was then proclaimed as the Peshwa of the region. Sir Rose, realising the grave dangers this posited, attempted to check the activities of the Rani and Tantia, sending troops to Gwalior.
The battle of Gwalior
The battle commenced on desiccated battlefields in Gwalior on the 17th of June, 1858. It raged furiously from the early morning on, between armies of mutinying Indian rebels and British soldiers supported by sepoys.
Towards the south-east, a squadron of the 8th Hussars Regiment led by Captain Heneage attacked a group of between 200 and 300 rebels. The fight began, and in the middle of the fight, one of the soldiers spied a medium sized figure clad in the red uniform of a cavalry officer. The fight was going badly for the rebels, who were in retreat mode, but they were being exhorted forward by the rallying figure. A shot was fired, which missed the figure, but a blow from a sabre managed to kill the figure. This was the Rani of Jhansi, clad in men’s gear, who had appeared on the battlefield to encourage and to fight, who ultimately was mortally wounded. There have been varying accounts of this story too, but this is commonly accepted as the most likely.
In that moment, the woman Rani Laxmibai was killed, but the legend of the warrior Rani of Jhansi came to life.
It is easy to see why the story of Rani Laxmibai has passed so quickly into legend, a large part of which is her refusal in a far more conventional time to accept socially dictated mores of gender conventionality. She is described as being a woman who was not pretty, but possessed of an extremely fine figure, and her elevation from the position of a noblewoman to that of a strong warrior queen holds much interest, not least because the reasons for her marriage remain solely subjects of conjecture.
She was undoubtedly a good administrator but some of the blame for the failure of the revolt is placed at her doorstep, for initially being very passive and then lacking the organisational skills to settle the rebels. She was a capable woman physically but lacked military aptitude and training. Her worth, however, came majorly from her ability to inspire confidence and her sheer bravery.
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