Rani Laxmibai, the queen of Jhansi and the widow of Gungadhar Rao, was no ordinary woman. She was born into a Brahmin family who pledged alliance to the Maratha ruler, the Peshwa. Her mother died when she was very little, and she was brought up amongst boys in the Peshwa’s court where her father was employed.
Amid her male companions she learned to read and write; she also became adept at horsemanship and the use of weapons, no mean accomplishments for a woman in her time. As was customary then, she was married at the age of eight to the Rajah of Jhansi in 1842, moving to her new home at the age of fourteen. Bored with palace life, she continued practicing with her weapons, an art she is believed to have taught the other ladies of the palace.
The only child born to the Rani and her husband died in infancy, and five days before her husband’s death, they adopted a five-year old boy, a fifth cousin of the king. Gungadhar Rao died in 1853, leaving his adopted son as heir, and Rani Laxmibai, as Regent of the state.
The Doctrine of Lapse, formalized in 1841, decreed “native states” would lapse to British control where no natural heir existed on the death of the ruler. It was used most effectively by Lord Dalhousie, Governor-General of India from 1848-1856, who believed that consolidation of territory was essential to improve British administration throughout India and to ease the path for expanding railways and irrigation channels for the transfer of British goods and troops. Jhansi, a tiny territory, strategically located along the route for silk, cotton, and spice traders, derived a substantial income from the excise it charged for goods carried across its borders, and was the perfect target for the Doctrine of Lapse.
In a series of letters to Lord Dalhousie, Rani Laxmibai argued that she expected that the adoption would be approved for succession purposes by the British government because they had recently approved three adoptions under similar conditions in the neighboring states of Datia, Urcha, and Jaloun.
The queen’s letter was translated and forwarded by Major Ellis, who added a note concurring with the queen on the adoption-succession in two of the three states she mentioned. In a separate letter addressed to Major Malcolm, the Political Agent, Major Ellis wrote:
I beg leave to observe that we have a treaty of alliance and
friendship with the Jhansi as well as the Urcha State, and that I cannot discover any difference in the terms of the two which would justify our withholding of adoption from one State and allowing it to the other.
(House of Commons 1855)
While Major Ellis, who was resident in Jhansi, appeared sympathetic to the royal family, the British government in Calcutta had a differing viewpoint. The Secretary to the Government of India, J.P. Grant, in his letter to Governor-General Dalhousie, stated that Jhansi “falls into the class of those who hold [power] by gift from a sovereign or paramount power” (House of Commons 1855), and whose grants therefore could fail in the absence of male heirs. “There is now no male heir of the body of any Rajah or Sobedar of Jhansi,” he stated. Secretary Grant also called attention to the fact that Gungadhar Rao and his predecessors were incompetent rulers. In the decade from 1828 to 1838, the revenue of Jhansi had fallen from 1,800,000 to 300,000 rupees because of “gross mismanagement.”
But the Rani was not willing to give up so easily. In a second letter, dated January 16, 1854, she reminded the British that the rulers of Jhansi had never failed to honor the terms of the treaty of alliance. During the Burmese war, grain had been carried to the British troops at no cost to them; at other times weapons and soldiers had been provided to help the British.
The Rani deftly argued that the treaty used the term “warisan” referring to natural heirs, and “janishinan” referring to “the party adopted as heir and successor,” and granted succession to both. “Treaties are studied with the utmost care before ratification,” she reminded the Governor-General, “and it is not to be supposed that the term janishinan used in contradistinction to warisan was introduced in this document … without a precise understanding of its meaning.”
The queen’s arguments and pleas went unheeded, and Lord Dalhousie and his council ordered that Jhansi be annexed on the grounds of “gross mismanagement,” reduced revenue as a result of it, and the absence of a natural born heir. Jhansi was annexed in 1854.
The queen was offered a pension of 5,000 rupees per month, which was equivalent to 6,000 pounds per annum; Lord Dalhousie’s income as GovernorGeneral was 25,000 pounds per annum. The queen continued to reside in one of the palaces, while the British administration was installed to administer Jhansi.
A few years later, the British accused the Rani of being one of the chief conspirators in the Mutiny of 1857. The Mutiny, or First War of Indian Independence, primarily a rebellion of native army soldiers against their British commanding officers, took an ugly turn in several cities, including Jhansi. In Jhansi, the rebels brutally massacred an estimated 66 Europeans, including women and children.
Rani Laxmibai’s role in the massacre has remained unclear and disputed by nineteenth and twentieth-century historians.
Arguments that contend she was innocent are based on the appeals for help that she sent to the British, asking for additional troops to control the rebels and the neighboring threats of invasion faced by Jhansi. She also sent letters of apology for the deaths of the European civilians.
Modern-day biographer Tapti Roy offers the opinion that while the Rani might not have ordered the massacre, her close association with the rebels including the involvement of her own father, means that she may have at least had some inkling of the rebels’ intent.
She was officially declared as the rebel-leader after the massacre. Convinced that Rani Laxmibai was conspiring with the rebels and was responsible for the civilian deaths, British troops were sent to Jhansi to arrest her.
The Rani quickly put together her own troops with the help of allies, including other Mutiny leaders who were her childhood friends, and eventually escaped from Jhansi on horseback, pursued by the British army. After almost two months of pursuit and fighting, the Rani was killed on the battlefield near the city of Gwalior, in June 1858.
The Rani’s death at the hands of a British soldier absolved her of some of her guilt, as far as the British were concerned. It was easier to express respect for a dead heroine, than an active opponent. Sir Hugh Rose, the commander of the siege of Jhansi who had accused her of being a traitor before her death, and who refused to negotiate with the “cruel and treacherous” woman, referred to her as the “best and bravest of the rebels.”
Other British commentators followed suit; a Bombay newspaper reporter stated: “Her life has been a brief and eventful one…her courage shines pre-eminent, and can only be equalled, but not eclipsed by that of Joan of Arc.” The Rani, frequently referred to as Jezebel after the Jhansi massacre, was likened to Joan of Arc after her death.
Rani Laxmibai was much loved by the people of Jhansi during her lifetime, but her death made her an instant martyr and a glorious heroine.
The origin of many legends about her starts with the details of her death. The commonly accepted belief is that she was killed while on horseback, either by a sword or by British shelling when her horse refused to leap over a ditch. She is described as dashingly dressed like a man: in a red jacket, with her cropped hair covered by a white turban.
A more dramatic version of the story relates how she died in the thick of fighting the British, armed with swords in both hands, surrounded by British soldiers.
Another romanticized story claims that the Rani was injured by a bullet, and that her supporters moved her to a nearby location where she “ordered a funeral pile to be built, which she ascended and fired with her own hand while almost in the act of dying,” rather like a sati. Before she died, she ordered that the jewels on her person be distributed amongst her troops.
The Rani’s legend survived in arts and local folklore: in paintings and temple murals that depict her in battle, and in poetry, ballad and song, which were passed down from generation to generation and absorbed in many narrations.
By the late nineteenth-century, a few new plays and novels were written that underscored her intelligence, justice, and compassion, and stressed her innocence in the massacre of Jhansi.
Most significantly, the Rani fit in with the ideology of feminine attributes that were highlighted during the late-nineteenth century. Rani Laxmibai had all the appropriate attributes to fit into the idealized, “mother-goddess” image.
She belonged to an upper-caste Hindu family, was dutiful in her obligations to her husband during his lifetime and, after his death, fought to protect the rights of her adopted son, sacrificing her life to protect her kingdom of Jhansi. The popular symbol of the Rani as a mother and a warrior appeared in the late-nineteenth century in the form of paintings and statues that depicted her dressed as a warrior, on horseback and with a small boy tied on at the back.
She is believed to have escaped from Jhansi at night, with the boy strapped behind her, and this art form combines the archetypes of the mother and the warrior-queen. The Rani was thus depicted by nationalist sentiment as a virangana, a warrior-queen, who had proved to the British—and the Indians—that Indian women were heroic, and capable protectors of the nation.
This Rani image was repeatedly invoked at the height of the Indian independence movement. Poems written about her valor were recited at secret meetings; political plays about her were disguised as religious ones. In such plays, the Rani’s role was depicted as a powerful goddess slaying an evil demon; the demon, of course, symbolized the British.
The Rani served as an empowering role model for young Indian women who started participating in the nationalist movement. The nineteenth-century socio-religious reform movement, the Arya Samaj created an educational curriculum that included a model of womanhood based on the virangana.
The Rani of Jhansi regiment was an all-female regiment of the Indian National Army (INA). Created in 1943, by Subhash Chandra Bose, the Rani of Jhansi regiment sought to attract young women under the potent symbol of the revolutionary queen.
The Rani legend has lived on in modern-day Amar Chitra Katha comics, and in classroom recitations of Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s Hindi poem about the queen who “fought like a man.”
In death, as in life, Rani Laxmibai has continued to inspire with her courage to fight the British, and her valor in dying a heroic death.
Aarti Johri is a tech-professional turned history buff. This piece is an extract from her thesis for the Stanford MLA degree. Her articles have been published in the San Jose Mercury News Stanford’s Tangents Magazine, Stanford’s Dabba. She serves on the board of SACHI (Society for the Art and Cultural Heritage of India).