A symbol of female empowerment, Lakshmibai has been acknowledged as a folk hero in India for decades. Portraits and statues of her riding a horse, her son tightly strapped behind her back as she wields a sword in the air, are a common sight in the country.
Though the Rani (Queen) is hailed as a warrior queen in the East, her name is lesser-known everywhere else.
Born as Manikarnika to the royal advisor of Peshwa Baji Rao II, Prime Minister of the Maratha Empire – a power that dominated a large portion of the Indian subcontinent in the 18th century – she was married to Maharaja Gangadar Rao, the ruler of Jhansi, a city in the Indian state of Uttar Pardesh, in 1842 and was given the name she is commonly known by today: Lakhshmibai.
From a young age, Lakhshmibai became the epitome of what a traditional Indian woman was not permitted to be in her time: she was educated, fiercely independent, and skilled in the art of sword fighting as well as archery. When she wasn’t practicing swinging her sword or shooting arrows, the future queen of Jhansi enjoyed horse riding the most.
When she became the Rani, she didn’t give up her old ways but instead decided to teach the women around her the skills that she had garnered over the years, inculcating in them the same power and confidence that she had.
The people of Jhansi saw her as a queen who was kind and compassionate towards her loyal subjects. She was also known as an unconventional monarch by many as she refused to conform to the Indian values that most women followed.
The Rani had rejected the norm of concealing oneself in public, as many women did in her time, and urged to meet with British officials and her advisors in person. Her attire also reflected the power that she possessed as she broke gender stereotypes by donning a turban, a hat piece most commonly worn by men.
After the Maharajah’s demise in 1853, Lakhshimibai was left in a troubled situation concerning her right, and her adopted son’s right, to reign over the city of Jhansi. James Ramsay, the Governer-General of India, had declared that under the “doctrine of lapse”, British India was to annex the land of Jhansi as there was no heir to the throne by blood.
The Rani, frustrated by the circumstances that she was a part of, sent numerous letters to the Government House in Calcutta and pleaded for her son’s adoption to be acknowledged and to allow her to rule over Jhansi as its regent. However, all her letters were disregarded.
Lakhshmibai tried to negotiate and use her legal power, but all her efforts proved fruitless. The once queen of Jhansi was forced to retire to a quiet life of widowhood.
In 1857, after facing injustices for many years, the Hindus and Muslims of India began an uprising against the British rule in the subcontinent. The mutiny began in Meerut and slowly spread across towns in North India and became a mass rebellion referred to as the First War of Independence by many Indians.
When the soldiers stationed in Jhansi invaded the Star Fort, ironically enough, the British in Jhansi turned to Lakhshmibai and asked her to regain control of the city until the mutiny came to an end and provide 60 British men, women and children sanctuary in the Jhansi Fort.
However, the fort was eventually besieged and the commander of the British force, Captain Gordon, was killed by the mutineers. The rest of the British contingent were later massacred as they were leaving the fort unarmed.
Although it was unclear what part Lakhshmibai played in the Jhansi Fort massacre, it is believed by many that she was the one who instigated it. Despite this possible conflict of interest, the British gave the Rani control over Jhansi’s administration until they settled down the rebellion that had spread wide across India.
After peacefully ruling over Jhansi for only a few months, the British found Lakhshmibai responsible for the massacre in Jhansi Fort, deeming her “guilty by association” due to her close friendship with Nana Saheb, the adopted son of the last Peshwa (ruler) of the Maratha Empire who had perpetrated many massacres at Kanpur while the rebellion was in process.
Subsequently, Lakhshmibai was declared to be “the Jezebel of India … the young, energetic, proud, unbending, uncompromising Ranee … upon her head rested the blood of the slain, and a punishment as awful awaited her” by Dr Thomas Lowe, the Medical Officer of the Madras Sappers and Miners.
When the news reached to the Rani that the British would be coming to avenge the killing of their people, Lakhshmibai began to raise an army of her own consisting of 14,000 men and women.
Lakhshmibai faught long and hard beside her troops to protect her Jhansi but the power of the British army was too much for them to handle and a few weeks after the British had attacked, the Jhansi Fort was sieged. That very night, Lakhshmibai escaped the premises with her son and a few followers in tow.
The Rani, after making her brave escape, joined forces with the rebels in Gwalior and began training her army. However, in June of 1858, the British troops attacked Gwalior and Lakhshmibai, “clad in the attire of a man and mounted on horseback”, was killed in battle.
Lakhshmibai wasn’t just an ordinary woman but a force of nature who refused to back down. The Rani didn’t hide away in cowardice but gave everything she had to try to win back the land that she loved so dearly. Even though she lost the battle, she gained respect and love in the hearts of many for her bravery.
General Hugh Rose, the leader of the British troop, reportedly himself mentioned after the battle ended that, “The Indian Mutiny had produced but one man and that man was a woman.”
Standing tall and ready to fight for her Jhansi and its people, Lakhshmibai left her mark on the world by becoming a powerful exemplary female figure for generations to come.
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