Lakshmibai (c. 1835–1858)
Lakshmibai (c. 1835–1858)
Legendary Indian rani (queen) of the principality of Jhansi, revered for her bravery and astute leadership, who is a symbol of sacrifice in India's fight for freedom against the British. Name variations: Rani of Jhansi; Maharani of Jhansi; Maharanee of Jhansi; Rani Lakshmibai; Lakshmi Bai; Laksmi; Manikarnika. Pronunciation: RAH-nee Luck-SHMEE-baa-ee. Born Manikarnika, nicknamed Manu, around 1835 in Varanasi, India; died in 1858 (also cited as 1857) on the battlefield in Gwalior, near Jhansi; daughter of Moropant Tambe (a court advisor) and Bhagirathi; educated by private tutors; studied literature, military strategy, and equestrian training; married Gangadhar Rao, in May 1842 but the marriage was not consummated until 1849 (died 1853); children: infant son (b. 1851, who died at age of three months).
In the vast history of India's independence movement which commenced around 1857, Indian tales and legends have focused on the princes, kings, and other men who resisted the British. There is one woman, however, who has shared this august position: Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi. Indian women have been perceived by the world, and themselves, as being submissive and lacking in heroism comparable to their male counterparts. Rani Lakshmibai's story not only debunks this myth but also stands as a resounding testimony to the numerous women who, after their own fashion, were involved in this struggle. It is no accident that every Indian who has been to school can recite the Subhadra Kumari Chauhan paean to the rani's heroism.
Thou art thy own memorial
Thou has shown the way
And teacheth thou a lesson—
Of Freedom and Fight
Of Honour and Pride
Bundelas sang of the Rani
The fighter for Right,
Honor, Justice and Freedom.
Chivalrous Bundelas sang
Chanting songs of Lord Shiva,
The Rani, the damsel fought for Jhansi,
Recount her valour, people of India!
However, this respect for Lakshmibai was revived only after the women of free and independent India resurrected her memory as a symbol of both Indian nationalism and a woman's strength and fortitude. Her legend has reached epic proportions, and has given her immortality in Indian culture. After all, a 24-year-old widow gallantly fighting against the British East India Company's soldiers was not the order of the day. Rani Lakshmibai represents a potent ideal for Indian women; she and her story live in the Indian woman's continued struggle for freedom from the stranglehold of patriarchy.
The remarkable legend attached to the rani's bravery has sustained itself in the oral tradition of storytelling, as well as ballads, poems, and the cinema. She stands head and shoulders above the freedom-fighters of the 19th century. Lakshmibai's profile goes beyond the defined categories of women: daughter, wife, mother, and temptress. Her legendary status is goddesslike, a function of the Hindu symbol of female heroism manifested in the goddess Shakti (Durga) who rides a tiger destroying evil and has power equivalent to ten men. It is this idiom of Hindu definition that distinguishes Lakshmibai from female heroes of the West and has made her the greatest of all Asian heroines.
Rani Lakshmibai's account is set against the backdrop of the 19th-century expansion of British colonialism into territories that constitute modern unified India. The British East India Company, formed in 1600, had firmly established itself as a political and commercial presence in Eastern India by 1757. For over a century, the tentacles of the company spread under the auspices of the British Crown, consuming within it vast tracts of land and the independence of numerous principalities-states. Besides the military acquisition of states which was the mode of choice for expanding control, the British introduced another technique, the system of "lapse." Enunciated and implemented by Governor-General James Dalhousie, lapse allowed the British to assume control of states whose rulers died without natural heirs, or who, according to Hindu custom, adopted heirs on their deathbeds. The lapse method was unpopular with Indians, who deeply resented such annexation. By the mid-1850s, bitterness had reached immense proportions. Several other factors fed into this resentment, including loss of independence, fear of forcible conversion to Christianity, and exasperation with the ever-increasing presence of the British and their interference with the social practices of Indian states. By 1857, India was on the brink of insurrection, and it came as the Great Rebellion, also called the First War of Independence. In 1857–58, state after state across the subcontinent revolted against British exploitation. British historians, even now, call it a Sepoy Mutiny (sepoy is a bastardization of sipahi, the Indian word for soldier). The historical debates over causes, and nomenclatures, of the uprising continue as British and Indian historians perceive this watershed event from, understandably, entirely different lenses. Central to the fight for independence was the bravery and heroism of a young woman in a small state in Northern India, who first challenged and defied the orders of the British governor-general, and then rode in battle at the head of her forces, ultimately dying for the independence that was her birthright.
The Rani, the damsel fought for Jhansi, Recount her valour, people of India!
—Subhadra Kumari Chauhan
What is known of Lakshmibai's early life is a strange blend of fact and fiction, a result of the legends associated with her. Her parents moved to Varanasi, the most holy of Hindu cities, from Poona in Western India. Lakshmibai was born around 1835, the daughter of Moropant Tambe, a court advisor, and Bhagirathi . She was originally named Manikarnika and called Manu until her marriage, when her name was changed to Lakshmi after the Hindu goddess of wealth and victory. Lakshmibai lost her mother at a young age, thus missing the traditional nurturance given to young Indian girls. This eventually turned out to be a blessing, for she instead shared the companionship and upbringing of childhood playmates, young boys like Nana Sahib and Tatya Tope, both of whom would later play a crucial role in the Great Rebellion. She also learned to read and write, then unusual skills for a girl. More exceptional was her training in horsemanship and weaponry, including guns. Her father, for reasons unknown, did not impede this unconventional education. One well-known story of her childhood relates that when Nana Sahib refused to take "a girl" for an elephant ride Lakshmibai angrily remonstrated: "I will show you! One day I will have ten elephants to your one. Remember my words!" (After her marriage to a raja, she would gift Nana Sahib with an elephant as a reminder of the childhood promise.) Her bravery and liveliness was evident from early years.
When she reached puberty, Lakshmibai received a proposal of marriage from the recently widowed Raja Gangadhar Rao of Jhansi. Though he was between 40 and 50, the age difference was inconsequential; it was not unusual for Brahmins to marry young girls to older men. The raja needed a wife who could give him an heir, and Moropant wanted a suitable husband for his daughter. Lakshmibai's wishes were immaterial. She was married in May 1842, but the marriage was not consummated until Lakshmi was 14, in 1849. The wedding was celebrated with cannons booming a salute, spectacular fireworks, and the girl's adoption of a new identity as Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi. It was customary for women of high castes to change their names upon marriage, ensuring adoption of a new persona. What was not customary was the mettle and spirit displayed by the new rani of Jhansi, who continued to display characteristics of her earlier identity.
Rani Lakshmibai's vitality and versatility could not be contained within the confines of the strict rules and codes of the court. She asked her husband's permission (19th-century women could not openly defy the authority of their spouses) to continue her equestrian and military training; she never got it. So she rounded up her maidservants and fashioned an informal regiment of women soldiers; this remarkable initiative won her the support of the populace and her husband's admiration. Soon, she was pregnant and gave birth to a young son, the heir to the throne of Jhansi, but tragedy befell the royal family when the infant died at the age of three months. Gangadhar's grief knew no bounds, and he fell deathly ill. Before he died in November 1853, he adopted Damodar Rao, a young male relative, as a future heir to the throne. At age 18, Lakshmibai became the ruler of the state of Jhansi. She began rigorous training as a soldier and equestrian; her women's military unit also increased in size and prowess. Several British officers of the time have recorded the rani's remarkable literary and military abilities and strength of character. Evident in their accounts is a grudging respect for this Brahmin woman who wielded the reins of power as "any man is wont to do." Her "extraordinary determination and forcefulness," her "logical mind and potent intellect" soon attracted the attention and reverence of the English and Indians alike. However, no one could have anticipated the methodical and confident manner with which the rani soon began dealing with the East India Company officials. From November 1853 until her death in 1858, the rani became, for the British, the proverbial thorn in the side.
Rani Lakshmibai was offended but not surprised when on February 27, 1854, Lord Dalhousie proclaimed the doctrine of lapse for Jhansi. Given the consistently spirited responses from the rani, later historians recorded that Jhansi was "the worst of Dalhousie's annexations." An astute ruler, Lakshmibai had sent appeals to the governor-general's office in Fort William, Calcutta, from December 1853 asking for recognition of her adopted son as the rightful heir to the throne. Though her initial letters preceded the lapse announcements, they were clearly ignored. She employed well-formulated arguments in these lengthy, legalistic dispatches, not only bringing up precedents of such heirs in other states but also referring to the Hindu tradition of adoption. Most important, a British officer had been present when the raja of Jhansi had adopted Damodar Rao as his heir. Thus, officials of the company became uncomfortable, knowing that their only response involved coercion and intimidation. When Dalhousie announced the proclamation anyway, Lakshmibai, now completely offended and angry, wrote another letter to him: "It is notorious, my Lord, that the more powerful a state … the less disposed it is to acknowledge an error or an act of arbitrary character." Her appeals and letters were largely ignored by the British government.
To her credit, Lakshmibai turned persistence into an art form. She refused to be ignored. For eight months, she continued to send letters and appeals to the governor-general's office; for eight months, the officials responded with vacuous explanations. Lord Dalhousie was fast and firm in his resolve that Jhansi was to lapse, and the rani and her husband's heir Damodar be deprived of their status. Then, she forwarded "new and arresting arguments." The rani stated that the dispossession constituted "gross violation and negation of the Treaties of the Government of India … and if persisted in they must involve gross violation and negation of British faith and honor." She pointed out to Dalhousie that other states were watching the decision regarding Jhansi "with intense interest," and that it would be myopic of the British if they thought there was no "disquietude among the native Princes." (It was true that other states were closely watching the decision-making process of the East India Company. The response to Jhansi was the litmus test for the future of other principalities—"as Jhansi goes, so shall the rest of India.") The rani was, she wrote, concerned with the loss of her authority and reduction to the status of "subjection, dishonor, and poverty," none of which she was willing to accept without question or contest. Lakshmibai had delivered a blow to the very heart of the British presence in India. She had cleverly, but resolutely, threatened the British with imminent upheaval in the states of
upper India. Even so, none of her arguments impressed Dalhousie, and Jhansi lapsed to the British in May 1854.
Lakshmibai did indeed lose her "dignity and honor" through British actions, yet she maintained her dignity with honor through her own addresses. She was removed from the fort, so that it could be occupied by British officials, and given a small pension for retention of her retinue. She accepted this defeat but when the British held her responsible for the state's debts she once again challenged the authority of the British. She wrote appeals to, and sought personal interviews with, the assigned British officials and refused to acknowledge the debts as her personal responsibility. The British officer who had to face her wrath wrote: "My impression was that she was a clever, strong-minded woman, well able to argue and too much for many." Even the enormity of British power and presence could not break Lakshmibai's spirit. The British, particularly insensitive to the rani's self-respect, ordered that British forces police her palace. Irate, she broke with tradition by meeting with the British resident herself and even removed the purdah to speak to him face to face. Though she displayed respect in her relations with the British, in keeping with her station, she never lost sight of the fact that Jhansi was rightfully hers.
The chance for assuming control of Jhansi came in a manner that Rani Lakshmibai could never have imagined. Upper India exploded on May 10, 1857. The Indian soldiers in various British-controlled states rebelled against the oppressive nature of British rule, bringing in their wake massacres of British officials and their families. The Rebellion spread like wild fire and by June had reached the fort of Jhansi. Fearing for their lives, the British turned to the rani for assistance. She could not control the local rebel forces, as they were no longer under her authority, but she did extend her help to the British families by inviting them to her palace. However, the rebels reached the British residences before the families could take her up on her offer. English officers later recorded, and some historians concur, that the rani had prompted the rebellion and was responsible for the massacre because she "harbored grievances against the British, predicated on her hatred of the English race." No doubt Lakshmibai disliked the loss of independence but neither did she condone the actions of the rebel soldiers. Her commitment to respect and honor would not countenance such behavior; her pledge to the military code did not allow for attacking civilians. Another British official present in Jhansi wrote: "Not a paper incriminating the Ranee did I find…. The Ranee was not present or any man on her part." Jhansi, like other parts of northern India, fell into utter confusion and chaos.
Pending the arrival of a new set of British officials, Lakshmibai reassumed control of the administration of her state. She realized that this was an opportunity to consolidate her position, so that when the British arrived she could resist, this time militarily, the confiscation of Jhansi. She opened a mint, distributed food and clothing to the destitute, and made sure that peace and calm were restored. She moved easily among her subjects, wearing traditional widow's white. Even in this tenuous condition, Lakshmibai did not behave like an orthodox widow; she did not shave her head, break her bangles, or wear a sari exclusively. She wore a garment that allowed easy movement, so that she could ride effortlessly on her horse. In her clothing and manner, she communicated to her people that the time had come for the people to reevaluate the problems facing Jhansi, particularly those of security and defense. This was certainly no helpless widow; this was an unorthodox Brahmin queen preparing herself and the state to build strong fortifications against the inevitable British onslaught. She enlisted troops, cast cannon, and commenced manufacture of other weapons. She personally trained her women's military unit in equestrian and military skills. By March 1858, she was confident of her military strength. Now she openly challenged British authority: she moved from her palace back to her fort and ordered that the Jhansi flag be flown from the wall. She then issued a proclamation that the military be on alert and, on the appearance of the British, conduct the first strike.
When the British forces attacked, the rani of Jhansi was ready. Wrote one observer: "The Rani charged to attack. Now to the right, now to the left…. They many; she alone." In the be ginning, her forces managed to resist the British. Lakshmibai, who fought at the head of her troops, suffered no qualms when it came to using her weapons. In battle, her intellect and military acumen were whetted, and her tactical skills rendered severe losses on the British side, pushing them further back each day. But she had limited resources, and they had many. She awaited reinforcements from Tatya Tope, her childhood friend, but they did not appear. The British reinforcements, however, arrived in large numbers. Soon her forces were decimated, and she was left with a handful of soldiers. What she did not have in troops she made up for in spirit and determination. Outside of Gwalior, the proud rani rode out in full battle dress with a meager band of soldiers and clashed with the powerful British Hussars. It was there on June 17, 1858, that she was fatally wounded.
The heroic and majestic rani died, and with her death was born a legend. The British generals were the first to write about the fighting spirit of the rani. Here was a young woman who fought better than any could have imagined, the only Indian queen to ever ride out in battle against the power of the British artillery. The British soon forgot her, but Indians never have. Wrote one: "The brave woman cemented with her blood the cause she espoused." She became the first female hero of India's First War of Independence. Indians, women and men alike, have not forgotten the debt of gratitude they owe her:
Your image shall be in our minds forever,
Your legend repeated everywhere
Your memory fresh in mind eternally
Your ideals practiced by all for all time to come.
Lebra-Chapman, Joyce. The Rani of Jhansi: A Study in Female Heroism in India. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992.
Sen, Chandi Charan. Rani of Jhansi: A Historical Romance (in Bengali). Calcutta, India, 1894.
Sinha, Shyam Narain. Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi. Allahabad, India: Chugh Publishers, 1980.
Smyth, Sir John. The Rebellious Rani. London, Great Britain: Muller, 1966.
Jyoti Grewal , Assistant Professor of History, Luther College, Decorah, Iowa