“Then fell the Tigress Great ,
They many, she alone”
– Jhansi Ki Rani by Subhadra Kumari Chauhan
On June 18, we remember the legendary Queen of Jhansi, Rani Laxmibai. Often tagged as India’s Joan of Arc, the Queen was a heroine of the 1857 War of Independence (Mutiny). Her legacy lives on today, immortalised by the several stories and songs about her valour. In 1943, the Indian National Army paid her a tribute by initiating an all-women regiment in her name. In this post, we take a look at her story through a few museum-objects!
Brought up at the Bithur Court of the Maratha Peshwa where her father was an official, Manikarnika learnt about horsemanship, archery and excelled in sword-fighting. Naturally, this was unheard of, for women of the time. As per customs though, she was married to the Raja of Jhansi at the age of 8, moving to her marital home at the age of 14. This is when she was renamed Laxmibai – a name that would stick through history.
The 1857 War of Independence, Jhansi & Rani LaxmiBai
At the age of 18, the Queen was widowed and Jhansi was left without an heir. About 5 days before the death of the Maharaja, the couple adopted his fifth cousin, as a son and rightful heir. In 1854 though, Jhansi was annexed under the conditions of the “Doctrine of Lapse”. According to this rule, any Indian Kingdom whose ruler died without an heir – or one that was guilty of misrule would “lapse” under British control. The Queen wasted no time, and shot off letters to Lord Dalhousie (the then Governor-General of the East India Company) arguing her case.
Until then, Jhansi had been a supporting alliance for the East India Company. In her letters, the Queen of Jhansi invokes the Kingdom’s support, but Lord Dalhousie paid no heed. In 1857, the Rani of Jhansi joined the Rebellion against the British and personally led her troops.
Raising a volunteer army of 14000 men and women, the Queen single-handedly set up defence against the British forces. She led this troupe to victory but on 24th May 1858, the British Army struck back. At one point she was captured, but daringly jumped off the fort and escaped.
She met up with the rebel forces sent by her childhood friend Tatya Tope and moved towards Gwalior where they hoped to defeat the British. It is at this battle that she was shot at, fatally.
Rani of Jhansi: Death and Legacy
” The Ranee was remarkable for her bravery, cleverness and perseverance; her generosity to her Subordinates was unbounded. These qualities, combined with her rank, rendered her the most dangerous of the rebel leaders.”
– Sir Hugh Rose (Officer commanding the force that took Jhansi and Gwalior)
No wonder then, that the term ‘Jhansi Ki Rani’ (Queen of Jhansi) is widely used to refer to the fearless, & brave women even today!
In Sir Hugh Rose’s report he mentions the funeral of the Queen and that she was cremated ‘with great ceremony under a tamarind tree under the Rock of Gwalior where I saw her bones and ashes’.
Lakshmibai had two ‘maids of honour’ who accompanied her from Jhansi; we know little more than their names, Mandar and Kashi Kumbin. Mandar is said to have been a childhood friend of Lakshmibai and was killed in the same incident in which Lakshmibai was fatally wounded, whilst Kashi had stayed behind to look after Damodar. It was Kashi, according to Devi, who prepared the Rani for her funeral pyre and who with another close attendant of the Rani’s looked after Damodar for two years before surrendering him to the British with the promise of safety.
Damodar Rao, the adopted son, was granted a pension by the British and lived a somewhat more peaceful life. He never did receive his inheritance.
Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi, became a legend, a figure of inspiration to the Nationalist Struggle later on. Our school textbooks are incomplete without the mention of the brave Queen; from folklore, to Amar-Chitra Katha comics, poetry, and TV serials, she has continued to inspire generations! And well, now there’s an upcoming Bollywood movie too – that is taking inspiration from the life of the Rani!