Lakshmibai – Rani of Jhansi, Rebel Leader, and Warrior Queen

My last couple of trips to India have taken me to a couple of locations famously attached to the life of Rani Lakshmibai. These are the locations that served as bookends to her life; her birthplace in Varanasi, and the presumed site of her burial in Gwalior.

I have to confess that I knew very little as to who Lakshmibai was until a few years ago. My passion for history always seems to wane after the medieval period in any country, so I guess I can be forgiven a little for my ignorance. In India she is an iconic heroine, whose story is deeply entwined in the Indian Uprising of 1857.

Even the terms used to describe the famous Indian uprising against the British in 1857 are loaded political positioning. Was it a mutiny or India’s first war of independence ? A rebellion or an uprising ? A nationalist movement or a string of local protests?

The violence began in Meerut in present day Uttar Pradesh, and the proximate cause was the British acquisition of Enfield Rifles. To load these new weapons Bengal sepoys, the security forces for the British, had to bite into cartridges said to be greased with pig and cow fat. Biting down on such cartridges was an affront both to Hindus and Muslims, and the disgust quickly spread amongst the sepoys. Many refused to load the rifles and they were severely punished, and long suppressed grievances that had been brewing suddenly erupted. In May 1857, the Sepoys in Meerut massacred the English residents there and marched on to Delhi. The Enfield cartridges were but a spark in a country ready to burn.

The rebellion produced many heroes, but only one celebrated heroine, Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi, rebel leader, and warrior queen. General Hugh Rose, the British officer determined to capture her and take control of her territory, famously said :

“…the Indian Mutiny has produced but one man, and that man was a woman

It’s the sort of backhanded compliment that nowadays few Indian women would probably welcome.

The Rani was certainly no ordinary queen. We can get a picture of her from a fascinating account by Vishnu Bhatt Godse, only recently translated in full. He was a priest and pilgrim who stayed at Jhansi in the 1850s.

On a typical day for the Rani, he noted, weightlifting, wrestling and steeple chasing came before breakfast. But little in her life before 1857 hinted of her ultimate role as the empire’s chief nineteenth century villainess, this “Jezebel Rani” in the words of British officials.

In the Indian nationalist story, too, she’s transformed from a woman into a mythic being. At the height of the rebellion, British forces laid siege to the Rani’s fort and they thought they had her cornered. But in the dead of night, it was said she outwitted them. She mounted her horse, a young son holding on tight behind her, and made a do or die bid for freedom.

Horse, rider and child leapt from the ramparts and vanished into the darkness. It’s an incredible image ingrained now in India’s popular and political culture and even celebrated in the West. A few years back for instance, Time magazine listed Lakshmibai along with Michelle Obama as one of history’s top 10 “badass wives”. Lakshmibai came out at number eight.

On the ramparts at Fort Jhansi some 200 miles south of Delhi, a metal sign marks the spot of this famous jump. I have yet to visit Jhansi Fort but by all accounts it’s a sheer plunge, and hard to think of anyone, human or horse, surviving it. If anyone could survive it, I guess it would have to be a queen who pumped iron before breakfast.

She is a figure of belief in many respects. She allows the Indian imagination to think of a past that is a little bit out of reach, one that is always jumping over the precipice, out of control, and signifies a kind of rebellious strong spirit.

Lakshmibai was born into a Marathi Brahmin family on November 19th 1828 in the town of Varanasi. Her birthplace can be visited today, housed within tall metal gates adjacent to the Nandlal Bejoria Sanskrit School, a short distance from Riva and Assi Ghat by the Ganga.

The enclosed compound has a small garden with an impressive statue of Rani Lakshmibai on horseback with a child attached to her back. Unfortunately there are no buildings to look around, just the garden to enjoy and reflect within, with scenes from her life depicted on the walls around the central statue.

At birth she was named Manikarnika Tambe and was nicknamed Manu. Her mother died when she was four years old and it seems she was raised mainly in the company of boys, picking up horsemanship as part of her studies. Her father worked for Peshwa Baji Rao II of Bithoor, the 13th and last Peshwa of the Maratha Empire. She was educated at home, able to read and write, and was more independent in her childhood than others of her age.

At the age of 13 in 1842 she was married to a man of a much higher status, Gangadhar Rao, the recently widowed Maharajah of Jhansi. He was cultured, bookish, and even given to cross-dressing according to Vishnu Bhatt Godse. But he was well into his 40s, childless, and desperately looking for an heir.

Lakshmibai as she was now named, was installed in the art rich Jhansi palace, where servants labored to fill the air with the scent of flowers. The Maharajah was less interested in his young wife than in other pursuits. So it said the queen passed the time teaching horsemanship and sword fighting to her female servants. By some accounts, she’d essentially created a well drilled women’s military unit. But in 1851, she was celebrated throughout Jhansi for doing the more conventional thing, producing after nine years a son. The celebration was short lived though, the child later named Damodar Rao died when he was just four months old.

Crucially, the Maharajah was also dying and under the doctrine of lapse. According to the doctrine, any Indian princely state under the suzerainty of the British East India Company (the dominant imperial power in the Indian subsidiary system), would have its princely status abolished (and therefore be annexed into British India) if the ruler was either “manifestly incompetent or died without a male heir”

So in November 1853, the Maharajah adopted Anand Rao, his cousin’s son, and left instructions that Lakshmibai would govern Jhansi after he was gone. The adopted son was renamed Damodar Rao the day before the Maharaja died, the last act to ensure doctrine of lapse did not come into effect. But when he died, the British annexed Jhansi anyway and hoped to pension off the Rani. She refused the 60000 rupees they offered her as an annual pension in March 1854, petitioning Lord Dalhousie the East India Company Governor-General. She also refused orders to leave the palace and fort, apparantly crying out :

“Main apni Jhansi nahi doongi”
(I shall not surrender my Jhansi

The British were unmoved, and they stationed a garrison in the kingdom to oversee the running of the state. She seemed an unimportant problem to them until 1857, when, after several weeks, the rebel sepoys reached Jhansi.

Until this point, Lakshmibai was reluctant to rebel against the British. Fearful of the spreading unrest, 60 British officials took refuge with their families in the fort as food supplies dwindled. In June 1857, rebels of the 12th Bengal Native Infantry seized the Fort of Jhansi containing the treasure and magazine. The rebels offered the British safe passage out of the fort on the condition that they lay down their arms. They complied, but as the families trooped out of the gate, they were surrounded.

The men were beheaded and the women and children were hacked to pieces. The dismembered bodies were left for several days, and it was only later that they were buried. The British held Lakshmibai responsible for the massacre, but she denied any involvement. We still don’t know the truth to this day, but one thing was certain, the British would have their revenge. She was now part of the rebellion, whether she liked it or not.

Four days after the massacre the sepoys left Jhansi, having obtained a large sum of money from the Rani, and having threatened to blow up the palace where she lived. From August 1857 to January 1858 Jhansi under the Rani’s rule was at peace. The British had announced that troops would be sent there to maintain control but the fact that none arrived strengthened the position of a party of her advisers who wanted independence from British rule. When the British forces finally arrived in March they found it well-defended and the fort had heavy guns which could fire over the town and nearby countryside.

Hugh Rose commanding the British forces, demanded the surrender of the city; if this was refused it would be destroyed. Rani Lakshmibai refused to surrender.

The British bombardment of Jhansi began on 24th March 1858, and was met by heavy returned fire from the fort. The queen was said to be up on the ramparts, sword in hand and urging her fighters on. The visiting priest, Vishnu Bhatt Godse, wrote in his memoir of 11 nights of harrowing fighting, including British bombardment by cannonballs that burst in a hail of pellets and nails. Fire started in the fort and exploded the armory. The British had the further advantage of telescopes which helped them locate and destroy the water supply. The temple too, was blown apart. By the time the British finally breached the walls, the queen they’d spotted by telescope had vanished just before they arrived, she’d made her famous leap on horseback.

By the account of the priest who was hiding in the fort at the time, her daring leap was actually a midnight escape down the back staircase. Determined resistance was encountered in every street and in every room of the palace. No quarter was given, even to women and children. In the ruined fort the queen left behind, at least 3000 Indians were dead. So the retribution for the 60 massacred British was achieved at a rate of 50 for 1, and from Gwalior, 60 miles south-east of Jhansi, General Rose would soon report the death of one more.

Lakshmibai together with Tatya Tope, the Nawab of Banda, and Rao Sahib fled to Gwalior and joined the Indian forces who now held the city and occupied the strategic Gwalior Fort. Lakshmibai was unsuccessful in trying to persuade the other rebel leaders to prepare to defend Gwalior against a British attack which she expected would come soon. Less than three months later, General Rose’s forces made a successful attack on the city.

On 18th June at Kotah-ki-Serai near Phool Bagh in Gwalior, a squadron of the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars under Captain Heneage, fought the large Indian force commanded by Rani Lakshmibai, who was trying to leave the area. The 8th Hussars charged into the Indian force, slaughtering over 5,000 Indian soldiers, including any Indian “over the age of 16”.

In this engagement, according to one eyewitness account, Rani Lakshmibai put on a sowar’s uniform and attacked one of the hussars; she was unhorsed and also wounded, probably by his sabre. Shortly afterwards, as she sat bleeding by the roadside, she recognised the soldier and fired at him with a pistol, whereupon he “dispatched the young lady with his carbine”. There are a number of traditions surrounding the exact circumstances of Lakshmibai’s death. According to another one Rani Lakshmibai, the Queen of Jhansi, dressed as a cavalry leader, was badly wounded; not wishing the British to capture her body, she told a hermit to burn it. After her death a few local people cremated her body.

According to General Rose, when Lakshmibai’s body was recovered it was adorned with gold anklets and a necklace of pearls. He commented in his journals that Rani Lakshmibai was :

“personable, clever and beautiful…the most dangerous of all Indian leaders”

Rose also reported to his superiors that she had been buried :

“with great ceremony under a tamarind tree under the Rock of Gwalior, where I saw her bones and ashes”

Today one can visit the site of her grave in a small garden not far south from Gwalior Fort. Here, as we also saw at her birthplace in Varanasi, is the most iconic image of the warrior queen. Seated on her charge, her son clinging to her back, with her sword held high and the horses reins held between her teeth.

This is of course Lakshmibai at her last stand. It’s an image that evokes powerful Hindu goddesses like Kali and Durga. Even as India often subjugates its female citizens, a belief in feminine power and force is lodged deep in the popular psyche.

The mythification of Lakshmibai happened quickly after her death and in this rare case, India and the West are on the same side. Characters based on her began appearing in popular British novels, casting her as seductive and potentially deadly. In India there were also novels and songs, and eventually a TV series, Bollywood films, stamps and even computer games.

Some sources have said that when she rode away from Jhansi to escape the British, there was a box full of her letters and papers left in the palace that has never been found. How amazing it would be if one day that box was rediscovered, and we would have her voice telling us her story. In many respects the voices of women are one of the great lost treasures of Indian history.

Twenty years after Lakshmibai’s death, Colonel Malleson wrote in the History of the Indian Mutiny; vol. 3; London, 1878:

“Whatever her faults in British eyes may have been, her countrymen will ever remember that she was driven by ill-treatment into rebellion, and that she lived and died for her country, We cannot forget her contribution for India.”

Lakshmibai’s birthplace in Varanasi :

Lakshmibai’s memorial in Gwalior :

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