Today we’re going to learn more about Rani Lakshmibai who has been portrayed in this Statue in Solapur, Maharashtra, charging into battle with a baby on her back.
Rani Lakshmibai was born 19 November 1828 in Varanasi, India. She was named Manikarnika Tambe. Her mother died when she was around 4 yo and she was educated at home alongside the boys, including learning horsemanship, shooting, and fencing which was unusual for girls in India.
In May 1842, When she was 14 yo she was married to the Maharaja of Jhansi, Gangadhar Rao Newalkar, who was 20 years her senior. After her marriage, as was the custom, her name was changed to Lakshmibai and she was given the title Rani, or Queen. She was very active as queen, known to engage in weightlifting, wrestling, and steeplechasing for pre-breakfast exercise. She dressed simply, managed her work professionally, and drilled and trained her own regiment of female guards (the female guards weren’t unusual for the female quarters of the palace but the Rani being involved in their training was). Her horsemanship was infamous, she was said to have been able to ride a horse, “‘with the reins in her teeth and two swords in her hand.’”
In 1851, when she was around 23 years old she gave birth to a boy, who died at only four months of age. The Maharaja was childless so to secure the succession (and because his wife could not rule in her own right) the day before he died, November 21, 1853, the Maharaja adopted the five-year-old son of his cousin, who was renamed Damodar Rao. The adoption was done in the presence of a British political officer and a letter was written to the British that the boy should be treated with respect and that his widow, Rani Lakshmibai, should rule for her lifetime, with Damodar Rao succeeding her.
Jhansi had remained independent of British India, then under Company Rule (the East India Company) while the Maharaja maintained a pro-British stance. There was no reason, other than the ridiculous mismanagement and greed of the head of the East India Company for them to refuse to recognize the Rani and her adopted son. But…
that’s how they do. The British annexed her territory but Rani Lakshmibai famously said that she would not give up her Jhansi,
“Mera Jhansi nahin dengee!”
“मेरा झाँसी नहीं देंगी!”
But in March 1854, Rani Lakshmibai was given an annual pension of Rs. 60,000 and ordered to leave the palace and fort. It wasn’t because they thought she wasn’t competent enough, a British politician wrote of her at the time, that she was
“a woman highly respected and esteemed, and I believe fully capable of doing justice to such a charge” – Antonia Fraser writing in Warrior Queens, 1988
When news of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 reached Jhansi, Lakshmibai requested permission from the British to raise forces for her defense and it was granted. When the rebels reached Jhansi, the British were promised to be unharmed if they put down their weapons and left. But this time it was their turn to be betrayed and 50-60 of the British men, along with their wives and children were massacred. Then they turned on Lakshmibai, threatening to blow up the palace unless she paid them off, so she did.
In the aftermath of the massacre, she took control of Jhansi, writing to the British who agreed that she should “manage the District for the British Government”. She had to set up a foundry to protect her territories from both a rival claim to her husband’s throne and from rebel factions who wanted to take Jhansi for themselves. She defeated them all — and she had to do it without the support of the British, who had by this time decided that the massacre was her doing. From August 1857 to January 1858, there was peace in Jhansi and this strengthed local belief that Jhansi should and could be independent of British rule. Yet, Rani Lakshmibai was still in support of the British. But when the British army, led by commander Sir Hugh Rose finally showed up, threatening to destroy Jhansi if they didn’t surrender, she had finally had enough. She declared,
“We fight for independence. In the words of Lord Krishna, we will if we are victorious, enjoy the fruits of victory, if defeated and killed on the field of battle, we shall surely earn eternal glory and salvation.”
“हम स्वतंत्रता के लिए लड़ते हैं। भगवान कृष्ण के शब्दों में, यदि हम विजयी हैं, तो हम जीत के फल का आनंद लेंगे, यदि युद्ध के मैदान में पराजित और मारे गए, तो हम निश्चित रूप से अनन्त महिमा और मोक्ष अर्जित करेंगे। ”
She raised an army of 14,000 volunteers from a population of 220,000, as well as 15,000 Indian soldiers who had been serving under the British, called sepoys. Unfortunately, the fighting wasn’t going their way and Lakshmibai was forced to flee the palace for the fort, and then to flee the fort for the nearby Gwalior and that is the moment captured in so many statues and paintings.
She was said to have secured her adopted son to her back and rode out, sword in hand. However, unlike the depictions of her with an infant on her back, her adopted son would have been at least ten years old at the time of her retreat.
At Gwalior, she could not get the other rebel leaders to cooperate and mount an offensive before the British arrived. Nonetheless, she donned a sepoy uniform and went into battle alongside the men when the time came. Though accounts differ, she died of injuries sustained while defending Gwalior and she was cremated by the locals and her remains buried with the honor due to a Rani under the rock of Gwalior.
After the fighting, Commander Sir Hugh Rose wrote of her, acknowledging “personable, clever and beautiful” “remarkable in her bravery, cleverness and perseverance” and that she is “the most dangerous of all Indian leaders” a “sort of Indian Joan of Arc”. Twenty years after her death, in 1878, Colonel Malleson wrote that regardless of what the British said of her, that she was “ill-treated into rebellion”, and that she lived and died for her country.
It was this Rebellion, caused by the mismanagement and greed of the East Indian Company that led to it losing its powers of government and India coming under direct British rule, establishing Queen Victoria as Empress of India. India did not gain independence until 1947, nearly 90 years after Lakshmibai’s death.
Her story has inspired countless books, films, art, and even video games. It’s her image as a warrior queen, riding into battle with a baby on her back that is most frequently portrayed. Those of us who enjoy the freedom that baby carriers provide, love to see the mama bear fierceness of the scene, can’t do that with a stroller.
But is it a fair presentation of her? I’ve already mentioned the age discrepancy of the child, but what about her as a person? Is this limiting her identity to a maternal trope? The contemporary men who wrote in praise of her never mentioned her maternal side, they praised her for being intelligent, strong, professional; which of course could describe any mother, but are attributes we to-this-day tend to associate with men, in fact, many articles I read about her describe her as a “tomboy”.
And remember that the child was only adopted because both the people of India and the British did not think a woman should rule without a husband or son (even if they acknowledged that she was capable) she could only be legitimate if there was a male involved. So when we see her portrayed as going into battle on horseback, sword raised– if there was no baby involved, would it have gotten your attention? Would it be as accepted If she wasn’t depicted as maternal? if she was only fighting for her own reign? Would this statue be so famous? Would it even have been created?
I don’t have any unifying theory here but these are some of the questions I found myself asking as I did research on her. What do you think?
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Banerji, Urvija. Feb. 24, 2016. “The Warrior Queen Who Fought British Rule in India.” Atlas Obscura.
Fraser, Antonia. 1988. Warrior Queens. New York: Knopf Doubleday.
Book and Baby Historian, frolicking through archives. Panics when low on chocolate rations. Will embarrass self in any social situation to point out or pet other people's dogs. Habitual stumbler, peppermint tea drinker. People watcher, pizza slayer.