Rani of Jhansi, was a heroine of Revolt of 1857. She was and still is revered by people of Jhansi and remembered with pride whenever the Indian freedom struggle is mentioned. Unlike girls of her age, she was interested in learning various aspects of warfare. She was an expert horse rider, sword fighter, and learned shooting and fencing…and she could read and write.
As was the custom of that time, she was married at the age of 14 years to the King of Jhansi ‘Gangadhar Rao Newalkar’, a widower and some 25 years her senior. As was the prevalent custom, Rani observed ‘pardah’ (the custom to not appear in public without a veil), but she did not stop practicing the various sports she loved, which was different from what was the usual practice of women of Royal household. She formed and trained her own army out of her female friends at court. After few years of marriage, Rani gave birth to a son in 1851 who died shortly after. The King never recovered from his son’s death, and he died on 21 November 1853. Rani was still only 18 years old.
This is where I will pick up her story. This was India, under the thumb of British rule in many parts of the country. Around the time of her husband’s death, Lord Dalhousie approved the annex of kingdoms if there was no legal male heir. Therefore her kingdom was seized, along with the state jewels and she was given a pension Rs 5000 a year, Rupee, equaling $70 in US dollars today. All those “crown jewels” are now under British lock and key. After a few years of this, revolts broke out all over northern India, including a jail where inmates took over after killing the British Officer, soldiers and many of their families. Rani gave shelter in her palace to many fleeing the rampages elsewhere and out of the hands of the revolutionaries, while the British focused their attentions elsewhere.
Rani’s leadership skills had been noticed, after she demonstrated the swift and efficient lead of the troops she had trained, in revolt skirmishes in and around Jhansi. Once order was restored, the well-trained British soldiers of 1500 now marched toward Jhansi where Rani’s troops of over 20,000 rebel forces waited. After four days of intense fighting Rani was advised to leave the fort. She, with her young adopted son strapped to her back and with her trusted aides, rode a difficult 150 kilometers and joined up with another rebel force. Here she devised a plan to capture the fort of Gwalior, a few kilometers from Jhansi. She surprised and succeeded. However, a new British attack would recapture it, sending Rani to flee again with her son, swords in each hand and the reins of the horse in her mouth. Fatally wounded, she was able to ride her horse to a secluded place of an ascetic who recognized her.
She handed her son to a trusted general and gave instructions to cremate her remains immediately, in the hut of the ascetic, upon her death, so that the British could not find her body. It was if she vanished into thin air, much to the chagrin of the British commander.
This was the first uprising. It would be 90 years before the country would finally uproot the British, in 1947.
Today, Queen Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi has been immortalized in India’s nationalist narrative. There are movies, TV shows, books and even nursery rhymes about her. Streets, colleges and universities are named after her. Young girls dress up in her likeness, wearing pants, turbans and swords. Statues of her on horseback, with her son tied to her back, have been erected in many cities throughout India. And, almost a century after her death, the Indian National Army formed an all-female unit that aided the country in its battle for independence in the 1940s.
It was called the Rani of Jhansi regiment.