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Monday, 12 April 2021


A Commoner called a Queen

Rani Gaidinliu (1915 - 1993) was a freedom fighter of the Kabui Naga tribe who was born and brought up in Manipur. She was the fifth of eight children and belonged to the ruling family of the village. However she had no formal education because of a lack of schools in the area.

By 13 years of age Gaidinliu joined her cousin Jadonang, whom she looked upon as her guru. Jadonang was also a spiritual leader or priest, maiba, of the clan - a person who was traditionally very influential and revered. Jadonang began a socio-religious movement to revive the traditional Naga religion and to oppose the British in order to end their rule. He was impressed by young Gaidinliu’s resolve and single-mindedness of purpose. She was an apt pupil who was a good learner. Gaidinliu had grown up witnessing Jadonang’s activism to improve the social and economic lives of the Nagas, and actively participated in the movement. 

The beginnings of the Heraka movement

Jadonang (born in 1905) was a Naga from the Manipur sub-division. He was a deeply religious person and was renowned for healing and interpreting dreams. He was very disturbed by the dilution of the Naga culture and religion, while Christianity’s influence grew in the area. The British and their oppressive policies of excessive taxation and new laws were also other reasons for his distrust. He saw these changes as the impact of British imperialism, and decided to fight. In 1930-31 he started a new socio-religious movement which came to be called Heraka (Pure) and convinced his people that he would overthrow the existing British administration and bring back self-rule and the spiritual practises of the ancestors. 

The British did not look very kindly upon Jadonang. He talked of a new movement that would usher in the Golden Age for the people who were experiencing famine and loss of land due to an influx of immigrants. The movement exorted people not to pay their taxes to the oppressive British. Instead, the locals supported the movement with donations.

The movement soon turned into an armed rebellion that Gaidinliu also joined. By the age of 16 she was a leader in the guerilla forces fighting against the British.

The British response

The Political Agent, a British official, sent a few soldiers of the Assam Rifles in February 1931 to  a temple established by Jadonang and destroyed it. The soldiers also went to a few other villages for a show of strength. Jadonanag himself was arrested. He was put on trial for the murder of 4 unarmed Manipuris, charged with sedition and was called a sorcerer. He was hanged in August 1931.

Gaidinliu leads the Heraka movement

These measures did not however see the end of the Heraka movement. It continued under the leadership of Gaidinliu who was seen as Jadonang’s spiritual successor and priestess, Maibi. The movement was kept alive with songs that spoke of the main themes of the Heraka movement - a return to the Golden Age and prosperity of the people. 

The prevalent belief was that a new Naga Raj would be formed in the hills including the tribes. A number of medicine men went over the authority of the traditional village elders  and convinced villagers that they would be the recipients of benefits if they joined the movement. The British were alarmed at these developments and wanted to quell the disturbances. 

By 1931-32 the movement had spread beyond the borders of Manipur into the Naga hills. 

Throughout the operations undertaken by the administration to capture Gaidinliu they would be attacked by large groups of Nagas and had to resort to firing on them. Some of the villages also got burnt in the operations. 

Soon the British were trying to capture her, while she remained ahead of them with local support. Army batallions were sent after her and a reward was announced for information about her whereabouts. The offer was made sweeter with the announcement of a 10-year long tax break to the village that informed on her to the police.

While she was on the run, her followers murdered the watchman of a village, suspecting him of being the informer that led to her arrest. Now she was wanted for murder by the British authorities. When finally arrested in October 1932 in the Naga Hills, she underwent a trial and was convicted of murder. Many of her associated were hanged. Gaidinliu spent 14 years in prison.

Her influence was such that many of her followers continued her work of Heraka until she was released from prison in 1947 upon India’s independence. 

Adapting Heraka to changing times

Upon her release Gaidinliu reformed the Heraka movement to reflect the changing times. Ancestral rituals to earn merit required performing sacrifices and the restriction of movement outside a designated area, such as the house or the village. However, the introduction of schools and increased work opportunities required people to leave the designated areas regularly. Gaindinliu abolished the restrictions since they were no longer practical and stood in the way of progress. Performing sacrifices had also been very important traditionally but the sheer cost of the ritual was now prohibiitive. Gaidinliu advocated stopping sacrifices. This increased the popularity of Heraka.

Later life

After her release in 1947 when she met Prime Minister Nehru, he called Gaidinliu rani, a queen, for having stood strong despite her hard life. In the meanwhile there was strong opposition to Heraka by several Naga leaders, and Gaidinliu went into hiding in 1960. She continued to work to strengthen Heraka. In 1966 she returned to the mainstream and met Prime Minister Shastri. Her followers were employed at the Nagaland Police. She was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1982. 

The government of India conferred Gaidinliu with the Padma Bhushan in 1982. Her work has also been recognised with the issue of a postage stamp and a commemorative coin in her honour. Gaidinliu died in 1993 at the age of 78.  



History of the frontier areas bordering on Assam 1883-1941 - Sir Robert Reid. 

Reform, Identity and Narratives of Belonging - Arkotong Longkumer


A word about BlogchatterA2Z - This is an annual event during which I have taken up the challenge of blogging on Women in Indian History starting with A and ending in Z during the month of April, 2021. Here then is G - Gaidinliu, a commoner termed a queen for her stand against the British and for her work to strengthen Naga society. Drop in everyday to read my posts on other interesting women as I work my way down the alphabet to Z! 

Saturday, 10 April 2021

 Fathers (and Fathers-in-law) Who Mentored Women

It is fascinating to study women in India who ascended the throne. In India’s monarchical societies before we became a democracy, the throne was the pinnacle of attainment, power and prestige. There was nothing higher on the mortal plane.

By and large men succeeded to the throne either because they belonged to the ruling dynasty or had defeated the previous occupant. Women who became ruling monarchs had life circumstances and qualities in common that prepared and propelled them to this highest rank. It is a different matter that not all of the women were able to retain the throne for a length of time, but just the fact that they were in the running for the post, and achieved it, is interesting.

Some male rulers had no sons to succeed them. So instead they encouraged their daughters to think, train and act as rulers. These men went against the prevailing norms of a nephew or a son-in-law ascending the throne. Some fathers-in-law had lost their sons, saw sparks of ability in their daughters-in-law and chose to nurture them until they became full-fledged rulers. 

Fathers as mentors were not important only for royalty. Several writers in ancient India can thank their fathers for leading them on the path of learning which defined their later lives.

One common advantage that most of these women had was seemingly open-minded older men in their lives who did not hold women back based only on their gender. Instead these mentors encouraged them to break stereotypes with their abilities. The men who gave these young women opportunities to train, to study and then to rule were their fathers, fathers-in-law and, sometimes, uncles.

Here are some interesting mentors down the ages from all over India.


He is considered among the greats of the Kakatiya dynasty who ruled (reign 1199-1262 CE) territories that extended into areas in modern Telangana, coastal Andhra, parts of the states of Odisha and Karnataka. During his long reign of nearly 63 years, he ensured his kingdom prospered economically and that his enemies were kept at bay because of his strong army. As the father of two daughters, he prepared them for the future by educating them extensively in practical fighting, military planning and strategizing. Their education also included theoretical subjects and the classical literature, music etc.

Ganapathideva was a much-experienced ruler. Both his daughters married minor royalty who understood that the women they married would answer the call of duty when required. It must have a matter of great pride to him that his daughter Rudramadevi turned out to be a fine fighter and a sagacious ruler. She was installed as co-ruler for a few years before his death. Under Ganapathideva’s influence and training, Rudamadevi made wise decisions that strengthened her rule - she encouraged people based on their talent and work ethic, not just their lineage. She established among the earliest maternity hospitals in India. She undertook far-reaching water policies that were essential in the naturally dry areas of her kingdom. 

Rudramadevi’s rule and good administration is remembered for the prosperity it brought to the people. She was constantly on the alert for disturbance within and outside the kingdom and even went to war to protect her land. She was overall an exemplary ruler thanks to extensive training with her father.

Kesava Setti

He was the father of Aatukuri Molla (1440 - 1530 CE), a potter by profession and well aware of the disadvantages his motherless daughter would face as she went through life. So he insisted on her education. Her learning stood her in good stead as she composed the Telugu Ramayana in exquisite poetry which is very well known even today.   

Thirumala Raya

He did his duty very sincerely towards his niece Abbakka Chowta of Ullal in Karnataka (reign 1525 - 1570s). They belonged to the matrilineal Chowta dynasty. In this system, the eldest daughter was crowned ruler. Her guardian and mentor in her growing years was the maternal uncle.

Thirumala Raya ensured Abbakka received all the education and training required of a ruler before she crowned queen. He also found a marriage alliance for her of a ruler near Mangalore. 

She became a remarkably successful queen and kept the Portuguese at bay all through her reign of nearly four decades. She was only captured due to the betrayal of her husband to the Portuguese and the loss of her important associates in battle. She died in a Portuguese prison.

Dvija Vamsidasa

Chandravati (born approx. 1550) was the daughter of this well-known scholar, the author of Padmapurana. The atmosphere of learning was such at home that Chandravati herself became a Sanskrit and Bangla scholar, going on to compose the famous female-centric version of the Ramayana and two other works, Malua Sundari and Dasyu Kenaram. Vamsidasa encouraged his daughter to assist him in his scholarly work Manasamangala.  

Chandravati’s fame today has its genesis in the early learning and scholarship encouraged by her father.

Mankoji Shinde

He was the father of Ahilyabai Holkar (1725 -1795 CE), the renowned queen of Indore. He was the headman of a village near Ahmednagar in Maharashtra. She was married before she was ten years of age, but before that he ensured Ahilyabai got a good education and built her self-confidence.

Malhar Rao Holkar

He was ruler of Indore and the father-in-law of Ahilyabai Holkar. When his son Khanderao Holkar died in battle, Malhar Rao decided to train Ahilyabai in statecraft. She had demonstrated that she was a quick student and had the strength of mind required of a good ruler. As she trained with him he was assured his choice was the right one. Ahilyabai went on to become a queen who will be remembered for long because of her sagacity and good governance.


A word about BlogchatterA2Z - This is an annual event during which I have taken up the challenge of blogging on Women in Indian History starting with A and ending in Z during the month of April, 2021. Here then is F - Fathers, fathers-in-law and uncles who played the role of mentor to very successful women. Drop in everyday to read my posts on other interesting women as I work my way down the alphabet to Z! 

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

 Doctrine of Lapse

Indian Queens who Fought it

The East India Company

The British East India Company first came to India as a trader, to supply their home market England with spices, silks and other exotica. They were granted land by local rulers to build warehouses to store goods before trans shipment. This necessitated armed guards to keep the warehouses safe. 

Before long, short-sighted local rulers began to use the armed British to score points off their rivals, opening the door to immense opportunity for the foreign trader. The British played one ruler against the other, helping one of them to win in exchange for trading concessions. As the British influence increased so did their territorial avarice. 

The British East India Company amassed riches in India beyond their wildest dreams. The British government oversaw the company’s dealings and enacted several India Acts. In England, the company board managed its affairs, while their man in India was the Governor-General. Lord Dalhousie held this post from 1847 to 1856.

At the time, several parts of India were under the control of the East India Company, and others under individual rulers. In a series of wars, treaties and agreements Dalhousie was determined to bring more of the Indian mainland under British domination. 

What was the Doctrine of Lapse?

The Doctrine of Lapse was an ingenious policy of increasing revenue and annexation (or land grab, pure and simple) implemented by Dalhousie. Under this doctrine, the princely state would be abolished and annexed to British India if the ruler was incompetent or had died without male children to succeed him. What is more, the British would decide on the competency or otherwise of the ruler. This policy set in motion a series of annexations of princely India, much to the anguish of the rulers and their subjects. 

In all, the British annexed 30 states and added 4 million pounds sterling to their income with this policy.

The states annexed under the Doctrine of Lapse sometimes had queens as regents who did not have male children, and so were expected to acquiesce and hand over the kingdom to the British. A bit ironical considering that in approximately the same era England had Queen Victoria (reign 1837-1901) whose gender did not prevent her from ascending the throne, and retaining it! 

Events at Meerut, 1857

Queens who fought the British for their right to rule

Here are profiles of some queens who fought the Doctrine of Lapse with all they had. This is a very small sample. The policy Doctrine of Lapse was unjust and they, in principle, saw no need to give up without a fight. Some won the immediate battle, some lost their lives. But all had their states annexed by the British in the end. 

Channamma of Kittur

Channamma was one of the earliest opponents of the Doctrine of Lapse. She was born near Belagavi in North Karnataka and was married to Raja Mallasarja, the Desai of Kittur. 

In 1824 Channamma lost her husband, followed soon by her son. In a bid to prevent annexation of Kittur by the British, Channamma adopted Sivalingappa and had him crowned. The British did not recognise the new ruler and asked Channamma to accept annexation.

Channamma did not give up but pleaded her case with the Lieutenant-Governor of the Bombay Presidency but was turned down. Channamma decided not to accept defeat, and war broke out. The British attacked with canons and a huge force but were defeated. Two British officers were taken prisoner by the Kittur army.

Channamma released them after an understanding with the Collector of Dharwad that the fighting would stop. However, he went back on his word and instead returned with a greater force. The Kittur forces fought fiercely but Channamma was ultimately captured and imprisoned at Bailhongal fort. Her aides continued the fight but could not sustain. Chanamma died in prison in February 1829.  

Avantbai Lodhi of Raigarh

Avantibai was queen of Ramgarh in present-day Madhya Pradesh. When her husband died in 1851, she tried to be regent but was not allowed by the British. In 1857 she raised an army numbering 4000 and fought the British army in Mandla near Jabalpur, whom she defeated.

The British retaliated and Avantibai had to retreat to the hills of Devharigarh. Soon she launched guerilla attacks, but her position was quite hopeless. She killed herself with a sword rather than be taken prisoner. 


Draupadi of Dhar

Draupadi was the queen of Dhar, a small state in Malwa in present-day Madhya Pradesh. Draupadi’s husband adopted his younger brother Anandrao Bal Saheb a day before he died on 22nd May 1857. Draupadi took over the administration since Anandrao was still under-age. The British agreed to the adoption in the hope that they could placate Draupadi to remain loyal and not be influenced by the ideas of revolution in the area. 

They thought wrong. 

Draupadi set to work building an army with soldiers wherever she could find them. The revolutionaries also liked to meet inside the fortress of Dhar. 

Draupadi attacked the cantonment at Sardarpur and returned with much wealth.

When the British retaliated they surrounded the fort at Dhar and waited. Nobody exited the fort for four days. On the fifth day the British found a gap in the wall and entered the fort, but by then Draupadi had escapted from another part of the fort. We don’t know what happened to Draupadi after that but the minor ruler was crowned in 1860 after he attained majority. 

1857 and its aftermath

The days leading up to the events of 1857 and beyond are still being studied and debated by scholars in India. It is impossible to generalise the reasons for the revolt, notwithstanding the popular one of soldiers having to use cartridges coated with cow and pig fat. That may well have been true, but also is not the only, if simplistic, reason. 

Whatever be the reasons for the revolt, there is no denying the fact that women took active part in it. The Doctrine of Lapse was a major reason for many aristocrats joining the revolt and was considered a blot on Dalhousie’s career. The issue was not that he chose to implement the Doctrine, but that he did not handle it with more finesse which resulted in the revolt and the Crown taking over the administration of British India.  


The Sepoy Mutiny and the Revolt of 1857 - RC Majumdar

Nature of 1857 - Saurav Bhattacharya

British Raj - Stanley A. Wolpert (


A word about BlogchatterA2Z - This is an annual event during which I have taken up the challenge of blogging on Women in Indian History starting with A and ending in Z during the month of April, 2021. Here then is D - Doctrine of Lapse, against which many women fought. Drop in everyday to read my posts on other interesting women as I work my way down the alphabet to Z! 

Saturday, 3 April 2021

 Courtesans and Common Folk

They fought the British in 1857

In our history books the First War of Indian Independence 1857 throws up names such as Tantia Tope, Rani Lakshmibai, Hazrat Mahal, Bahadur Shah Zafar - all leaders and some rulers from before the event.

However, the movement would not have picked up steam without the wholehearted support and participation of the common folk. The ordinary people sustained the struggle and donated funds, kept the spirit alive with songs and public performances, offered safe places for meetings and shelter, ensured that information flowed from one place to the other, and fought - sometimes to the death.

Folks who joined the ranks of the fighting force 

It comes as no surprise from extant records that the participants in the struggle include professions such as rubber stamp maker, water carrier, palki lifter, halwai, basket maker, drummer, oil maker among several others. The movement for freedom used all resources available. Puppeteers who travelled from place to place to hold performances of their puppets based on Indian stories and mythology adapted their repertoire to spread the idea of defying the British and fighting for independence. They may also have carried messages, made easy by their wandering profession. Also in the fray were the hundreds of poets, intellectuals and teachers who wrote, fought and were martyred.

British records of the time as well as songs and stories of legends passed down from generations give us a bare idea of the women involved in the struggle. Unfortunately very often we get no more information than a few lines about the person. Some profiles that make us pause are - Motibai who was a canon-feeder in the army of Lakshmibai of Jhansi. She was martyred on 4 June 1858 on the battlefield. Mundarbai was security-in-charge of the Rani. She fought alongside her in several battles with British and their allies. 

And then there was the Courtesan who lived on the edge of society in northern India. She was an independent, self-employed and educated woman who survived and thrived by her artistry and wits, beholden to no man. She was a highly trained expert in dance, music and poetry.  Since her ambience was the royal courts or her own salon, and did not fall within the constraints of the life of a married woman. She lived on the margins of society and was not bound by any of its rules. Her property and her time were her own, to use as she wished. 

Courtesans, 1800s

The courtesan - financially independent, in the know of things
Records show that successful courtesans were among the highest tax payers of Kanpur and Lucknow. Their salons employed a variety of professionals -  dancing girls who had to be hired and trained, accompanying musicians, doormen, watchmen, errand boys, tailors, palanquin-carriers, specialty cooks. Several courtesans owned retail establishments and orchards, were gifted land and property from which they earned rent. Thus they were significant contributors to the local economy.

When the British took over Lucknow from Wajid Ali Shah, they did not take into account the culture of the place. In their highhanded manner they imposed British law, a law which did not appreciate the subtle difference between courtesans and prostitutes. The women were equated by law for regular and periodic testing for disease to protect British soldiers. This was a loss of face that many courtesans could not accept. 

Apart from this change of governance that turned their lives upside down and caused a lot of anger and disturbance, the courtesans were women who were very aware of current happenings, knew important men in town from whom they got information. They were fully aware of the struggle for independence gaining momentum by the day, and so had to take difficult decisions about the uncertain future. 

No Half-measures

Many courtesans made the choice and donated funds to the cause of the struggle of 1857. They did not stop there. Many allowed the use of their homes as safe houses for meetings and to hide people on the run as the British searched for the rebels as the movement spread. 

Aziz un Nisa went one step further. She decided to join the fight. 

The motivations for taking part were naturally different for each group. The leaders were fighting against the arrogant way in which the British were displacing the rulers. The landed gentry was fighting to protect their properties. And the women who fought were most likely not even expected to be in the group. 

Yet something propelled Aziz un Nisa and several other women to bear arms and be present. We have no record of what sentiment drove her resolve. Whatever the reason, as a woman of the world with the varied experiences that a courtesan was privy to, Aziz un Nisa’s decision would have been a calculated, measured one.

She wore men's clothes, rode among the men fearlessly with her pistols ready. She helped organise food and medical aid when necessary.

The Aftermath

After the turmoil, the British were aware of the support courtesans had extended to the revolutionaries in several ways, and penalised the women heavily. Many lost previously gifted lands which were confiscated by the British just to reduce their elite status and influence in society. The British raided the salons, carted away precious objects and physically destroyed the place. The courtesans had already lost royal patronage by this time, so this was a double punishment. 

The events of 1857 saw a sea-change in the governance of British-held territory in India. It passed from the East India Company to the British crown. Victorian morality ensured the abolition of the courtesan and her milieu. 


Indian First War of Independence 1857: Hindu, Muslim, Sikh Unity, Mass and Women Participation, Shamsul Islam

Visibilising the Other in History - Courtesans and the Revolt, Lata Singh


A word about BlogchatterA2Z - This is an annual event during which I have taken up the challenge of blogging on Women in Indian History starting with A and ending in Z during the month of April, 2021. Here then is C - Courtesans and Common Folk who fought the British in 1857. Drop in everyday to read my posts on other interesting women as I work my way down the alphabet to Z!

Friday, 2 April 2021

Bhaumakara Queens of Odisha

They ruled because it was their right

Who They Were

The origins of the Bhaumakaras is unclear. It is speculated that the Bhaumas were originally an aboriginal tribe occupying the hilly tracts in northern Odisha. The dates of their reign are still unclear but it is believed they ruled between the 7th and 9th century CE. The long reign of the Bhaumakaras gave continuity of administration and relative peace to the realm. The first three rulers were Buddhist and the later rulers were Hindu. An interesting feature is that the Buddhist kings had Hindu wives. Both religions were well patronised in terms of grants for building temples and viharas. 

The Bhaumakaras are said to have retained elements of their tribal culture which allowed for female rulers. Over the two hundred years that the dynasty reigned, six queens sat on the throne and other powerful queens as consorts of kings wielded influence.

As is obvious from the six queens we know of this dynasty, women had a high status in society. These queens acted independently in their own right, they were not acting as regents for male rulers unlike other dynasties. Of the six queens, five were dowagers (widows of previous kings) and one was a king’s daughter. All were highly educated and cultured. 

Each was known to have built temples and were patrons of the arts. 

The Bhaumakara dynasty patronised all religions and sects in their land. Among the rulers were Buddhists, Shiva bhaktas, Vaishnavas, Shakti upasakas. They gave grants and patronized other religions irrespective of their personal beliefs. They were very unusual in that many royal couples professed different religions from each other with no rancour.

Our source for medieval Odisha is inscriptions which have meticulously recorded by all the rulers.

Pattachitra painting
Source: Wikipedia

The Six Queens of the Bhumakaras

Tribhuvanamahadevi ascended the throne under rather unusual circumstances. After the death of her husband Shantikaradeva I, their son Shubhakaradeva III became the ruler. However he died soon after. The next in line was his young son Subhakaradeva II, considered too young to rule. Thus his grandmother Tribhuvanamahadevi (r 846-850 CE) took over the reigns of the kingdom. She ruled in her own right, not as a regent for her grandson.

She was a daughter of Rajamalla I of the Western Ganga dynasty that ruled the region around Mysuru. It is recorded that initially she was reluctant to rule but was persuaded by the courtiers. What is interesting is that she was deemed by the people to have an authentic claim to the throne with no other man contending for it. At the time she is speculated to have been between thirty-six to forty years of age, although she was considered to be ‘elderly’ by the standards of the time!

The Dhenkanal copper plate charter mentions the grants of land she made to a village and another mentions a grant she made on the occasion of a lunar eclipse.

She was an efficient administrator who managed to keep her kingdom safe from enemies and came down heavily on rebellion. She took up the title of Paramavaishnavi. As a powerful ruler she maintained an army of 30,000 soldiers. Hadul-al-alam, a Persian work by an unknown author and geographer, mentions Tribhuvanamadevi as ‘a queen who does not consider anyone superior to herself’.

It is speculated that she might have had some assistance from her father Rajamalla I since the administration, and perhaps the financial condition of the Bhaumakaras, was precarious after quelling earlier Rashtrakuta and Pala invasions into their territory.

Tribhuvanamahadevi gave up the throne when her grandson Subhakaradeva II came of age.

The next queen to ascend the Bhaumakara throne was Prithvimahadevi who assumed the title of Tribhuvanamahadevi II. Her reign must have been very short since it was disputed by her nephews. She ruled in her own right, although in most other dynasties the throne would have gone to her husband’s nephews. 

A somewhat singular occurrence recorded in copper plate in Baud says that she gave grants to a common woman who petitioned that she wanted to build two temples in her father’s memory. It is noteworthy that such instances are usually not given much prominence in history books but to me it shows the queen had agency to take decisions, and the one that she took here was to help another woman, a commoner at that. 

Temples were not just places of worship but also centres of commerce and art. They had a snowball effect of drawing people from kilometers around, and because of this they attracted prosperity and spread culture. They did not just establish religion. Thus when Tribhuvanamahadevi II acceeded to the woman’s request for a grant, she was also investing in the local area’s commerce and arts, boosting its economy.

Gaurimahadevi had an extremely short reign but was able to maintain peace and order.

Dandimahadevi was a good administrator and was able to be an effective and powerful ruler. She kept her kingdom free from invasions. The mention of precious gems and pearls in her grants shows the prosperity of her reign.

When Dandimahadevi died a premature death, she was succeeded by her step-mother Vakulamahadevi. There is a record of a grant of a village by her. Not much else is known.

Dharmamahadevi was the last known ruler of the Bhaumakara dynasty. Her rule is not significant.

The queens of the Bhaumakara dynasty kept up the tradition of commissioning inscriptions on copper plates, a valuable source of information to us today on this important dynasty in Odisha. 

Education is almost always the common point among women rulers who successfully overcome petty court politics, quell rebellion, protect their realm against invasions and yet are excellent administrators whose subjects are content and have armies who are willing to die for them. An unusual dynasty like the Bhaumakaras had rulers who had the position as a matter of course and because the throne was legitimately theirs, irrespective of whether they were men or women. Quite exceptional, that.


Bhauma Art and Architecture of Orissa by Dr. Krishna Ch Panigrahi

From Obscurity to Light by Devika Rangachari

History of Odisha (From earliest times to 1434 AD) by Dr. Manas Kumar Das


A word about BlogchatterA2Z - This is an annual event during which I have taken up the challenge of blogging on Women in Indian History starting with A and ending in Z during the month of April, 2021. Here then is B - The unusual Bhaumakara Queens of Orissa. Drop in everyday to read my posts on other interesting women as I work my way down the alphabet to Z!

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Ahilyabai Holkar

The much-remembered beloved queen of Malwa


As Mughal rule receded after Aurangzeb’s death and its weaknesses became obvious, the Marathas stamped their power and influence all over India in the 18th century under Peshwa Balaji Bajirao. Several Maratha chiefs (Holkar, Scindia, Gaekwad and other sardars) were given charge of various parts of the kingdom due to their performance in military campaigns. Each of these provinces became centres of polity, art and governance. 

Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar

Ahilyabai (1725 - 1795 CE) is a rare female ruler in the 18th century remembered today for her excellent governance. Her state was considered the best governed state in India of her time. She ascended the Holkar throne in Malwa by sheer circumstance. Ahilyabai’s husband Khanderao Holkar was killed in the battle of Kumher, Rajasthan in 1754. Twelve years later her father-in-law Malhar Rao, the ruler, also died. Ahilyabai’s son Malerao was installed at the throne but he was mentally ill and died soon afterwards. The mantle of ruling now fell on Ahilyabai’s shoulders in 1767.

Early years

Ahilyabai’s father Mankoji Shinde was patil (headman) of the village of Chonde in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra. He took the unusual step for the time of ensuring his daughter learnt to read and write, attributes that stood her in good stead later in life.

Malharrao Holkar stopped in Chonde on his way to Pune from Malwa. He was very taken in by the young Ahilyabai’s personality and demeanour and resolved to have his son marry her. In good time the births of her son and her daughter Muktabai completed the family. Ahilyabai’s forward thinking was apparent when in due time she took the unusual of step of having her daughter marry a poor but brave man Yashwantrao who put up a fight against dacoits.

On the demise of his son and grandson who were to rule after him, Malhar Rao resolved to educate Ahilyabai in statecraft. He was convinced of her merit and knew the state would be in safe hands with Ahilyabai on the throne. Malhar Rao trained her in diplomatic and military matters. Even while he ruled Malhar Rao ensured Ahilyabai had practical experience in these areas with her deep involvement in the affairs of the state.

Ahilyabai’s rule

All this experience made Ahilyabai a seasoned decision-maker when she ascended the throne. She ruled for 30 years and brought prosperity and peace to the Holkar territory. 

One of her immediate tasks, not resolved fully by any previous ruler, was to settle the hill tribals who regularly made destructive forays into the kingdom. She did this by offering them avenues for livelihood and a settled life. 

Indore was developed into one of the foremost cities in India. Ahilyabai ranks very high as an administrator too. She was able to keep invasions away from her realm, provide good and clean administration and was seen to be just. She was very clear on governance and provided a mechanism that got the work done without fear or favour. Her genuine aim was the increased prosperity of her subjects which endeared her to them unlike several other rulers. 

Building anew, Rebuilding temples

As artisans and craftsperson flocked to Maheswar, it turned into a major textile weaving centre. Maheswari textiles were known for their finesse and vibrantly aesthetic weaves. This tradition continues even today.

Ahilyabai is also remembered for the architecture she constructed and maintained through the length and breadth of India. The four jyotirlingas (Kashi Vishwanath in Varanasi, Trimbakeswar in Nashik, Kedarnath in Rudraprayag, Grishneswar in Aurangabad), the sapta puris (Ayodhya, Mathura, Haridwar, Varanasi, Kanchi, Ujjain, Dwaraka), four dhams (Badrinath, Puri, Dwaraka and Rameswaram), several other temples, numerous resthouses, water tanks all over India are ancient structures that she renovated or built anew. They are testament to her piety and that she viewed India, in spite of all political divisions, as one whole. 

The famous temple of Somnath had been repeatedly destroyed by invaders for centuries. Ahilyabai repaired the temple. Her’s was the sixth attempt after several rulers and rich merchants rebuild the temple every time it was destroyed.

In Varanasi also she rebuilt several important destroyed temples. The ghats we see there today descending to the Ganga are built by Ahilyabai Holkar. 

Ahilyabai may have taken up this extensive temple building activity, much of it with her personal finances, to solidify her position in the Maratha confederacy. But there is no denying the fact that her personal interest and piety also played a major role in reconstructing and building new structures. She took care to not encroach upon other religious structures and left them well alone. 

Her legacy

Ahilyabai’s various acts of charity to the underprivileged, constantly watching for the welfare of her citizen were hallmarks of a good ruler. They extended her influence, as also that of the Maratha rule, all over India. It is no wonder that her 30 year rule is considered a golden era in the Malwa region.  


Women, Gender and Art in Asia c.1500-1900. Edited by Melia Belli Bose

Image attribution:

Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


A word about BlogchatterA2Z - This is an annual event during which I have taken up the challenge of blogging on Women in Indian History starting with A and ending in Z during the month of April, 2021. Here then is A - Ahilyabai Holkar. Drop in everyday to read my posts on other interesting women as I work my way down the alphabet to Z!

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