The queen of Jhansi, Rani Lakshmibai, who died fighting the British during the 1857 revolt and became a supreme symbol of Indian nationalism, was born on November 19, 1828, in Varanasi (in present day Uttar Pradesh) in a Maharashtrian Brahmin family.
She was named Manikarnika (or Manu, informally). Her mother, Bhagirathi Sapre, died when she was four years old. Her father, Moropant Tambe, was employed with a Peshwa in Bithoor district. Lakshmibai reportedly learned how to ride a horse and archery as a child.
In 1842, Manikarnika was married to Raja Gangadhar Rao, the Maratha ruler of Jhansi, a princely state in Bundelkhand. In 1851, she gave birth to a boy but he died when he was four months old. Before he himself passed away, Gangadhar adopted his cousin son’s and renamed the child Damodar Rao, after his dead son. The raja also gave a letter to a British officer, appealing that Damodar be treated well and that the administration of Jhansi be given to Lakshmibai after Gangadhar died. But following his death in 1853, the British, citing the ‘Doctrine of Lapse’, rejected Damodar’s right to the throne and annexed Jhansi. Lakshmibai was given a pension and told to leave the palace and fort.
The Rani of Jhansi rose to prominence during India’s first war of independence in 1857. The rebellion started as a sepoy mutiny on May 10, 1857, in Meerut, and then spread to other parts of northern and central India. The revolt was a culmination of several grievances but the spark was provided when Hindu and Muslim soldiers were asked to bite off their rifle cartridges that were reportedly greased with beef and pork fat.
In a book on Lakshmibai titled The Rani of Jhansi, Rebel against Will, the author Rainer Jerosch puts her role into context: “The entire life of the Rani is intimately linked to the causes and the events of this (the 1857) revolt. However, it should be noted that she only emerges as a leading actor on the historical stage in the latter phase of the insurrection. It moreover appears reasonable to assume that it was only over the course of the Mutiny that she developed into the personality which we encounter in the history books. The ‘highly civilized, polite lady’, as the well-schooled eyes of Political Agent Sir Robert Hamilton, perceived her before the Great Mutiny, provides little, if any, indication of the resolute warrior who would one day challenge British rule with such determination and military prowess.”
With news of the mutiny reaching Jhansi, the Rani sought British permission to gather a force of armed men for her protection. In a letter to Major Erskine, she expressed her deep regret at the killing of British civilians and officers by the mutineers. With forces of Orchha and Datia attempting to take advantage of the chaos and capture Jhansi, Lakshmibai appealed to the British for help. But it is believed that by then the thinking in the British camp was that the Rani was part of the rebel force.
The British finally arrived, with the aim of capturing Jhansi, and the assault on the fort began on March 24, 1858. A force of more than 20,000 men led by rebel leader Tatya Tope came to Jhansi’s aid, but could not do much. After fierce fighting, and with British forces closing in, the Rani decided to tactically withdraw and escape to open up another front against the enemy.
She joined rebel forces at Kalpi but they were forced to flee by the British. The Rani, Tatya Tope, Rao Sahib and others then camped at Gwalior. For a while they held the city, but the British attacked them on June 17.
A squadron of the 8th Hussars, near Gwalior’s Phool Bagh area, engaged with the rebel forces led by Lakshmibai. There is more than one version of the circumstances under which the Rani was fatally wounded. Governor General Lord Canning’s account is as follows: “Ranee of Jhansi. Killed by a trooper of the 8th Hussars who was never discovered. Shot in the back, her horse baulked. She then fired at the man, and he passed his sword through her. She used to dress like a man (with a turban) and rode like one ... Not pretty, & pockmarked with smallpox, but beautiful eyes and figure. She used to wear gold anklets…Her tent was very coquettish...Two maids of honour rode with her. One was killed…”
When she was killed, the Rani was only 29 years old. In her life and death, she was often caught in historical currents beyond her control but she responded with extraordinary courage. By dying young on the battlefield during the greatest revolt against British rule the country had ever witnessed, Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi, became immortal in the hearts and minds of her countrymen.
Also on this day:
1917 — Indira Gandhi, third Prime Minister of India, was born
1922 — Salil Chowdhury, Indian music composer, was born
1951 — Zeenat Aman, Hindi film actress, was born
1985 — Lall Singh, Indian Test cricketer, passed away