India’s Warrior Queen Didn’t Back Down from the British

October 8, 2020

Lakshmi Bai, the “rani of Jhansi,” fought back against Britain’s plan to annex her kingdom in the 1850s and became an icon of freedom in India.

There is something of the Cinderella story to Lakshmi Bai, a commoner who rose to become rani (queen) of Jhansi, a princely state in mid-19th century India. Most fairy tales would end there, but in Lakshmi Bai’s case it was just the beginning of a remarkable life as a warrior queen.

After becoming regent in her mid-20s in 1853, she would find herself at the heart of the Indian Rebellion that broke out in 1857, now known by many historians as India’s First War of Independence. Ultimately, she would lead thousands of infantry and cavalry troops into battle against the British, reportedly fighting with a sword in each hand and her horse’s reins between her teeth.

History and myth are inseparable in her story. In the end, Lakshmi Bai, the rani of Jhansi, would lose her kingdom and die in battle but become an inspiring symbol to the anti-colonial struggle that culminated in Indian independence 90 years later.

Rebel regent

Lakshmi Bai was born around 1827 in present-day Varanasi in northeast India. Named Manikarnika, she was the daughter of a Brahman who worked as an adviser to the court of the peshwa, or prime minister, of the Maratha Empire, Baji Rao II. Though not aristocratic, Brahmans belonged to a higher caste of priests and scholars. When Manikarnika was four, her mother died, and she moved to court with her father. The peshwa raised her like his own; she received an education unlike most girls and trained with the boys in martial arts, fencing, and riding.

In 1842 the young Manikarnika married the much older Gangadhar Rao, the maharaja, or king, of Jhansi. After the wedding, she changed her name to Lakshmi Bai in honor of Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and good fortune. The couple did not find fortune in starting a family, however, and their biological son died when he was only a few months old.

In 1853 the maharaja became ill. Following Hindu tradition, the couple adopted a five-year-old boy named Damodar Rao, the son of a relative, and declared him to be heir to the Jhansi throne. The maharaja then instructed that Lakshmi Bai would rule as regent until the boy came of age. Shortly after the adoption, Lakshmi became a widow.

The East India Company, seeking to replace the Indian aristocracy with British officials and expand the British Empire, had a ploy to exploit such situations: the doctrine of lapse, a policy that gave the corporation the right to annex any kingdom whose ruler did not have a natural-born male heir. Lakshmi Bai was offered an annuity of 60,000 rupees in compensation for her departure, which the young queen refused, declaring, “I will not give up my Jhansi.”

Face of the queen

This photograph is said to be of Lakshmi Bai, taken of her in her royal regalia, around 1850. Indian scholars have cast doubt on its authenticity because she was not yet regent then, and photography was still very rare in that era of history.

ohn Lang, an Australian lawyer, represented Lakshmi Bai in her legal battle against the East India Company to stop the annexation of Jhansi. In his memoir, Wanderings in India, he describes seeing the rani for the first time: “She was a woman of about the middle size—rather stout, but not too stout. Her face must have been very handsome when she was younger, and even now it had many charms . . .

The expression was also very good, and very intelligent. The eyes were particularly fine, and the nose very delicately shaped. She was not very fair, though she was far from black…Her dress was a plain white muslin, so fine in texture . . . that the outline of her figure was plainly discernible—and a remarkably fine figure she had.”

Revolt of the sepoys

As she took control of her kingdom and organized her forces to fight the colonialists, a revolt by Indian soldiers, or sepoys, in the company’s army, which began to the north in Meerut, caught fire. Rather than a single cause, the revolt had been stoked by an accumulation of grievances over what was seen as a British attempt to undermine traditional Indian society and religion.

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