Life story of the Rani of Jhansi

  • By Saurav Basu
  • November 2007

Of all the characters in the epic mutiny of 1857; there is one name which stands tall above all the others and yet ironically was one who was neither the initiator of the mutiny; nor among the leaders who survived until the last stage. Yet, in many ways she was alone in her magnificence, a singular figure among a gallery of heroes. [1] She was Rani Lakshmi Bai; and that small town immortalized forever is Jhansi.

Jhansi is a small town in the province of Uttar Pradesh, part of the region known as Bundelkhand. The town still feels that it owes its fame to the young Rani, who ruled for barely four and half years. It keeps alive the memory of its beloved Rani with her image on horseback imprinted all over; at crossroads; on hoardings and in parks. Her ubiquity conforms what people believe.

The article is divided into six chapters namely Brief history of Jhansi, Birth of Rani Lakshmi Bai & arrival at Jhansi, Dalhousie/the Doctrine of Lapse and annexation of Jhansi, Mutiny and Massacre/Rani framed, the British assault and Battle for Jhansi and Greatest of her Age.

A brief history of Jhansi

Bundelkhand’s warlike history is steeped in the historical tradition of repulsing the imperial Islamic armies and being in the vanguard of Hindu resistance by acting as a rampart in protecting the Hindu civilization of the Deccan. Way back in the 9th century, Rajput kings overthrew Afghan invaders.

Bundelkhand lost its independence briefly to the Mughal armies; but reclaimed it finally under the able leadership of the queen, Durga Vati. As the head of the armies, she repelled three Muslim attacks, during the last of which she fell nobly fighting, on the heap of her slain countrymen. Travelers still place flowers and rock crystals at a monument raised by her people. [2]

The Raja of Orcha built a small citadel of Jhansi in 1615. In the 17th century; Aurangzeb, keen to establish Dar-Ul-Islam in India ordered a frontal attack in the region but in a stunning reverse was beaten, and lost his generals to Chhatra Sal., a Bundela Sardar. The latter won independence for his region and until 1732 peace reigned in the region.

When a fresh onslaught came from the Muslim viceroy of the region, Chhatra Sal, now old and infirm appealed to the Maratha Peshwa for help. He responded and the Islamic armies were beaten. Out of gratitude, he ceded a third of his territory to Peshwa Baji Rao I. Jhansi was thus included in this territory.

Raghunath Rao; the Maratha General assumed the throne of Jhansi in 1759. He was an efficient administrator. He retired to the holy city of Benares, several years later and was succeeded by his brother Shivaram Bhau. Bhau realizing the decline of the Maratha power; made an abject offer of unconditional surrender to the East India Company. The company naturally assumed him not to be an enemy, declined his offer of surrender, and confirmed him as a ruler. The greater achievements of both these rulers was maintaining a cordial atmosphere and winning over the Rajputs of Bundelkhand; who throughout history had no love lost for the Marathas.

When the Maratha Confederacy ceased to exist in 1818 after their dismal defeat in the second Anglo-Maratha war, Jhansi was recognized as an independent state of hereditary principality. Shivaram, finally quit his throne, became a sanyasin, and was followed by his grandson Ramachandra Rao, whose servility towards the British knew no bounds. He begged Lord Wellesley to allow him to hoist the Union Jack over the fort of Jhansi.

He would emerge as an object of much hatred, for he had left the state treasury almost empty and took no measures to control famines due to repeated bad harvests. The Rajput rulers of Orcha and Datia took advantage of the situation and a rebellion started brewing amongst the significant Rajput population of Jhansi [3]. In the end days of his life, neither he was happy nor were his subjects and he finally succumbed to death at the young age of 29 in 1835. An even worse ruler, Raghunath Rao, followed him; who died within 3 years of his succession due to leprosy. Even within that short span his debauchery had rendered the treasury empty, and revenue collections had dipped below the 3 lakh mark. The British hastily decided that Gangadhar Rao; the descendant of Sheo Ram Bhao would ascend the throne. It was to this man, that Manu, the future LakshmiBai would be married and metamorphose into the legend that was the Rani of Jhansi!