Life Story of Ahilya Bai Holkar

Throne of Ahilya Bai, Rajwada, Maheshwar Fort, Madhya Pradesh.

Punyaslok Rajmata Ahilyadevi Holkar was born in 1725 at Chondi in Maharashtra's Ahmednagar district. Her father, Mankoji Shinde, was the patil (chief) of the village. Ahilya bai did not come from a royal lineage; she belonged to Dhangar (dhangad or shephered community. Now considered a nomadic tribe, the community is agitating for Scheduled Tribe status). Ahilyabai’s father taught her to read and write. 


Malhar Rao Holkar, the Commander of Peshwa Bajirao and also the Lord of the Malwa territory stopped in Chaundi on his way to Pune. He spotted Ahilyabai at the temple service feeding the poor and hungry. Impressed by the young girl’s religiosity and strong character he decided to get his only son married to her. She married Khande Rao, son of Malhar Rao Holkar who had both name and fame. 


Her doorway in history was accidental and unplanned. In 1754 her husband was killed, by a stray shot fired from the walls of Kumbher, in the Battle of Kumbher. Thus, she became a widow at 21.


She had offered to do Sati on the death of her husband but was dissuaded by her grief-stricken father-in-law. Instead he trained her to handle affairs of the State, governance and other political aspects.


Malhar Rao Holkar died in 1766. The son of Khande Rao and grandson of Malhar Rao, Male Rao became the ruler under regency. Male Rao sank into insanity and died within a year of succession. This resulted in a huge void in the power structure of the kingdom.


It was then that Ahilya Bai (also called Ahalya Bai) became the head of the administration defeating the intrigue of Raghunath Rao and Holkar Diwan, Gangadhar Yashwant.


Already trained to be a ruler, she requested the Peshwa to let her taken over the administration. Some people in Malwa opposed her but the army of Holkar was enthusiastic about her leadership and supported their queen. She was granted the permission by the Peshwa.


Ahilya Bai appointed Tukoji Holkar, a trusted officer of Malhar Rao Holkar, to command the army. The divided authority continued for about thirty years undisturbed by jealousy or ambition. The main reason was the competence with which Ahilya Bai managed the civil affairs, the support she gave to Scindias (Rs 30 lakhs in loan) and the sanctity she gained by her charities. Tukoji remained content with military command.


She combined talent, virtue and energy which made her a blessing to the country over which she ruled.


"Ahilya Bai was a skilled archer and tales of four bows and quiver of arrows fitted at the four corners of her howdah (elephant seat) had become a part of the local folklore."


The private hoard of 20 lakh rupees remained with Ahilya Bai. This plus personal estates yielded about 4 lakhs annually, was spent at her discretion. All the rest of the government revenue was brought into a general account and applied to the general expenditure of the government. Accounts were kept with scrupulous exactness. After paying civil and military charges Ahilya Bai sent the balance to supply the exigencies of the army deployed abroad (meaning outside Malwa).


"The character of her administration was for more than 30 years the basis of prosperity which attended by the Holkar dynasty. Her great object was, by just and moderate government, to improve the condition of the country, while she promoted the happiness of her subjects. She maintained but a small force, independent of the territorial militia, but her troops were sufficient, aided by the equity of her administration to preserve tranquility; and she riled on the army of the State actively employed in Hindustan and the Deccan, and her own reputation, for safety against all external enemies". Rajwade, M.I.S, II, p 71; Br. Charitra, 130.


Ahilya Bai sat everyday in open Durbar, transacting business. "Her first principle was moderate assessment and sacred respect for the rights of village officers and proprietors of land, and quick justice. She referred cases to courts of equity and arbitration (Panchayats) and to her ministers for settlement, but when appeals were made to her decision, she heard every complaint with great patience."


Rajwade in the introduction to the first volume of his Sadhanen traces the failure of the Marathas in Hindustan to their failure to work out the ideal of Maharastra Dharma in a wider perspective. If only they had emulated Ahilya Bai and succeeded in having good administration in their northern conquests, the people of Hindustan might have gladly accepted their rule.


When the family treasure came into her possession she appropriated it for charity and good works. She spent considerable sums on religious edifices at Maheshwar (see album link at end of article) and built many temples, Dharamshalas and wells throughout the Holkar dominions. This was not limited to her own domains but extended to all places of Hindu pilgrimage in east, west, south and north i.e. Puri, Dwarka, Kedarnath and Rameshwaram - she built holy edifices, maintained establishments to feed the poor and sent annual sums to be distributed in charity.


She was smart enough to be refused to be drawn in rivalry with Mahaji Scindia when he was extending his influence over imperial affairs and raising European trained infantry. Foreign diplomacy and conquests of the Maratha State were left to stalwarts like Scindia, Nana Phadnis etc. She focused on good, wise and orderly governance.


This does not mean that Holkar's force turned pacifist after the death of Malhar Rao. It took part in the great northern expedition of 1769-1772, fought in Gujarat, Konkan and also in 1786 when the Peshwa led his forces against Tipu Sultan.


She was also a classic politician. She solved most cases peacefully and effortlessly. Only once she was not able to resolve conflict with the Bhils and Gonds. This conflict was resolved by granting them those waste hilly lands & right to small duty. She was astute enough to warn the Peshwa, vide a letter of 1772, about British intentions.


Ahilyabai never observed purdah. She was accessible to all and those who needed her. There are numerous stories of her care and compassion. She helped widows to retain their husband’s wealth and made sure they were allowed to adopt a son. In addition she encouraged everyone to give their best in whatever they are doing. During her tenure merchants, craftsmen & artists produced one of the finest products and received salary regularly.  


The capital Maheshwar was turned into a literary, musical and artistic and industrial centre. A textile industry was established there, which is now home to the famous Maheshwar saris. (end of article has link to weavers cooperative run by Sally Holkar etc).


Her capital Indore transformed itself from a village into a prosperous city and wealthy mart for Malwa products. In Malwa, various roads and forts were constructed. Her generosity is reflected outside of her kingdom in constructing numerous Ghats, wells, tanks and rest houses.


Well known travel blogger Rangan Dutta visited her home in Maheshwar Fort (Rajwada part) and wrote, "The verandah on the lower floor houses a small museum displaying objects used by Ahilya Bai. From the swords & shields to objects of daily use are in display. The prime attraction of the museum is the throne (or Rajgaddi) of Ahilya Bai. The simple throne reminds one of the simple lifestyle of the great queen." Do visit the Cenotaph of Ahilya Bai at Maheshwar Fort.


She renewed many temples and other Hindu pilgrimages across India. Examples are -


One, current Kashi Vishwanath Temple at Benaras was built by her.


Two, a small temple was constructed at Somnath, the large one that we see today was built after independence.


Three, temple at Gaya in Bihar. It is at Gaya that Hindus perform Pind Daan or post death rituals.


According to travel blogger Jaideep Datta, "She reconstructed, renovated and approved annual maintenance for diverse temples including Ellora, Somnath, Kashi Vishwanath, Kedarnath, Prayag, Chitrakut, Pandharpur, Parli Vaijnath,  Kurukshetra, Pashupatinath, Rameshwar, Balaji Giri, Eklingaji, Pushkar, etc. "


What have prominent people said about Ahilya Bai Holkar?


"Definitely no woman and no ruler are like Ahilyabai Holkar." Nizam of Hyderabad 


According to a contemporary American historian, Gordon, “Ahilyabai had one of the most stable reigns of the 18th century.” 


"The reign of Ahilyabai, of Indore in central India, lasted for 30 Yrs. This has become almost legendary as a period during which perfect order and good Government prevailed and the people prospered. She was a very able ruler and organizer, highly respected during her lifetime, and considered as a saint by a grateful people after her death." Jawaharlal Nehru: Discovery of India, 2004( page-304).


“For thirty years her reign of peace, the land in blessing did increase; And she was blessed by every tongue, By stern and gentle, old and young. Yea, even the children at their mothers feet Are taught such homely rhyming to repeat "In latter days from Brahma came, To rule our land, a noble Dame, Kind was her heart, and bright her fame, And Ahilya was her honoured name." Poem on Rani Ahilyabai Holkar by Joanna Baillie 1849.

Far and wide the roads were planted with shady trees, and wells were made, and rest-houses for travelers. The poor, the homeless, the orphaned were all helped according to their needs. The Bhils who had long been the torment of all caravans, were routed from their mountain fastnesses and persuaded to settle down as honest farmers. Hindu and Musalman alike revered the famous Queen and prayed for her long life. Her last great sorrow was when her daughter became a Sati upon the death of Yashwantrao Phanse. Ahalya Bai was seventy years old when her long and splendid life closed. Indore long mourned its noble Queen, happy had been her reign, and her memory is cherished with deep reverence unto this day."  Annie Besant


The beloved queen passed away at the age of 70. She was succeeded by her commander-in-chief, Tukoji Rao Holkar. Her life shines radiantly in the pages of history and her achievements and struggles will inspire many generations of India.


In 1996 leading citizens of Indore instituted an award in her name to be bestowed annually on an outstanding public figure. The first award was presented to Nanaji Deshmukh by the Prime Minister of India.


On 25th August 1996 the government of India issued a commemorative stamp in her honor. Indore's airport has been named "Devi Ahilyabai Holkar airport" after her. Indore University has been renamed as Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalaya in her honor. In 2002 a film titled 'Devi Ahilya Bai' was also produced.


About Author: Ishani Gupta is a second year student of history.


Reference: The History and Culture of Indian People Volume 8 published by the Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan.


Also see

1. Pictures of Maheswar

2. Rajwada, Maheshwar, abode of Ahilya Bai

3. Ahilya Bai's expedition against the Gohadkars

4. To read about women weaver co-operative that makes the famous Maheshwari Saris  

5. TISS research to help state decide on quota for Dhangers 

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