Life story of the Rani of Jhansi

  • By Saurav Basu
  • November 2007

Birth of Lakshmi Bai & arrival in Jhansi  

Kashi (Benares) in the 19th century was home to over 30,000 Marathi Brahmin families. The Tambes were a Karhad Brahmin family from Vai in Satara. Balwant Rao Tambe, son of an ordinary soldier in the Peshwa’s army chose to reside in this holy city. Moropant and Sadashiv were his two sons. Moropant was married to Bhagirathi Bai from the Sapre family in Karar. Beautiful, and well versed in Hindu tradition, his wife gave birth to a beautiful daughter who was named Manikarnika [a synonym for the river Ganges], called Manu at home. The world would remember her as the Rani of Jhansi.

Her date of birth remains controversial but modern scholars unanimously propose 1828[4], overruling that of erstwhile scholars like Vrindavan Lal Verma who chose 1836.

The Tambes were a traditional Marathi family. Little Manu regularly visited the Kashi Vishwanath temple during her childhood and developed a deep sense of devotion and piety. They would later move to Bithur, where Baji Rao II, the last defeated Maratha Peshwa had migrated to from Poona, and ushered in a new wave of prosperity in an anonymous town.

The childhood of little Manu was different from that of any ordinary Indian girl. She was stubborn and would never take no for an answer. This indefatigable spirit would be the hallmark of her short military career too. Moropant had joined the exiled court of the Peshwa, Baji Rao II, along with his adopted son, Nana Sahib [another enigmatic and chief personality of the year 1857] and Tatya Tope, arguably the finest native military campaigner of the same period.

Little Manu lost her mother at the tender age of four; and the heartbroken father chose not to marry again but instead bring up his only child with great tenderness and care. The motherless child would remain indomitable, and indulge in activities like flying kites, watching wrestling matches which hitherto were considered the domain of boys. She would learn to read and write with boys, something that was not encouraged then but she was a rebel. Among her girlfriends, she chose to play queen and whomsoever disobeyed her was fined. Some English historians naturally detected a streak of the tomboy in her. However, she possessed every grace of the fair sex, and knew how to exploit the abundant feminine charms at her disposal as was evident time and again in her brief political and military career.

Significantly, her astrologer had correctly predicted that inspite of her humble origins she was destined to be queen and bring everlasting fame to her family.

Moropant Pande took the astrologer’s advice seriously and started grooming his daughter for the high position. Manu was given a thorough training in the Sanskrit religious texts, some of which like the Bhagavad Geeta she could quote verbatim, as evident from the accounts of Vishnu Godse, the only Indian eyewitness of the same. Unlike the women of her times she was given special training in riding horses, fencing, sword fighting and firing guns. [5]

A couple of incidents prove to her congenital determination and steadfast composure under adverse circumstances.

While riding Nana Sahib fell from his horse and was covered with blood. Aghast, he started howling and braying. Rather than getting petrified, Manu mounted him on the horse and returned home. She narrated the whole incident to her father without showing any emotion whatsoever. Her father was very proud of her. Late in the night, Manu asked her father, why was there so much fuss about such a trifling thing. Nana was not a baby, and his injury was so little. Manu promised her father that she would never be cowed down by circumstances like Nana and all her life she would demonstrate unflinching courage. [6]

Little Manu always wanted to ride an elephant. One day, the Peshwa asked her to go along with Nana and his brother Bala on an elephant joyride. The little girl was delighted and eagerly waited for the moment but Nana had not got over the chastisement he had received at her hands the other day. In a vindictive mood he set without her.

Little Manu was angry but she stood defiant. Her father’s attempts to mollify her only further insinuated her. Moropant lost his patience, and exclaimed that fate had no elephants in store for her. The epic words which are a constituent of each of her biographies were swift and sharp, and passionately prophetic “I am destined to have not one, but ten elephants!”

Arrival at Jhansi

Like other fathers Moropant Tambe too wanted to get his daughter married. His daughter was well past the age of puberty, and yet, he could find no suitable match for her. However, he soon received a proposal from a Brahmin astrologer Tantia Dikshit, for marriage to the Maharaja of Jhansi, a widower without children.

Manu left her carefree days behind and assumed the name of Lakshmi. During the marriage ceremony; Lakshmibai said in clear, ringing voice “Tie the knot hard”. Her unfeminine conduct and boldness was shocking to the priests for whom a bride was to be reticent and put up a demure display. Nevertheless, she cast an impressionable appearance on most; and her declaration was considered as a solemn promise on her part to stand by her husband and people until death did them apart.

Her husband Gangadhar Rao was a controversial figure. Although the British had declared him to be the official heir, the entire district had fallen in complete disarray [7] due to the previous king’s debauchery and incompetence; coupled with natural disasters and series of loot and plunder by the Bundela Sardars and the increasing interference from the neighboring Rajput kingdoms of Datia and Orcha.

Gangadhar Rao appealed to the British for military assistance as he was helpless in maintaining control over his kingdom. The British took control of Jhansi in 1838. For 4 years Gangadhar Rao remained a king without a kingdom but he was ultimately restored his kingdom by the British. It was for this reason that the British enjoyed a reputation for being just, if not noble; especially because they ensured that the kingdom had not been reduced to an absolute anarchy during the troubled times. Moreover, the reinstatement of their king, by the British naturally put a favorable impression on the citizens of Jhansi.

But it is the personal character of Gangadhar Rao which has been the subject of most debate. Indian contemporary accounts especially that of Vishnu Godse have severely reprimanded him and alleged that few fathers wanted to hand their daughters to him. Why he remained a widower for so long remains a mystery.

Moreover, Indian authors claimed that he was around 40 when Manu married him, but Tapti Roy has conclusively proven that he was in his late twenties at the most. He was also a patron of theatre where he used to perform certain parts assigned to women. Although, in those periods, men used to enact the roles assigned to women and for this reason verily, rumors used to freely circulate that he was gay or impotent to which the king was totally oblivious. One can appreciate the fact, that accounts of parochial Brahmins like Vishnu Godse steeped in traditional virtues, were highly critical of the Rajah, for they could not appreciate the nonconforming unorthodox attitude of his, especially when pitted against the orthodox and sympathetic attitude of the Rani.

Yet, in his second stint as king, Gangadhar Rao ushered in a new wave of peace and prosperity in his kingdom. His collection of horses and elephants were nonpareil, the royal court was elegant in its design, there was a library, which housed thousands of priceless handwritten and rare Sanskrit manuscripts, which was later burnt down during the siege of Jhansi. There was a remarkable decline in the crime rates across the town. Gangadhar Rao appointed responsible men for security, and demarcated separate domains for each of them. He also improved roads and sanitation. As Atkison, a statistical officer noted, people spoke of his rule with fondness and blessed his soul. While hagiographic accounts of the Rani attributed all this to her coming as the embodiment of the goddess of wealth; the eminent historian Tapti Roy asserts that these were all proof of Gangadhar Rao’s accomplishments. Roy rightly proclaims Tao to be a man of diverse talents, a sensitive person; who was an excellent ruler in his own right.

“Behind every successful man is a woman,” this adage applies in this case perfectly. The Raja’s virtual initial stint as the king could not even take flight. However, in his second stint as the king along with his wife was successful and therefore one cannot exclude the latter’s colossal contributions which must have occurred behind the scenes. The Rani must have blended in the background of his work, supporting him, advising him and cajoling him into incessant action. Some of the fine temples constructed during this period, in all likelihood, must have received a substantial thrust from the highly religious Rani.

The Rajah’s relationship with the British was one of maintaining a deliberate distance.

Once he compelled the British cavalry to work on a Sunday because Dussehra had fallen on this day. (by threatening to cut their wages.)

As for the personal relations of Rao and Laxmibai, they must have been quite cordial. They cemented a deep bonding towards one another, and the Rajah often used to surprise her with myriad gifts. He unflinchingly broke tradition to go on a lengthy north Indian pilgrimage along with her, where she would get a chance to experience once again, the glory of the Ganges, on whose banks she had spent much of her childhood. The din of the temple bells of Kashi would rekindle her cherished memories.

They  returned after six months, with the news that the Rani had at last conceived. Almost the entire city of Jhansi, turned out to greet them. There was great rejoicing and fanfare. In time, she would give birth to a young son. But  disaster struck, as the child died in 3 months time. The whole city was engulfed in a pale of gloom. The raja was heartbroken, and became increasingly eccentric and soon began to be consumed by repeated episodes of bloody diarrhea. 

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