• By Uday S. Kulkarni
  • January 26 2019
  • @MulaMutha
Rani Laxmibai-near Burhanpur, Madhya Pradesh. Pic by S Nayyar
  • Article tells how the British forced Rani Laxmibai into the war of 1857and how she fought bravely thereafter.

‘I regret to report that Maharaja Gungadhar Rao expired today at 1 pm’. With this short statement in a letter dated 21 November 1853 to Major Malcolm, Agent for the region, the British protectorate and loyal state of Jhansi was thrown into uncertainty. Two days before he died the Maharaja had written a khureeta to the British Government, ‘I am now very ill and it is a source of great grief to me that..the name of my father will end with me. I have therefore with reference to the 2nd Article of the treaty concluded with the British Government adopted Damodar Rao, commonly called Anand Rao, a boy of five years old, my grandson through my grandfather.’ The adoption had been completed in the presence of British officials. However, Lord Dalhousie, the Governor General had in the minutes of a meeting on 11 November 1853 signed under an order that said, ‘The Raja of Jhansi has no heirs. In the event of his dying without adoption, the Raj will lapse’. It is possible this precipitated the last minute adoption by the dying Raja and he hoped the British Government would allow his widow Laxmibai to administer the state until he comes of age.

But to rewind, let us return to Varanasi of 1835. Maratha rule ended in 1818 with the surrender of Bajirao II, and his brother Chimaji Appa was sent to Varanasi while the Peshwa was deposed to Bithoor. Chimaji’s entourage had an officer named Moropant Tambe, a Karhade Brahmin by caste. Manikarnika, Moropant’s daughter, was born here. However, Chimaji died sometime in 1836 and the Tambes moved to Bithoor to be with Bajirao II. Here, along with the children in the Peshwa’s household - Nanasaheb, Raosaheb and Tatya Tope – Manikarnika, or Manu, grew up playing with them, learning the use of weapons as well as horsemanship. Then, still very young at eight, she was considered eligible for marriage in about 1842.

Top Nanasaheb,Rani Laxmibai,Baijabai,Koer Singh. Courtesy National War Museum London.

Being a Karhade Brahmin, it was a convention to marry within the same sub-caste and a match was found for her in Jhansi whose ruling family of Newalkars were also Karhades. The bridegroom was marrying a second time and was perhaps forty years old at the time and had no children. The girl, barely eight, as was the custom, accompanied by her father came to Jhansi to a grand wedding ceremony. Manikarnika was given the name of Laxmi and that is how history remembers her today. Gangadhur rao had just been confirmed as the new ruler over claims by others from his clan and the occasion must have seemed a new beginning to the Maharaja. It was only when she attained puberty that the marriage was consummated and in 1851 a son was born to the aging Maharaja. This set off celebrations in Jhansi as an heir was born to the Newalkar family that had ruled Jhansi for nearly eighty years – first as feudatories to the Peshwa and later treaty bound to the British as their dependency.

Yet, tragedy was not far. The baby boy died when he was just three months old. Laxmi bai and Gangadhur rao were devastated and the ruler’s health began to deteriorate so that by 1853, it appeared the end was not far. A flurry of consultations began with the British Resident Ellis and Malcolm, the Agent for Gwalior and Jhansi with the Governor General Dalhousie. Ellis himself seemed in favour of meting out a just settlement for the Rani. The treaty with the British had the provision for allowing adoption. Yet, Gangadhur rao’s chief concern was the well-being of his young wife and he repeatedly asked the British to allow her to reign. Laxmi bai had shown she had the requisite skills and had encouraged martial traditions to be built up in the small army they were allowed to retain. The Governor General was not in favour of allowing an eighteen year old rani to rule and opted to take over the state by his infamous Doctrine of Lapse. The Maharaja in the presence of British officials adopted a child just two days before he died and committed him to the care of his wife, seeking the approval of the Governor General. 

Following Dalhousie’s decision to take over Jhansi, Laxmi bai petitioned the British, always hoping to obtain a favourable decision. Perhaps the sympathy of local officers encouraged her to believe that she would get the required permission. However, that was not to be. Laxmi bai hired an Australian journalist and writer named John Lang to argue her case for her and called him to meet her in her fort. He was brought in a royal palanquin pulled by horses imported from France that were ‘17 hands high’ with a cavalry escort of men carrying long lances in the Maratha fashion. The last part of his journey was on a large white elephant and was brought to the palace only after he agreed to remove his shoes before entering the Rani’s private chambers.

Eventually, John Lang’s diplomacy failed and although Ellis continued to back her case citing the example of neighbouring Tehri in Orchha where adoption had been allowed, it only pushed Malcolm further towards refusing the adoption. Around the same time, the ruler of Nagpur died without a child and his state was taken over by the British. However, Laxmi bai wrote to the British citing Article 2 of the treaty of 1817 wherein the then ruler was recognised with ‘his heirs and successors’ which included adopted children. Furthermore, the Rani pointed out that in 1835 Lord Bentinck had recognised the loyalty and contribution of Jhansi and not only extended the title of Maharaj to the ruler but also presented him with a British ensign. Damodar, her adopted son was from the extended Newalkar family and it was the Rani’s view that the adoption was legitimate.

The British argued that the case of Jhansi was different as it was a state associated with the Peshwa while Datia and Orcchha had been independent states in the past. In any case, Dalhousie summarily rejected all the Rani’s arguments and declared the state would be taken over. Among the many appeals the Rani made to Dalhousie until 1854 one finds her pointing out that in February 1824 Jhansi had contributed 70000 rupees for the Burma war and that the state had been foremost in displaying ‘its loyalty to the paramount power’. The Rani refused to come to terms with Dalhousie’s orders and on 20 April 1854 one finds Malcolm report that ‘she has the impression that these orders are not final and therefore, she would delay the submission’. On 12 May she asked that her representative be given a personal hearing, stating ‘Jhansi is a powerless native state depending on the protection of the British’. 

Despite summary dismissals, the Rani pressed on her appeals, speaking from behind the pardah to the British officials who came to meet her. The British officers came away commenting on the excellent manner the buildings of the fort were preserved and how well their own reception had been arranged. The Rani’s arguments grew more vigorous with every new petition. The decision was not through negotiation she argued, and ‘it was exercise of power, without the right, of the great and strong over the weak and small’. She called the takeover of Jhansi a gross violation of treaties, negation of British honour, and causing disquiet among all the native princes.

Ganesh temple in fort where Rani Laxmibai offered prayers regularly. Pic by S Nayyar. 

When she was made to vacate the fort and enter her private palace with a pension of five thousand a month, she at first refused, and threatened to leave for Varanasi. However, she later relented and vacated the fort. She still appealed forcefully for her rights to the British agents who visited her, however, she had realised that they would not accept the adoption of her son Damodar. She was not permitted to draw money from the ruler’s trust for her son’s thread ceremony and she was particularly annoyed that cow slaughter was permitted by the British in the state of Jhansi. The last straw was taking away two villages that had been allotted for the upkeep of a family temple of the goddess Mahalaxmi. It was around this time that the revolt against British rule erupted in the north.

It was May 1857 and there was not a cloud in the sky over Jhansi. However, greased cartridges using grease from cows and pigs fat for the new Enfield rifles, forced overseas postings causing loss of caste and rumours of flour mixed with powdered bones of the cow began to spread discontentment among the British sepoys. The British were complacent, and were busy preparing for the centenary of the battle of Plassey that fell in 1857. On 10th May, the simmering revolt broke out in Meerut cantonment among high caste loyal troops who shot a British officer and deserted their posts. The next day the city of Delhi was captured by sepoys and they proclaimed for the Mughal king Bahadur Shah Zafar, who knew not what had come into his benign life. Yet, in Jhansi, the English officer, Skene placed his trust in Indian troops. The Rani was permitted to raise a contingent of guards for her own use. The arsenal and treasure of Jhansi was in the cantonment area in a small citadel called the Star fort. On 5 June 1857, the revolt came to Jhansi as the sepoys occupied this fort. On 6th the first Englishmen in the cantonment were killed, others having taken shelter in the main fort.

The Englishmen in the fort then sought the Rani’s help but she said she was helpless and surrounded by the rebels. Four messengers sent from the fort to her were caught and killed. There was some firing at the fort and in one such fire, Gordon, an English officer was killed. Skene then decided to surrender and oaths were exchanged by the rebels assuring them of their lives. Skene, believing them, led the men women and children out. They were taken prisoner and led to a place called Jokhan bagh. Here the English were cut down; men, women and children and their bodies left on the road for three days. The rebels went to the Rani and after extracting money from her declared her the queen. The rebels then left for Delhi and the Rani wrote to the British official Erskine giving her report and conveying her inability to protect the city. ‘I hope the rebels go to Hell’, the Rani wrote in her letter to Erskine. The Rani had until then not committed herself to the Revolt of 1857. Indeed, at this stage she was not involved, and a English man named Martin who was at Jhansi at the time later wrote to her son Damodar, ‘your poor mother was very unjustly and cruelly dealt with’, with regard to the massacre of the English.

The need to restore order in Jhansi led to creation of an army. It was not a day too soon because the first threat to the Rani came from the neighbouring raja of Orcchha whose Diwan Nathe Khan decided to attack Jhansi. Laxmibai had by then a semblance of an army led by several Rajput and Pathan chiefs loyal to her. Yet the city was in a state of siege for over a month until the raja of Banpur came to her aid. The British could not help her. Until March 1858, Laxmi bai alone endured the stress of wanton attack by any of her neighbours. Her childhood friends Nanasahib of Bithoor and Tatya Tope were already engaged in fighting the British and could not help her.

The British retook Kanpur in July 1857 and Delhi in September that year. Central India still remained with the rebels. The British then prepared two armies under Hugh Rose and Whitlock, both of which converged on Central India. News began to pour into Jhansi of English troops nearing as they captured city after city. Moropant, Laxmi bai’s father, was actively advising his daughter at this stage. Finally, as troops from neighbouring districts poured into Jhansi, the Rani took a stand. In mid-March 1858, the Rani moved into the Jhansi fort and issued a proclamation asking her army to oppose the English.

As British forces began to converge on Jhansi, Tatya Tope moved to the Rani’s help. Hugh Rose approached Jhansi and his first look at the fort convinced him of its strength. On 23 March the battle of Jhansi began with Rose attacking and placing the fort in a siege. Firing commenced and the British were surprised at the accuracy of fire from Jhansi’s guns. When Whitlock arrived his fifteen pounders began an unremitting fire on the fort walls that began to give way. But the Rani personally supervised repairs and fought on. Tatya Tope had by then taken a nearby fort and was marching towards Jhansi. He began a flanking manoeuvre but Rose, pre-empting the attack, divided his army and attacked with his superior weapons. Although Tatya’s trained battalions fought well, many of the untrained in the army fled. Setting fire to the woods, the relief army had to retreat. A numerically superior Indian force was thus once again repelled by a smaller British force.

Chhatri Gwalior. At this point Rani of Jhansi fell in battle in June 1858. Pic by S Nayyar

On 2 April 1858, Rose ordered an escalade of the fort walls. Despite stiff resistance it succeeded. As British troops entered the fort they heard the news that Laxmi bai and Moropant had escaped. There was slaughter of the defendants, town people and anybody over sixteen was put to the sword. According to British sources, three thousand of the defenders were killed. Laxmibai’s father Moropant was however, captured injured and hanged at the Johkan Bagh. The British guessed the Rani had left for the town of Kalpi and began the chase. Kalpi was the only major town not in British hands and it had a good arsenal. It was the base of Raosaheb and now Laxmi bai joined him. Here, Tatya Tope was once again given command of the army and he reached the town of Koonch where Rose attacked him on 6 May. The three-pronged British attack was vigorously resisted for over an hour at extremely high temperatures before Tatya withdrew towards Kalpi. From here he went towards Gwalior. The exhausted British did not have the strength to give chase. However, with the Nawab of Banda joining the fray at Nowgong, Rose had to return to battle. Kalpi therefore had Raosaheb, the Rani and the Banda Nawab facing Hugh Rose.

Passing through the ravines before the town of Kalpi, Rose made an attack from three sides of the fort. The British suffered setbacks but in a bold move their Camel Corps went on an attack with their bayonets and pushed back the rebels, who retreated. The battle was soon over and Kalpi fort was in British hands the next day. Raosaheb and the Rani along with the Nawab had abandoned the fort. Although they quit Kalpi, they joined Tatya Tope before Gwalior. Tatya was busy at this time weaning away Scindia’s crack troops in the bazars of the town. On 31 May 1858 as the rebels approached Gwalior, Scindia’s troops joined them and abandoned the cause of their ruler. Jayaji rao Scindia then got on his horse with a few loyal retainers and sped off to Agra to be under British protection. The capture of Gwalior fort was a strong counter punch by the rebels against the British. In triumph, the trio of Raosahib, Laxmibai and Tatya entered Gwalior and hoisted the flag of Nanasaheb Peshwa.

Hugh Rose was at this time unwell and supposed to leave the army on sick leave. The fall of Gwalior was therefore a crushing blow for the ailing General. His replacement was already on the way. Yet, he decided to proceed to Gwalior. Realising the strength of the fort, he spent some time finding the best way to attack. It was only on 16th May 1858 that he marched his troops from the south of Gwalior and found that the rebels were blocking his path. It was perhaps the Rani’s prescience that she chose this sector to defend, knowing this was the weak spot in Gwalior’s defences. On 17th June 1858 as the British contingent of the 8th Hussar approached they were resisted by the Rani dressed in a red jacket and trousers. The fighting was severe and the Rani was injured and thrown off her horse. She died there unrecognised.

The fall of Gwalior the next day led to the final extinguishing of all resistance. It was the end of the Rebellion against the British. Although Tatya Tope continued a guerrilla war for another year, the British had regained their Empire. For Hugh Rose however, the Rani ‘was the best and bravest of the rebel leaders’. At her death she was only twenty-three years old.

So lived and died Rani Laxmi bai. With her, Tatya Tope and Raosaheb ended the last vestige of Maratha resistance to British rule. They fought along with sepoys of all hues, it was truly an Indian army comprising Marathas, Rajputs and Pathans. Their fight changed the complexion of British rule in India. The rule by the Company was over. The British monarch took over as Queen Empress of India. The old feudal order was swept away and a new form of national movement took its place.

It was to be another ninety years before India could evict the British. But then, they did it without the violent uprising that marked 1857.

To read all articles by Author


1 Rani Laxmibai and other essays – C.A. Kincaid

2 Original documents of Ranee Lakshmi bai of Jhansi – Bhagwandas Gupta.

3 The Rani of Jhansi – by Joyce Lebra-Chapman.

Also read

1 Pictures of Jhansi Fort

2 Read about Ahilyabai Holkar, another Great Queen

3 Warrior Queen Rani Durgawati

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