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jhansi ki rani Lakshmi Bai biography

Lakshmi Bai

(1835-1858)

biography

lakshmi bai
maharani Lakshmi Bai
     Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi is perhaps the best remembered freedom to the fighter in India. Her heroic tale has inspired generations and is still a role model for millions of girls. She has become a legend; it is now difficult to distinguish between the myths and facts that surround her.

Lakshmi bai’s maiden name was Manikarnika, abbreviated as ‘Manu’, and she was also affectionately called ‘Chabili’ in her in-laws’ household. She was born in Varanasi to Moropant Tambe and Bhagirathi Bai, who were Karad Brahmins from Satara district. Her date of birth remains uncertain. Some Indian historians put the date of her birth as 19 November 1835 while British sources believe that the Rani was twenty-nine or thirty years of age during the mutiny, which means that she was born around 1827.
Her mother died when Lakshmi was still a small child. Her father, Moropant, was a member of the retinue of one Chimnaji Appa, brother of Peshwa Baji Rao II at Banaras. After the death of Chimnaji Appa, Moropant took employment with the last Peshwa Baji Rao II at Bithur, near Kanpur, where the Peshwa had settled. Manu was three years old at the time.
       At Bithur, Manu grew up along with the Peshwa’s sons Nana Saheb and Bala Rao (better known as Rao Saheb), and Tatya Tope, whose father was a retainer of Baji Rao. She had hardly any female playmates and while playing with somewhat older boys in the palace, she became skilled in horse-riding, shooting and swordplay. She also became a good judge of horses. There she also learned to read and write.
In 1842, at the age of seven (or fifteen whichever date of birth we accept), she was married to Gangadhar Rao, the ruler of Jhansi, a man in his forties. She was given the name Lakshmibai by her in-laws. Moropant, Rani’s father, accompanied her to her new home in Jhansi against the established Hindu custom. In 1851, Lakshmibai gave birth to a son who unfortunately died after three months.
     Gangadhar, never a healthy man, died on 21 November 1853, leaving the Rani a teenage widow. By that time she had developed a magnetic personality, high-spirited resolve and enchanting demeanour. The dying raja, just two days before his death, adopted as his heir, Damodar Rao alias Anand Rao, a five-year-old relative in the presence of two English officers, Major Ellis and Captain Martin, whom he had invited to officially witness the adoption. They were both given copies of the Rajas will.
   After the death of Gangadhar Rao, the Rani sent her petition (3 December 1853) to the governor-general seeking confirmation of the adoption, followed by a number of petitions. The governor-general, Lord Dalhousie turned down Ranis pleas and did not recognize the adoption, and decided to annex Jhansi under his Doctrine of Lapse. After Dalhousie’s proclamation of the annexation, the Rani continued to send appeals, at times through her counsel, John Lang, who was a British barrister practicing in Calcutta. But the governor general was adamant and did not recognize the adoption.
    Lord Dalhousie, a church going Presbyterian, the most unscrupulous and wily of all governor-generals who were sent to India, was obsessive about extending the territories of the Empire and filling the coffers of East India Company. He applied the Doctrine of Lapse to at least eight Indian states during his stay of eight years in India. He was a sick man, when he was to leave India at the age of thirty-five. He left Calcutta in 1856 on a stretcher. It is believed that his illness was the cause his behavior and obsessions. It is also believed that his dealings with Indian rulers were the main cause of the uprising of 1857. The Hindu Patriot wrote on 18 May 1854, Lord Dalhousie is determined to shame the devil and beat even Nicholas hollow in the matter of forcible appropriation of neighboring states, without the shadow of a pretext to colour his grasping policy." But nothing moved Dalhousie to change his mind.
      Consequently, in May 1854, Jhansi came under British administration, with Alexander Skene as superintendent of police, Captain Gordon as deputy commissioner, and Captain Dunlop in the command of the troops in Jhansi. Under the new arrangement, the Rani was to leave the fort and the palace within, while keeping her smaller palace in the town as her residence. A paltry amount of rupees five thousand per month was settled as pension for the support of the Rani and her retinue, which she refused to accept, and decided to live on her deceased husband’s private estate. She believed that the acceptance of pension would mean acknowledging the lapse" of Jhansi, something she could never do.
       Several official measures taken after the lapse offended the religious feelings of the Rani and her people. Refusal to allow Lakshmi to draw on the maharaja’s trust for her adopted son Damodar Rao’s sacred thread ceremony was one of them. Other insulting measures followed: lifting the ban on cow slaughter; resumption of two villages whose revenue used to support the temple of Mahalakshmi, a temple, east of the town wall, which was associated with the Newalkar (Gangadhar’s) family and regularly visited by the Rani; and Maharajas debt being deducted from the Ranis pension. As if that was not enough, the Jhansi grasslands, which used to be the private property of the Maharaja, were taken over, as well as the state buildings, from the Ranis control. The government’s deliberate acts to humiliate the Rani must have hurt her sentiments. But she was helpless. The only recourse was to send appeals and petitions to Fort William, Calcutta, and the seat of British government in India at the time. In May 1857, sepoys at Meerut rose in rebellion and occupied Delhi. The news rapidly spread to Jhansi where tension among the sepoys was already brewing. On 5 June the sepoys in Jhansi rose in rebellion and occupied the Star Fort in the cantonment area where the treasury and the munitions were stored by the British officials. The next day the entire garrison at Jhansi rebelled and killed Captain Dunlop and a few other British officers Captain Skene and Gordon took all the Europeans from the city to the main fort, which was also soon attacked by the rebels. On the 7June, three English officers: Andrews, Scott and Purcell left the fort for seeking Rani’s help, but they were intercepted on the way and killed. In the meantime, Captain Gordon was also killed by the mutineers’ bullets. On the fourth day of the siege, the afternoon of 8June, Captain Skene, baffled as he was at the death of Captain Gordon and other officers, hung out a flag of truce. The rebel leaders promised safe Conduct of the besieged English if they would vacate the fort and lay down arms. Accepting the terms, Captain Skene led the besieged and came out of the fort, when they were “seized, bound and taken to Jokhun Bagh Outside the city wall where all men, Women and children were massacred”.
There is nothing to indicate that the Rani was involved in the mutiny or the massacre that followed. It is certain that the insurgents, prior to the mutiny, did not consult the Rani; on the contrary they all went to the palace of the Rani with loaded guns and demanded assistance and supplies. She was obliged to yield and to furnish guns, ammunition and supplies to save her life and honour. The same treatment was administered to Bahadur Shah Zafar at Delhi by the mutineers who had arrived from Meerut.
After the departure of the rebels on 11 June 1857, for Delhi the Rani wrote to Captain Erskine, the commissioner at Sagar, under whose jurisdiction Jhansi was, narrating the events that took place and deplored the massacre. Erskine, while forwarding the Rani’s letters to the Port William, Calcutta, remarked about the Rani having had no complicity with the mutineers.
Erskine in the meantime, in response to the Rani’s letters to him, authorized her to manage the state of Jhansi till a new arrangement was made and issued a proclamation to this effect. When Lakshmibai assumed charge of Jhansi (June 1857), she devoted herself to manage the state with the help of her chief minister Lakshman Rao Bande, efficiently and with all sincerity. However, the British officials including Dalhousie suspected her of connivance with the mutineers, Commissioner Erskine views to the contrary notwithstanding.
       Ever since June 1857, when Lakshmibai was authorized by Erskine to manage Jhansi, she kept on writing and appealing to the British officers at Jabalpur, Agra, Jalaon and Gwalior till January-February of 1858, seeking help as she was facing trouble from neighboring satraps. But there was no response from the English. Rani gradually became disillusioned and disappointed with British failure to respond. She felt a growing apprehension that the British might capture and try her, even hang her. She was faced with two alternatives, namely death by hangman's rope or a heroic death in the battlefield. She chose the more honorable course.
     As soon as Lakshmibai decided to fight the British, she began recruiting troops and sought help from Tatya Tope, her childhood friend and a general of Nana Sahib Help also came from other sources. The rajas of Banpur and Nurwar arrived with their troops by 15 March 1858 to help her. The Rani moved from the city palace into the fort with all her troops. She personally supervised the defence. Soon she was face to face with British forces. The British force under Hugh Rose, commander of the Central India Field Forces, arrived at Jhansi on 21 March 1858 and the following day, his forces invaded the city. Rani and her troops took shelter in the fort. They put up stiff resistance under the spirited leadership of the Rani and faced the British for ten days. Then, Tatya Tope arrived with his twenty thousand men and a fierce battle took place near Jhansi. But the powerful British army defeated Tatya Tope, who retreated with his army to Kalpi. Rani, to the anguish of the British, slipped from the fort on 4 April taking her adopted son and a few loyal soldiers with her and galloped to Kalpi to join Tatya Tope. Rose’s army pursued them. Battles were fought at Koonch and Kalpi and the British proved superior. Rao Sahib, adopted son of the last Peshwa, joined them. They proceeded to Gopalpur, forty-six miles from Gwalior. Jointly, they conceived a daring plan to invade Gwalior. When their combined forces reached Gwalior, almost the entire army of Maharaja Scindia joined the rebels and Scindia fled to Agra. The rebel forces entered Gwalior in triumph and Rao Sahib was proclaimed Peshwa. However, their triumph was short-lived and Roses forces soon encircled Gwalior. Rani faced the British forces at Kota-ki-Sarai, about four miles from Gwalior, attired in battle dress and mounted on horseback. A squadron of 8 Hussars charged through the rebel lines. While fighting on horseback, the Rani was struck by a Hussar; she fell from the horse and the wounds proved fatal. So died Rani on 16 June 1858 fighting heroically against the British, when she was in her twenties. Commander Rose, when he learnt about her death described her as “the best and bravest of the rebel leaders”.
This is the commonly held narrative of her exploits and death, mostly written by British historians. But there are other versions. Here the myth gets mingled with facts and it’s difficult to distinguish. While the British blame her for the killing of sixty-six British officers, women and children, calling her “the Jezebel of India", her story has become a legend in India. Her courage against her adversaries and her martyrdom in battle stimulated the growth of an epic and transformed her from a woman who lived and died into a legend that is immortal. There is no doubt that her heroism has left an indelible imprint on the Indian imagination. But the Rani of Jhansi has taken a significant part in the historiography of the rebellion as well. While questions remain about aspects of her historical role, the actions she took in battle make her place in history secure."

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