Before Kangana Ranaut’s Manikarnika, revisiting the life of Rani Laxmibai, the brave queen of Jhansi
Rani Laxmibai, the queen of Jhansi, remains one of the most iconic freedom fighters of India. Her story has been the stuff of legends—children read her tale in school lessons and poets and writers have been inspired by her selfless love for the motherland, sense of honour and courage. What’s more, many Britishers too extolled her commitment to her land and its people. On the eve of the release of Kangana Ranaut’s Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, here’s a look at the major aspects of her exemplary life.
Birth and early life
Laxmibai was named Manikarnika at birth. She was born into a Maharashtrian brahmin family in Varanasi on November 19, 1838. Laxmibai lost her mother, when she was barely four years old, and grew up in the court of Peshwa of Bithoor, (now in Uttar Pradesh). From a young age, she displayed an independent spirit, as compared to other girls her age, and went on to be home taught, while learning Maratha martial art Malakhambh, archery, horsemanship and fencing.
Marriage, motherhood and inheritance
Called Chhabili by the Peshwa of Bithoor because of her playful nature, she was married to the king of Jhansi, Raja Gangadhar Newalkar in 1842. She was soon renamed Laxmibai, in honour of the Hindu goddess of wealth, goddess Laxmi. She later gave birth to a boy, who was named Damodar Rao. However, the boy did not survive beyond four months and died in 1851. The king adopted a boy named Anand Rao, his cousin’s son and renamed him as Damodar Rao, a day before he died. The adoption was conducted in the presence of a British official who was instructed, via an official letter, that the boy be considered his heir and treated with respect and the governance of Jhansi be given to his widow, Laxmibai, for her lifetime, after his death. However, the British refused to accept the adoption and applied their annexation policy called Doctrine of Lapse, under which the British annexed a land that did not have a biological heir to the throne. However the queen of Jhansi would have none of it. She is said to have declared: “Main apni Jhansi nahin doongi.”
1857 Rebellion, mutineers, British and Jhansi
Some reports suggest that Laxmibai did not immediately join the mutineers when the first instance of revolt against the British was reported. On May 10, 1857, Indian sepoys (sipahi) of the British Army stationed in Meerut, rebelled. During the riot, Jhansi remained calm under her able rule. The queen is said to have asked the British to raise her own defences against the mutineers, a permission that was granted. The mutineers were said to have attacked her fort too and left with a bounty. Rani’s forces even defeated a faction of mutineers who tried to install her late husband’s cousin, Sadashiv Rao as the monarch. All this, while, the queen maintained her peace with the British.
As the rebellion gained momentum in more places across north and central India, and the British expressed their intention of sending in troops to control Jhansi too (but strangely none arrived for long). Then, sometime in January 1858, guided by her advisors, Laxmibai decided to fight for Jhansi’s independence from the British. The Company forces, soon laid siege over her fort but she continued to fight them. Through March of that year, she and her troops fought the British till her fort fell, and she with her young son Damodar tied to her back and others, loyal to her, fled the fort. This is the image that is often associated with her and has been immortalized in statues and popular culture.
Through May and June of 1858, Laxmibai, as part of the rebels now, with her band of men and women, fought the British in Kalpi and Gwalior. Her end came on June 17, on the battleground. It is said that she was laid to rest under a tamarind tree in Gwalior. According to another tradition, a badly wounded queen, not wanting the British to capture her body, told a hermit to burn it.
Her passion and selfless defence of Jhansi and her people inspired poetess and freedom fighter Subhadra Kumari Chauhan to write the following lines:
Bundele harbolon ke mooh, humne suni kahaani thi
Khoob ladi mardaani, woh toh Jhansi wali rani thi
Author tweets @mniveditatweets
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