Long before 1947 and the revolution that brought India independence the British stood poised and ready for battle in the year 1858. They lined up to fight a battle brought to their doorsteps by the most improbable dissident who became one of the first royal warriors to fight the British army and win on Indian soil. Far across the battlefield waiting for the British was a woman, a warrior and a Hindu Queen by the name of Rani Lakshmi Bhai. She not only led the army but brought an army of women with her to fight. She led the fight before any of India’s revolutionaries and certainly all of the male revolutionaries we’ve all heard about. Rani Lakshmi Bhai, India’s first royal female war hero against the British was a woman and a Hindu Queen. History tells us in the 1800s women had no rights, no power and no respect but this is the history of India (Bharat) and it’s a far cry from what we’ve all been made to believe.
Rani Lakshmi Bai at birth was given the name Manikarnika Tambe on November 19, 1835 to Moropant Tambe and Bhagirathi of Varanasi. Manikarnika was raised in the court of the Peshwa, Bajirao II of the Maratha Empire. Under his patronage she learnt all the military arts such as horsemanship, swords, guns and other weaponry alongside the Peshwa’s sons. In 1842, she married the king of Jhansi, Gangadhar Rao Newalkar and took the name Rani Lakshmi Bhai. Not only was she well trained in the martial arts but she entered the political and administrative realms of the kingdom with the approbation of the king. She began to advise the king on various administrative and judicial affairs of the kingdom. Rani Lakshmi Bai added her own women’s contingent to the Jhansi army, Durga Dal, commanded by a brave female General Jhalkari Bai. This female General eventually held off the British during an invasion so the Rani could escape. We are all told that western women at this time could not even work or have the right to vote and yet one by one the Rani without backlash by the men of the kingdom was participating in the martial arts, political and administrative affairs of the kingdom, and raising an army of all-female led warrior women. This was 1800 India. As the story goes, it is said she had intrigued the interest of the king while sword fighting on horseback during his trip to the Peshwa’s palace in Bithur.
When the Maharaja was on his death bed, the British applied the Doctrine of Lapse policy concocted by Lord Dalhousie to take the Queens’s kingdom by rejecting her legally adopted successor Damodar Rao. Their plan was to annex the kingdom of Jhansi fully under British control. At the same time rebellion had broken out in India termed as the 1857 “Mutiny.” (I’m not sure how native Indic people fighting in their own land for their own land can be a mutiny. But that’s what happens when foreigners write your history my dear readers, you become the villain).
The rebellion was initiated due to soldiers learning that the cartridges were made of pork and beef fat. During this turn the rebellion she took advantage of the situation to launch an attack on the colonizers. She held a haldi kum kum ceremony for women only and convinced them to fight bravely. Jhansi’s regular standing army only consisted of about 5000 troops. Therefore, Rani Lakshmi adding a women’s wing greatly increased the odds for warfare. She trained and led them herself into battle. She also trained other talented and fearless women in her Durga Dal contingent such as Jhalkari Bhai as one of her own generals. During the rebellion, soldiers massacred a British garrison and the Rani was blamed for it. The British then led an attack on the Rani using useful idiots such as local Maharajas from Dattiya and Orchha who wanted the Rani’s throne for themselves (off course it takes short-sighted Indians to ruin a long-sighted plan). She defeated them all and she reigned for almost another year.
In March 1858, the British marched on Jhansi and threatened to destroy her people’s villages if she didn’t surrender. The British under Commander Hugh Rose ordered the queen to surrender the Jhansi Fort. Rani Lakshmi Bai quoted the words of Lord Krishna on the battlefield to her soldiers that, they would enjoy the fruits of victory if they won and if they were defeated they shall still attain glory. The British attacked Jhansi Fort lasting from March 22- to April 5 1858. The Rani’s forces were overwhelmed with the help of a traitor (more inside help) but she courageously jumped from the fort with her horse Badal and her adopted son, escaping the British. At this time Jhalkari Bhai who bore a strong resemblance to Rani Lakshmi baited the British by sacrificing herself so the Rani could live to fight another day.
After absconding from the British she called a council of great Indian revolutionaries which included Nana Sahib The son of Peshwa whom she grew up and trained in fighting at the palace. Also joining her was another famous name of the revolution Tatya Tope and a few others. After this Rani Lakshmi Bhai was held up in Gwalior Fort where she was confronted by the British forces again.
On June 17th 1858 at the battle of Kath-Ki-Sarai near Gwalior Rani Lakshmi Bai was badly wounded. She had been thrown off her horse, stabbed with a sword and had gunshot wounds. She fled the battlefield but did not want the British to capture her body thereby burning herself alive in the tent of a hermit. General Rose is said to have remarked, “The Indian Mutiny produced one man and that man was a woman.”
I remember standing inside the great Jhansi Fort overlooking the spot from which Rani Lakshmi Bhai jumped with her horse Badal and her son. That jump was so steep and impossible I realized it took an excellent warrior to accomplish it, not just a queen who rose to power by chance (as has happened in the West) but a female warrior queen training her whole life because the Hindu religion has no problem with the reign of women. Our Goddesses carry weapons, which says a lot. I remember thinking that I must bring these histories, our histories and our valor back to the Indo-Caribbean people so they will know this blood runs in their veins. We are not just hunger-strike peoples, we are warriors. In 2017 I introduced my audience to Indian history and then in 2020 with my paper, “Hindu Warrior Queens,” in which I listed many other Hindu Queens throughout the last thousand years of India’s history and referenced some from the even older ancient world including our Itihaasa (sacred histories), whose palaces and forts I researched and visited throughout this dharma desh. This Hindu warrior queen, Rani Lakshmi Bhai should be of utmost importance to us in Trinidad, Guyana, Suriname and the Indian diaspora because not only is she from India but she hailed from Varanasi and married into the Kingdom of Jhansi. All of which are located in modern-day Uttar Pradesh where many of our ancestors have come from. Growing up in Trinidad all we hear about is Gandhi and the Taj Mahal and I always wondered, was there more, did we ever fight back? The answer is yes.
This June 17th will mark the anniversary of her last battle for India and for Hindu Dharma. She flew the flag of Dharma and paid the ultimate price. These stories of our heroes, our kings, queens and the common woman and man must reach the ears of our younger generation so they know the great foundation upon which they stand. When young Indians and Hindus are reinforced with the strength of their cultural and dharmic identity through such inspirational acts of valor we will see a reinvigorated civilization rise from the ashes to defend our constitutional rights. I always add my dear readers, this is the importance of history. Our history and our identity goes further back than that boat they put us on. The history of India is also part of our history and therefore some of it belongs in our textbooks here in the Caribbean. Our history is one of valor. Our history is our responsibility.