Women in History: Manikarnika Tambe

The English East India Company (EIC), chartered by Queen Elizabeth I in 1600, began as a merchant federation and evolved into the British Empire’s chief means of colonization. By 1757, it had essentially used its private armies to establish control over India. From the earliest stages of British colonialism in India, the empire attempted to erode Indian culture and leadership. Because of this, from the earliest stages of British colonialism, the people of India were seeking ways to fight back.

This was the world into which Manikarnika Tambe was born on Nov. 19, 1828. At the time, no one knew what a revolutionary force she would become.

Because of her mother’s death when she was only four years old, Manikarnika was raised primarily by her father and the Peshwa, a district minister, who employed him. They adored the young girl, calling her by the nickname Manu, and focused their attention on expanding her education. She took quickly to not only her mental activities, but her physical ones as well, which included shooting, fencing and horseback riding.

At 14 years old, she married the Maharaja of Jhansi – ever afterwards, she was called Rani Lakshmibai, after the Hindu Lakshmi. Tensions in Jhansi with the British were controlled, but always present. They came to a head over the matter of the Rani’s son.

The baby, Damodar Rao, died just four short months after his birth in 1851. The grieving royal couple never had another biological child, but adopted the Maharaja’s young second cousin, named Anand Rao. The Maharaja instructed that the boy was to be renamed Damodar and treated as his heir and that his wife, Rani Lakshmibai, was to govern Jhansi until her death.

However, the Maharaja died the day after the adoption and could not fend off the opportunistic East India Company. Governor-General Lord Dalhousie decreed that the adoption negated the boy’s claim to the throne, ignored the rulership of the Rani and began to try to annex Jhansi to EIC territories.

The Rani resisted this action quietly for three years, but in May 1857, the Indian Rebellion began, in which Indian soldiers – called “sepoys” – began to mutiny in their regiments. Lakshmibai needed to work cleverly and carefully to secure her kingdom. She persuaded the British political officer, Captain Alexander Skene, to allow her to raise an army for the purpose of her own protection.  Then, to rally her own people, she held the women’s ceremony of Haldi Kumkum to bolster her people’s spirits and fire their courage.

Within a few weeks, the fighting in Jhansi began in earnest. In June of 1857, a massacre of disarmed British troops by the rebelling sepoys was executed. The Rani’s involvement in the decision is still inconclusive, but following their departure from Jhansi, she assumed direct administration of the capital city. She explained her decision to Saugor division commissioner, Major Erskine, who instructed her to hold the district on behalf of the British until relief could arrive.

Lakshmibai was a phenomenal political negotiator. She retained control of her kingdom and had the British convinced that she was a loyal administrator. During the brief period of peace from August 1857-January 1858, the Rani and her advisors had committed themselves to gaining independence from the British.

When the British troops arrived in March 1858, they encountered a heavily defended fort and a people ready to fight. Commanding officer Sir Hugh Rose demanded the city’s surrender on pain of destruction.  

“We fight for independence. In the words of Lord Krishna, we will if we are victorious, enjoy the fruits of victory, if defeated and killed on the field of battle, we shall surely earn eternal glory and salvation,” the Rani proclaimed, defiant of his orders.

Lakshmibai and her forces were able to hold the city for two weeks, but the British forces were too much for both the defenders and the relief army sent by rebellion general Tantia Tope. The Rani had to make a choice: should she remain with her city and face capture, or should she flee with her son to keep fighting where she could?

Here, the legends tell that she placed her son on her back and rode, sword brandished, to freedom. However her daring escape may have been accomplished, she and her guards arrived at the city of Kalpi to aid the rebel forces there. The Rani and her fellow rebels braced the city for siege.

On May 22, the British attacked. The Rani herself, with great bravery and tactical skill, commanded the rebel troops. Sadly, once again, the rebel forces could not withstand the British might.

Lakshmibai and the rebel leaders had to move once more, this time to the kingdom of Gwalior. The Rani was ready to fight once more, but could not rally the other leaders to holding the fort. She had to take her troops elsewhere.

On June 17, 1858, the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars accosted the Rani’s soldiers as they tried to leave the area. Over 5,000 were killed, but the Rani refused to be captured. She donned a soldier’s uniform and went into the fray, gun and blade in hand, prepared to fight. After being wounded and unhorsed, a soldier that she had fought earlier found her bleeding on the roadside. She fired at him, missed, and was promptly killed by his blade.

She was buried under a tamarind tree at the Rock of Gwalior, and was promptly memorialized as a great Indian symbol of resistance. There are many statues, parks and schools that bear her name, as well as a women’s unit of the Indian National Army. She has inspired books, movies, TV shows, songs and poems for over a century, as the legend of the “rebel queen” continues to captivate new generations.

Even some Englishmen recognized her valor in the face of her unbearable circumstances.

“Whatever her faults in British eyes may have been, her countrymen will ever remember that she was driven by ill-treatment into rebellion, and that she lived and died for her country. We cannot forget her contribution for India,” wrote historian Colonel Malleson.

Rani Lakshmibai stood up and fought when others might have surrendered, and her legacy will never diminish, as there are always tyrants to face and battles to fight. She will always be a hero and an inspiration. After all, she was a rebel queen.

Photo courtesy of Hindi Panda.

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