The Indian Warrior Queen fought for her country’s independence from British rule in the mid 1800s. The Rani of Jhansi (Queen of Jhansi) is often portrayed on the back of her rearing horse with a sword in either hand and her adopted son strapped securely to her back. Still in her twenties, Lakshmibai died on the battlefield in 1858.
Rani of Jhansi means Hindu Queen of the state of Jhansi. She was named Lakshmibai (or Laxmibai). The Rani’s fight against imperialist power holds a significant place in the cultural and feminist history of India. Her ferocity of spirit has inspired generations. The Indian Warrior Queen is a favorite subject of paintings, sculptures, literature, films—even nursery rhymes and video games. She serves as a role model to young girls and boys alike.
In the 1940s the Indian National Army formed an all–female unit of combat soldiers in Singapore to assist the country’s fight for independence. Named after the Indian Warrior Queen, the Rani of Jhansi Regiment (RJR), served under Indian freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose.
In Women at War: Subhas Chandra Bose and the Rani of Jhansi Regiment author Vera Hildebrand shows how the women of the RJR became symbols of both the national fight for independence and of Indian women’s struggle for gender equality.
#1 Her Date of Birth and Other Historical Details Remain Murky.
Some historians say she was born November 19, 1828. Others place the year at 1835. Uncertainty leaves her age at death a moving target. Most agree she was born in the holy town of Varanasi in northeast India. Her birth name was Manikarnika Tambe.
#2 She Thrived Through Her Unconventional Childhood.
Her mother died when she was four. Her father, who was an advisor in the Court of Peshwa (ruler), raised her. She was educated in a home school fashion, along with boys of the court. She learned skills uncommon for females. These included horsemanship, shooting sword fighting and martial arts.
#3 She Married Young.
At a young age she married Maharaja Gangadhar Rao, ruler of Jhansi. Some historians say she was twelve, while some accounts say she was seven. She took the name Lakshmibai of Jhansi. As the new queen, she continued taking part in military drills and later trained other women in the palace in the skills of war.
#3 She Was An Unorthodox Queen.
Lakshmibai rejected the purdah system. Instead of concealing herself with veils, she insisted on meeting face to face. Ignoring the caste system, she tended to people below her social position.
#4 She Adopted a Male Heir, But The British Rejected Him.
Her own child died, probably at a few months. Before her husband died, they adopted the male son (possibly of a relative) to inherit the throne. They named him Damodar Rao.
Britain was expanding its presence throughout India. Under the rule of the British East India Company, Governor-General Lord Dalhousie refused to acknowledge her adopted son under the Doctrine of Lapse policy. The British annexed the territory of Jhansi and Lakshmibai was forced out. They tried to placate her with a pension.
#5 The Indian Warrior Queen Fought The British In Jhansi.
By the spring of 1857, the rebellion reached Jhansi. She led an uprising of farmers, soldiers and townspeople against the British. Field Marshal Hugh Rose, who commanded the British forces, found the fort well defended. He demanded the surrender of the city and threatened to destroy it if his command was refused.
In response, the Rani of Jhansi issued a proclamation: “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.”
On March 25, Rose laid siege to Jhansi. In spite of a vigorous defense by the Warrior Queen, on April 3, the British broke into the city, took the palace and stormed the fort. Before the final assault, The Indian Warrior Queen strapped her adopted son to her back and, escaped from the fortress as the city burned.
#6 Her Close Aide Acted As Her Body Double.
Jhalkaribai was also an important figure in the British Rebellion. Born on November 30, 1830, it was said she could have been the Rani’s twin sister. According to author Srikrishan ‘Sarala in Indian Revolutionaries 1757-1961 (Vol-1): A Comprehensive Study, Volume 1 she was the Rani of Jhansi’s trusted advisor. At the height of the attack on Jhansi, she dressed as the queen and fought in battle. The switch allowed the Rani time to escape with her son.
Dalit castes of North India use her legend to instill a sense of pride in their people.
#7 She Later Fought The British at Gwailor.
On the scorching summer morning of June16, 1858, Rose’s troops attacked Gwalior. At the request of the other rebel leaders, Lakshmibai led a countercharge with what remained of her Jhansi contingent to stop them. On the second day of the fighting at Kotah-ki-Serai, she was shot from her horse and killed. Gwalior fell soon after.
According to British historians John Kaye and George Malleson in History of the Indian Mutiny, 1890, she was “clad in the attire of a man and mounted on horseback.” Accounts differ on whether she was stabbed with a saber or struck by a bullet. It was the last battle in the Indian Rebellion.
#8 Field Marshal Hugh Rose Praised Her.
In the British press, she was maligned as The Indian Jezebel, or a shameless and immoral woman. But many soldiers who fought her in battle revered her.
Hugh Rose called her “personable, clever and beautiful…the most dangerous of all Indian leaders”. Rose reported that she had been buried “with great ceremony under a tamarind tree under the Rock of Gwalior, where I saw her bones and ashes”.
#9 Colonel Malleson Also Respected Her.
Colonel Malleson later wrote in the ‘History Of The Indian Mutiny’ ; vol. 3; London, 1878, ‘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.’
#10 She Died Fighting For Independence
You can read a full British account of the Indian Uprising of 1857 in Volumes I and II by Sir John William Kaye, edited by Colonel G. B. Malleson. Chapter 3–Sir Hugh Rose and Gwalior describes the last stand of the Warrior Queen.
“Amongst the fugitives in the rebel ranks was the resolute woman who, alike in council and on the field, was the soul of the conspirators. Clad in the attire of a man and mounted on horseback, the Rani of Jhansi might have been seen animating her troops throughout the day. When inch by inch the British troops pressed through the defile, and when reaching its summit Smith ordered the Hussars to charge, the Rani of Jhansi boldly fronted the British horsemen.
When her comrades failed her, her horse, in spite of her efforts, carried her along with the others. With them she might have escaped but that her horse, crossing the canal near the cantonment, stumbled and fell. A hussar close upon her track, ignorant of her sex and her rank, cut her down. She fell to rise no more. That night her devoted followers, determined that the English should not boast that they had captured her even dead, burned the body.
Thus died the Rani of Jhansi. My opinion of her has been recorded in a preceding page. Whatever her faults in British eyes may have been, her countrymen will ever believe that she was driven by ill-treatment into rebellion; that her cause was a righteous cause; and that the treatment she received at the hands of Lord Dalhousie was one of the main causes of the disaffection in Bundelkhand and Central India in 1857-8. To them she will always be a heroine.”
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Kaye’s and Malleson’s History of the Indian Mutiny of 1857-8 (Cambridge Library Collection – Naval and Military History) (Volume 2)