Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi, was an Indian queen, the Maharani consort of the Maratha princely state of Jhansi from 1843 to 1853 as the wife of Maharaja Gangadhar Rao. She was one of the leading figures of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and became a symbol of resistance to the British Raj for Indian nationalists.
The early years of Lakshmibai
Laxmibai had no royal ancestors. Manakarnika, as she was born, is widely thought to have been born in 1827 in Varanasi, a city in northeast India on the banks of the Ganges River. She grew up among the Brahmin priests and scholars who ruled over India’s caste system. Her father was an adviser in royal courts, so she had access to education as well as horses.
Manakarnika married Maharaja Gangadar Rao, the ruler of Jhansi, in 1842 and assumed the name Lakshmibai. (It was — and still is — a common practice for women to change their names after marriage in some parts of the country.)
Shattering the Patriarchy
Lakshmibai had already broken many of the patriarchal society’s expectations for women by the time she was a teenager. She could read and write and learned the sport of horse riding and sword fighting. The Rani was vehemently opposed to anyone who tried to persuade her to change her ways.
According to most accounts, Lakshmibai was an unconventional and compassionate queen. She refused to follow the norms of the purdah system, which required women to be hidden from public view by veils or curtains. She insisted on meeting face to face with her advisers and British officials. She wore a turban, which is more commonly seen on men. She is also said to have taught women in her circle how to ride and fight. She cared for the poor, regardless of caste, a practice that is still considered daring in some parts of India today.
During her reign, the powerful British East India Company began to seize more land and resources. In 1848, India’s governor-general, Lord Dalhousie, decreed that imperial states with leaders who lacked natural-born heirs would be ceded by the British under a policy known as the Doctrine of Lapse.
Lakshmibai’s only child had died, and her husband’s health was failing. The husband and wife chose to adopt a 5-year-old boy to groom as heir to the throne, hoping that despite the declaration, the British would recognise his authority.
“I trust that in consideration of my fidelity to government, the favour may be shown to this child and that my widow may be considered the Regent during her lifetime,” her husband, the maharaja, wrote in a letter, as quoted in “The Rani of Jhansi: Rebel Against Will” (2007).
His cries went unanswered. The East India Company offered the Rani a pension in exchange for relinquishing control shortly after his death, in 1853. She refused, exclaiming, “Meri Jhansi nahin dungee” (“I will not give up my Jhansi”) — a Hindi phrase that evokes pride and patriotism in Indians to this day.
Beyond Jhansi’s borders, a rebellion was brewing as the British imposed their social and Christian practices and prohibited Indian customs. While another young Indian woman might have reviled her boisterous ways, Lakshmibai’s would serve her well as she went on to leave an enduring legacy on Indian history.
The Indian Rebellion of 1857
What had become the modern nation of India was clustered with hundreds of sultanates in the mid-nineteenth century, one of which, Jhansi in the north, was ruled by Queen Lakshmibai. Her reign came at a critical juncture in Indian history: the British, who were expanding their presence in the country, had annexed her realm and deposed her of power.
Lakshmibai attempted to retake control of Jhansi through peace talks, but when that failed, she enlisted the Indian Rebellion of 1857, a rebellion of soldiers, landowners, townspeople, and many others against the British in what is now recognised as India’s first battle for independence. It was another 90 years before the country finally expelled the British, in 1947.
The uprising spread from town to town until it reached Jhansi in June 1857. Hundreds of British soldiers were killed in the ensuing rebel massacre. The British turned against Lakshmibai, accusing her of conspiring with the insurgents to exact revenge for their refusal to recognise her heir. It’s debatable whether she did or not. She was wary of the insurgents, according to some accounts, and even offered to protect British women and children during the fighting.
Tensions rose, and in early 1858, the British stormed Jhansi’s fortress. In their efforts to dethrone the Queen, the British left no stone unturned. They invaded Jhansi, pillaged the populace, and slaughtered many women and children. Rather than surrendering to the British, Lakshmibai chose to fight the army. She fought alongside her army against the British for nearly two weeks. She rode her adopted son Damodar Rao on her back, a sword in each hand, and slaughtered a slew of British troops. As a result of her attack, the British army suffered a significant setback.
The British launched an assault on the neighbouring kingdom of Gwalior and re-entered Jhansi on the 18th of June. Rani decided to breach the military front and came across a garden while doing so. Because she was unfamiliar with her new horse, she struggled to control it. She eventually slipped and fell and injured herself. Rani was mistaken for a male warrior by the British, who abandoned her because she was dressed as one. Rani’s servant helped her get up and gave her gangajal, which is considered holy water. To avoid being touched by a Britisher, her dying wish was to be burned by a hermit.
A Rani to be remembered
Queen Lakshmibai’s life became the subject of competing claims in the decades that followed. The Indians lauded her as a heroine, while the British saw her as a wicked, Jezebel-like figure. However, somewhere in between these portrayals, she emerged as a symbol of not only resistance but also the complexities of being a powerful woman in India.