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I Will Not Give Up: Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi
Statue of Lakshmibai
The Indian Joan of Arc
Manikarnika was fated to be someone special; her horoscope predicted that she would be famous, wealthy, and well-loved. She was born under a good sign, but young Manikarnika might not have felt all that lucky when her mother passed away and her father, the respected Indian cleric Moropant, uprooted her entire life and moved them to the city of Bither, where they would live in the palace of a former ruler. Still, things had a way of working themselves out; her father’s friend had a gaggle of sons about her age and two of them, Tatya Pope and Rao Sahib, were espeically thrilled to have a new playmate. Soon, little Mani and her new buddies were tearing around the palace on innumerous swashbuckling adventures.
As the children grew, the boys began to attend school within the palace. As a girl, Mani was not allowed to go to school, but she was permitted to sit by and watch her friends study. She quickly began to pick up their lessons and, to the instructors astonishment, proved to be so incredibly intelligent that they felt obligated to teach her. Tatya Pope and Rao Sahib were beside themselves with glee, and soon encouraged Mani to study martial arts and horse riding alongside them. And no one doubted her bravery, even as a child; according to one story, seven year old Mani sprang onto the trunk or tusks of a rampaging elephant, clinging on until the creature calmed.
In 1842, the Maharaja (king) Gangadhar Rao of Jhansi, a kingdom lying between Delhi and Bombay, began searching for a wife. His courtiers were invited to Bither and introduced to Manikarnika, and she so floored them with her intelligence, wit, skill and kindness that they rushed back to inform the Raja. In May 1842, Manikarnika married the raja and was crowned rani (queen). In accordance with tradition, Mani changed her name upon her coronation to Lakshmibai, after the goddess of victory.
For the next seven years, Lakshmibai continued her studies and warrior training while relishing her role as rani. Every morning she would wake at three in the morning, meditate, attend to her government offices and then spent the remainder of the day caring for the needy. Her people loved her, and in 1849 all of Jhansi rejoiced when Lakshmibai became pregnant with her first child.
Then, tragedy struck; Lakshmibai miscarried. She and her husband were heartbroken, and though they wanted to try again, the Raja rapidly fell ill. Realizing that he was deathly sick, the raja suggested that they adopt a son—they had no hope of having a child otherwise. Together, Lakshmibai and her husband adopted a baby boy named Damodar, naming him as the raja’s heir. On Nov. 12, 1853, the raja died, and sole rule was transferred to Lakshmibai.
Now, throughout the 17- and 1800s, Europe had been steadily filtering into India and Asia, searching for resources, gold and territory. Chief amongst these foreign powers was the British Empire, and they quickly began to snap up land for themselves, subjugating many Indian people to British autocracy. Whatever territory they couldn’t take they instead made tentative treaties with the rulers there, gaining permission set up forts within their boundaries. Shortly after the raja of Jhansi died, the British Governor General Dalhousie announced that they wouldn’t recognize the raja’s son as a legitimate heir because he was not related to the raja by blood—a dirty trick that Dalhousie had pulled on other kingdoms—and claimed Jhansi as property of the British Empire. Just like that.
An outraged Lakshmibai protested in a series of letters to Dalhousie, but the British moved in anyway, disbanding her government, paying off her soldiers, deducting her husband’s debts to them from her pension, denying her adopted son an inheritance, and forcing her to move from her fort to a palace in the city. They told her that she was no longer queen. To that, Lakshmibai shouted, “I will not give up my Jhansi!”
It’s no secret that the British were hated in India at this time, but few were willing to attempt any kind of revolt since the British had such an effective army. Tensions and rage boiled, finally exploding into violence when a rumor circulated amongst the Indians and the Sikhs, who worked as soldiers for the British, that the grease used in the bullet cartridge casings was made from either cows or pigs. Cows were sacred to the Hindus and pigs were considered unclean by the Sikhs, and both groups regularly tore the casings off with their teeth. If the rumor was true, then that mean the Hindus and the Sikhs had been made unclean. It was just too much for the oppressed peoples of India and they rose up in a thunderous roar. The revolution had begun.
Unfortunately, no one was guiding this revolution, and many of the rebels began acting more like barbarians than soldiers. As they stormed their way through the surrounding city-states, the worried British had the gall to ask Lakshmibai for help in quashing the fighters. Lakshmibai was torn; she hated the British, but she was alarmed by the ferocity of the rebels. Before Lakshmibai had a chance to make up her mind, the rebels marched into Jhansi—and hell broke loose.
Within the borders of Jhansi was the British Red Star Fort, currently housing sixty-six people, mostly the wives and children of the British soldiers who were out on maneuvers. The rebels surrounded the fort and told the British that they would let everyone go free if they would just surrender the fort to them. Feeling as how they had no choice, the British agreed, and as the mothers led their children out of the fort, the rebels opened fire, killing all sixty-six.
The British were outraged and immediately accused Lakshmibai of allowing this to happen (though they seem to forget that they had dismantled her army and she had no way of protecting those people.) Lakshmibai had been shocked by the violence—and then shocked again when the rebels marched up to her palace and demanded payment for “freeing her” from the local British … and then added that if she didn’t pay up then they were going to blow up her palace with her in it.
Lakshmibai desperately wrote to Dalhousie, doing her best to explain that she had nothing to do with what had happened at Red Star Fort and that she didn’t have enough soldiers to drive out the rebels. Dalhousie refused to answer, and soon the British began to refer to her as being, “treacherous, savage, cruel and licentious,” frequently calling her, “the Jezebel of India.” They decided it was time to move their troops in and completely take over Jhansi.
At some point Lakshmibai discovered the Brits’ plan to invade. By now other states had come to see her as weak and prepared to invade as well. Reaching her breaking point, Lakshmibai rallied her army, ordered new weapons to be made, and readied her city to go to war. Famously dressed in a red silk handkerchief festooned with diamonds and rubies, a diamond necklace, silk blouse, lose trousers and bare feet, Lakshmibai tucked two silver plated pistols into her gold embroidered belt and raised her jewel encrusted sword, she led her loyal army against the rebels and the invaders. Once they had been cleared out, Lakshmibai fell back to prepare for the oncoming British.
In March 1858 the British forces assaulted Jhansi’s walls. The rigid Europeans were shocked to find that not only were the men of Jhansi fighting on the wall, but so was the rani herself and a great number of the city’s women. As the women fired the cannons and the men fired their guns, Lakshmibai was racing back and forth along the walls, shouting orders and engaging the British soldiers sword-to-sword. One commander of the 4th Light Dragoons is recorded as saying of her, “a perfect Amazon in bravery … just the sort of daredevil woman soldiers admire.”
No matter how brave Lakshmibai, she couldn’t stand up to the British army for long and that April Jhansi fell to the invaders. Upon entering the captured city, army doctor Thomas Lowe viewed the dead Indians and sneered, “Such was the retribution meted out to this Jezebel Ranee and her people.”
Luckily, Lakshmibai was not among the dead. Seeing that the battle was lost, she saddled her horse and fled Jhansi, accompanied by four others. She escaped to Kelpi, traveling 100 miles in a single night. One account has a Lieutenant Bowker pursuing her until, fed up with his presence, Lakshmibai halted at a crossroads and challenged him to a sword duel. She won.
Lakshmibai reached Kelpi that morning and was greeted as a hero by its citizens. She came seeking help in fighting the British, only to find that a new army had already been mobilized—led by her childhood friends Rao Sahib and Tatya Pope! Lakshmibai had no idea that they were in Kelpi and was overjoyed to see them. Rao Sahib and Tatya Pope had been working to build an army to fight the British incursion and were more than happy to assist the now displaced rani.
Unfortunately for them, the British army caught up with Lakshmibai before her new army could prepare and Kelpi was overrun. Swiftly, Lakshmibai and her friends led their army to the city of Gwalior, which was being ruled by a man who was sympathetic to the British. Facing his army, Lakshmibai addressed the soldiers, asking them to join her and speaking so passionately that the soldiers of Gwalior overthrew and imprisoned their leader in order to join her. Pleased with their success, Rao Sahib presented Lakshmibai with a beautiful pearl necklace that he claimed to have “liberated” from Gwalior’s treasury.
Lakshmibai accepted the gift, but she admitted that she was not at ease. That night while the others celebrated, Lakshmibai inspected her troops, studied Gwalior’s fortifications and toom stock of their supplies. She was more than restless—she was worried.
On June 17, the British attacked Gwalior. Determined not to fail, Lakshmibai armed herself, then turned to her army and shouted, “If killed in battle, then we enter heaven, and if victorious, we rule the earth!” Cheering wildly, the men of India followed Lakshmibai as she mounted her horse and charged at the enemy. Clenching the horse’s reins between her teeth, Lakshmibai took a sword in either hand and began cutting down the enemy until she was finally forced to dismount.
Throughout this entire event, the British thought themselves to be the civilized ones, but there was nothing but cowardly barbarism in the act that took Lakshmibai down; as she was turned, distracted by an opponent, a British soldier shot her in the back. Shocked, in unimaginable pain, Lakshmibai spun around, drew a pistol and shot at the soldier. The soldier survived the shot and lunged, driving his sword through her.
The wound was fatal and Lakshmibai collapsed on the battlefield. Her horrified friends and soldiers rushed to her side, and as she laid dying, it is said that she passed a pearl from her necklace to each of them. With her dying breath she asked that the cremate her, and her men quickly carried her body to a haystack, setting it alight. The entire scene caused on British commander to remark, “The Rani of Jhansi, the Indian Joan of Arc … was the best and bravest of the rebel leaders.” She was twenty-two.
Rani of Jhansi worked referenced:
Women Warriors, David E. Jones 1997
Warrior Women, Robin Cross & Rosalind Miles 2011
The Encyclopedia of Amazons, Jessica Salmonson 1992
Women Warriors, Teena Apeles 2004