ahilyabai

Ahalyabai Holkar : an unparalleled life

This is a post about Ahalyabai Holkar, the warrior Queen of Malawa in eighteenth century. Like the great queens Karnawati of Garhwal, Durgawati of Gonds and Chennamma of Kittur, she faced her enemies in the battle. She was a great builder and a just and capable administrator.

In early March this year, before the lock down began, I was in Gujarat. It is well known that the Temple of Somnath was razed many times by Muslim fanatics including by Ghaznavi and Aurangzeb. Where did the devotees pray before the current Somnath temple was constructed after independence?

Ahalyabai constructed Somnath Temple
‘Old’ Somnath Temple

The answer stands just 100 metres from the new temple. A simple, and large stone temple built in the eighteenth century by Maharani Ahalyabai of Malwa. It looks deceptively small from the outside but is a two storey stone building with the garbh griha below ground.

If you wish to have ‘sparsh darshan’ of Somnath or wish to do ‘abhishekam’, you can do so only at this temple. It is not allowed to touch the ‘lingam’ at the new temple. I myself have witnessed temples constructed by her in Kashi{Vishvanath temple}, Haridwar and Prayag.

Present Kashi Vishvanath Temple by Ahalyabai
Kashi Vishvanath temple was reconstructed by Ahalyabai. It was destroyed by Aurangzeb. Pic from the official site of Temple.

Indeed this remarkable Queen probably constructed more temples, ghats, dharmshalas etc. across the length and breadth of India than any other person in last millennium. Perhaps, if she were a Muslim, she would have a whole chapter in our history textbooks.

Early life of Ahalyabai Holkar

Ahalyabai was born in Ahmednagar in a Shinde family on May 31, 1725. Her father, a Patil{village chief} from Dhangar{Maratha herdsman} caste, taught her to read and write.

It is said, that after watching her in a temple, Malhar Rao Holkar brought her as a bride for his son, Khanderao. She was eight or nine years old at the time of her marriage. She bore Khanderao a son and a daughter in her twenties.

However, eighteenth century was a troubled time. Marathas were engaged in wars in the north. She became a widow in 1754, before she reached the age of thirty. Her husband died in a battle with the Jats in the north.

Fortunately, her father-in-law had great trust in her abilities and stopped her from committing Sati.  The remaining wives of Khanderao, however, burnt themselves alive with his funeral pyre.

Ahalyabai : the only female ruler in 18th century India

After the death of her husband, she started taking interest in administration. That included leading the armies of Malwa state. By the time Malhar Rao died in 1767, she was already in control of the Kingdom.

She became regent for his son, who was not mentally stable. He died soon and Ahilyabai took administration directly into her own hands.

She was perhaps the only women ruler in India at that time. Some people take name of Christian ruler Begam Sumroo of Sardhana, but her estate was tiny compared to that of Holkars.

That there was virtually no opposition to her rule from the nobles, priests or common people, tells us about the liberal-mindedness of Hindus even during those dark ages. In contrast, there could be no Muslim women ruler after Razia in India, and Razia was soon killed.

Ahilyabai as Queen

Ahalyabai became queen in 1767 and ruled for around 28 years in Malwa. During her lifetime, she was revered by the populace of Malwa for her pious conduct, humane justice and numerous public works.

People considered her no less than a Devi. She herself led the wars, gave audience to common folk and dealt dexterously with other Maratha Sardars. A few facts testify to her good administration:-

  1. Her Kingdom also had a large population of Bhil and Gond tribes. While comparing with revolts of these tribes against British, we see her dealings with them were largely peaceful.
  2. Even after her demise, for more than twenty years, Malwa was the only Kingdom which was undefeated by the British. Punjab never fought with British until 1840s. All Maratha Sardars and Peshwa were defeated in Second Anglo Maratha War{1802-1805}. Mysore was defeated and Tipu killed in 1799. Hyderabad, Awadh etc were already  at the feet of British. Only Malwa under Yeshwantrao Holkar remained undefeated. His story is for another time.
  3. She constructed numerous large buildings, roads, wells, ghats, sarais in Indore, Maheshwar{her capital, 90 KM from Indore} and all over Malwa. Apart from that she funded large scale construction projects in hundreds of cities all over the country from Uttarakhand to Tamil Nadu and from Gujarat to Awadh. Obviously these projects needed large amounts money, which she was able to raise due to her fine revenue administration.
  4. At a time when India was dealing with famines and most Kings were fond of luxury, her projects provided livelihood to thousands of workers and provided relief to thousands of people. Unlike Taj Mahal, which was a private building, most of her buildings were for the public good.
  5. She got her daughter married to a common man. Dacoits were ravaging her kingdom and she promised hand of her daughter to the man who destroyed the menace. Yashwentrao Phanse, a young man, completed the task and she kept her word. Many historians say that without British rule there would be no social reform in India. Such stories, as well as rise of Marathas, Jats etc, amply negate such erroneous opinions.

Political acumen of Ahilyabai

She was politically shrewd enough to see the dangers of British power. Unfortunately, our historians have neglected to mention her name, when far lesser Kings like Islamist fanatic Tipu are extolled as political geniuses who saw dangers of British power and fought with them. In fact, even worthless figures like Sirajuddaula and Wazid Ali Shah have got more lines in the textbooks than this great queen.  

She was instrumental in keeping the British out of Maratha Empire during her life and was much respected by Mahadji Scindia, as well as Nana Phadnawis. She had an important role in Maratha revival after Third Battle of Panipat.

A devi for common folk

Collecting oral memories of her in the 1820s, Sir John Malcolm writes. “With the natives of Malwa … her name is sainted and she has styled an avatar or Incarnation of the Divinity. In the soberest view that can be taken of her character, she certainly appears, within her limited sphere, to have been one of the purest and most exemplary rulers that ever existed”. Similar expressions of awe and reverence can be seen in the accounts of British writers and nationalist historians.

Conclusion

Despite the many personal tragedies of her life : widowhood, death of her young son and committing of sati by her daughter, she managed the Kingdom with admirable ability. Her story represents the inspirational triumph of courage and ability. No wonder, despite the best efforts of our ‘eminent’ historians, she lives on through her public works in the memory of the people all over the country.

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Pawan
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3 Replies to “Ahalyabai Holkar : an unparalleled life”

  1. This is a great piece of writing and a much-needed one. I sometimes feel that women, like Ahalyabai Holkar, are underrepresented in the textbooks. I don’t blame anyone in particular for this as Indian history is as vast as an ocean, and mentioning everything in a single textbook is almost impossible. That’s the reason why I, strongly, feel the need for such articles highlighting the underrepresented personalities and events.

    1. Thanks for reading, Neelakshi. I do not agree with your point. Firstly, there is no single textbook. Typically, Indian history is taught across 3 years. So there is definitely room for including at least Ahalyabai. Secondly, when so many irrelevant details and useless persons can be mentioned, why not Ahalyabai.
      Regards,
      Pawan

      1. I agree. What I meant, here, by textbook was a school textbook. School kids are limited to reading their assigned books which, at times, fails to do justice to Indian history. School students should also be encouraged to read good books or articles.
        Thank you.

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