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Manikarnika – Queen of Jhansi, the legend still lives on

Wednesday,23 November 2022 03:18 PM IST


Anupama Nair

Bharat Maa is a proud mother, as she has given birth to many brave daughters. I had previously written about many brave Queens of India from Naika Devi, the Solanki queen who defeated Ghori till Rani Lakshmi Bai. What is Indian history without Manikarnika or Lakshmi Bai, the brave queen of Jhansi? With immense pride I am writing about her. Even today, for every Indian she is the icon for the freedom struggle against the British Raj for Independence.

She sacrificed her life so that we could be born and live in an Independent India. Sure enough, we got Independence from the British on 15th August 1947, but are we free from 900 years of slavery? Read this words from Gitanjali, written by Tagore and you will have the answer.

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action –
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake”.

Are we living “into that heaven of freedom”? Did the sacrifice of the millions go in vain and we have forgotten them and only give credit to two people for our independence and the rest are forgotten in the annals of history never to be remembered. Was it for this day, they selflessly sacrificed their life for you and me, children of Independent India? But is it fair to forget them and their sacrifice? What I am glad about is, Rani Lakshmi Bai will never be forgotten as she is the “beacon of the First War of Independence” in 1857.

To understand the story of Manikarnika, I need to take you back many centuries before. India was ruled by the cruel Mughals. It is a credit to the British, how the merchants who came to do trade with India, within 300 years became the masters of the entire land from Khyber to Chittagong and from Kashmir to Comorin (now Kanya Kumari), i.e., entire sub-continent. The English East India Company was formed by merchants of England to trade with Asia and India the “golden bird” in particular and America. It was formed by Royal Charter on New Year’s Eve on 1600. They landed in the Indian subcontinent on August 24, 1608, in Surat (Gujarat).

The Battle of Plassey (1757) and Battle of Buxar (1764) , smoothened their path to conquer the sub-continent. Robert Clive became the first Governor General of British India. By spinning a web of deceit, and many laws like Subsidiary Alliance (Lord Wellesley) and Doctrine of Lapse (Lord Dalhousie), they succeeded in ruling the entire sub-continent by 19th century. Jawaharlal Nehru in his book Discovery of India quoted “British rule in India had an unsavory beginning and something of that bitter taste has clung to it ever since”.

However, the last Governor General Lord Canning, never imagined a ‘mere rifle’ will bring the end of East India Company. Let us see how that happened. Soldiers throughout India were issued a new rifle, the Enfield Rifle— a more powerful and accurate weapon than the previous ones used for decades. To load both the old musket and the new rifle, soldiers had to bite the cartridge open and pour the gunpowder. Then, the rumor spread the cartridge was greased with the fat of pigs and cows. The news spread like wild fire and the soldiers refused to use the rifle, however,  British officers dismissed these claims as rumors and ordered them to use the rifle. Moreover, there was a prophesy that Company Raj would end in a hundred years, which was proved true.

Now I am going to talk about the life of the brave queen. Rani Lakshmi Bai, popularly known as Rani of Jhansi, was born into a Maratha Brahmin family on 19 November, 1828 in Varanasi. She was named Manikarnika because she was born in the famous Manikarnika Ghat. She was the daughter of Morepant and Bhagirathi Tambe. She lost her mother when she was only four years old. Her father worked for Peshwa Baji Rao II  of Bithoor. She was the Peshwa’s favorite and he lovingly called her "Chhabili", which meant "playful". She was well educated at home, and was more independent in her childhood than many others of her age. Her studies included shooting, horsemanship, fencing with her childhood friends Nana Saheb and Tatya Tope. Her favorite horse was called Badal.

She married the King of Jhansi, Gangadhar Rao and as per tradition was given a new name Lakshmi Bai. She  was widowed without bearing an heir to the throne, as her son Damodar Rao died as a baby. Just before his death, the King adopted a boy Anand Rao, also renamed as Damodar Rao, as his heir. Lord Dalhousie, the Governor General of India, refused to recognize the adopted heir and annexed Jhansi in accordance with the Doctrine of Lapse. An agent of the East Indian Company, was posted in the small kingdom to look after administrative matters. When she was informed of this she cried out " I shall not surrender my Jhansi”. In March 1854, Rani Lakshmi Bai was ordered to leave the palace and the fort by the Administrator.

She returned to Jhansi, when the First War of Independence started in May 1857. From August 1857 to January 1858, Jhansi under the Rani's rule was at peace. The British who was fighting the rebellion could do nothing. They summoned their greatest war hero, General Sir Hugh Rose to fight against the Queen. Sir Hugh Rose commanding the British forces, demanded the surrender of the city , and threatened if this was refused it would be destroyed. Rani refused and said that after due deliberation she proclaimed, "We fight for independence”. She defended Jhansi against British troops when Sir Hugh Rose besieged Jhansi on 23 March 1858.

The company’s forces surrounded the fort of Jhansi, and a fierce battle raged. Offering stiff resistance to the invading forces, Lakshmi Bai did not surrender even after her troops were overcome and the rescuing army of Tatya Tope, was defeated at the Battle of Betwa. Lakshmi Bai managed to escape from the fort with a Damodar Rao, tied to her back on her horse Badal, and is still in our memory. A small force of palace guards left with her and headed eastward, where other leaders joined her.

Tatya Tope and Lakshmi Bai then mounted a successful assault on the city-fortress of Gwalior, and the Scindia, the ruler ran away to London. The treasury and the arsenal were seized, and Nana Sahib, a prominent leader, was proclaimed as the Peshwa. After taking Gwalior, Lakshmi Bai marched east to Morar to confront a British counterattack led by Sir Rose. Dressed as a man, she fought a fierce battle and was killed in combat on 18 June 1858, in Kotah-ki-Serai near the Phool Bagh in Gwalior.

The British captured the city of Gwalior, after three days of her martyrdom. Sir Hugh Rose commented “personable, clever and beautiful" and she is "the most dangerous of all Indian leaders”. Colonel Malleson said “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.”

In 2019, to honor the great Queen, the great actress of modern times Kangana Ranaut, made a blockbuster movie “ Manikarnika, Queen of Jhansi”, which grossed more than 100 crores. Kangana as Manikarnika acted brilliantly and won the National Award for best actress.  The film was selected for the Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival. I cannot count how many times I have seen the movie. Whenever I feel low, I still watch the movie and full of energy.

Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, a great poetess wrote “Khub ladi mardani, woh to Jhansi wali Rani thi”.  On the 164th year of  her martyrdom, let us remember her and others like Bhagat Singh, Khudiram Bose, Netaji Subhash Bose, Veer Savarkar, and Sardar Patel, who sacrificed their lives so that we could be a free nation. But are we forgetting them in our busy lives?


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