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Great Women of India and the World—A trip down Memory Lane

Sunday,18 September 2022 09:23 PM IST

 

Anupama Nair

As a woman, freedom and empowerment of women is a topic close to my heart. I remember Rousseau’s famous statement during the French Revolution, “man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains”. But for men a lot changed but what has not changed is for women. So, we can correctly say “women are born free, but she is everywhere in chains”. Even in the 21st century there is not much change anywhere in the world. She is a victim of domestic violence, rape and many horrors. The US has the most cases of domestic violence in the world. To add to misery, religions play a huge part in their condition.

Abbaka Chowta

The first European to enter India through the Indian Ocean was Vasco Da Gama. He reached Calicut in 1499. During the early part of the sixteenth century, the Portuguese were successfully carrying out trade in coastal India. However, with time their imperialist motives became clear and slowly by slowly, they began their reign of terror. If you thought Mughals, Khiljis or the British were cruel, Portuguese will emerge the winners. Goa and Brazil were the main victims. Much of the trade carried on in the Western coast of India was taxed by the Portuguese who looked to advance upon Ullal near Mangalore Port, (Karnataka). That is how they came to face Abbakka their nemesis.

Abbakka Chowta inherited the throne through the matriarchal system of inheritance followed by her community called Aliyasantana. Prior to her succession she was married to Lakshmappa Arasa, the King of Banga and had three daughters. However, she continued to remain at Ullal, her capital. Rani Abbakka was quite aware of the Portuguese threat and sought peace at first. However, she refused to pay any tax to the Portuguese administrators. The Portuguese in 1527 attacked Ullal several times in succession but in vain were defeated each time. In the end they only managed to capture it for a short time. The escaped queen returned the favor by raiding the Portuguese camp at night and slaughtering many. The defeated Portuguese then managed to influence Abbakka’s resentful husband into refusing to give her any aid. Unable to defeat the queen after several attempts of treachery, eventually the Portuguese launched a surprise attack with a large army in Ullal in 1570. Abbakka Chowta immediately rode to combat but was severely injured and captured. She continued her fight in captivity and died as a martyr. Her daughters continued her fight against the Portuguese after her death. As a result, Portuguese rule was limited to Goa and finally forced to leave in 1961.

Ahilyabai Holkar

Ahilyabai Holkar was the hereditary noble sardar of the Maratha Empire. Ahilyabai was born in the village of Chondi, Ahmednagar (Maharashtra). Ahilyabai's husband Khande Rao Holkar was killed in the battle of Kumher in 1754. Twelve years later, her father-in-law, Malhar Rao Holkar died. A year after that she took over the affairs of Holkar kingdom. She tried to protect her land from the plundering invaders. She personally led armies into the battle.

Ahilyabai was a great pioneer and builder of temples. She built hundreds of temples and Dharmashalas throughout India. Her greatest achievement was to rebuild the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in 1780, which was dedicated to Bhagwan Mahadev; the presiding deity of the holy city of Varanasi, that had been demolished by cruelest Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in 1696.

Among Ahilyabai's accomplishments was the development of Indore from a small village to a prosperous and beautiful city. She also developed nearby Maheshwar, a town on the banks of the Narmada river. She also built forts and roads in Malwa, and sponsored festivals and gave donations to temples. Outside Malwa, she built many temples, ghats, wells, tanks and rest-houses across an area stretching from the Himalayas to pilgrimage centers in South India.  She was also considered as a pioneer in education of girls.

Velu Nachiyar

Velu Nachiyar was the first Indian queen to fight the British Imperialism. She was the only daughter of the King of Ramnad  (Tamil Nadu). She was born in 1730. In absence of any brothers, she was brought up like a prince with training in martial warfare and weaponry. The British had just started their conquest of India through the East India Company. The dream of the British East India was to capture the “sone ki chidiya”—India and become “the masters of the subcontinent from Khyber to Chittagong and Kashmir to Comorin (Kanya Kumari)”. For this they gained the support of the Nawab of Arcot (Tamil Nadu), Muhammad Ali Khan  who wanted to defeat the French Imperialists and Hyder Ali (father of Tipu Sultan), who was the Sultan of Mysore (Karnataka).

Velu Nachiyar was married to Muthuvaduganatha Periya, the King of Sivagangai (Tamil Nadu) who lost his life in the war between the British and the French in 1772. However, she escaped with her daughter. Just as all looked well for the British, in 1780 the queen returned with Hyder Ali as her ally and accompanied by a large army was prepared to fight the British again. She had found out where the British stored their ammunition and set it ablaze through a suicide attack when her army commander the great and brave woman Kuyili immolated herself in the storage.

Under her instructions her adopted daughter Udaiyaal blew up the British arsenal through another suicide attack. In the memory of Kuyili and Udaiyall, she formed a women’s army. Despite several attacks, she fought on and eventually seized Sivagangai. Thereafter, she imprisoned the Nawab of Arcot, who was later released to the British in exchange for Sivagangai’s independence. Velu Nachiyar is famous as “Veeramangai” as she remained the undefeated ruler of Sivagangai until her death in 1790.

Rani Chennamma

Rani Chennamma was born in Belgaum (Karnataka) in 1778 to the Lingayat community. She became the queen of Kittur district (Karnataka) after her marriage to Raja Mallasaraja and had a son by him. Unfortunately, the son did not live long. This was before the Doctrine of Lapse was codified by Lord Dalhousie, the Governor General of the East India Company, who then used paramountcy, as a flimsy excuse to grab Kittur, like every other Princely State in the Sub-continent.

Rani Chenamma had sent a letter to Mountstuart Elphinstone, Lieutenant-Governor of the Bombay Presidency to allow her adopted son whom she wanted to inherit the throne. When her request was turned down and the British administration advanced upon Kittur, they met with a fierce resistance from its queen in 1824. Rani Chenamma, not only won the war, but also imprisoned two British officials who were released in exchange of the promise of non-interference. This promise was ultimately broken in 1829 as the British East Indian Company attacked  Kittur with more reinforcements. While they suffered significant fatalities, Rani Chenamma was ultimately captured and breathed her last in their captivity the same year.

Avanti Bai

Avanti Bai of Ramgarh (present-day Dindor in Madhya Pradesh) is often compared to her contemporary Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi (Uttar Pradesh). It is quite astonishing that there are many similarities in their lives. Both were born outside royalty and subsequently married to kings. They assumed monarchy due to unusual circumstances in their families. Both died fighting to keep their respective states from the British Imperialism and both participated in the First War of Indian Independence (1857).

However, there were some differences too, as no two people can be the same. Avanti Bai was born into the Lodhi community which was on the lower rungs of feudalism. She was widowed in 1851 when her husband Lakshman Singh died and her two minor sons unfit to inherit the throne. The British refused to accept her son Vikramaditya Singh as the next ruler. Avanti Bai responded by throwing out the British administrator in Ramgarh and seizing regency of the throne. Swiftly she requested the help of neighboring kings and managed to gather an army of four thousand. She met the British army in combat near Mandla where she defeated but could not kill the British commander. Humiliated by  the defeat, the British retaliated with a huge army which she fought fiercely. Upon facing imminent loss, the brave queen committed suicide by using her sword. Even drawing her last breath, she refused to reveal the names of her supporters.

Rani Lakshmibai

What is Indian history without Manikarnika or Lakshmibai, 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 Indian Independence.

Manikarnika was born in Benares (Manikarnika Ghat), in 1828 as Manikarnika Tambe and was nicknamed Manu. Her father was Moropant Tambe, and her mother Bhagirathi Sapre. Her mother died when she was four-year old. Her father was working with Peshwa Baji Rao II in Bithoor (near Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh). The Peshwa called her "Chhabili", which means "playful". She was educated at home, able to read and write, and was more independent in her childhood than many others of her age. Her studies included shooting, horsemanship, fencing with her childhood friends Nana Sahab and Tatya Tope.

She married the King of Jhansi, Gangadhar Rao and as per tradition given a new name Lakshmibai. 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 Lakshmibai 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 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 issued a proclamation, "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 overwhelmed 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, on her back on her favorite 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 17 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.”

Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, a great poetess wrote “Khub ladi mardani, woh to Jhansi wali Rani thi”.  On the 164th year of the Great War of Independence, 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 slives?

 

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