One of the most famous rebels of the revolt of 1857, Rani Laxmibai was a woman of substance. She was the Queen of Jhansi, unsurpassed in terms of beauty and wit, perseverance and bravery. She personified patriotism at the times when India was being overpowered by the British. Today, she is idolized by every Indian, as a woman who sacrificed her life against injustice and one who set an example of women being powerful warriors when it came to their families and homes.
Rani Laxmibai was born as Manikarnika in a modest Brahmin family residing in Varanasi in the year 1835. She was an active child and it is said that she had bright eyes and a powerful presence. Unfortunately, she lost her mother when she was 4 years old. Her father Moropant Tambe had an influential position at the court of Peshwas at Bithoor. He took good care of Manikarnika and taught her literature and religious scriptures. She was also loved by the Peshwa himself and he treated her as her own. She enjoyed liberty because of her father’s influence and the Peshwa’s love. She learnt warfare tactics, horse riding and sword fighting with Nanasaheb Peshwa and Tatya Tope and was good at everything. At the age of 14 she was married to Gangadhar Rao Newalkar, the King of Jhansi. That was when her life of trials and tribulations began. She was rechristened as Rani Laxmibai.
Gangadhar Rao ruled Jhansi under the conditions of the British and maintained good relations with them. He increased the revenue of his little kingdom and looked after the welfare of his subjects. He was affectionate towards Rani Laxmibai and appreciated her talents at warfare. It was a time for celebration when Rani bore him a son who was named Damodar Rao. Everything was perfect until after four months Damodar Rao died due to an illness. Gangadhar Rao never recovered from the grief of losing his son and soon caught up a mental illness.
To fill up the hollow in their lives, Rani and Gangadhar Rao adopted Anand Rao, son of their close relative and renamed him Damodar Rao in the memory of their late son. They complied with every condition of adopting a heir set up by the British and in front of the whole court declared Damodar Rao as the righteous heir to the throne of Jhansi. Bad health did not let Gangadhar Rao live peacefully, he died in the year 1853, leaving the responsibility of Damodar Rao and Jhansi on Rani’s shoulders.
At the tender age of 21, Rani was a widow and a mother of a little boy and most importantly a Queen who was meant to run her kingdom just like a King. But matters got worse when the British, notwithstanding their promise of letting Gangadhar Rao’s heir rule Jhansi, issued Rani a notice of vacating the fort of Jhansi and moving to a palace in the kingdom. They wanted Rani to accept an annual pension of rupees sixty thousand and leave the claim on Jhansi. They asserted that according to their policy, only a legitimate son of Gangadhar Rao was eligible to rule Jhansi. And since Gangadhar Rao had adopted a son, the East India Company would take over Jhansi.
Rani was not ready to let go of her Jhansi and tried to do everything in her power to make the British understand that the adoption was done complying with all the policies of the British. But the British did not budge; Jhansi was their new piece of meat. In 1858, British troops were deployed under the leadership of Sir Hugh Rose to annex Jhansi, which was when Rani lost her cool and retaliated with full force. An army of 20,000 soldiers headed by Tatya Tope was sent to protect Jhansi but however the effort failed. Rani had to flee the fort three days later; resisting the British forces had become impossible. She tied her adopted son to her back and jumped off a cliff of the Jhansi fort with her horse, Badal. But a bullet from the British had wounded the horse and he died after leading Rani to safety.
Rani, with the help of her women guard, reached Kalpi as a part of a prior plan. At Kalpi, Rani was joined by other rebel forces and with the help of these forces she defeated the Maharaja of Gwalior who was supporting the British. However, this fact is debatable. According to many tales, the Maharaja of Gwalior was a trusted ally who had turned hostile in order to protect his own kingdom from the wrath of the British.
A strategic fort was occupied by the combined forces. These forces rose to fight the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars, a cavalry regiment of the British army in a breath taking battle which wounded and killed thousands. In this very battle, Rani Laxmibai fought like a brave warrior, wearing proudly the royal armor of her Jhansi. She fiercely fought the British until she died. It is believed that she was burnt by someone from the cavalry. Sir Hugh Rose’s report on the battle however suggested that she might have escaped. In her praise, he had also stated that the Rani was an exemplary warrior for a woman, was extremely beautiful, fearless and her perseverance knew no bounds. And also that she was the most dangerous rebel they had faced in the battle.
With the end of Rani, ended a golden chapter of history! However she left behind a legacy of the thirst of freedom which was later quenched by other dynamic freedom fighters of India.