Lakshmibai, Rani of Jhansi
Early LifePrevious: Timeline
BirthLakshmibai started life as Manikarnika, nicknamed Manu, born in Varanasi (Benares) the daughter of Bhagirathi and Moropant Tambe in 1827 or 1828. There is some confusion over her birthdate so see Questions and Answers for more details.
Manikarnika's mother died when she was small, possibly when she was about two years old.
As a side note, Manikarnika is the name of the principle cremation ghat in Varanasi. If that seems a touch morbid, for Westerners at least, it is worth noting that 'Manikarnika' means something like "mistress of the jewels" and is associated with the earrings that the goddess Parvati hid at the ghat.
Moropant Tambe was an advisor to Chimnaji Appa, brother to Baji Rao II who was the last of the Maratha peshwas. Chimnaji Appa died when Manikarnika was about three and her father moved to Bithur and became a member of the court of Baji Rao. As a result of her father's position she spent her childhood in the palace.
ChildhoodAs a child she seems to have been something of a tomboy. Was her father disappointed that his only child (so far as we know), was a girl? Did she try to compensate and be the son he wanted?
She is said to have had Nana Sahib, Tatya Tope among her playmates. However it should be noted that Nana Sahib was at least 7 or 8 years older, being born about 1820, and Tatya Tope, who was born about 1813, was about 14 years her senior, and this at an age when even a single year can make a big difference.
One story has it that when denied a ride on his elephant by Nana Sahib, she declared that one day she would have 10 elephants to everyone of his. If this story is true it could either be childish bravado or may have occurred in the period between betrothal and her marriage.
It is also said that her father educated her to be a queen. As her father travelled with her to Jhansi and was employed by Gangadhar Rao it is likely that this education occurred after her marriage.
She was married to Gangadhar Rao, Raja of Jhansi, when she was about 14 in May 1842. An entry in the Jhansi accounts shows that a sum of 40,000 rupees was allocated for the celebrations. This entry confirms the oral history noted by Lebra for this date and that the marriage was celebrated with fireworks and cannon firing a salute. Lakshmibai was Gangadhar Rao's second wife, the first having died, and without bearing a child.
Married LifeWith her marriage, Manikarnika changed her name to Lakshmi. The change of name being the custom for Indian royalty, not dissimilar to the change of name when British royalty (or the Pope) ascend the throne.
We can not know what life was like for her in Jhansi, or what her married life was like - some have suggested that the Raja was a homosexual, others that he had at least one mistress, in either case not exactly a devoted husband. And this is before we consider their age difference.
Lakshmibai was an excellent horse rider, and was also said to have been a good judge of horses. It is known that she exercised and practiced with weapons, and famously at some point, drilled and trained a 'regiment' of women. This may not have been quite so unusual as it appears. The zenana (women's quarters) was often guarded by armed women, and these occassionally took part in battles. What was unusual was for the Rani to be in charge of their training.
It is said that she had a son in 1851 but that it died after 3 months. Whether or not this is true, when Gangadhar died in 1853 they were childless. When he fell ill and his death was anticipated they tried to persuade him to adopt a son, he relented only the day before his death. They adopted the 5 year old Damodar Rao, a member of Gangadhar's extended family. To ensure that the British understood that the adoption was proper the local British officials, the Political Agent, Major Ellis, and a Captain Martin, were called to witness the event.
At the same time, a will was prepared requesting the British to treat Damodar as the true son of Gangadhar and that Lakshmibai should be Regent. The will was read to Major Ellis, and repeated in a letter to the Political Agent for Gwalior and Bundelkhand, a Major Malcolm.
Gangadhar's grandfather had signed a treaty with the British which granted him and his heirs and successors title to Jhansi in perpetuity. The history of the succession had been complicated by previous childless successions, British interventions in the running of the state, and additional treaties. Nonetheless, the rulers of Jhansi had been pro-British since that time of the initial treaty and it was not anticipated that there would be a problem with the succession.
Gangadhar Rao died on the 21st November 1853.
Note that the will precludes that Lakshmibai would become a sati, some would have it that she declined that 'honour'. The practice of sati had been outlawed by the British in 1829. It is unlikely that Gangadhar Rao, even if he approved of the practice (many didn't), would expect his wife to break that law. In fact Lashmibai limited her official mourning activities to the minimum, she stayed inside for the minimum period expected, 13 days, did not shave her head, break her bangles, or dress in the widow's white.
Notesi) 'Manikarnika' is the name of a bathing ghat in Benaras. The name literally means 'Ear Jewel' - tradition has it that one of goddess Annapurna's earstuds dropped at this place. My thanks to B.S.V. Prasad for this information, and for correcting my spelling of the name, and other corrections.
ii) In "Our Bones Are Scattered", Andrew Ward notes that in Bithur there is a legend that Manikarnika and Nana Sahib had fallen in love but that Baji Rao forbade the marriage. If true this suggests how Manikarnika came to the notice of Gangadhar Rao; what better way for Baji Rao to be rid of a troublesome relationship? It also indirectly confirms the later age of Manikarnika as this would not have happened if she had been 8 years old, but at 13 or 14 it is somewhat more likely.
iii) sati refers to the practice of a widow immolating herself on her husbands funeral pyre. sati actually means 'virtuous woman', in dying this way she becomes a virtuous woman. It was far from being a universal practice either by caste or by region. Many Indians disapproved of it. I read sonewhere that the first British governor of Calcutta married a woman rescued from her husband's funeral pyre. In the great classic, the Ramayana, Rams's wife, Sita, walks through a fire to prove her virtue. As is usual, it is the woman who is required to prove her virtue, not for the man to prove his. However when Ram asks her to do it a second time, Sita leaves him.