Saturday, November 19, 2005

Lakshmi Bai, Maharani of Jhansi

Much of India had fallen under British rule by 1853, beginning with Robert Clive's assaults in the 1750s. As a consequence of the decline of the Mughal rulers, the British continued their conquest of the Indian subcontinent on a piecemeal basis until 1858, picking off principalities at their weakest moments.

Manu Bai (born on this day in 1835 in Kashi, Jhansi) was a well-educated 7-year old girl from a high-caste family in the independent principality of Jhansi who loved riding horses and playing at martial arts, when she married into the conflict with the British as the second wife of Gangadhar Rao, the maharajah of Jhansi in 1842. The maharajah's first wife had passed away without providing an heir to the throne, but when Manu (or Lakshmi, as she came to be known) was 16, she gave birth to a boy. The joy was short-lived, however, as the child died 3 months later; and in an attempt to provide an heir, the maharajah and Lakshmi adopted his cousin Anand in November 1853. The day after the adoption, the maharajah died.

James Ramsay, the Marquess of Dalhousie, who was serving as the British Governor-General in India, saw his opportunity and asserted that the adoption was not valid (despite its unquestioned validity under Hindu traditions), and that since there was no rightful heir to the throne, that the British would annex Jhansi. Lakshmi petitioned Dalhousie to no avail; her special envoy, whom she sent to London, received a similarly cold shoulder.

Lakshmi retreated, but during the next 3 years, as the de facto underground sovereign of Jhansi, she quietly managed to recruit an army of 14,000 to face the British threat. In May 1857, the British faced a full-scale rebellion of Indian soldiers who had been serving in the British Army; they shot British officers at Meerut, marched to Delhi and re-installed the ex-emperor, Bahadur Shah, to the Mughal throne. The British recaptured Delhi 4 months later, and thereafter all but 3 independent states surrendered to the British. The state of Jhansi was among the defiant.

Lakshmi was already under suspicion by the British for having given aid to some mutineers, so the British laid siege to Jhansi in March 1858, but during the battle, Lakshmi escaped and rode to Kalpi. Received there as a great warrior, she was given armor and an army, and 3 months later, as Kalpi was falling, Lakshmi led her forces on a successful attack on the British fortress at Gwailor. When the British sent reinforcements, Lakshmi was the defiant leader of the defense, but a British Army soldier threw his sword at her, killing her on June 18, 1858 at the age of 22.

Hugh Rose, the leader of the British forces there, said that Lakshmi "was remarkable for her bravery, cleverness and perseverance; her generosity to her subordinates was unbounded. These qualities, combined with her rank, rendered her the most dangerous of rebel leaders." Gwailor fell shortly thereafter, and India would not achieve independence for almost 100 years, but Lakshmi remained an influential symbol of Indian rebellion against the British.

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