Ahilyabai Holkar: The Forgotten Warrior Queen Of India
Ahilyabai Holkar was born in the village of Chondi in Jamkhed, Ahmednagar, India in 1725. She was the Holkar Queen of the Malwa kingdom. Her father, Mankoji Rao Shinde, was the Patil (chief) of the village. He homeschooled Ahilyabai when she was young.
Ahilyabai married Khanderao Holkar in 1733, at the age of 8. At the age of 21, in the battle of Kumbher in 1754, Khanderao Holkar died. As a result, Ahilyabai’s only son, Male Rao Holkar, ascended the throne under her regency. Tragically, he too died on the 5th of April 1767. Ahilyabai stood undeterred even after losing her entire family. She did not let her grief affect the administration of the kingdom. Instead, Ahilyabai Holkar took matters into her own hands. She petitioned the Peshwa after her son’s death to take over the administration herself.
Ahilyabai Holkar the queen of Malwa
Ahilyabai ascended the throne and became the ruler of Indore on December 11th, 1767. The supreme ruler of the Empire, Peshwa Raghoba, was instigated by one of Ahilyabai’s own ministers to confiscate the excess wealth of Indore. Ahilyabai pointed out to him that under the agreements that existed, the wealth of the treasury was for the well being of her people or for charitable purposes. The Peshwa was infuriated since Ahilyabai defied him. He threatened her with military action. Ahilyabai, in turn, challenged the Peshwa to meet her on the battlefield. She sent a message to Peshwa:
“Now I’ll show you how weak I am.”
“If I lose a fight against a man, I’ll have lost nothing. But if you lose against women, then you’ll be in trouble! And remember, that’s exactly what will happen.”
The Peshwa had a change of heart. He said, “You have misunderstood.”
“I did not come to fight, but to mourn your son’s death.”
The Peshwa ended up staying as Ahilyabai’s guest for a month. He saw how Ahilyabai protected her kingdom, fiercely fighting with invaders tooth and nail and encouraging her people to practice trade and commerce for a better livelihood. Ahilyabai led armies onto the battlefield and slew her enemies and invaders on battlefronts with four bows and quivers of arrows fitted to the corners of the howdah of her favourite elephant.
Ahilyabai ruled Malwa for 28 years until her death. She established a strong local administration and overcame the disadvantage of gender back in the 18th century. She stands out as a powerful queen of Malwa or fondly known as “Rajmata” who propagated the idea of dharma, revived Hinduism, and fostered the relatively contemporary qualities of the small-scale industry when all-male claimants to the kingdom died.
In his book Marathanche Itihasanchi Sadhanen, historian A.V Rajwade attributes the failings of the Marathas (led by the Peshwas) in northern India, then known as Hindustan, to “their failure to draw out Maharasthra Dharma in a broader context.” Rajwade believes that if the Marathas had followed Ahilyabai’s example and succeeded in developing a sound and just administration in their northern conquests, the people of Hindustan would have joyfully accepted their rule.
Preservation And Reconstruction Of Hindu Temples By Ahilyabai Holkar
From Gangotri to Rameshwaram, and from Dwarka to Gaya, Ahilyabai Holkar spent money reconstructing temples ruined by the Mughal occupation. She restored the past glory of sacred sites, constructing new temples, and constructing ghats for convenient access to practically all significant rivers in Bharatvarsha.
Mughal king Aurangzeb destroyed Kashi Vishwanath Temple to build the Gyaanvapi mosque. In 1780, Ahilyabai restored the temple to its current form which is 111 years later. Ahilyabai also renovated the Dashashwamedh Ghat, which was initially built by Nanasaheb Peshwa, and the Manikarnika Ghat, which is the principal cremation place in Varanasi.
Ahilyabai built bridges and rest spots in Bhimashankar and Trimbakeshwar. She contributed to the upgrading of facilities at other Jyotirlingas by building temples and rest spaces in Kedarnath, Srisailam, Omkareshwar, and Ujjain.
She also contributed to Somnath Temple in Gujarat, Ramachandra temple in Puri, the Hanuman temple in Rameshwaram, Shri Vaidyanath temple in Parli Vaijnath, and the Sharayu Ghat in Ayodhya.
Despite the work she did all over India, her legacy is not inscribed in her name. Ahilyabai’s legacy is not documented in a systematic manner, either in history curricula or in popular references. This is partly because there are no non-Mughal or non-British accounts in modern Indian history texts. But it would be apt to say that the truth finds its way sooner or later. Ahilyabai Holkar’s contribution, wisdom, and skills will shine brightly in the firmament of history for ruling her kingdom with piety and selflessness sincerely devoting herself to her people while keeping Dharma at the forefront of all that she did. Her life is an inspiration for generations to come.
Ahilyabai Holkar passed away at 70. In 1996, leading citizens of Indore instituted an award in her name to bestow annually on an outstanding public figure. Nanaji Deshmukh got the first award.
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